French veteran Eric Rohmer, who died on January 11 aged 89, was arguably the most misunderstood of the New Wave directors.
A singularly consistent, seemingly unassuming film-maker, Rohmer was often considered the archetype of the auteur who made variations of the same film over and over again. His three series – Moral Tales, ComediesAnd Proverbs and Tales Of The Four Seasons – perfected a formally pared-down cinema that focused on people talking, often about their emotional confusion. But that format – which for art-house audiences came to represent the epitome of intelligent, upmarket French cinema – was executed with finesse, rigour and emotional generosity.
Born Jean-Marie Maurice Schérer in Tulle on April 4 1920, Rohmer started his career teaching literature, and originally planned to follow a literary career, publishing the novel Elisabeth in 1946 under the name Gilbert Cordier. Moving to Paris, he became active as a critic, and edited Cahiers du Cinéma from 1957 to 1963; he also co-wrote a book on Hitchcock with Claude Chabrol.
Older than his Cahiers colleagues, Eric Rohmer (the pseudonym conflated Erich von Stroheim and Sax Rohmer) was the first among them to attempt directing, making several shorts in the 50s. His first feature The Sign of Leo (1959) was overlooked, but in 1963 his short La Boulangère de Monceau launched the Moral Tales. That series – brittle, detached comedies about bourgeois males facing sexual temptation - established Rohmer internationally as a director and writer of maturity, wit and intellectual sophistication. The series included La Collectionneuse, Claire’s Knee and My Night With Maud (1969), which famously interweaves sexual intrigue and Pascalian philosophy.
In the 80s, the ostensibly lighter Comedies And Proverbs focused on young female protagonists. The outstanding episode was The Green Ray, in which a seemingly featherlight premise (a woman who can’t decide where to spend her holiday) becomes a rich and poignant study of chronic indecision. The film was distinguished by naturalistic shooting and a loose, improvisational acting style. Tales of the Four Seasons (1989-98) were in a more melancholic register.
Rohmer also explored more experimental paths. In the 70s, he surprised audiences with two historical dramas, La Marquise Von O, adapted from Kleist, and the mediaeval Perceval Le Gallois, notable for its stylized sets. The Tree, The Mayor And the Mediatheque (1993) was a rare excursion into political satire.
Rohmer’s last three films showed a renewed appetite for experiment. The French Revolution drama The Lady And The Duke (2001) made innovative and economical use of CGI tableaux. The sombre 1930s-set Triple Agent (2004) was a complex drama about ideology and betrayal. Rohmer’s final film The Romance of Astrea And Celadon (2007) was arguably his most eccentric – a pastoral idyll steeped in sexual ambiguity.
Compared to his Nouvelle Vague colleagues, especially Godard and Jacques Rivette, Rohmer hardly seemed a radical artist. He was an advocate of tradition and of artistic and moral restraint. But he was also an acute documenter of changing social and sexual mores and one of French cinema’s great directors of youth. After focusing on middle-aged males (played by the likes of Jean-Louis Trintignant and Jean-Claude Brialy), Rohmer gave centre stage in Comedies And Proverbs to young heroines played by more or less unknown names, among them the late Pascale Ogier, who embodied post-punk independent spirit in Full Moon In Paris. He consistently offered rewarding lead roles to women, notably Marie Rivière in The Green Ray and Beatrice Romand in An Autumn Tale.
As for what was sometimes dismissed as a lack of visual style, Rohmer’s spareness placed the maximum emphasis on the camera’s intimate relationship with the performer, and on the pleasures of spoken dialogue.
Rohmer is a director who has gone in and (most recently) out of fashion, but his no-frills economy, his wry compassion and his lightly-worn seriousness will ensure an enduring reputation as a master.
2007 Romance Of Astrea And Celadon
2004 Triple Agent
2001 The Lady And The Duke
1998 An Autumn Tale
1996 A Summer’s Tale
1995 Rendezvous In Paris
1993 The Tree, The Mayor And The Mediatheque
1992 A Winter’s Tale
1991 A Tale Of Springtime
1987 My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend
1987 Four Adventures Of Reinette And Mirabelle
1986 The Green Ray
1984 Full Moon In Paris
1983 Pauline At The Beach
1982 A Good Marriage
1981 The Aviator’s Wife
1978 Perceval Le Gallois
1976 The Marquise Of O
1972 Love In The Afternoon
1970 Claire’s Knee
1969 My Night At Maud’s
1967 La Collectionneuse
1963 Suzanne’s Career
1959 The Sign Of Leo