News and Commentary – Bookshelf: The New Eric Rohmer Biography

How fascinating was the filmmaker known as Eric Rohmer?  When his mother died in 1970, she had no idea her son was a famous director.  As Rohmer’s own son explained, she “did not know about my father’s filmmaking activities, which she never for a minute suspected. She thought he was a schoolteacher.”  Forget about the why for a moment (Rohmer insists “it would have killed her” to know he had taken up such a disreputable profession)—the how is almost as remarkable.  A famous name but nevertheless an obsessively private man, Eric Rohmer was a pseudonym (for Maurice Schérer), and he did not appear in filmed interviews, documentaries or television shows until after his mother’s passing.

This is but one of many legends confirmed and stories uncovered by Antoine de Baecque and Noël Herpe in their recent biography of the filmmaker (who died in 2010 a few months shy of his ninetieth birthday), which has just been published in an English translation.  Impressively researched and supported by Rohmer’s own archives, it will very likely stand as the definitive overview of the director’s life.  But clocking in at 600 pages, although is it a pleasure to read I suspect that even most of the faithful followers of Mid Century Cinema are unlikely to pick it up soon, thus this brief report.    

Among the items that were news, at least to me (and I’ve seen all of his feature films but two and read many of his major essays) are that Bertrand Tavernier provided the voiceover for The Bakery Girl of Monceau, that Rohmer was, in the old days at least, quite friendly with the notorious Paul Gégauff (best known for working as a writer on numerous Claude Chabrol films), and that among the short films Rohmer made in the 1950s was an adaptation of Tolstoy’s novella, The Kreuzter Sonata

The real thrills of this book come in reading about the good old days, which started in the late 1940s with the simmering cauldron of the French New Wave—as Rohmer, along with François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette, Jean-Luc Goddard and Chabrol (among so many others) set about founding cinema clubs and establishing film journals, efforts which finally coalesced around the Cinémathèque Française (where the history of film, then still in its relative youth, was obsessively absorbed) and Cahiers du Cinéma (where battle lines were drawn and favorites championed).  Rohmer recalled these years with great fondness, a time when “We already knew each other so well, and we talked about films. The period of grace in which we all liked the same things in cinema had arrived.”  But of course, the argument was the thing, and de Baecque and Herpe effectively animate the story with their sketches of the participants (“When Rivette spoke, he was brusque, cutting, irrefutable, and unstoppable, and seemed to set a permanent standard of taste.”)

Compared to his colleagues, Rohmer’s success as a filmmaker came somewhat late; his debut effort, Le Signe du Lion (1962) was slow to reach the screen and struggled to find an audience. It seemed possible that the career of this house intellectual would take a different path than the others—often he found it necessary to take teaching jobs simply to make ends meet. With Chabrol, he wrote the first important book about Alfred Hitchcock, whose films at that time were largely dismissed as mass entertainments; from 1951 to 1956 Rohmer wrote forty articles for Cahiers (he would write scores of articles for a variety of other outlets as well), and served as the magazine’s Editor-in-Chief from 1957 to 1963.  Perhaps fortuitously, he was ousted from that position in something of a palace coup—one in which Rivette and Truffaut participated.  And so followed the film cycles for which Rohmer would become world-famous: most notably the “moral tales” of which My Night at Maud’s stands as a towering – and uniquely Rohmerian – achievement, “comedies and proverbs” (Pauline at the Beach and Full Moon in Paris are favorites here), and “tales of the four seasons.”   This final film cycle (which cemented Rohmer’s shift in loyalties from male to female protagonists) goes from strength to strength (well, maybe not counting the Summer one), with An Autumn Tale taking its place as Rohmer’s best film that is not Maud.  Also worth a mention are two late career stand-outs, the radically experimental Lady and the Duke – made when Rohmer was 80 – and his penultimate film, Triple Agent (2004), which he considered one of his best.  

It is welcome to read that Rohmer eventually mended fences with his old friends. He showed up for an extended cameo as a philosophy professor (no surprise there) in Rivette’s Out 1 (1971), and Truffaut stepped in to assure the financing that allowed the impossibly un-commercial My Night at Maud’s (1969) to go into production, as one producer after another either balked or backed out when they fully grasped Rohmer’s full intentions. De Baecque and Herpe call the film “his most austere work” – which is saying something – but it also became an international sensation, and one of the essential films of its era.

Ultimately, Rohmer made the films that he wanted to make. In 1990, in a valedictory statement to university students, he offered the following comments: “I think you know that I’m a filmmaker . . . perhaps you are less aware that I have taught here for the past twenty years.” Having “a second occupation,” he explained, made it more likely that he could “make films in complete freedom.”