Eric Rohmer



Eric Rohmer photo
In a career which spanned six decades, Eric Rohmer earned himself a reputation as one of France's most incisive, eloquent and free-spirited film directors. One of the leading lights of the French New Wave, Rohmer was an auteur par excellence, crafting films of immense beauty and poetry, films about love, loyalty and life. There is an almost unique consistency of style and theme to his work, and yet the director somehow managed to keep a freshness and youthful vigour in his art throughout his long and remarkably prolific career.

Whilst few of Rohmer's films have been great commercial successes, his unique brand of cinema has found a loyal following and many of his films have garnered critical acclaim, in his native France and abroad. These films are invariably about close human relationships, most often between young people experiencing the first traumas of romantic love, and generally involve a moral dilemma of some kind. Thanks in part to his use of non-professional and inexperienced actors and improvised dialogue, Rohmer's films have a natural spontaneity and beguiling innocence which make them enthralling and authentic explorations of the human psyche.

Eric Rohmer's real name is Maurice Schérer. The brother of the philosopher René Schérer, he was born in Nancy, France, on 4th April, 1920. In Paris, he started work as a journalist, then a teacher of literature. He published a novel, Elizabeth, in 1946, under the pseudonym Gilbert Cordier.

In late 1940s and early 1950s, the young Schérer's interest in films brought him into contact with Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette and Claude Chabrol. This disparate bunch of bookish intellectuals would rapidly metamorphose into a new, very outspoken kind of film critic, one that was viscerally opposed to the prevailing trends in the French film industry. Championing the role of the auteur in filmmaking with an almost religious fervour, these hot-headed young critics would themselves become filmmakers, part of the French New Wave, in the late 1950s. Rohmer and his chums galvanised a radical and far-reaching change in French cinema, the aftershocks of which can still be felt today.

Between 1956 and 1963, having adopted the name Eric Rohmer, Schérer worked alongside his future New Wave contemporaries as editor in chief on the renowned film journal, Les Cahiers du cinéma. In 1957, Rohmer wrote the book Hitchcock with Claude Chabrol, an in-depth analysis of the famous English director's approach to film making, which went some way to establishing Alfred Hitchcock's credentials as a serious auteur.

During the 1950s, Rohmer made a series of modest short films, including La Sonate a Kreutzer (1956). His first full-length film was La Signe du Lion, which was released in 1959, the same year that Godard and Truffaut had their film-making debuts. Rohmer's first film was far more conventional and restrained than that of his New Wave contemporaries, which could explain why it was overlooked whilst Truffaut and Godard won instant recognition.

Having founded his own film production company, Les Films du Losange, with Barbet Schroeder in 1962, Eric Rohmer began a project which was to take over ten years to complete. This was the first in his celebrated series of films, Six Contes moreaux, or Six Moral Tales. This series of films may have been inspired by Rohmer's reaction to the permissive attitudes of the 1960s. Each film revolves around a male character who is caught in the moral crisis of loving one woman yet being physically attracted to another - representing, as Rohmer might put it, the eternal struggle between human nobility and animal instinct. The fourth film in this series, Ma Nuit Chez Maud (1969), proved to be Rohmer's breakthrough. The film was critically acclaimed at home and proved to be a commercial success in the United States, where it garnered two Oscar nominations. The next film in the series, Le Genou de Claire (1970), was also highly popular.

In 1964, Rohmer left Les Cahiers du cinéma to take up a post with French television. Over the next few years, he would direct over a dozen television films, including popular documentaries for the Filmmakers of Our Time series. After a brief foray into historical dramas with Die Marquise von O... (1976) and Perceval le Gallois (1978), Rohmer began work on his next series of films, Comédies et proverbes (Comedies and Proverbs), which occupied him for most of the 1980s. These films took a light-hearted look at the French middle class in the 1980s, broaching themes such as infidelity, promiscuity and a young woman's search for love. The most popular of these was the comedy Pauline à la plage (1983), whilst Le Rayon vert (1986) won Rohmer his greatest accolade, the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival in 1986.

In the 1990s, Eric Rohmer's efforts were concentrated mainly on his next series of films, Les Contes des quatre saisons (Tales of the Four Seasons), possibly the most successful of his film cycles. Each of these four films is set at a particular time of year chosen to illustrate a season, and each involves some form of emotional isolation. The central character in each film is coping with a recent crisis and the narrative ends optimistically, looking forward to a better future, echoing the same cycle of rebirth and renewal that we find in nature.

Rohmer's final three films show a surprising diversity in technique, although each is fundamentally concerned with the recurring Rohmer-esque themes of love and fidelity. L'Anglaise et le duc (2001) is a moving historical drama, set at the time of the French revolution, which used the latest digital technology, with actors embedded into painted backdrops. Triple agent (2004) provides a poignant account of how external events can erode the trust between a husband and wife. Les Amours d'Astrée et de Céladon (2007), Rohmer's last film, is a lyrical, highly stylised work set in 5th Century Gaul that is as much a celebration of the beauty of the natural world as it is a poet's heartfelt expression of the redeeming power of love.

Despite his extraordinary productivity, Eric Rohmer was a private man who shunned publicity in his private life. His death on the 11th January 2010 was honoured in the French media as the passing of a true artistic giant. His films may struggle to find a large mainstream audience but for those who appreciate his understated, intelligent and intensely compassionate approach to filmmaking they are a source of continuing joy, and an inspiration for future generations of film directors, cinematographers and screenwriters who regard cinema as an art and not merely a stale commercial exercise. Modest as they are, many of Eric Rohmer's films are certain to long outlive many of today's mainstream successes, if only because they are crafted with love and wisdom, not greasy banknotes.
© James Travers 2010
Legal notice: The above article was written for and is protected by copyright. No part of it should be reproduced in any medium without the author's prior consent in writing.

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