Eric Rohmer, RIP


Somehow I missed the news that Eric Rohmer died earlier this month. Rohmer was a part of that movement of critics-turned-directors that we call the French New Wave, but while most of his Cahiers comrades came from the left, Rohmer was deeply conservative. As Victor Morton writes in National Review,

And then there's Maud.

Rohmer is one of the few directors (Whit Stillman is another) who make films about how being "a free spirit" or "following your heart" might not be good ideas; that some things matter more than your desires. Chloe in the Afternoon is a kind of Gallic Brief Encounter, and the comparison speaks volumes about differing attitudes toward adultery, especially since Rohmer's film doesn't adopt the latitudinarian wink of the easy French stereotype. Indeed, the whole drama relies on the tension between Chloe's frank attempts to seduce the married hero Frederic and his willingness to be wooed because he doesn't want to be thought of as a prude. Rohmer's greatest film, My Night With Maud, is also the one where religion is most obviously present and relevant. It starts with a lengthy scene at a Mass, hero Jean-Louis is unambiguously identified as a devout Catholic, and both of these are presented as normal. Jean-Louis and the divorced Maud wind up spending the night, but he insists on accommodations against the occasion of sin. That don't work…exactly…

There is a branch of right-wing movie criticism that consists of complaints that the cinema needs more clear-cut heroes, unencumbered by the ambiguities of real life. Rohmer represents a much more mature conservatism: He made films about flawed people struggling with sin and temptation, characters he portrayed with empathy but also with a clear-eyed view of the consequences of their choices. He ultimately belongs to the same humanist tradition as Renoir, Kurosawa, or Truffaut, but with a Tory Catholic perspective that gives his tales their distinctive flavor. If you haven't seen his work before, the best place to begin may be My Night at Maud's, which initially appears to be built around a dialogue between a Christian and his Marxist friend but soon reveals a story in which none of the central characters are entirely able to live up to their stated beliefs.