The Magazine

When in Rohmer

The French New Wave movie director could teach Hollywood a few things

Apr 3, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 28 • By JAMES BOWMAN
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The one thing American moviegoers are likely to know about the great French director Eric Rohmer, who turns eighty this month, is Gene Hackman's dismissive comment in Arthur Penn's 1975 film Night Moves. In turning down an invitation from his wife to go see My Night at Maud's, Rohmer's notoriously philosophical film, Hackman says, "I saw a Rohmer film once. It was kind of like watching paint dry."

It's true that there are no explosions or gunshots in a typical Rohmer film. The excitement is not forced by editing or music (there is no music, except where the characters hear it too). But Rohmer's understatement is an excellent way of clearing the palate after Hollywood junk food. The Frenchman gives us something not only more exciting but closer to real life -- real real life, the life of men and women and work and holidays and love and loneliness. Most of his films are not difficult or intellectual. They only seem that way, because you have to pay attention.

Not a frame of a Rohmer film is wasted. His devotion to his craft is refreshing, as is his shyness (he once put on false whiskers to receive an award on television). Like most of the New Wave directors of his generation, he idolized Hitchcock (he collaborated on a book about him), and he became a master of plotting. With Hitchcock the plot is central because, in a murder mystery, it leads to the moment of revelation. But Rohmer, whose characters live in an everyday world where murders seldom happen, does not make it so obvious. His characters do ordinary things like going out to dinner or taking a walk or having an argument, but you soon realize that the order in which they do them is crucial. At least, you do if you have been following along. People's lives and happiness depend on order as much as they do in a Hitchcock film.

In giving prominence to the daily life of the French bourgeoisie -- particularly those younger than himself, who are not nearly so conscious as their parents were of being bourgeois -- Rohmer breaks with French postwar culture. As he told Jean Narboni in the interview-introduction to The Taste for Beauty, a collection of Rohmer's journalism,

My authors are Balzac and Victor Hugo. Balzacian, yes. That is, anti-existentialist, against the new novel, against people like Moravia, Sartre, and Beckett. In Balzac's novels, one finds content in conversations. But in twentieth-century novels, there are conversations but no content. Their sense exists between the lines; the characters' sentences are flat. Second, in twentieth-century novels, things occur, one is subjected to them, but there's no plot. The plot is something which is completely outdated.

No one has done more than Eric Rohmer to shake off the blight of this existentialist gloom, whose pop-cult version so captivated Arthur Penn back in the 1970s. Between 1963 and 1972, Rohmer made "Six Moral Tales": La Boulangere de Monceau (which appeared in America as "The Baker's Girl" or "The Girl at the Monceau Bakery"), La Carriere de Suzanne ("Suzanne's Career"), Ma Nuit Chez Maud ("My Night at Maud's"), La Collectionneuse ("The Collector"), Le Genou de Claire ("Claire's Knee"), and L'amour L'apresmidi ("Love in the Afternoon" or "Chloe in the Afternoon"). These films doubtless earned him his reputation as an aloof moralist, because they were so spectacularly contrary to the spirit of that decade. But all six are now available on video, and to watch them these days is to realize their worth: Though they are all informed by a sophisticated moral sense, they are never preachy. Rohmer is always much more interested in the way people maneuver around moral obstacles than in arguing about the morality itself.

Above all, he is interested in the self-deceptions into which love leads. Even My Night at Maud's -- which does have serious philosophical overtones and an implied commentary on Pascal -- ends up being much more about the down-to-earth business of deception in love. Both the last two films in "Moral Tales" are meditations on masculine self-deception. The portrait of Jerome in Claire's Knee -- a man who rationalizes his infatuation with teenage female flesh as the expression of a disinterested romantic ideal -- is painful to watch. There is a kind of endearing childishness about Jerome when he freely acknowledges that, in love, "All my successes came by surprise; desire followed attainment." But the surprise comes from his lack of self-knowledge, which is of a sort to make any man ashamed of his sex.