January 11, 2010: Eric Rohmer is dead at 89.
Rohmer's work extolled and exemplified the dignities of the human race — emotional, sensual, intellectual.
Rohmer embodied a series of paradoxes. He saw humanity as from a god's-eye-view, but no filmmaker ever shot at the level of the species itself, par la terre, quite like he did: the wind, the water, — and the wallpaper. He was a son of Pascal who advanced the scientific method toward the revelation and scrutiny of the longings and delights folded within the hearts of men and women — guided, the entire time, by the prospect of the miracle. He believed the miracle would come in the end and to show it he created it, as though action and belief were inextricable or, even, one and the same. He was touched by grace: accordingly, his touch was light; accordingly, his insights were profound. His productions were economical, and nothing he filmed was cheap, human beings were never cheapened. His classical moorings and scholasticism were the radical means by which he helped to create and vitalize continually the New Wave. His criticism on Hitchcock, Rossellini, and Nicholas Ray in the Cahiers du cinéma of the '50s suggested, like his films, the author's simultaneous presence in the 'here' of the current moment, and in the 'elsewhere' of a canonical antiquity. His scenario for the Six Moral Tales was his novel Six Moral Tales. He refused to acknowledge a difference between cinema and literature: and so the great filmmaker has died, and he will take celestial residence in the pantheon of Marivaux, Balzac, and Flaubert. This man of all seasons, for all centuries, filed dispatches imbued with a timelessness, documentary and aesthetic, and I think that when he published in 1977 his doctoral thesis The Organization of Space in Murnau's Faust he had unconsciously proposed an act of autocritique in the lines: "It is by the intensity of his presence that Nosferatu frightens us, not by the mystery of his absence, like the Vampyr of Dreyer." The intensity of his presence, and the mystery of his absence — Rohmer embodies a series of paradoxes.
A few personal notes:
— I hadn't seen any of Rohmer's films until 2002, when L'Anglaise et le Duc [The Englishwoman and the Duke, 2001 — released in the US as The Lady and the Duke] played in Seattle. I couldn't get over it: a total reinvention of the (still nascent) digital cinema, which he had placed at the service of a rigorous mise en scène with seemingly little effort, like these new cameras had been invented primarily for Eric Rohmer. It was as theatrical and trenchant as Renoir's The Golden Coach. It really impressed me. I recall going on about it for days after.
— A few months later: I remember I had been staying at my ex-girlfriend's parents' house for the weekend. During a time-out-for-naps I put the disc (her copy) of Le Rayon vert [The Green Ray, 1986] into the laptop and watched the film for the first time. (It had been in circulation for many years in the US in a bad transfer under the title Summer.) Like many others who see the picture, I couldn't believe the final scene. My mind was exploding. A director had presided over a miracle, and what's more had captured it on celluloid. I wanted to run through the house and tell everyone what I had witnessed. I opted just to pace instead; for once, perhaps, good sense prevailed. And the end of The Green Ray can't be told, it can only be shown. Someday I'd like to make a field recording: aim a microphone toward an audience watching the film in a theater. I imagine when that final moment arrives, one would hear two-hundred spectators gasp in unison, and then — the collective release of: "Ooooooooooh..."
— The boxset of Six Moral Tales from Criterion is one of the label's treasures. But it's worth hunting down for purchase or Netflixing even for one element alone: the 2006 video conversation between Rohmer and Barbet Schroeder, which represents a gloriously lucid look-back across Rohmer's career and the Six Moral Tales series. Within the same box comes Rohmer's (unsigned — but it is Rohmer's film) La Cambrure [The Curve, 1999], which is possibly, next to Dan Sallitt's All the Ships at Sea, the most beautiful film I've ever seen shot on (unmediated) miniDV.
— Another Rohmer treasure exists on Criterion, but I've never seen it publicized as such, and there's no indication of its authorship on the packaging: the unsigned film by Rohmer featuring himself and Jean Douchet in conversation on Renoir: Post-face à Boudu sauvé des eaux [Looking Back on Boudu sauvé des eaux, 1968], included on the Boudu Saved from Drowning release. It's one of the finest critical analyses of a film ever recorded and, again, is alone worth acquiring.
— To end on a non-commercial note: I find the wife's release at the end of L'Amour, l'après-midi [Love in the Afternoon, 1972 — it used to be called Chloe in the Afternoon in the US] to be among the most emotionally devastating moments in all of movies — but the emotions are so complicated, bittersweet, teetering at the cusp of relief, — borne by a sense of contrition in the face of hurt, they modulate a new key amid suspicion, terrible disappointment, and hopeful naïveté.
Over the years Eric Rohmer's films have immeasurably enriched my sense of who I am or should be.
Tomorrow's edition of Libération in France declares itself a "special issue" and gives the entire front page over to an image of Rohmer, with the headline: "Rohmer, at the Tale's End". Olivier Seguret penned the main piece. A condensed version of Philippe Azoury's own portrait is at the Libé site here. Also: the reprint of a 2004 interview from the time of release of his penultimate film, Triple Agent, accessible here.
Rohmer's passing also attains the main headline in tomorrow's edition of Le Monde. Jacques Mandelbaum writes here: "The transparency and the sobriety of the mise en scène, carried out by established actors (Jean-Claude Brialy, André Dussollier) or, more often, by those making their debuts (Fabrice Luchini, Pascal Greggory), the tenor of the dialogue, the attention paid to places, conspire here into the elaboration of a unique style bearing sentimental blindness, the sophistication of desire as the miracle of the true encounter with the highest degree of uncertainty and charm."
The website of Les Inrocks presents Rohmer's "last interview," from 2007, conducted at the time of release of his final film, Les Amours d'Astrée et de Céladon [The Romance of Astrea and Celadon], here. (Excerpt: "Some Like It Hot is a film I don't like whatsoever. I think it's horrible. Listen, I haven't interviewed many famous people in my time, but one of them was Buster Keaton. He was very old, and the film had just come out. He told me: 'Some liking it hot is exactly what I detest.' I thought that was very funny.") Jean-Marc Lalanne's appreciation is here.
Dave Kehr has written the New York Times obituary, which can be found here. Discussion about Rohmer carries over into the comments section of a post at Dave's blog here. (Kent Jones remarks: "After reading all this stuff about The Lady and the Duke and Astrea and Celadon, both of which are very beautiful, I am compelled to say how much I loved Triple Agent. Who else, in the entire world let alone French cinema, would have made this film?")
Criterion have posted a note about the director at their site, including an excerpt from the long 2006 video-interview mentioned above. Here.
Glenn Kenny reproduces a cogent quote by Rohmer at Some Came Running, here.
A number of public figures have given statements to mark Rohmer's passing. Two politicians from two milieux:
The inevitable Nicolas Sarkozy offering reads as follows: that Eric Rohmer was a filmmaker who created a "singular, unique" cinema, creator of a "style that will survive," which "contains literature, contains painting, contains theater and music." "It was his cinema alone, even in its tidy, minimalist economy, even in the titles of his films, joined together like collections. Classical and romantic, wise and iconoclastic, light and serious, sentimental and moralistic, he created the 'Rohmerian' style." The statement closes in recognition of the "talent and truth of a grand auteur."
Former French Minister of Culture Jack Lang says that Rohmer's "oeuvre will tower over French cinematographic history by way of its original and revolutionary stature. ... His writings and creations fell under the sign of necessity and rigor. He'll have been the man of all discoveries." Lang draws attention to "a cinematographic art with no other equal, the revelation of actors as-of-yet unknown, the marking-out of unsuspected philosophical and aesthetic universes."