The Comforts of Home

Twenty-four hours of watching paint dry with Eric Rohmer

The wisest words ever written about the now-80-year-old French writer-director Eric Rohmer--currently the subject of a 14-film retrospective at Oak Street Cinema--came from screenwriter Alan Sharp and critic Pauline Kael. Sharp issued a notorious, quoted-ever-after critique of Rohmer via the world-weary private dick played by Gene Hackman in the 1975 noir Night Moves: Asked if he had ever seen one of Rohmer's movies, Hackman's character replies, "I saw a Rohmer movie once. It was kind of like watching paint dry." Of Rohmer's Le beau mariage, Kael--the critic who gets it right about Rohmer more often than any other--wrote, "Seriocomic triviality has become Rohmer's specialty. His sensibility would be easier to take if he'd stop directing to a metronome."

Alas, those two remarks leave little more to say about this exemplar of Gallic charm, playfulness, and sparkling conversation. But since his entire life's work is being put under a magnifying glass in our midst, I feel compelled to classify the microbes in Rohmer's corpus--and diagnose a disease. But first a little history. Forty years ago, appreciation of the European art film was, for Americans, a badge of cool, proof of membership in the hipoisie. (Sharp made his PI a Rohmer viewer to show his countercultural credentials; earlier, Jules Feiffer drew cartoons of East Village "pseuds" putting the make on beatnik chicks by dragging them to 8-1/2.) Sixties upheaval was given a cinematic face in America through Godard's Pop Art placards, Polanski's clammy psychodramas, and Buñuel's serial abuse of Catherine Deneuve. In the Seventies the counterpoint to American cinema's own style of grit was the brutality of Fassbinder and late-period Bergman--and, again, Buñuel.

Landmark cinema: Françoise Fabian and Jean-Louis Trintignant in My Night at Maud's
Landmark cinema: Françoise Fabian and Jean-Louis Trintignant in My Night at Maud's

And then the Eighties arrived, and with them a different sort of "European art film," signaled by the poor kiddies of My Life as a Dog; the vicar indulging in a wicked sip of vin ordinaire in Babette's Feast; the beaming boy and the raffish codger of the sickly sweet Cinema Paradiso. In short, this was cinema as wine-tasting class--as gelato, as Vivaldi, as NPR, as enabler of bourgeois tranquillity. (With all due respect to certain Uptown institutions, it's a tradition known to those in my circle as "the Landmark Theatres Experience.") The essence of what Vladimir Nabokov called poshlost, or middlebrow kitsch, movies of this sort are designed to ratify the viewer's culture and income level; they leave him feeling more respectable than he was before; they soothe and flatter rather than inflame or disturb. And, to a large degree, we have Rohmer to thank for them. As surely as George Lucas orchestrated the death of the American studio movie, poshlost maestro Rohmer orchestrated the death of the European art film.

Seen together, Rohmer's collected works form a brackish haze around a world of tinkly female voices, feet on gravel, and flashbacks to the sort of boredom you may not have experienced since staring at your grandma's doilies at the age of eight. Situations are endlessly replayed: a horny suitor spending the night in an armchair rather than sharing a beloved's bed, in "Suzanne's Career" and Ma nuit chez Maud; a jealous woman hysterically fleeing a calm conversation in Claire's Knee and Summer. Sometimes entire plots--if one can call Rohmer's attempted love gambits plots--are recycled. (A Summer's Tale plays like a gender-flipped remake of Summer.) There's often a woman who rambles on about the philosophy of love until the real thing hits her like a ton of bricks. There's often a good-looking roué who gets his in the end. And there's usually an ending in which the right couple gets together, tears are wiped, and the director's ironic use of silence, followed by a little birdsong and car noise, serves as a final "ta-da!"--when the Mendelssohn Wedding March would have worked just as well.

Except for Ma nuit chez Maud, which is outfitted with some heavy-duty conversation about Pascal and Jansenism, Rohmer's movies never feature characters discussing politics, books, music, movies, money, or anything but their own subjective takes on l'amour. There's a peculiar sort of French bourgeois linguistic self-indulgence here, one that gives every lycée student the sound of a patronizing museum docent lecturing a group of prim and proper ladies. Much as he gingerly tweaks its nose, Rohmer gives full vent to such overarticulation. And the visual style follows suit, with the camera rolling and rolling while the prattle flows on and on.

Rohmer partisans argue that the absence of music, editing, camera movement, and even rudimentary staging is deliberate--so anti-cinematic that it's cinematic. (These are the same people who think the ineptitude of late-period Charles Chaplin films is a Brechtian device.) But this claim is downright silly: Just ask anyone who has endured a true Rohmerian trial by fire, such as the master's adaptation of Kleist's The Marquise of O, staged like the outdoor dramas one sees in national parks. Then there's the claim that Rohmer's literary style owes to the romantic comedies of Marivaux and Shakespeare. Hmmm. In place of a Rosalind or Viola in a Rohmer movie is an indulgently treated, dingbatty motormouth, a Frenchified Gracie Allen: no strength, no brains, no hidden reserves, just bavardage with a breaking heart.

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