Monday, January 11, 2010
Eric Rohmer, New Wave Filmmaker, Dies at 89
Eric Rohmer, the French critic and filmmaker who was one of the founding figures of the internationally influential movement that became known as the French New Wave, and the director of more than 50 films for theaters and television, including the Oscar-nominated “My Night at Maud’s” (1969), died on Monday. He was 89.
His producer, Margaret Menegoz, announced his death in Paris, Agence France-Press reported. Relatives said he had been hospitalized a week ago but gave no further details about his condition, the news agency said.
Aesthetically, Mr. Rohmer was perhaps the most conservative member of the group of aggressive young critics who purveyed their writings for publications like Arts and Les Cahiers du Cinéma into careers as filmmakers beginning in the late 1950s. A former novelist and teacher of French and German literature, Mr. Rohmer emphasized the spoken and written word in his films at a time when tastes — thanks in no small part to his own pioneering writing on Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks — had begun to shift from literary adaptations to genre films grounded in strong visual styles.
His most famous film in America remains “My Night at Maud’s,” a 1969 black-and-white feature set in the grim industrial city of Clermont-Ferrand. It tells the story of a shy, young engineer (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who passes a snow-bound evening in the home of an attractive, free-thinking divorcée (Françoise Fabian).
The conversation, filmed by Mr. Rohmer in a series of carefully but unobtrusively composed long takes, covers philosophy, religion and morality, and while the flow of words at times takes on a distinctly seductive subtext, the encounter ends without a physical consummation. But a bond is formed between the two characters that movingly re-emerges five years later, when they meet again in the brief postscript that closes the film.
“My Night at Maud’s” was the third title in his “Six Moral Tales,” a series of films that Mr. Rohmer began in 1963, though for economic reasons it was the fourth to be filmed. In each of the six films, a man who is married or engaged finds himself tempted to stray but is ultimately able to resist. His films are as much about what does not happen between his characters as what does, a tendency that enchanted critics as often as it drove audience members to distraction.
“I saw a Rohmer movie once,” observes the Gene Hackman character in Arthur Penn’s “Night Moves” (1975). “It was kind of like watching paint dry.”
In his private life, Mr. Rohmer was reclusive if not secretive. “Eric Rohmer” was, in fact, a pseudonym, one of several that he experimented with early in his career. According to “Who’s Who in France,” he was born Maurice Henri Joseph Schérer in Tulle, a city in southwestern France, on March 21, 1920; other sources give his birth name as Jean-Marie Maurice Schérer and place his origins in the northeastern city of Nancy.
After publishing the novel “Elisabeth” under the name Gilbert Cordier, he moved to Paris in 1950, where he began frequenting the ciné-clubs of the Latin Quarter, making the acquaintance of four other young cinephiles with whom his career would remain intertwined: Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol and Jacques Rivette. With Mr. Rivette, he founded a short-lived film magazine, La Revue du Cinéma, but when that initiative collapsed after five issues, he joined the reviewing staff of Les Cahiers du Cinéma, a publication that acquired a fashionable notoriety for the violently iconoclastic reviews of the young Truffaut.
In 1952, Mr. Rohmer made his first attempt to direct a feature film, to be titled “Les Petites Filles Modèles,” but the project was abandoned when its producer declared bankruptcy. No footage is known to exist. Not until his Cahiers colleagues began to enjoy a measure of success as filmmakers — the term La Nouvelle Vague (The New Wave) was coined by a journalist for L’Express in 1957 — was Mr. Rohmer able to mount another long form production. But “Le Signe du Lion” (1959), a moody tale of an American expatriate who finds himself down and out in Paris, did not capture the public imagination the way Truffaut’s “400 Blows” and Godard’s “Breathless” did, and Mr. Rohmer returned to editing Les Cahiers, a job he held until 1963.
Mr. Rohmer’s real breakthrough came in 1962 with the 26-minute short “La Boulangère de Monceau” (“The Bakery Girl of Monceau”). Filmed in 16-millimeter black and white, it was the first of the “Six Moral Tales,” based on fictional sketches he had written, he later said, long before he dreamed of becoming a filmmaker.
After a second short film, “La Carrière de Suzanne” (1963), Mr. Rohmer returned to the feature length format with “La Collectionneuse” (1967), the fourth episode of the series but the third to be filmed. The story of a young woman (Haydée Politoff) who systematically collects lovers, the film won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and restored Mr. Rohmer’s place in the front rank of the New Wave. The series continued with three more features: “My Night at Maud’s,” “Claire’s Knee” (1970) and “Love in the Afternoon” (1972).
After experimenting with two stylized period films, “The Marquise of O ...” (1976) and “Percival le Gallois” (1978), Mr. Rohmer initiated a new series, “Comedies and Proverbs,” with the 1981 “La Femme de l’aviateur.” The six films in this group were illustrated traditional sayings or quotes from celebrated authors (from La Fontaine to Rimbaud), and were largely built around the flirtations and fickle emotions of young people, and incorporated, notably in “Le Rayon Vert” (1986), a new element of improvisation.
Mr. Rohmer undertook a final series, “Tales of the Four Seasons,” with “Conte de Printemps” in 1990, this time providing a philosophical love story for each season of the year. The series ended with the exquisite “Conte d’Automne” in 1998, in which Mr. Rohmer moved beyond his focus on youth to tell a movingly autumnal story of a widow (Béatrice Romand) with a teenage son who finds love in an unexpected place.
Mr. Rohmer’s late career found him moving happily among small projects for television (including “L’Arbre, le Maire et la Médiathèque,” 1993), an early experiment with digital technology (“The Lady and the Duke,” 2001), and a true-life spy story (“Triple Agent,” 2004). His final theatrical film was the 2007 “Astrée and Céladon,” a retelling of a 17th-century love story with magical overtones, filmed in a self-consciously academic style that suggested the paintings of Poussin and Fragonard.
He is survived by a younger brother, the philosopher René Schérer, and by a son, the journalist René Monzat.
In opposition both to the intensely personal, confessional tone of much of the work of Truffaut and the politically provocative films of Godard, Mr. Rohmer remained true to a restrained, rationalist aesthetic, close to the principles of the 18th-century thinkers whose words he frequently cited in his movies. And yet Mr. Rohmer’s work was warmed by an undercurrent of romanticism and erotic yearning, made perhaps all the more affecting for never quite breaking through the surface of his elegant, orderly films.
Posted by Chris Mansel at 1:45 PM