Has there been another director more simultaneously hot and cold than Éric Rohmer? His death today, at 89, leaves behind a long trail of movies whose characters think with their libidos and make love with their brains. The experience of watching his films -- until the 1990s it hardly matters which one -- is unique. Rohmer kept his distance. The style of his films was loose yet exacting, almost uninflected. He didn't invent cinéma vérité, but he perfected its illusion of transparent intimacy.
If you couldn't locate him in the personal details of his characters, it was OK. They weren't drawn that specifically. He could, at times, be a stingy scenarist, always sketching too lightly for distinguishing details. His men and women and their moral dilemmas (springing mostly from desire and temptation) were largely interchangeable from one film to the next. But that sameness spoke to a universal ache of sorts. From "My Night at Maud's" (1969) and "Claire's Knee" (1970) to his Tales of the Four Seasons quartet in the 1990s, we came to see in his moviemaking an elemental philosophical wisdom: What made you part of the human condition was a penis or vagina, a heart and mind, a maybe and pied-à-terre or summer house.
Which brings us to the "hot" part of his movies. He could be acutely, OK, agonizingly literary. But he was also unfailingly devoted to sex. In fact, his characters' urge to have it is sometimes what induced both their cerebral sides and the movies'. As he aged, namely by 1983's roundelay, "Pauline at the Beach" (part of his Comedies and Proverbs sextet in the 1980s), he'd discovered affection for the innocence of his nubile young characters. Fifteen-year-old Pauline, in the third film of the series, was meant to be the wisest person on the sandy premises. Of course, the loving closeups of her derriere in a wet bathing suit cast the director in a new light: Botticelli as a dirty old man. But, again, he was more affectionate than his movie was prurient, with its scheming, jaded adults and vestal children.
Rohmer was a critic at Cahiers du Cinéma. He came to filmmaking in the 1950s but is still most famous for "My Night at Maud's," a film about a Catholic engineer (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and devotee of the religious existentialism of Blaise Pascal who considers cheating on his fiancée. "Maud's" was one of his Six Moral Tales (number 3 to be exact), a suite of movies he began in 1962 and completed a decade later with "Chloe in the Afternoon." Those were the kinds of pickles in which Rohmer's men found themselves: with love on one hand, sex on another, and neither hand entirely capable of shaking the other.
His plots for those movies were variations on F.W. Murnau's lyrical 1927 romance "Sunrise. And part of Rohmer's vérite style involved long discursive swathes in which the characters philosophize and make allusions to great minds and great books while the camera often watched. (On several gorgeous occasions, the director of photography was the legendary Néstor Almendros.) In the latter half of his career, Rohmer committed himself to women characters. In his last decade, he was almost as artistically vigorous as he had been when he started making movies. He shot 2001's "The Lady and the Duke" on high-definition video and used obviously artificial rear projection, technical specifications that are all the more interesting since the movie is a love story of sorts set during the French Revolution. He never stopped trying to grow. Even if by his final film, 2007's "The Romance of Astrea and Celadon," he seemed to be taking it easy.
It's hard to overstate Rohmer's lasting influence, which often amounts to heady verbosity, steady desire, or some conflation of the two. You could see him, platonically, in "My Dinner with Andre" and completely in the mumblecore movie of your choice. He managed to inspire, among many of other variations, Noah Baumbach's "Margot at the Wedding" and Chris Rock's "I Think I Love My Wife," which had nothing specific to do with "Chloe in the Afternoon" and yet everything to do with it. Rohmer is in the air. If you think you love your wife, then, to some extent, you're thinking like a man after Rohmer's heart.
About Movie Nation
ContributorsTy Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.
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