Screenwriter Alan Sharp may have supplied the perfect epitaph for Eric Rohmer, who died last Sunday at 89 — the only one that will stick anyway. “I saw a Rohmer film once,” growls cuckold detective Gene Hackman in the Sharp-scripted Night Moves. “It was like watching paint dry.”
Many people felt like this over the years. Yet, Rohmer was one of the few French directors with his own section in American video stores, his name spelled out above a not inconsiderable body of work. And Rohmer does belong on a shelf in many more respects; his films should be available at all hours, like favorite books, to be taken down when one has the yen for his weird, irritating and anachronistic artistry.
I was in Montreal when I saw Claire’s Knee; in Binghamton, New York, when I caught up with My Night at Maud’s. Which may not have been altogether fortuitous: I simply may have wanted to hear French spoken (and not Québécois French). Rohmer’s films are about words — not as in filmed theater, of course, or even radio plays, but words being directed — words and their power, their treachery. The French spoken in his films was famously weird, old-fashioned, always bourgeois and a little off. Once, his friend and early producer Barbet Schroeder conducted an interview with Rohmer for a DVD release. He didn’t have to go far: They’d had offices in the same building for 40 years, but they still used the polite, distant vous.
Schroeder and Rohmer discussed their pioneer days, Rohmer’s catastrophic first feature, Le Signe du Lion (produced in 1958 thanks to Chabrol’s connections, its failure permanently set him aside from his Cahiers cohorts), and his forced return to 16mm with a guerrilla style of production that achieved wonderful results. Then Schroeder asked a question: “When I played the lead in our first film together, The Girl at the Monceau Bakery, you had me dubbed by Bertrand Tavernier. I’ve always wondered why.”
Rohmer, a bit embarrassed, explained that the voice-over in that piece was a little more literary than usual, even for him, and that he thought his young friend wouldn’t be comfortable with it. “I had known Tavernier’s father, a notable in Lyon, and thought Bertrand would be more at ease speaking the words.”
Rohmer himself was from the provinces, born in Tulle in the mountain region of Corrèze. He saw only three motion pictures before he reached Paris at 17 (the silent Ben Hur, and two forgotten adaptations of French classics). Enthralled by what he viewed daily at the Cinemathèque, he started making silent films with borrowed 16mm cameras, adapting Poe and Tolstoy.
He had to teach school for a living but was posted close enough to Paris to keep up his side work as a journalis at various magazines, including the fledging Cahiers du Cinéma. He eventually became editor in chief of the review but always remained professorial in person. He would receive you with the same fastidiousness he reserved for his directing, placing you in front of his desk just so, so that the light would be right and your questions better understood. With an almost comic fussiness, he always professed a hatred of talking about himself — but couldn’t be stopped once started.
Rohmer famously agreed to a documentary on himself for Andre Labarthe’s series Cinéma de notre temps, with the stipulation that the film couldn’t be aired until after his death. It was shown well before his passing, but this is only one example of the coquette in Rohmer, the faux modeste.
Many people felt that he was a better teacher or philosopher than filmmaker. He remained controversial, not for his artistic stances but for his sometimes bizarre right-wing politics. But the dogged pursuit of his work, and his longevity, put him out of reach of the pettiness of either politics or biography.
Rohmer was one of a kind, even though he unfortunately spawned a slew of lesser chatter bugs in French cinema and considered himself an “eternal amateur,” noting that, as late as 2004, his name had never figured on any of the professional union registers in France.