Despite being the co-founder and longtime editor of legendary French cinema mag Cahiers du Cinema and one of the most prolific of the French New Wave directors, very few people have ever heard of Eric Rohmer. In fact, most students of film have never even heard of Eric Rohmer, much less seen one of his movies. Why is this? Well, I don’t have the answer, but I imagine it has something to do with the fact that his movies are not very cool–they lack the flashy style of a Truffaut or Godard movie, they’re too intellectual, too dialogue-heavy, too plot-light.
Despite these normally off-putting qualities, if you are a patient viewer who enjoys soaking in the intricacies of the characters and their environment, his movies are very enjoyable to watch. Rohmer’s style is unique and consistent, his topics right out in the open, his characters raw and vulnerable, and his lustful camera lends credence to his characters paralyzed by indecision. Also to his credit, Rohmer’s early works have improved with age, if only because the passage of time has highlighted their timelessness–whereas I cannot say the same for many of those by his New Wave peers.
Rohmer’s films have weathered the years so well because their subject is a simple one–love. Love between a man and a woman, with another woman/man or two thrown in for good measure. His characters almost always must choose between two or three options, the choice never being easy, always involving the defining and redefining of their idea of love. Typically, his characters take slightly too long with this choice, paralyzed by indecision, and fail as a result.
Much great art, especially when it comes to storytelling, is produced by men and women operating outside the normal realm of sociability. Instead of blending in, these artists hungrily observe the lives of others from afar and study the immortalized opinions of the greats who lived before them. Judging from his movies, Eric Rohmer seems to be an intelligent man who thinks about and discusses life more than he lives it (much like Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese); the kind of man who neither shits nor gets off the pot, but instead externally hashes out the implications of every option in depth, with whomever might venture near his proverbial toilet. Rohmer’s intelligence has clearly handicapped him socially, and he seems frustratingly aware of it.
The protagonists of his most celebrated movies–whether young, old, male, female–all appear to be slightly different slices of the Eric Rohmer himself. Each is unique, but shares many of the same problems–namely, they are presented with a chance to end their loneliness by pairing up with a woman/man, but are paralyzed when required to choose between two distinct options, and ultimately wind up with neither. To further rub in the humiliation, they often also discover they never had a chance to begin with, and therefore wasted a fat chunk of time discussing and debating an impossibility. Whether the character is vain or completely lacking in self-confidence, we see that their fate is the same when they fail to choose decisively.
Rohmer’s movies are simply shot–there are no complicated camera moves, no daring stylistic choices, no cheesy camera placements, no unconventional editing, etc–and yet powerful, because they allow his characters to move within a space, allow their humanity to breathe. The locations are sumptuous, the actors intriguingly attractive, and we are shown as many dull moments in their lives as exciting ones; essentially, we are allowed to view them as real people–they are relatable. And so we hope for their happiness, and so we forgive them their faults.
One of Rohmer’s trademarks is what I would say is easily the lustiest camera ever–scenes will open on a sexy pair of legs, and a minute later the woman will sit into frame; or, the camera follows a tiny pair of shorts around a room as we hear a conversation; women casually dress and undress in front of the camera and random men onscreen, feeling no need to hide their bodies. Rohmer has obviously created a world he wishes he could live in, but knows only exists in his mind and in his movies. That being said, he is wise to share this fantasy world, with its roots planted firmly in reality–ever the realist, even his fantasies typically have disappointing endings for the characters involved.
For those of you out there who are exhausted by the rampant availability of awful romantic comedies, and the dearth of smart romantic cinema since Woody Allen’s heyday, feel free to dig into the treasure trove that is Eric Rohmer’s oeuvre. Here is a handy guide for the neophyte:
The Litmus Test
Pauline at the Beach (1983)–Probably my favorite of his films, although I also love La Collectionneuse and Claire’s Knee. Pauline at the Beach seems to be where Rohmer reached his peak and made the most ‘Rohmer’ movie he could make, while at the same time it is his most palatable to the masses–a stunning achievement, considering the nature of his work. The film is packed with fascinating, raw, male and female characters, both young and old, volatile yet naturalistic relationships, a beautiful setting, and an ending that is at once realistic and satisfying.