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Bon Mot

People talk in Eric Rohmer‘s films -- famously, beautifully, at times maddeningly. They chatter about the weather, about art, about one another, about love, about the curve of a girl’s knee, the taste of a pastry, the earthy authenticity of a vineyard grape. Often, of course, and not only because they are French and beautiful and sometimes on vacation, their favorite conversational topic is themselves. They talk in long, silvery strings of words that have the cadence of music. Sometimes, there is so much effortless communion in a Rohmer film that, as with those magicians who pull colored scarves from their mouths, you wonder not only how all that stuff got into their mouths in the first place, but when in the world it will come to a stop. More telling, though, you worry that it actually will stop.

In the filmmaker‘s fourth feature, My Night at Maud’s (1969), an early conversation in a restaurant between two old friends, an executive named Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and a professor named Vidal (Antoine Vitez), seems to continue through the balance of the story. As they sit in the cafe, the two men seem at once entirely familiar and bewilderingly foreign, particularly since their discussion soon turns to the 17th-century mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal. That the discussion flows with the persuasive informality of two teenagers deconstructing the newest N‘Sync release is fairly remarkable, as is the fact that it’s also thoroughly entertaining. Rohmer uses words the way other filmmakers frame the world -- however esoteric or banal, his words invariably make the point that to live is to engage in the most deeply profound activity imaginable.

The cafe conversation in Maud‘s, the third of Rohmer’s ”Six Moral Tales,“ continues later that evening when the professor takes the executive to meet a divorcee, the enigmatic Maud (Francoise Fabian), one of those sophisticated creatures for whom French cinema sometimes seems to have been invented. (”I‘m proof against dialectics,“ she sings out merrily.) After a while, the professor leaves the divorcee’s apartment, and she and the executive keep talking, even about Pascal. She slips under the covers and out of her clothes. The executive, who is devoutly Catholic, a rigid moralist enamored with a remote blond, wraps himself like a chrysalis in the divorcee‘s fur blanket. Like a number of Rohmer’s men, he will make the wrong choice and perhaps not even know it.

Rohmer, ne Jean-Marie Maurice Scherer, was born in Nancy in 1920, which means that he turned 80 last year. If that milestone seems more monumental than most, it is because last year this octogenarian also directed his most recent feature, L‘Anglaise et le Duc, a lavishly financed production (for Rohmer) set during the French Revolution. An instrumental player in one of his country’s more exciting revolutions, Rohmer did double duty in the 1950s and early ‘60s as a contributor to (and later editor of) Cahiers du Cinema and as a director, becoming one of the instigators of the New Wave. Along with Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol and Rivette, all nearly a decade younger, Rohmer was developing a critical language for the medium that would directly inform his own cinematic work. In praising some films (most scandalously, Hollywood) and renouncing others (more typically, old-guard French), he and his cohorts were paving the way for themselves. They thought, then shot.

Rohmer’s ideas about American film are by turns exhilarating and exasperating. In an essay titled ”Rediscovering America,“ published in 1955, his swooning enthusiasm for our native cinema comes across as reckless and fearless, as much from the heart as the head: ”Hollywood scriptwriters have been able to paint for us the image of a world where if Good and Evil exist, the boundaries between them are, just as Aristotle wanted, no more than unexpected bends and undulations.“ Rohmer rejoiced in Hollywood‘s active, pulpy engagement with the real world, violent and moral -- for him, James Dean’s curled lip and anomie in Rebel Without a Cause was no less exciting than the tragedies of the ancient Greeks. Crucially, he also championed the ”efficacy and elegance“ of American film, asserting that Hollywood, as a rule, ”does not smother itself in as many flourishes as our cinema does.“

It is somewhat ironic that while this efficacious, elegant cinema has become increasingly difficult to recognize, moribund with decadent style and an acute absence of ideas, Rohmer‘s own work continues to evince his aspirations. Since 1950 he has made 45 films, mostly features, and directed a handful of documentaries for television. He has written nearly a dozen books, most now out of print in this country, including a landmark study of Hitchcock done in collaboration with his onetime Cahiers partisan Chabrol. He is, however, most justly renowned for his films, a number of which are set to be released on DVD by Winstar, an event that has, happily, occasioned a mini-retrospective at the UCLA Film and Television Archive. The program is judiciously pruned -- it doesn’t include one of Rohmer‘s greatest late features, Autumn Tale (1998), the moving conclusion to his ”Tales of the Four Seasons“ cycle, but even so, it is all vintage.