ESFS FESTIVAL #5 – “ROHMER’S MORAL TALES”: Introduction

er-portrait1By Mike Dub

An interesting passage keeps coming up in the obituaries of French New Wave filmmaker Eric Rohmer, who died in early 2010 at the age of 89.  It is a quote from Arthur Penn’s terrific 1975 mystery Night Moves, in which Gene Hackman plays an old-fashioned private eye.  At one point, he refuses to go with his wife to see the new Rohmer film, explaining, “I saw a Rohmer film once… it was kind of like watching paint dry.”

The New York Times rather lazily construes the quote as evidence of Rohmer’s “tendency [to drive] audience members to distraction.”  Roger Ebert, however, defensively contextualizes Hackman’s character as an old-fashioned hardhat with whom we are not necessarily supposed to identify.  Tom Milne, though, writing for the Guardian, takes the most nuanced angle, reading the line as “a jab at Hollywood’s mistrust of any filmmaker, especially a French one, who neglects plot and action in favour of cerebral exploration, metaphysical conceit and moral nuance.”  That this one throwaway line in a 35-year old film like Night Moves can incite such drastically different interpretations seems to speak volumes about the unique, intriguing, and still relevant work of Eric Rohmer.

Beginning his career as a critic, Rohmer was a key figure in the early days of the French film journal Cahiers du Cinema, that wellspring of intelligence and talent which spawned the French New Wave film movement and produced some of the greatest works in the history of cinema.  As editor for the journal from 1956-1963, the most important time in its history, Rohmer helped frame and popularize the theories that would go on to influence generations of international filmmakers.  Upon graduating from the film journal, Rohmer himself went on to make 50 of his own films, enjoying international success as one of the leading members of the French New Wave.  Though somewhat overshadowed by Godard and Truffaut, the movement’s most iconoclastic figures, Rohmer’s quiet artistry remains internationally respected and critically lauded.

a-eric-rohmer-maud-my-night-at-mauds-ma-nuit-chez-dvd-review-pdvd_014One of the most important writers during the postwar maturation of film criticism, Rohmer shared the passion and innovative theoretical approach of his Cahiers du Cinema colleagues.  A key figure in defining and articulating auteur theory, the theoretical principle on which the film journal and the French New Wave film movement were founded, Rohmer fervently analyzed the works of great directors like Jean Renoir and Alfred Hitchock (he wrote the first serious auteur study of Hitchcock with fellow New Waver Claude Chabrol).  A 1953 article by Rohmer, in which he celebrates the work of Howard Hawks, illustrates the passion and admiration he held for great filmmakers.  With typical zeal, his praise of Hawks becomes inextricably enmeshed with his love for cinema in general:  “The best Westerns are those signed by a great name. I say this because I love film, because I believe it is not the fruit of chance, but of art and men’s genius, because I think one cannot really love any film if one does not really love the ones by Howard Hawks.”

Rohmer approached filmmaking much differently than the more bombastic Godard and Truffaut.  He did not engage in the jarring – at times, maddening – political aesthetic for which Godard became so well known.  Nor did he engage in the ironically reflexive sensibilities or the confessional intimacy of Truffaut, although they do seem to share a deep understanding of their youth, an anti-nostalgia toward adolescence and young adulthood.  Instead, Rohmer evoked what critic Dave Kehr calls “a restrained, rationalist aesthetic, close to the principles of the 18th-century thinkers whose words he frequently cited in his movies.”  As Rohmer explains, he created what might be called “realistic” works.  “I see cinema, “ he wrote in 1989, “as a means, if not to reproduce, at least to represent, to recreate life.”  This recreation of life takes the form of films that are literate and introspective, reliant on dialogue and character with an unspectular aesthetic framework, though still informed by a critical approach to cinematic form.

tumblr_lvk941wBMo1qmr9rao1_1280That Rohmer’s work is both aligned with the intellectual pursuits of the larger movement, but also stands apart as a distinct, personal approach evinces the complex dynamic he had with Cahiers and his compatriot filmmakers.  Rohmer was certainly a loud voice in the battle against what Truffaut coined as “The Tradition of Quality” of postwar French film, but he was eventually ousted from his role as editor of the magazine after his continued support of American cinema in the face of radical leftist film criticism.  As a filmmaker, he found similar “outsider” status amid the French New Wave: he remained apolitical in the midst of enormous social turmoil, devoutly Catholic in the midst of pervading nihilism, and literary in a time of great aesthetic experimentation.

Rohmer’s “Six Moral Tales,” a series of films that reiterate similar themes and situations of love, sex, fidelity, and temptation, cemented his reputation as a fresh, ambitious, and important new voice in filmmaking (the third entry, My Night at Maud’s was one of the few foreign language films to be nominated for the Best Screenplay Oscar).  Reportedly inspired in large part by Murnau’s Sunrise, Rohmer wrote much of the cycle long before the production of any of the films, conceiving his work as a coherent, though unrelated, treatment of the same story six distinct times.  “I persuaded myself that the best thing would be to treat the subject six times over,” he once wrote.  “I was determined to be flexible and intractable, because if you persist in an idea it seems to me that in the end you do secure a following” (quoted in Wakeman, World Film Directors Volume 2: 1945-1985).

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As we examine Rohmer’s “Six Moral Tales” as both as individual films and pieces of a larger concept, here are some questions to consider:

*In these films about temptation, what is the line between inaction and moral decision?

*How does Rohmer approach morality in terms of a Catholic worldview?

*What defines his treatment of women in his films, both as subjects of desire and agents of temptation – particularly in comparison with his idol, Hitchcock, and his colleague, Godard?

*Though stylistically distinct from other French New Wave filmmakers, how is Rohmer’s aesthetic approach similar and different?

Festival Schedule (all films are available for streaming with Hulu Plus or by disc through Netflix):

*Prologue – Films #1 and 2 (Tuesday, June 3): The Bakery Girl of Monceau (1962) [Mike Dub] and Suzanne’s Career (1963) [Daniel Barnes]

*Film #3: My Night at Maud’s (1969) [Mike Dub review on Wednesday, June 4]

*Film #4: La collectionneuse (1967) [Daniel Barnes review on Monday, June 9]

*Film #5: Claire’s Knee (1970) [Mike Dub review on Monday, June 16]

*Film #6: Love in the Afternoon (1972) [Daniel Barnes review on Monday, June 23]

A brief note about the order: Rohmer originally conceived My Night at Maud’s to be the third film and first feature of the series.  However, problems during production forced a work stoppage, and Rohmer wound up completing La Collectionneuse first instead, followed by My Night at Maud’s two years later.  As in most areas of our lives, we trust the judgment of Criterion Collection, which lists Maud’s as the third film in its Moral Tales box set.