When the films of Eric Rohmer were first shown, they must have appeared like nothing that had been seen in a cinema before: all talk and no action, without any reliance on genre conventions or attention-grabbing contrivances. Even the languorous works of Antonioni seemed animated by comparison. Yet Rohmer was one of the original Cahiers du cinéma gang, having served as editor of that illustrious journal during its pivotal, late ’50s/early ’60s heyday, where he canonized Hitchcock and Hawks and promoted the auteur theory. He was the last of that celebrated group to make the transition from criticism to filmmaking, and compared with his former colleagues Truffaut, Godard and Chabrol, his defiantly unassuming works haven’t received much attention in recent years.
The action, such as it is, in Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales (1963–72) consists of a male protagonist justifying his passivity in the face of temptation. Confronted with a choice between an alluring siren and another woman who rarely appears on screen (usually a wife or fiancée), the men of the Moral Tales — after endless theorizing, strategizing and agonizing — always opt for the latter. Rohmer’s characters express themselves in rigorously discursive streams of conversation that chart the flow of inquiring minds, but despite their loquacity, they remain somehow remote; charming and complex but too vain and aloof to inspire much sympathy.
In La Collectionneuse (1967), art dealer Adrian (Patrick Bauchau) and artist Daniel (Daniel Pommereulle) borrow a friend’s villa on the Riviera, intending, as Adrian puts it, is “to carry idleness to a height never previously reached.” This plan is disturbed by a promiscuous, pixielike beauty, Haydee (Haydee Politoff), a collector of men whose unforeseen presence sets off a bizarre, passionless ménage played out in idyllic pastoral surroundings to a soundtrack of birdsong and the chattering of crickets. The atmosphere is sexually charged, but the sex itself is secondary to the constantly shifting mind games and equivocations of the almost impossibly attractive cast.
In direct contrast to such lush sensuality is the austerity of Rohmer’s next film, My Night at Maud’s (1969). Despite its deceptively titillating title, this is his most climactically and stylistically atypical film, shot in black-and-white in the snowbound provincial town of Clermont, birthplace of Pascal, the literary eminence whose tenets permeate the proceedings. Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a devout Catholic with a philosophical turn of mind, runs the full range of awkwardness and ambivalence during a long winter night of theological and romantic soul-searching with a sophisticated brunette (Francoise Fabian). Eventually, he rejects her advances in favor of his ideal woman — a blonde he saw in church — and the viewer is left to ponder whether Jean-Louis has exhibited strength of moral character or failure of nerve.
Rohmer’s two later film cycles, Comedies and Proverbs (1980–87) and Tales of the Four Seasons (1990–98), find the director continuing to explore the affinities — elective and otherwise — of young people, who are often to be found moping around coastal resorts in such works as Pauline at the Beach (1983) and Summer (1986). The latter film follows the precociously neurotic Delphine (Marie Riviere) as she wanders dejectedly from one picturesque vacation spot to another, until the beauty of nature itself — as captured by expressive shots of gently rustling hedgerows and trees bending in the wind — reduces her to tears. All of which belies Gene Hackman’s famous line in Night Moves, comparing a Rohmer film to watching paint dry. Anything but. It is a source of keen pleasure to view such visually rich and thoughtfully executed canvases: the works of a singular filmmaker who is still active today in his 80s. The opportunity to catch these rare prints on the big screen should not be missed.
THE TALES OF ERIC ROHMER | Los Angeles County Museum of Art | Through Sept. 27 | www.lacma.org