What Éric Rohmer said of one of his characters could be said of him as well: He was committed to “redoing all of Rousseau in reverse.” His films are anti-romantic. They reject romantic notions of liberation and autonomy. They critique the cult of romantic love. They warn against a romantic politics that looks forward to a revolutionary future or back to a lost golden age. In the place of these errors, Rohmer championed a serene classicism: over passion, reason; over liberation, restraint; over fantasy, reality. Against the utopians who despise our imperfect present, he asserted the possibility of finding order and beauty in a world still governed by God.
Rohmer rose to fame with his Six Moral Tales. Made in the 1960s and 1970s, this series of films suggested that even the most beautiful, brilliant, and modern people will find freedom only in restraint. In each film, a man attached to one woman is drawn to another, then returns to the first. In Love in the Afternoon (1972), the last and most moving entry, the hero nearly consummates an adulterous affair, but instead rushes home to his wife. The reconciled couple enjoys a quiet rapport, more profound by far than the one that existed between the wayward husband and his girlfriend. “Freedom expresses itself by limiting itself,” Rohmer said. The man is most himself when embraced by his family.
Rohmer’s own habits—described in a recent biography—were deliberately conventional. Each weekday he took a run before going to the office, skipped lunch (for reasons of thrift and health), and ate his dinner at home. On Sundays he would take his wife and sons to Mass and a gallery. He claimed that he “had no life,” because “happiness has no history.” This quiet life was protected by Rohmer’s legendary reserve. Though he had definite religious and political views, he rarely made them explicit. His classical and Catholic outlook shaped every aspect of his films, but it was not (as a rule) stated openly.