Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Eric Rohmer 1920-2010

In 1978 when we were visiting Paris for just the second time we found ourselves sitting in a plush private theatre next to a young woman who had also been invited along to a screening of Alan Rudolph’s Remember My Name by our mutual friend Pierre Rissient. The producer of the film Robert Altman was in attendance.

At the end of the screening Pierre was invited by Altman to join him for dinner and we three of us found ourselves looking for somewhere to eat. Since then Mary Stephen, Karen and I have remained firm friends, our paths crossing in all sorts of places, Paris mostly, but others as well. Mary went on to make films herself, including her beautiful second feature Justocoeur (1980) which I invited to the 1981 Melbourne Film Festival and more recently she has crossed continents in her career as a film editor.

Mary has had little luck in getting her many film-making projects going but not long after arriving in Paris she did have the good fortune to meet Eric Rohmer and he cast her in one of his films,The Aviator’s Wife/La femme de l’aviateur (1980), and gave her employment as assistant to his Chief Editor Cécile Décugis. (Among other things, Cécile had edited Godard’s classic Breathless/A bout de souffle.) The acquaintance made became, as with many of Rohmer’s collaborators, a firm and lasting friendship and in the early 90s, after Cécile’s retirement, Rohmer asked Mary to edit his film Conte d’hiver/A WinterTale She continued to be his editor until his last short film.

Most of Rohmer’s features were produced by the formidable Margaret Meneghoz, the head of the production and distribution company Les Films du Losange which Rohmer himself had founded with Barbet Schroder in the early 60s. However, his last three films The Lady and the Duke (2001), Triple agent (2005) and The Story of Astrée and Céladon (2007) and some shorts made in the intervening years were produced by the indefatigable Francoise Etchegaray through the smaller Compagnie Eric Rohmer. (For The Lady and the Duke, Francoise enlisted the support of Pierre Rissient and obtained finance from Pathe. Pierre Cottrell who had produced some of Rohmer’s early films was the Associate Producer.)

Eric, Françoise and Mary formed powerful bonds and it was somehow poetic that Rohmer died on Mary’s birthday thus, as she says, linking them forever. Rohmer’s bonds with Mary extended beyond her editing. As a classically trained musician she was integral in incorporating the music in Rohmer’s films and for a number of them she and Rohmer took a joint credit as composers of the score under the pseudonym of Sebastien Erms.

Before embarking on his film-making career, Rohmer was editor of Cahiers du Cinema during the years when it lead the world towards new perspectives on the American cinema and, by virtue of the fact that its key critics Rivette, Godard, Truffaut and Chabrol all went on to become and remain major figures in French film-making. Rohmer also established another name for himself as well, as the co-author with Claude Chabrol, of one of the first book length studies of a major film-maker. Their study of Hitchcock is still quoted today and was a key step in taking consideration of Hitchcock’s work far beyond that of a mere master of suspense.

For many long time cinephiles the first experience of Rohmer’s cinema came in his Ma Nuit Chez Maud/My Night at Maud’s in 1969. Set in Clermont-Ferrand, the city closest to the exact centre of France, it told of a bachelor who commits himself to one beautiful girl, unbeknown to her, but is then tempted by the exotic free spirited Maud. After a long night of talk and tease and tantalising moments he drives away. For some it seemed the epitome of the kind of cerebral and sophisticated French cinema for which film festivals and art houses were invented.

Before his breakthrough with My Night at Maud’s, Rohmer had made two features and two dramatic shorts in the series of “Six moral tales” and an uncountable number of educational documentaries. On the latter he learned the craft of his film-making, absorbing the one shot/one meaning narrative methods of Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock, thus seeming to arrive in the late fifties as a fully prepared film-maker.

After My Night at Maud’s Rohmer completed his series of Moral Tales with the similarly successful Claire’s Knee (1970) and Love In The Afternoon (1972). In each of the tales, and in most of Rohmer’s work, there is a focus on an array of women who are strong, smart, beautiful, ever-fascinating, eternally tempting and eternally wise. To play these characters Rohmer discovered a host of extraordinary actresses, all of them beautiful in ways beyond classical good looks, all expressive, aware, lively and capable of delivering conversation about moral matters with an exactitude and conviction that produced a seeming instant truth. For all his films’ apparent simplicities, Rohmer’s characters always rang true and his women were an eternal life force. The actresses Beatrice Romand, Arielle Dombasle, Marie Riviere and Anne Tesseydre among many (David Thomson estimates thirty to forty) have assumed luminous places in the memory thanks to Rohmer’s cinema.

In the mid-70s Rohmer embarked on a planned series of adaptations of classical literature, but after two films Die Marquise von O (1976) and Perceval le Gallois (1978), both of which flopped, Rohmer returned to his metier with two more series, the first being ‘Comedies and Proverbes” made between 1980 and 1987 and then what seems his finest work, the four films which comprise the Tales of the Four Seasons. Much of the focus of all of them was on the misunderstandings of young people in love. The contradictions between the mind the heart were never so clearly, often painfully, revealed. By this time in his life, Rohmer felt little need to travel outside Paris and rarely attended festival screenings or even the openings of his films. He preferred to hang out at near home, taking pleasure in the company of the many young Parisians who idolised his work.

Rohmer took the best part of a decade to complete the Tales of the Four Seasons. During that time he didn’t allow the grass to grow making any number of short films which allowed him, and his crew to experiment with new technologies and equipment. Many of the shorts were assembled into feature length films, most notably the delightful Les Rendez-vous de Paris (1995). This experimentation bore its finest fruit in Rohmer’s first digitally filmed feature The Lady and the Duke, a film set during the French Revolution in which all the backgrounds were taken from paintings by Jean-Baptiste Marot based on the etchings of the period and digitally edited to produce a picture of Paris of quite astounding exactitude.

We were in Paris at the time when Triple Agent premiered and its release was accompanied by an astonishing burst of activity – the cover stories of both Cahiers and Positif, lengthy interviews in both, a retrospective of almost superhuman completeness at the Cinematheque (it included most of the aforementioned educational documentaries and several sessions devoted to discussion of his art and craft) and adulatory reviews everywhere. Given this attention I was later astonished that most of the major Australian film festivals weren’t interested in screening that film, nor his last feature, but it’s never too late.

For those who might want to track down Rohmer on screen I can advise that a couple of years ago I was attending a film festival where Jacques Rivette’s 12 hour television series Out One was being screened. For various reasons I only managed to sample one episode. In it the actor Jean-Pierre Leaud was playing a man unable to speak who was conducting an interview with an expert on the novelist Honore de Balzac. The questions were being put by handwriting them on cards. Undeterred, the expert extemporised at great and sometimes droll length on Balzac’s themes and style. It was a performance to treasure and, as far as I recall, the only time I saw Eric Rohmer in a dramatic role on film. He made cameo appearances in many other movies, including Mary’s Justocoeur, but otherwise there is a wonderful edition of the French TV series Cineastes de Notre Temps directed by Janine Bazin and Andre S Labarthe devoted, with much love, to Rohmer and his work. Subtitled copies of it on DVD are in private circulation so it’s a matter of asking around among the cinephiles and collectors if you want to see it.

Eric Rohmer is not merely a key figure in the cinema, providing a rich legacy for review and contemplation. His work is also a testament to the uniqueness of French production which gives its key film-makers the freedom to make their own way and seek out new and personal ways of telling tales. Many follow in his footsteps though none has his unique combination of grace, serenity, affection for beautiful women, bemusement at love’s foibles and elegant simplicity of filming.

Eric Rohmer was born Maurice Scherer in 1920 and died aged 89 in Paris on January 11. For an intimate appreciation of him can I suggest that you look at the tributes on Mary’s Facebook page in which her sadness is lyrically expressed.

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