The cinema of Rohmer
Éric Rohmer (1920-2010), the nom de plume of Jean-Marie Maurice Schérer, was one of the main exponents of the Nouvelle Vague, the “new wave” of French cinema, born at the end of the 1950s to promote a cinema more faithful to reality and life.
Like the other founders of the movement – Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette and Claude Chabrol – Rohmer collaborated with André Bazin on the editorial staff of Cahiers du Cinéma, France’s most prestigious film magazine, before devoting himself to directing.
The policy pursued by the promoters of the Nouvelle Vague was that the director’s role was not limited to the technical task of creating a product attractive to the general public. Instead, the director was to be a father-author (auteur) of a work that expresses a personal poetic vision. In line with this Rohmer also wrote the screenplays for his films. His works have an easily recognizable style and he continues to inspire many contemporary filmmakers.
What are the distinctive elements of Rohmer’s cinema that can inspire today’s filmmakers? The question was asked (indirectly) by Romania’s Transylvania International Film Festival (TIFF), the country’s main feature film festival held in Cluj-Napoca from July 23 to August 1, 2021. TIFF devoted its 20th festival to a retrospective on Rohmer, to the delight of cinephiles from all over the world who had gathered in the heart of Transylvania. For cinema professionals and amateurs alike, it was an opportunity to look to the future on the shoulders of a giant and to rediscover an auteur on whom to draw for the renewal of contemporary cinema.
The films selected by the festival allowed the focus to fall on the poetics of the French director: a hymn to human existence accepted in its complexity and elusiveness. The films shown at the TIFF showed the principal focus of Rohmer’s cinema to be daily life, presented without artifice or cosmetics. The French director’s cinema does not invite us to escape from reality, but rather to discover it, to let ourselves be surprised by its beauty, and to grasp what in everyday life passes under the sleepy eye of habit.
Rohmer’s plain style features long fixed shots and linear editing to induce the eye to linger on the faces and gestures of the protagonists, on the context in which they live and on their hesitant discussions. The viewers almost forget about the mediation of the camera; before them life flows in its simplicity, intertwined with its big questions.
The slow pace is a provocation. After all, who today has the patience to stop, to listen, to observe, to let themselves be questioned by the apparent naivety of the protagonists, to rediscover – together with the characters of his films – the mysterious and elusive fascination of human relationships?
As with any beauty that is not dazzling, any truth that requires a journey to be made, Rohmer’s cinema demands patience. His films are an invitation to slow down as an opportunity to descend into depth, to re-discover without haste something of ourselves and our relationships in the lives of the characters.
It is precisely the theme of relationships, and especially of desire and love, that is central to his films. Very long dialogues are a main feature of Rohmer’s cinema and in the course of these, the characters get to know each other, court each other, try to understand each other and the world in which they dance and move unsteadily, sometimes lightly, sometimes with difficulty. The camera follows the characters as they move from place to place. The character of Louise in Full Moon in Paris (1984) struggles to move between the house she shares with her boyfriend and a corner-shelter in the heart of Paris, while Félicie in A Tale of Winter (1991) moves indecisively between the homes of the two men she would like to choose between, and the home of her mother.
Attention to locale is another characteristic of the French director’s films. Far from being reduced to a simple frame, they play a significant role in his films. They accompany the events (interior and exterior) of the characters and bring their vicissitudes into focus.
In The Green Ray (1986), Delphine feverishly travels between the city, the sea and the mountains, searching for a holiday place where she can feel at home but it seems that nowhere and with no person can she feel truly at ease.
The beach and the sea, in A Summer’s Tale (1996), evoke an opening of horizons and possibilities in which the young protagonist is unable to find his bearings. Restless and indecisive, he strolls aimlessly and incessantly, with sudden changes of direction, together with three girls, among whom he is unable to choose as a partner.
Choice is another fundamental theme of Rohmer’s cinema, along with a veiled optimism about life. In The Green Ray, Delphine’s inability to choose her “life partner” from among the people in her environment is resolved by an unexpected encounter with beauty and authenticity. Similarly, in A Tale of Winter, Félicie’s naive hope of finding the great love of her youth – lost through a misunderstanding – takes shape in an unpredictable way. Chance, or providence, shuffles the cards to create encounters or dispel illusions. In A Tale of Autumn (1998) Isabelle masterfully orchestrates the meeting of her lonely and disillusioned friend Magali with a potential future partner, while a happy ending is just around the corner.
In Rohmer’s cinema, reality, which is exposed in long dialogues, always surprises and surpasses the expectations of his characters. In My Night at Maud’s (1969), for example, the verbal confrontation of the protagonists – in which morality and faith are intertwined – causes them to come to terms with the complexity of life and the situations in which the three characters of the film find themselves.
Rohmer and the filmmakers of today
Rohmer’s poetics open up horizons that are always current. So what can the French director say to those who “live” cinema today? In the context of the TIFF, we put this question to Ion Indolean, film critic and young Romanian director who presented the film Toni & Prietenii Săi (“Toni and His Friends”) in competition at the festival.
In the last few years there has been much talk about the “new wave of Romanian cinema” (Noul Val Românesc), often associated with the French Nouvelle Vague due to its innovative spirit and break with the previous national cinematography. Although it is difficult to unite very different films under a single label, it is interesting to observe how, since the early 2000s, a new generation of Romanian directors has triumphed at international festivals with films produced with limited budgets that stand out for their minimalist realism. With a dry and pared-down style, the films of the “new wave” present a fresco of Romanian reality today and in the recent past, highlighting its difficulties and contradictions. As with any work of art, the particularity of the themes and situations depicted has a universal echo. The films are of great interest and topicality well beyond the country’s borders.
A conversation with Ion Indolean
Having briefly clarified the context in which those who make films in Romania work, we enter into conversation with Ion Indolean.
What do you consider to be the most significant and innovative elements of Rohmer’s cinematography?
I think the most interesting aspect of Rohmer’s filmmaking is the way he chooses to improvise during the shoot. There’s a search for authenticity in his films, which is something that some directors of his generation didn’t achieve as effectively. In Rohmer’s films the action seems to be constructed by chance, although I’m sure he always had it clear in his mind where he wanted to take his stories. It is extremely difficult for a director to give the feeling that his film has constructed itself, so to speak. This aspect seems to me the most innovative aspect of his filmmaking. I could call it the “search for the ineffable,” for those moments that happen without having been thought out beforehand.
In your opinion, which contemporary director has been most influenced by Rohmer’s cinematography and in what way?
It’s difficult to say. One could guess from his way of working that a director has been inspired by the work of some masters, but it is not certain. Probably the only director who I could say with certainty was inspired by the “Rohmer method” is Cristi Puiu, one of the greatest interpreters of contemporary Romanian cinema. At one point, a sequence of the film Trei Exerciții de Interpretare (“Three Exercises of Interpretation”) says: “The sun comes out and goes in through the clouds,” which made me very happy, because this is, without meaning to be, a sort of homage to Rohmer.
How has Rohmer influenced you in the films you’ve made?
I think he has influenced me directly and indirectly. Directly, by the fact that some of his films have raised significant questions in me and are important starting points for my work. For example, they prompted me to ask myself what I could borrow from him, how I would choose to artistically resolve a certain narrative moment, or how to construct a story that doesn’t seem to have been written before.
On the other hand, he has influenced me indirectly through Cristi Puiu, whom I followed closely. Puiu often refers to Rohmer’s films and the way he works. There is always a feeling of freshness in Rohmer’s films, a feeling that Puiu picks up and takes in another direction. In my thesis I dealt with the previously mentioned Puiu film Trei Exerciții de Interpretare, which he made in France as part of an acting workshop. There, Puiu several times made direct reference to Rohmer. I have already mentioned the sequence in which the sun enters and leaves by the clouds in such a way that the light changes regardless of Puiu’s intention. The Romanian director didn’t set aside this take; in fact he was happy that something surprising happened during the shoot.
As far as I’m concerned, I always try to find people to play themselves, whether they are professional actors or amateurs. I don’t necessarily want ad hoc prepared roles; rather I’m interested in the actors being in front of the camera as they really are. At the very least, I want the actors to express some of the elements of their personality in the characters they play.
In terms of the themes of your films, what is the most significant and most interesting aspect for filmmakers today?
This is a very difficult question, one that I don’t know how to answer, because it would require going through all of Rohmer’s films and looking for potential answers. Perhaps a relevant aspect for today is precisely this ability of his to construct individual, seemingly insignificant stories that leave the viewers a strong message. However, this is not a characteristic we find only in Rohmer’s films. Many great directors start from the particular and end up providing universally valid elements. The French director did this more systematically in his films, especially in the series of Six Moral Tales, as he called it. Moral and not moralizing. There Rohmer dealt with human nature. For him, a moralist is interested in understanding and describing what goes on in the mind of a person, so he dealt with mental states and human feelings. Rohmer did not moralize, but tried to present human morality. I think this was the best moment of his career, although he made other important films, which I appreciate. Rohmer maintained this interest in the human spirit and psyche throughout his life; he was a philosopher of cinema. And he was interested in the great themes of human history, which makes him important for the current generation, in fact for any generation. His great themes do not change radically.
Which is your favorite film of Rohmer and why?
L’amour, l’après-midi (“Love in the Afternoon”) (1972), while acknowledging that I have yet to see many of Rohmer’s films. In it Rohmer touched my heart. The dilemma the protagonist experiences is primarily a love dilemma, but on a broader level it is a moral dilemma. I think Rohmer captures very well in the film how one moment’s decision can change the course of our lives. It’s an invitation to think hard before we jump in, no matter what context or era we live in.
All French films, dealing with essential topics, are interesting; some bring bold formal proposals, others are more conventional and penetrate the viewer’s mind through the ideas they propose.
What do you think is the main contribution Romanian cinema can offer to international cinema?
The relevance of local histories. Romania is at the crossroads of at least three contrasting cultures: the Balkans, the West, and Russia (to speak in general terms). We have drawn something from each place and we have a rich and varied culture. We need to make use of it. We also have a complicated history with many changes.
To get to the present, there are many stories that can be told. Some are negative, like corruption; some are positive, like our traditions. We are fickle when we complain, but not when it is time to act. We know our rights well, but not those of those around us. The collapse of communism was a strong topic for the generation of directors like Puiu, Mungiu, Porumboiu. Now we can say that we have moved on to the next phase of Romanian capitalism, and here I am sure that new themes can appear. For example, for the 1990s and 2000s, the documentary filmmaker Alexandru Solamon identified them with Kapitalism – Reţeta Noastră Secretă (“Capitalism, Our Secret Recipe”). I think we have something to offer cinema both formally and, above all, in terms of the stories we can tell.
Last question: you have achieved your dream of becoming a director. What advice would you give to those who, like you, want to take this road?
It was not the realization of a dream, but rather a series of conjunctures led me down this path. The advice I would give is that which I give to all my students. It is something I believe few think about. Do more than the homework you receive at school, be self-taught and always be curious about everything; understand the world you live in, evaluate well whether this is the path you want to take. To be successful in any field, but especially in creative fields, you have to put in serious effort.
DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 6, no.1 art. 8, 0122: 10.32009/22072446.0122.8