Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A Young Turk Passes

French film director Eric Rohmer died on January 11, at the age of 89. Rohmer was one of the Young Turks of the French New Wave, along with Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette and Claude Chabrol, the latter three still surviving.

He was such a private man, I was a bit surprised we even know he passed. He never spoke of his private life. His oldest and closest friends did not know his wife or the extent of his family. He felt that an important “purity of spirit” came from not being a celebrity, choosing to reach beyond himself only through his art. "Eric Rohmer" was a pseudonym, a mash-up, he had once said, of Erich von Stroheim and the writer of the Fu Manchu novels, Sax Rohmer, itself a pseudonym. To this day it is unclear whether Eric Rohmer’s real name was (as Dave Kehr notes in his NYT obituary) Jean-Marie Maurice Scherer or Maurice Henri Joseph Scherer. 

A big man, who Truffaut called “big momo,” Rohmer was a vigilant environmentalist—perhaps naturalist is a better term: his films are often set in gorgeous vistas of countryside or seaside; it is said that he never drove a car or in a taxi. He had no telephone in his home.

Rohmer was a decade older than his cohorts with whom he was most closely associated, but he conformed to the loose criteria for being among the Young Turks of the nouvelle vague: he was a writer for (and eventually the embattled editor of) the highly influential film journal that was the Turks' launching pad into the world of filmmaking, Cahiers du Cinema; he championed the centrality of the director to the film (what they dubbed la politique des auteurs); he had that almost inexplicable passion and appreciation for Hollywood studio directors (along with Chabrol, he wrote the first comprehensive book on a director, Alfred Hitchcock, which set the standard for what has become the critical exploration of the role of the director and the close investigation of their process and technique); he worked on the other young French directors’ films; and his own films maintained a constancy of theme and aesthetics—very talky, very philosophical.Very still.

One of his themes, like the other Young Turks, was an obsession over women. What do we make of them? They are, as seen through his (their) eyes, both magical and man’s temptation (and ruin). At the very least, they are unknowable.
Rohmer's detractors (of which there are many) call his films tedious and excruciatingly slow paced, arty and tiresome, didactic (with dense blocks of high-brow chatter), with self-absorbed, apathetic characters.

That said, Rohmer's proponents (of which there are many including me) call his films philosophically fascinating, a revelation of the human soul, refreshingly un-commercial (although Rohmer considered himself a commercial director), with a simple, elegant aesthetic.  And always, we leave the theater with little to no conclusions about life or morality--his favorite topic. But we are thinking.
His most accessible work in this country arguably is My Night at Maude’s, the 1970 film, which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay (up against 5 Easy Pieces, Joe, Love Story and the film to which they lost—Francis Ford Coppola’s screenplay of Patton). One of Rohmer's first cycle of films--called Six Moral Tales--it concerns itself with a devout catholic engineer, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, whose search for a soul mate places him at temptation’s door—actually his friend’s divorced friend Maude’s door.  

I tell my students that Rohmer is an acquired taste, and if you have that taste, and enjoy it, his work is most delectable.

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