Posted in: Essays

Eric Rohmer (1920-2010)

Eric Rohmer
Eric Rohmer

Watching an Eric Rohmer film was famously described by Harry Moseby, the Gene Hackman character in Arthur Penn’s Night Moves, (1975) (in a line quoted in both Rohmer’s Wikipedia entry and his New York Times obituary), as “like watching paint dry.” It’s my favorite movie line about a film-maker, and—along with de Niro’s bounty-hunter in Midnight Run (1988) telling Charles Grodin’s garrulously thieving accountant “I got just two words to say to you: ‘shut the fuck up’”—one of my favorite post-Mitchum tough-guy movie lines. Part of the fun is that it’s so incongruous to have Rohmer’s name come out of the mouth of an American movie tough guy, played by an actor whose roots in the action cinema include parts in Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and became a star portraying iconic cop and francophobe extraordinaire Popeye Doyle in The French Connection (1971). Crime fiction and its creatures were virtual touchstones for Rohmer’s fellow New Wavers: Godard (Breathless, 1959), Truffaut (Shoot the Piano Player, 1960), and Chabrol (from long before he adapted Patricia Highsmith’s The Cry of the Owl, 1979); heck, even Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974) has a murder mystery. But Rohmer, after a debut feature set on the down-and-out (if not quite mean) streets of Paris in The Sign of the Lion (1959), mostly placed his characters in a resolutely unthreatening world, for the most part in settings that are sunny, cheery, and comfortably bourgeois.

Making Rohmer’s world even less congenial to the laconic Hackman character is its pervasive logorrhea: Rohmer’s characters talk, and they talk, and they talk, long enough for several coats of paint to dry in all the rooms of all of their homes and vacation houses. It can be quite exasperating, particularly when the characters wallow in apparent self-absorption (not much leavened by self-awareness, something present in inverse proportion to verbosity). So it’s easy to sympathize with Harry (even before we learn his wife is doing some après-Rohmer extra-marital trysting). Even for the non-Harrys among us, Rohmer requires patience and a tolerance for slow spots if not quite a fondness for stasis. But when the best of his films reach their end, (that is, when the characters finish talking), the denouements often put things into new and surprising, sometimes exhilarating, perspectives amply rewarding the audience’s patience.

Rohmer worked continuously, albeit in fits and starts, after Lion in 1959, when the New Wave was just getting started. Lion was not a commercial success, (it’s tempting to think of his later works as inverting the first film’s formula), and his next feature wasn’t until 1967. In the early sixties, he made two shorts as the first two installments of his first film cycle: Six Moral Tales. The remaining Moral Tales were released between 1967 and 1972; he made period pieces (never described as linked) to finish the 1970s. He completed a second cycle of related films, six Comedies and Proverbs during the 1980s, and his third cycle, Tales of Four Seasons in the 90s. Each cycle produced a masterpiece: My Night at Maud’s (1969) from the Moral Tales, Le Rayon Vert (Summer; for reasons you may soon infer, I prefer the French title) (1986) from Comedies and Proverbs, and, the Seasons cycle’s, A Tale of Autumn (1998), when he was nearly 80.

Le Rayon Vert
Le Rayon Vert

My favorite moment in Rohmer comes at the end of Le Rayon Vert, (literally The Green Ray), the title referring to a phenomenon that sometimes appears at the very end of summer sunsets and supposedly brings good luck. This one appears to the film’s frazzled central character, who has been earnestly struggling through the film to get comfortable in her physical and social setting, and in her own identity; most painfully, for a Rohmer character, she has also been struggling to make herself understood, to find words to explain herself satisfactorily during the film’s myriad conversations. It has been getting harder to avoid viewing her as a self-absorbed ninny, so obsessive, perfectionist, judgmental, and—insofar as Rohmer allows for such things—abrasive that she brings on her social unease. But then, when her earnest hope to see the green ray is finally realized, the effect is almost magical, and she inexplicably achieves what Catholics might call a state of grace; the ray’s appearance provides a tangible, objective reflection and validation of the strength and sincerity of her desire to see it. It doesn’t do much for her self-awareness, bringing nothing like the kind of epiphany that we typically expect to accompany transcendent moments. But in Rohmer, a moment of enchantment and vindication will suffice.

The moment is only slightly less cathartic for the audience, leading us to take another look and give another thought, to what we have been seeing and how we have been responding to it. And we finally, inexplicably, succumb, warming to a character we have all along been wanting to like.

The Aviator’s Wife (1980) works a variation that is less transcendent, but easier to explain. Two characters have been following another, and as—naturally—they talk, have been building a charming and not implausible narrative to explain what they are seeing. But a series of mistaken assumptions make nearly every part of their narrative wrong, and when this becomes clear, it forces us to go back, and reframe what we have been seeing, in an object lesson both in how to watch a movie and on the pitfalls of mistaken assumptions and unreliable narrators. Rohmer’s characters are so attractive and personable, such good talkers, widely-read, glib, engaged, often articulate, that it can take a while to recognize them as self-deceiving and unreliable, even, in some cases, full of shit. And Rohmer abets the process by largely letting them speak for themselves, with little by way of directorial editorializing, letting his endings bring things into focus.

Claires Knee
Claire's Knee

I rather dimly recall Moral Tale Claire’s Knee (1970) as an illustration: a young adult male, supposedly in a committed relationship, gets the silly notion that if he touches a winsomely charming young girl’s knee, magically romantic things will happen. After much postulating and posturing, wondering whether he dares to touch a knee [to eat a peach?] and ponders what will happen if he does, the conceit inflates into something like an obsession. Then when he does manage to touch the magic knee… nothing much happens. This is not a bad thing: he is an adult, at least chronologically, and she is not. Given the daffiness of the knee obsession, the anti-climax serves to illustrate how much self-dramatizing has been going on and how little, after all, has been at stake. And that seems to be the rather placid and vaguely reassuring point. For Rohmer’s characters, self-acceptance obviates a need for self-awareness.

A more compelling variation occurs in an earlier Moral Tale: My Night at Maud’s. The central character, an earnest and erstwhile man of “faith”—a term doing multiple duty here: he is a practicing Catholic, views himself as being in a committed relationship (with a “dream woman” he has seen once on the street but, as of the night in question, never met), and sees his fidelity to the “relationship” being tested during his night with Maud. Maud is one of Rohmer’s most attractive characters, truly a dream of a woman: vibrant and intelligent, engaged and engaging, attractive and sexy. She can challenge and stimulate him intellectually and morally. They pass a night together in her apartment, sharing lively and intimate conversation and jockeying around her bed. He stays out, convincing himself that this shows his commitment to something “deeper”—more abstract and idealized, certainly, and undoubtedly safer, and more staid—than a one-night stand, or a relationship, with Maud. He never needs to acknowledge that he is too repressed—the film flinches from suggesting he is actually frightened—to respond to her sexually, and too stodgy, complacent and—despite his ability to engage in repartee with Maud for an evening—too dull to have any genuine appreciation for, or interest in, the riches she offers.

As this finally comes into focus, the slow pace and lack of action that so exasperated Harry Moseby turn out to be critical. What is remarkable is how little has actually happened, and how much time and how many words the characters have expended in achieving that result.

This makes Rohmer something of a miniaturist, patiently observing how things unfold so that minor shifts in focus, tone, and emphasis shed new light on what we see and how we understand it. His respect for, or empathy with, the characters almost makes him complicit in their self-involvement. The audience has to do some of the heavy lifting, through close observation, patience, and a willingness to draw inferences that Rohmer declines to make explicit. And maybe that explains why the “paint dry” line has endured and resonated. As paint dries, there are subtle shifts of texture and brightness and tone that culminate in something recognizably similar to what was applied, but often decisively different, richer and deeper and more satisfying. In any case, Rohmer would appreciate the paradox: the most famous and enduring line about a film maker defined by his characters’ endless conversations comes not out of the mouth of one of his characters’ but from another movie, where an American film detective is telling his wife why he won’t join her at a Rohmer movie.

© 2010 David Coursen

Ed. note: For more remembrances and tributes, visit the Eric Rohmer page at The Auteurs Daily.

And as a side trip, check out Jim Emerson’s piece on his Scanners blog on how the famous quote was celebrated and transformed in the #nightmoves meme.