Eric Rohmer, an often overlooked member of the French New Wave, is a filmmaker who achieved a rare consistency of both theme and style in his work. Produced over four decades, he created an instantly recognisable filmography. Rohmer’s work was more interested in small gestures and glances than melodramatic actions. His series’ and stand-alone features were funny, poignant, and full of compassion.
A lot has been made of Rohmer as a recluse, or enigma (adopting various names throughout his life). It’s arguably his gentle touch and minimalist approach to representing ordinary lives, that reveals more of the human condition than other artists spend their entire lives trying to achieve through melodrama and spectacle. Although never really a complete recluse, he insisted he kept a low profile so he could shoot quickly and cheaply on location (one of many reasons why he is an inspiration). That said, Rohmer did attend the New York premiere of one of his films wearing a fake moustache, and his mother, Mathilde, supposedly died without ever knowing that he was a famous film director.
After the war, Rohmer become a freelance journalist. He prized literature over film, but quickly warmed to the cinema and frequented the Cinémathèque Française and started reviewing each film he saw, once he befriended othe regulars, such as Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol and Jacques Rivette (the other masters of the French New Wave). Rohmer was at first, best known as a writer for Cahiers du Cinéma (look it up if you’re unfamiliar). Unlike the younger, more iconoclastic colleagues at Cahiers, Rohmer made cases for filmmakers like F.W. Murnau, Jean Renoir and Robert Bresson. He became editor of the publication in 1956, retaining the post until 1963. During this time he teamed with Chabrol on a key study of Alfred Hitchcock, and started making shorts that demonstrated the ‘caméra stylo’ technique of using the camera like a pen.
Once he caught the filmmaking bug, Rohmer made short films with borrowed equipment, and continued to rely on a little help from his friends (including Godard and Chabrol) for the rest of the decade. Something that blighted the career of Rohmer was his struggle to find an audience. He was largely ignored, or overshadowed by other members of the French New Wave (namely Godard and Truffaut) throughout his career, and was more at home making small-screen studies of favourite writers and filmmakers, until 1966 when he finally found his voice.
Rohmer is best known for the three film series he produced between 1963 and 1998. Originally intended as novels, the stories in his first series – ‘Six Moral Tales’ – were inspired by F.W Murnau’s ‘Sunrise’ (1927), and focused simply on a man meeting a woman at the very moment when he is about to commit himself to someone else. True to Rohmer’s form, an intricate little story could be wove from that smallest of moments. It was Rohmer’s intention to “portray in film what seemed most alien to the medium, to express feelings buried deep in our consciousness”. Through this goal, his conversational style was born, becoming his forte.
It wasn’t until 1966, with ‘La Collectionneuse’ that Rohmer enjoyed commercial success and, having received two Oscar nominations for ‘My Night with Maud’ (1969), further critical acclaim followed for ‘Claire’s Knee’ (1970) and Love in the Afternoon (1972). Rohmer once stated, “What interests me, is to show how someone’s imagination works”, and the realisation that obsession can replace reality enveloped his second series – the Comedies and Proverbs including ‘The Aviator’s Wife’ (1980), ‘Pauline at the Beach’ (1982), and ‘The Green Ray’ (1986) – three of his greatest works.
Nothing was ever unnecessary in a Rohmer film – his films may have been natural and ambiguous, but he put his (often non-professional) actors through intense rehearsals and altered the script as ideas arose. On location, he shot in sequence, according to weather and the time of day, and worked quickly (two or three takes) with a tiny crew.
Rohmer restricted camera movements and close-ups, as he prioritised thoughts over actions. The focus invariably fell on the sensation of being alive, rather than sensationalist conflicts. Consequently, his emotionally vulnerable characters make big decisions about love affairs, careers, and holidays. They fret, make mistakes, regret and reach conclusions, as desire collides with reality, morality, and common sense. In other words, Rohmer made films about human beings not movie characters.