Eric Rohmer Essay - Critical Essays

Rohmer, Eric


Eric Rohmer 1920–

(Pseudonym of Jean Marie Maurice Scherer) French director, screenwriter, television producer, and film critic.

Rohmer, a nouvelle vague (new wave) director, is best known for his contes moraux (Six Moral Tales), each of which develop the same situation: a man is tempted by an alluring female after deciding on moral grounds to avoid a sexual relationship. Rohmer says of these films: "What I call a conte moral is not a tale with a moral, but a story which deals less with what people do than with what is going on in their minds while they are doing it…."

In 1951, Rohmer became a critic for Les Cahiers du Cinéma, where he associated with the group of critics who became New Wave filmmakers, including Alain Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and Claude Chabrol. He also coauthored a book with Chabrol on Alfred Hitchcock. Before his venture into fictional cinema, Rohmer made a series of educational biographical films.

Rohmer's first full-length feature, Le Signe du lion, was a commercial failure. The first two contes, La Boulangere de Monceau and La Carrière de Suzanne were short subjects, followed by La Collectionneuse. While agreeing that Rohmer's filmmaking talent is evident, most critics found the characters too corrupt to elicit their sympathies.

Ma Nuit chez Maud met with instant international acclaim, however, and Rohmer emerged as a major figure in French film. Le Genou de Claire and L'Amour, L'Après-Midi also received critical acclaim for Rohmer's understated way of dealing with his familiar moral dilemmas. His protagonists, who fend off their seductresses with protestations of moral seriousness are, in Rohmer's eyes, merely complacent rather than moral. They engage in endless philosophical discussions that resolve little. The series served as well to demonstrate Rohmer's belief that the director is an author, making his films a form of visual fiction. Narration is used frequently, and literary images, such as the novels in Claire, abound, reinforcing Rohmer's concept.

His two recent films, Die Marquise von O … and Perceval, are period pieces, attempting to recreate a mood rather than make a statement. Though well received for the most part, they have not made the same impact as the contes moraux.

Louis Marcorelles

[The framework of Le Signe du Lion] is fragile, and it should not be judged only on its probability…. [The] film shows its originality in its ultra-realistic technique, its extreme objectivity in portraying the friction set up between a human being and society, his wearing down, his slow degradation. This is not a descriptive but a rigorously visual art. It calls for the complete participation of the viewer and his submission to what he sees. One is reminded of Albert Camus's novel L'Etranger, because the situation of the main character is equally extreme: he is outside society. In this case he is up against not words but stone, water, the sky; and with him we make an infinite number of discoveries: the walls of Paris, its monuments, the Seine. At certain moments the hidden camera has caught ordinary people passing by, living in their own worlds, knowing nothing of the misery of the man they pass in the street. Jess Hahn rummages in a litter bin; the sole of his shoe flaps; no one takes any notice … A cruel study, but never a sentimental one. Rohmer makes his points objectively: "ne prétendant que montrer, il nous dispense de la fraude de dire," as he once wrote himself about Buster Keaton. The dialogue is almost negligible; the interest is concentrated on human attitudes. It is a disquieting film…. (p. 85)

Louis Marcorelles, "Views of the New Wave," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1960 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 29, No. 2, Spring, 1960, pp. 84-5.∗

Penelope Houston

Rohmer's reluctance to dramatise gives Le Signe du Lion a sticky opening and a slightly muffed conclusion. But in the long central section the method not only justifies itself but creates the film. The maddening snatches of overheard conversations; the half-hearted attempts at stealing a bun or a packet of biscuits; the long passages in which the American simply sits, walks, fiddles with bits of string tying up a broken shoe, are not weighted or fictionalised…. They give the feeling of being filmed as they happen; and they happen to a man whose own reaction time is being slowed down by aimlessness as much as by starvation. The twist at the end … seems too tidy an ironic device for a film otherwise so resolutely (and sometimes amusingly) unstressed.

Penelope Houston, "'Le Signe du lion' and 'The Season for Love'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1966 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 35, No. 4, Autumn, 1966, p. 199.∗

Brian Murphy

La Collectionneuse is a very private kind of film—not only in that it is clearly the work of an individual artist (any Bergman or Fellini film is that) but also in that it is about very special, very private problems. The first-person narrator, Adrien,… is a latter-day dandy, a kind of existentialist Oscar Wilde, who wants to achieve an elegant nullity and to talk about it in charming paradoxes reminiscent of Wilde or even the earlier Disraeli. His friend Daniel … is an artist who believes that the most difficult and important thing to achieve is an (existential) void. They are both intellectuals tired of thought, tired of effort, weary of the luxury of work, and impatient for the demanding rigors of idleness….

In an odd way, the girl, Haydée, is already precisely what they want to be: she is 'natural', apparently uncomplicated and without thought….

The relative peculiarity and privacy of the subject and treatment are matched by the film's structure. Although the film has some superb acting of an off-beat sort, imaginative, delicate direction, and beautiful photography, one hardly notices its obvious cinematic qualities. It is more like an intimate novel than (the more public, more theatrical) film. The extensive use of the first-person narrator, for example, is obviously more fictive than cinematic…. Much of what Adrien says is irritatingly sophomoric, and occasionally his problems are merely absurd, not Absurd. But, on the whole, Adrien and the film are engaging—even absorbing. The characters may be bizarre, but they are effectively realised personalities; their problems may be, to say the least, uncommon, but they are argued with wit and rendered with vigour. The conflicts among the three principal characters are, perhaps, tantalizingly obscure and understated, but the girl Haydée is so carefully, if subtly, drawn that one can well sympathise with Adrien's ambivalent feelings about her enigmatic attractiveness. And, moreover, it isn't every day that one can see a film in which a character remarks that work is just an easy way of buying a clear conscience.

Brian Murphy, "'La Collectionneuse'" (© copyright Brian Murphy 1969; reprinted with permission), in Films and Filming, Vol. 15, No. 10, July, 1969, p. 42.

Calvin Green

Eric Rohmer's Ma Nuit chez Maud deals … explicitly with Jansenism; the characters discuss and analyze it in relation to modern Christianity, general moral attitudes, and the conduct of their own lives. Yet the film is by no means a turgid exegesis on the subject; the work is most interesting because of the way it reveals character and establishes relationships rather than for what is intellectualized. (p. 7)

Eric Rohmer's skill lies in his ability to lend aesthetic weight to visual understatement. He is sparse but not puritanical, since his use of black and white can be stunning in its unsensational candor…. (p. 9)

Rohmer is able to capture the sincerity and frankness of each gesture during conversations without arduous close-ups that call more attention to themselves than their subjects. His dialogue is neither cliched nor does it allude to pretensions beyond the limits of the film itself; his characters are not intellectuals and Rohmer is not trying to impress us with mannered profundities. Rohmer respects people and his story tells us this: he features them rather than Art….

[In] a low-keyed fashion, Rohmer's engineer has a simplistic grace all his own. His earnest conviction that God has made a "good" world, that chance … can and should have a virtuous resolution gives his life a religious design which raises him above the pain of loss and frustration. His faith is...

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Graham Petrie

[In Ma Nuit chez Maud] Rohmer presents Jean-Louis and Françoise quite straight forwardly as people for whom principles are genuinely important and adultery and infidelity really matter. The film is all of a piece: characters, setting, and camera style constantly reinforce and interact with each other, yet within this apparent uniformity Rohmer creates effects of great subtlety and depth. Despite the fact that the film centers round the long conversation in Maud's apartment, filmed largely in long-held, almost static shots, and that this scene is paralleled, though more briefly, by the later dialogue in Françoise's room, it never loses visual interest. Rohmer controls the rhythm of the film perfectly, making...

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Carlos Clarens

Just as the narrator is in pursuit of a woman who, momentarily, seems to elude him, events bring him in contact with another. And, regardless of the charm and persuasion of the second, he will reject her in favour of the first, even when he is not yet assured of her possession. Thus, Eric Rohmer defines the recurred theme of his filmed contes moraux….

Rohmer's aim is less to creiterary cinema than to enrich cinema with the techniques of literature, which accounts for the imprecise literary aura of his films. (p. 6)

[Le Signe du Lion] captures the intense physicality of a time and a place: Paris in the month of August, deserted by the natives and overrun by the...

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Richard Schickel

[The] details of the story, if one can so dignify the skeleton over which Rohmer has stretched his movie [My Night at Maud's], are of less consequence than the remarkable manner in which these ordinarily pretentious, faintly foolish, incredibly verbal people compel our attention—the shifting of a glance or of a position in a chair becomes an event as important as, say, a murder or a cavalry charge in an ordinary movie.

How soberly involved everyone is! How comic is the care with which they examine themselves and each other about their motives and the effect their small statements and actions are having! (p. 307)

Is there, in fact, an American producer who [like...

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Peter Cowie

At first glance, Ma Nuit chez Maud may appear intolerably stuffy, and removed from the realities of life in a French provincial town. La Collectionneuse, Eric Rohmer's other "conte morale" seen in this country, was altogether too much the work of an aesthete who rigorously eschewed any kind of emotional sympathy with his characters. But in Ma Nuit chez Maud we are scarcely aware of this intellectual standpoint. The film works simply because it lives up to its pretensions. It "cites" Pascal much as Bergman "cites" Mozart in Hour of the Wolf, but it is perfectly comprehensible to the viewer who is unfamiliar with the "Lettres Provinciales" or the "Pensées"….

Rohmer allows...

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Stanley Kauffmann

Again [in La Collectionneuse] Rohmer gives us a protagonist who becomes interested in a younger woman and ends up with an older woman to whom he was linked originally. Again passion is more examined and discussed than created. Rohmer is more interested in the effect of desire on thought and action than in the creation of heat….

He provides the extra dividend of all extraordinary film makers: the sense that an artist has made the medium his own, shaped it to his psyche and inquiries. In this case the tone is reflective and quiet—but only superficially quiet. (p. 55)

In Claire's Knee, a mature man's fancies about a nearly juvenile girl were distilled almost to...

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Carlos Clarens

Le Genou de Claire is a summer film … whose only overt timeliness … is the lack on heavy religious, or metaphysical, preoccupations…. (p. 122)

Under cover of banality, Rohmer deepens his subtleties, splits his archetypes or keeps them off-stage, allows secondary readings to come to the surface….

Except for Claire and her beau—from whom nothing is to be gleaned: what they say or think or feel exists merely to excite, provoke or seduce each other—Rohmer makes his people compulsive talkers; but this time the dialogue, witty and free of epigram as ever, takes on the dual function of alternately revealing and concealing the characters…. [The] more they explain...

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David Bromwich

[Rohmer's] subject has made him the master of what might be called the soft irony.

Unfortunately, his repertoire so far is narrowly circumscribed. His diapason is made of chords neither higher nor deeper than the soft ironic…. [In Chloe the ironies] turn to fluff, about to blow away…. [There is] the problem of style in Rohmer's films…. His movies … bear the same relation to the possibilities of cinema that closet drama bears to the possibilities of theater…. Still, the truth is that Rohmer's stories have not demanded anything beyond the means he uses, since every turn of a plot revolves around those small motions of grace in the eyes, the mouth, the voice of a character which might...

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William Johnson

In trying to build the struggle [between Chloe and Frédéric in Chloe in the Afternoon] to a crisis, Rohmer slips into the one big pitfall of Cartesianism—instead of mapping reality onto a set of mental constructs, he imposes constructs arbitrarily on reality. When Chloe tells Frédéric outright that she loves him and intends to have a baby by him, he surely has to react some way: break with her, make it with her and to hell with fantasy, or at least get worried; but Rohmer, preoccupied with the pattern of his approach to the crisis, lets Frédéric go smiling along the same as ever.

At this point, too, the contrivance in Chloe's character begins to show. Earlier, when Frédéric...

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Joan Mellen

Eric Rohmer's Contes Moraux examine the withering away of feeling and genuine sentiment in the life of contemporary man. People for Rohmer subvert their intellects, using ideas as substitutes for feelings, and often to deny them. Thus the intellect works against man's deepest interests and desires, hiding from him his true self as well as the means by which he could satisfy the needs of that self. (p. 147)

Rohmer's heroes are all of a distinct moral type. Although Jean-Louis of My Night At Maud's, an ascetic Catholic, seems very different from the ebullient Jerome of Claire's Knee and the self-centered pleasure-loving Adrien of Collectionneuse, the three are very similar....

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Peter Sourian

Rohmer takes Pascal's Pensées for his text. According to Pascal we meet our sense of the void with nausea, ennui, anxiety: "All our unhappiness stems from the fact that we are incapable of sitting quietly by ourselves in a room." (pp. 132-33)

[In Chloe in the Afternoon, Chloe is, for Frédéric] the inauthentic diversion from mortality and from eternity, as represented by his marriage and embodied by his children. For Frédéric, like many, fears the happiness of fulfillment; he tells us that he dreams madly of a life made of "first loves", that is to say—though he doesn't realize this—a life without death. In a stunning parade of impersonations, which Rohmer makes the most of...

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Pauline Kael

In an explanatory title, Rohmer informs viewers that he has taken only a single liberty with the story [Heinrich von Kleist's "The Marquise of O …": in the film, instead of raping the Marquise during the fighting at the citadel, the Russian Count rapes her afterward, when she has been given a sleeping potion. Rohmer has written that this alteration makes the story more believable for moviegoers. But it can't be an accident that he's taken out the central mad, impulsive action…. What's lost is not only the sense of the narrow experience of the virgin-hearted Marquise but Kleist's spirit, what made him an avant-gardist and a modern—his acceptance of the id released by the chaos of war. In the movie, since the rape...

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J. P. Stern

Although much of the dialogue [in "Die Marquise von O …"] is taken word for word from Kleist's story, sometimes transferred from reported to direct speech, the director has also made use of the rare device of projecting whole sentences from the original on the screen, in print, to emphasize turning points in the story, and above all to convey those thoughts and guesses at motivation—those contents of mind—which action alone cannot intimate. Although the director follows the text closely in the film's mood and images, it is as if his veneration for Kleist's idiosyncratic style would not be satisfied with interpretation by actors and cameraman—the printed word must still be the vehicle of the creator's...

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Harold Clurman

[The Marquise of O …] is a work of art so limpid and serene that one can hardly tell what it is about! Though there is no obscurity at all about the plot, the final impression created is not of a tale but of a mood or "music." The classic in this sense hides itself, it does not declare its point. It simply is….

Kleist both accepts and teases the moral standards of the time. Ever so gently set forth is the incalculability of human destiny and the childishness of our behavior in regard to it. What gives the picture its special quality is the sober beauty of every shot, movement, setting, costume, performance. There is hardly any emphasis of detail: every moment is complete in itself. If the...

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Stanley Kauffmann

The story [of The Marquise of O …] operates through the enclosure and reconciliation of contradictions: the Marquise's innocence, yet her pregnancy; her parents' belief in her, yet their doubt because of her condition; the Count's act of rescue, yet his act of ravishment….

These contradictions create irony as well as complexity; and if you then add the straightforwardness of style and the sense that both the style and the irony are pushing the whole toward the sources of moral perception, you have a forerunner of Kafka….

So there is an overarching contradiction in Kleist's novella: the paradox that through neoclassic means the beginnings of the modern age are becoming...

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John Simon

Eric Rohmer's film version of Heinrich von Kleist's 1808 novella, The Marquise of O …, is as intelligent and successful as such an undertaking can get….

There is no way for a filmmaker to convey the Pyrrhic victory over chaos of Kleist's utterance on screen, even if, like Rohmer, he wisely makes the film in German and follows the text with almost fanatical fidelity. The very fact of Kleist's obsessively indirect discourse, with the wonderfully alienating device of those conditionals and subjunctives its use in German requires, cannot be rendered on film; it has to be put into direct discourse and into the characters' mouths, thus conventionalizing, de-electrifying, and slowing down the...

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Robert Asahina

Based on Conte du Graal, Chrétien de Troyes' 12th-century Arthurian romance about Perceval's quest for the Holy Grail, [Perceval] exhibits the meticulous antihistoricism evident in Rohmer's The Marquise of O…. Once again, the director's intent is to strip away our preconceptions and present the work as it appeared to its original audience.

The problem with such an endeavor, of course, is that cinema is a 20th-century medium….

To counteract the modern inclination toward realism, he has set the movie on a sound stage with painted backdrops and artificial scenery; the highly stylized golden castles and silver trees give Perceval the look of an...

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[Perceval is] a visually delirious, aurally seductive, tutorally exposed, exactly performed film version of Chretien de Troyes' romance….

Perceval certainly is not a movie like Ivanhoe, or The Seventh Seal, or Lancelot du Lac. It's a shut-up-tight-indoors experience, so contoured and so dazzling it amounts to a venereal assault. It's exigent ecstatic fabulism. Unhappily, it is a masterpiece to which subtitling is almost ruinous. (p. 57)

If "perfect of its kind" needs explanation, or if the question that can never be unanswered nevertheless still pleases as much as ever it may torment, Perceval will illustrate and will seduce. (p. 58)...

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David Shapiro

Eric Rohmer has created a problematic Perceval, a rather intransigently autonomous work with many of the advantages of autonomy, and nonetheless a certain static delight in the Christology which is his topic. Rohmer has adapted the Chrétien de Troyes and maintained an almost didactically insistent rhyme-scheme throughout as part of the narration and dialogue. The sets are beautifully reduced, almost Kabuki versions of the real, as Rohmer insists on distancing us from any pathetic sense of mimesis. He is faithful to his form, committed, as Adorno has it, to the materiality of his art, and that paradoxically, is the political in Rohmer.

Perceval is "played" by a Buster Keatonish Fabrice...

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George Morris

[Eric Rohmer's Perceval is] unique in its virtual elimination of an intermediary, modern sensibility between the artist and the myth. Rohmer is so attuned to the virtues this story celebrates and the spirit it embodies that he transforms a potential curiosity into a movie at once immediate and vital. His oneness with this material erases a distance of eight centuries….

The result of Rohmer's labor of love is a film that evokes the spirit of the Middle Ages in every frame. Perceval unfolds like a Book of Hours miraculously sprung to life. The physical movements and positioning of the actors even resemble those still life figures from engravings of the period, with their tilting bodies,...

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