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.
In the late 1970s, Rohmer took a break by producing deliberately non-naturalistic versions of Kleist's Marquise von O and Chretien de Troyes's Perceval le Gallois. But he returned to self-deception and self-knowledge in another series of six films, the "Comedies and Proverbs," made between 1980 and 1987. These films -- La Femme de l'Aviateur ("The Aviator's Wife"), Le Beau Mariage ("A Good Marriage"), Pauline a la Plage ("Pauline at the Beach"), Les Nuits de la Pleine Lune ("Full Moon in Paris"), Le Rayon Vert ("The Green Ray" or "Summer"), and L'ami de Mon Amie ("My Girlfriend's Boyfriend" or "Boyfriends and Girlfriends") -- are perhaps Rohmer's greatest works and should be counted among the artistic achievements of the last century.
They are remarkable for their insight into feminine psychology. A young star of Le Genou de Claire, Beatrice Romand, reappears twelve years later in Le Beau Mariage, which turns out to be a kind of bookend to the earlier film -- a harrowing meditation on the female capacity for self-deception. The erstwhile school-girl is now a woman in her late twenties named Sabine, who decides it's time to end her affair with a painter and settle down. With the confidence of youth, she picks out her prospective partner, a suitably handsome, boring lawyer named Edmond, who is the cousin of a friend. It is almost unbearable to see the cruelty with which life teaches her that the power to choose is no longer hers.
Yet the "Comedies and Proverbs" are, after all, comedies: The characters are still young enough that they can recover even from such a disaster as Sabine's infatuation with Edmond. In Conte d'automne ("Autumn Tale"), the last of a later series of four films Rohmer made between 1990 and 1998, Romand appears yet again, as a middle-aged widow whose married friend tries to find a man for her by dating him herself. Here Romand is neither the innocent tease of Claire's Knee nor the desperate young woman of Le Beau Mariage but someone whose chances for love are dwindling and who can't bear to become the sexual aggressor. Even sadder than her case, however, is that of her friend, whose oftreiterated happiness in marriage collapses with her sudden and unexpected desire to hold on to the man she finds for her friend.
As in Rohmer's great films of the 1980s, the focus is on feminine psychology and the theme is self-deception. But by this time of life, the romantic illusion comes to seem less comic than pathetic. The balance between comedy and melancholy was better maintained in the "Comedies and Proverbs." The greatest of these films are Pauline a la Plage and Le Rayon Vert, but the most typical and most formally perfect is the first, La Femme de l'Aviateur.
Taking as its epigraph "On ne saurait penser a rien" -- "You can't think of nothing" -- the film confines itself to a single day in the life of the beautiful Anne, a working woman just breaking off an affair with a married aviator, Christian. (A nice and very Rohmerian touch is that the wife of the title only appears once, briefly, in a photograph.) A young man named Francois, who is working nights at the post office to put himself through law school, is also in love with Anne. Seeing Christian coming out of Anne's apartment early one morning, he suspects the worst. Later, when he sees Christian meeting an unidentified blonde, Francois decides to follow the couple. Along the way, he strikes up an acquaintance with Lucie, a schoolgirl with the day off.
Rohmer is almost always precise about his characters' ages. Francois at twenty is midway between Lucie's fifteen and Anne's twenty-five, and he is like a weathervane, oscillating between childish playfulness and emotional vulnerability, neither of which he quite understands. He lectures Lucie like an older brother, trying to make her become more serious and grown-up, at the same time that he is attracted to her carefree girlishness. He is an ardent wooer of Anne, who keeps him hanging around even while insisting that she wants to be left alone.
The earnest, idealistic love of the twenty-year-old looks faintly ridiculous when compared with the reactions of both the girl and the woman. Rohmer constructs a wonderful parallel: When Francois tries to stop the teasing Lucie from giving away the game to the aviator and the blonde, she laughs, "Let me go, or I'll scream" -- the same thing Anne had said, seriously, to Francois.
Francois and Lucie follow the couple to a lawyer's office, and when they can get no more information, they retreat to a neighboring cafe to wait for them to come out. Though Francois solemnly informs her that "life is not a novel," Lucie asks, "What would Sherlock Holmes do?" and expounds her theory that the blonde is the aviator's wife ("That's why they look bored"). They are seeing the lawyer about getting a divorce so that he can go to Anne. She advises Francois not to kill Anne. "It's her neck you want to twist," she confidently pronounces. "But it's more noble to kill your rival."
Before leaving with a request that he write and tell her if she was right in her conjecture, Lucie casually gives Francois a lesson on the view of love from age fifteen: "Girls always choose," she tells him -- a young girl's insight that contrasts almost tragically with the twenty-five-year-old Anne's inability to choose. Meanwhile the male of twenty tells Lucie almost angrily that he chose Anne before she even knew he was there. It's here that Lucie affords an insight. When Francois tells her that "Anne doesn't know what she wants," Lucie replies: "Yes she does. She just hasn't found it yet -- and it's not you."
Then there is an immensely touching scene between Francois and Anne. She has come home from work and gone straight to bed, but he forces his way in to have a serious talk. She sends him away. She calls him back. He stands up, then he sits down. He gets up to go, then he comes back. She lies down, then she sits up. The choreography is the very image of indecision. It is comic but at the same time reveals Anne's inability to go far in any direction. Earlier in the film, she says that she needs to be alone, that if she marries she will expect her husband to allow her a separate establishment. And yet she cannot do without people. Lucie was right: Anne's problem is that she doesn't want what she has and is too frightened of being alone to get rid of it.
To Francois she says that she hates glue or anything sticky -- and there he is clinging to her. She doesn't want to see anybody, least of all Francois, and she says all sorts of hurtful things, things calculated to wound the sensitive masculine pride of a twenty-year-old. But she can't let him go, and every time he is on the point of leaving she calls him back. "Why do I keep doing things no one forces me to do?" she asks herself. "I'm too kind." This is a comic line, but we realize that she is right: She allows herself to be pushed into relationships and entanglements that leave her feeling that her life is no longer her own. She finally allows him to come to the bed and comfort her in his clumsy, youthful, and rather absurd fashion (it is all very chaste), whereupon the facts about the aviator are sorted out, including the fact that his walk in the park and to the lawyer had been with a sister. Francois learns that his suspicions were not true -- but has a hard time grasping that something worse is true.
So Lucie's romantic conjectures and Francois's suspicions both turn out to be wrong. But the three versions neatly correspond to the three ages: romance at fifteen, doubt at twenty, and business at twenty-five. As Francois ponders the mistakes of the day, Anne asks him what he is thinking. "Don't you ever think of nothing?" he asks. "No," she says. "You can't think of nothing." And she ought to know.
In La Femme de l'Aviateur, Francois is always placed between: between the comic playfulness of Lucie and the tragic self-contradiction of Anne, between childhood and adulthood, between promiscuity and faithfulness, between innocence and experience. The film is typical of the way in which the director, like a surgeon, always anatomizes love: its pleasures and self-deceptions, its will to believe and its ineradicable suspicions. Arthur Penn and Gene Hackman have it wrong. For anyone who has ever been in love, Eric Rohmer's movies are immensely exciting to watch.
James Bowman is the American editor of the Times Literary Supplement.