The brilliant French film writer-director Eric Rohmer, who died today at age 89, was one of the greatest filmmakers of the past half-century. Although Rohmer’s films are quintessentially French, they are also deeply, if wryly, humane. His films provide a humanizing pleasure. This is not especially common in any culture and is perhaps especially rare in the United States, where humor tends to be largely farcical and romance merely maudlin.
Born in 1920 in , Rohmer epitomized elegant, witty, intellectual French cinema. He was a part of the nouvelle vague (“new wave”) that flourished in 1950s France and included other critic/directors such as Francois Truffaut and Jean-luc Godard. They began as writers highly critical of most established French filmmaking and wound up directing film themselves. And although Rohmer is less well-known in the United States, he is their equal in the quality of his work.
Rohmer was best known for his series of six films called the Moral Tales. The films tell separate, unrelated stories but have a common theme: A man, committed to one woman, meets another and has to choose. Rohmer’s films often employ an unreliable voice-over narrator and a surprise ending. In his later films Rohmer continued to explore the human condition in films expertly combining wit and seriousness.
Perhaps his best known film is My Night at Maud’s, wherein a Roman Catholic engineer, his Communist professor friend, and his friend’s lover, Maud, a liberal, talk about Pascal and romance. This may sound deadly dull, but it’s quite the contrary. The characters are not mere spokesmen for their intellectual positions but instead are full-bodied human beings whose lives are not wholly consonant with their beliefs—as is the case with most of us, of course.
That’s emblematic of Rohmer’s work: his characters are quite believable even if a good deal more articulate than average. In Mother and Child, the third of his short films comprising rendezvous in Paris, lust and painting come together in a quietly hilarious way.
Rohmer’s films are sophisticated in the best sense of that word: far too wise to be either sentimental or misanthropic, and with too much taste to be preachy. One critic has rightly described Mr. Rohmer’s films as having an elegant simplicity. They are art films, I suppose, but definitely not artsy. And true sophistication is a characteristic all too rare in today’s culture, making his films even more impressive.
Rohmer’s body of work is vivid evidence that the film medium is not doomed to be silly, vulgar, or superficial. In their own, unpretentious way, they bring to perfection a certain kind of French culture, combining Catholicism and the Enlightenment. For those receptive to them, they are wonderfully entertaining and insightful.
May Rohmer’s memory be a blessing.