Eric Rohmer, leading director of the French New Wave, died in January at age 89. During a career that spanned fifty years, he gained international acclaim and some box-office success. But he died having been loved for the wrong reasons. His art-house fans described his films as “sexy . . . nonjudgmental, and liberating.” In fact, his deeply Catholic films were models of restraint that praised virtue. It’s time to liberate Rohmer from the libertines.
Among the best known of Rohmer’s films are his Six Moral Tales, movies imbued with delicate longing and keen moral awareness in which characters struggle to come to terms with their duties and desires. It’s easy to see, in these films, why some have suggested that the central principle of Rohmer’s personal life was fidelity, a quality exhibited as much in his unfailing punctuality as his deep Catholic faith.
It’s natural that Rohmer’s faith shaped his films; the movies played a large part in leading him to belief. Rohmer experienced a “road to Damascus” moment while watching Stromboli, a film by Italian director Roberto Rossellini. Rohmer was so inspired by Rossellini’s Catholic vision that he turned away from the influence of Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism and adopted an outlook grounded in the Catholic faith and animated by the reality of incarnation and being.
Christ was not a theme of Rohmer’s art, but we find Christ there nonetheless: in the Mass scenes of My Night at Maud’s and on the cross in Perceval. We find Christ unexpectedly in the prologue to Love in the Afternoon, when the protagonist imagines that he has a device that allows him to seduce any woman who passes him in the square. Only one girl is able to resist the character’s power: “I’m going to see someone else,” she says, as a rose window looms behind her. “He’s the only one I love.”
Any writer of subtitles who renders that He in the lower case has failed to hear the ambiguity of a pronoun that reaches upward toward the transcendent. Here, as in all Rohmer’s work, the force comes from a delicacy and understatement that are in absolute earnest. There is great substance in Rohmer’s work, but nothing preachy or polemical.
At the beginning of Rohmer’s career, his reticence on matters of religion and politics was itself fraught with political significance. He was part of a group of young critics who gathered at the magazine Cahiers du cinema and rejected the Marxist insistence on seeing art in primarily political terms. Rohmer and the others stressed, instead, the way some films, including some Hollywood films, should be considered works of art that bear the personal stamp of their creators, or auteurs.
Thus the political heresy: To claim that Hollywood films could be great and lasting works of art was to say that capitalism, in the form of profit-driven movie studios, could create works of beauty to rival any product of the Renaissance studio or medieval workshop.
Old grudges die hard, and some of the political resentments Rohmer elicited have outlived their object. Rohmer’s political apostasy was probably behind the confused claim, in the New York Times obituary, that Rohmer’s radically innovative films exhibited a “conservative” visual style. Meanwhile, the Trotskyites on the still-active International Committee of the Fourth International responded to news of his death by publishing a piece that accused Rohmer of “removing money pressures from the artistic treatment of love relations”—an ideological way of saying that Rohmer refused to drown the reality of love in doctrinaire political ideologies. In Rohmer’s world, in fact, the exchange of money is often a prelude to his characters’ romantic monkeyshines precisely because he was aware of all the innumerable pressures sometimes exerted on love. But these pressures are part and parcel of our humanity, not the “system.”
A much more common complaint about Rohmer’s films is that they are boring. A character played by Gene Hackman in Arthur Penn’s film Night Moves says, “I saw a Rohmer movie once. It was kind of like watching paint dry.” A subtler form of this criticism is present in the habit—especially noticeable in the obituaries—of comparing Rohmer to great novelists and painters. Whether the reference is to Sherwin-Williams or Cezanne, the insinuation is that while Rohmer may have crafted delicate tales and created striking visual compositions, he was not really a filmmaker; he never made movies. Rohmer did place speech over spectacle, but only out of a belief that in life the real action takes place in conversations. In his essay “For a Talking Cinema,” Rohmer noted that twenty years after the introduction of sound to film, words still were seen as secondary to the image. Rohmer called for the kind of cinema he would go on to create, one in which speech was integral to the structure.
Rohmer also pursued technological and formal innovation. The Lady and the Duke, from 2001, was the first all-digital film in France. In the medieval tale Perceval, the characters narrate their own actions and recount conversations instead of actually conversing. (The actor who played the title character called the film “a scholarly project, touched with insanity.”)
But the critics who do not see the filmmaker in Rohmer are misguided for a more important reason: We live in an age allergic to self-discipline and restraint. For Rohmer, making spare use of technical effects was itself a calculated cinematic effect. A Rohmer film might employ only a single pan, for instance, during its two-hour duration, but that pan is sure to reflect a moment of profound importance, and its effect on the receptive viewer will be far more moving than the cinematographic antics of less restrained directors.
The best assessment of Rohmer’s films may have been his own: “Our time is such,” he wrote, “that the most profound instances of originality and modernity are hidden behind the mask of classicism and discretion.” Here, at least, his criticism is as eloquent and exact as his films. Both express a commitment to a profound creative asceticism that serves as a witness to the truth of the Christian faith as powerful as many more explicit proclamations.
Given the intimacy of Rohmer’s films and their subtle critiques of our self-indulgent visual habits (habits that reflect, perhaps, our overall spiritual lassitude), it is perhaps no surprise that many remembrances of the great director have taken an intensely personal tone. Fama has many faces, but the fame granted to Eric Rohmer appears very much like the normal condition of life: to be loved by a few, disliked by some, and unknown to most. May he rest in peace.
Matthew Schmitz is a research associate at the Witherspoon Institute and the managing editor of Public Discourse.