The Comforts of Home
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.
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.
Rohmer's best movie--1970's La collectionneuse (screening Wednesday and Thursday, June 13 and 14, at 9:15 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., respectively)--is also his nastiest. I'd like to think this is not a coincidence. In it, a purchaser of art objects for collectors--a sort of glorified flea-market middleman--rooms with a buddy in a country house. The two find themselves sharing a room with a blank, sullen teenage girl who somehow--it's hard to describe why--possesses a sexual power that suggests a hydrogen bomb held in the hands of a baby. As the hero tries to get next to her without getting emotionally scorched, he narrates his ploys in would-be-sleek voiceover. The whole thing has the tense feel of watching chest-puffing characters try to avoid the dreadful accidents that they know are zooming right toward them. And Rohmer's penetration of the protagonist's preening makes this the best movie ever made about the male sexual pretensions of the "liberated" era.
In Rohmer's most celebrated film, 1971's Claire's Knee (Friday, June 15 at 9:30 p.m., and Saturday, June 16 at 7:30 p.m.), a self-possessed, 40-ish man of the world, about to marry, spends his summer by the seaside, where (does this sound familiar?) he lustfully fixates on a wised-up nymphet who won't have him. Unsated, his desire moves on to her blank-faced sister--or, rather, to the sister's lithe knee. The movie's seaside locations are so sumptuously sensual they're almost pornographic; they give the sense that a Hitchcockian mayhem may be on the verge of erupting. It isn't, but the climax of Claire's Knee does tell a different story than the rest of this cool, blithe little picture--an ominous, O. Henryish one about the price of unfulfilled male desire. Still, one can't help feeling perturbed by scenes in which males nod in ironic agreement as their little cherry pies intone earnestly, "Really, I'm a very old soul." Rohmer even has a menopausal (and, hence, genially washed-up) female eyeing the aging rake's frustrations and having a classically Gallic laugh at the human comedy of it all. And the ending--in which the man's cruelty is undone by the innocence of youth--is seriously creepy, like a self-assuring entry in Humbert Humbert's journal.
Rohmer beginners looking for painless one-stop shopping could do worse than his comparatively rough-and-ready short from 1963, "Suzanne's Career" (a.k.a. "Moral Tales II," screening with another short on Friday and Saturday at 9:30 p.m., and on Saturday at 5:30 p.m.), the unblinking account of a kid's obsession with--and torment of--a homely young woman who bankrupts herself on the hero and his pseudo-Casanova buddy. When Rohmer wrote unreliable, self-deceiving narrators like this one, and the protagonist of La collectionneuse, his movies had tension, and the potential for real emotional injury. "Suzanne's Career" ends with an appraisal that's uncharacteristic of the Rohmer to come: "Her total lack of dignity justified the scorn I heaped on her looks and behavior. [But] this girl for whom I'd managed to feel a kind of shameful pity was beating us all to the finish line." The hero's awareness of his errors at the end of this short isn't "charming"--it's sobering. Like the best art, "Suzanne's Career" sends you into a tailspin of self-reflection.
But then what? Aside from the tantalizing but copout-laden Chloe in the Afternoon (Friday, June 22 at 9:30 p.m., and Saturday, June 23 at 7:30 p.m.), there isn't much. Stung by the commercial failure of his late-Seventies period pieces The Marquise of O and Perceval, Rohmer retreated into the realm of smut swaddled in wisdom: He called a series of movies "Comedies and Proverbs," and proverbial is the word for it. Where other male directors fetishize their actresses, Rohmer ornaments them, forcing his pert virgins into holier-than-thou postures. The Izod-clad naiads in The Aviator's Wife and Pauline at the Beach are so straight-laced, they're weirdly unreal, like the idealized concoction of some eerily becalmed Balthus.
Not that the director's core audience cares: They're there for that tone of civilized pleasure. Seeing Rohmer movies years ago at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in New York, I used to marvel at all the happy, elderly faces around me, full of deep smiles and fluttering eyelids. (The movie and the air conditioning were one.) Rohmer's willful obliviousness to the agenda of his New Wave peers, and to the vagaries of his own time and place, is so extreme that it's almost admirable. Indeed, some see in him a parallel to the great French composer Olivier Messiaen: an artisan from another century plunked down into this one, with no apologies and no regrets. I'd be willing to buy that analogy if the auteur's work weren't so obliging, so conventional, so sly in tucking complacency beneath a "rigorous" exterior. Rohmer began his career by probing the minds of deluded old men who thanked heaven for little girls. Then he became what he beheld.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.