Tuesday, January 12, 2010


French filmmaker Eric Rohmer (1920-2010) has died, at age 89, and has been widely written about and eulogized, even by commentators who obviously have seen only a handful of his films. This article by Agnès Poirier, for instance, gets the biographical details correct, although she overemphasizes his contribution to the French Nouvelle Vague, calling him the movement’s “father,” when in fact Rohmer was neither revolutionary in his aesthetics, as was Godard, nor audacious in his film criticism, as was Truffaut—after all, Rohmer didn’t make his first film until he was almost 40 years old. She is no doubt correct, though, in her observation that Rohmer “always followed Rimbaud’s mantra: ‘One must be absolutely modern’,” but then the same also could be said of Godard and Truffaut. Rohmer’s first film that actually showed an active interest in exploring the lives of adventurous young moderns, La Collectionneuse (filmed late 1966, released 1967), was made when he was 46. Featuring Haydée Politoff (pictured left), Patrick Bauchau (right), his wife Mijanou Bardot, and painter Daniel Pommereulle, one would be hard-pressed to say his film unequivocally embraced the sexual mores (and, in one instance, drug use) of hip Parisian bohemians (at least as Rohmer saw them) of the 1960s. According to Sally Shafto (in her important monograph, The Zanzibar Films and the Dandies of May 1968, published 2000), Rohmer cast La Collectionneuse with individuals he perceived to be at the forefront of the “Sixties Generation,” in their behavior, attitude, and sensibility. A revealing fact is that Rohmer refused to cast the painter Frédéric Pardo in the film because he thought his hair was too long.

The first film by Rohmer I actually saw in a movie theater was The Marquise of O (1976), which I found utterly fascinating and have always found to be his best film. Ironically, although it is perhaps his most feted film behind My Night at Maud’s (1969)—which I didn’t see until its home video incarnation well over two decades after it’s release—it’s typically neglected in favor of the films that comprise the Six Moral Tales, privileged by critics, I suspect, because they themselves were ambivalent about the provocative sexual lives and sensibilities of young people in the 60s. Although compared by some to a painter, it was actually Robert Bresson—who died just over ten years ago, in December 1999—who’d studied to be a painter, and with whom Rohmer most closely identified, even if Bresson was the better filmmaker. As a consequence of his death, many writers have written rhapsodically about his films, but it seems strange to me that they ignore what was his most significant contribution to film studies—the formation of the auteur theory. For it was the book on Alfred Hitchcock that he co-authored with Claude Chabrol, titled simply Hitchcock and published in 1957 soon after the release of Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), that not only bolstered Hitchcock’s critical reputation but was a foundational work of auteur criticism—but not the Nouvelle Vague (they are not synonyms). Hence I would like to see Rohmer’s contribution to the formation of the auteur theory acknowledged every bit as much as his films, for in a very real sense he made the important contribution of making modern film studies thinkable in the first place.

I have found this article by Dave Kehr to be the most balanced of the many obituaries to be found on the web.

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