The ashtrays worry me

Emilie Bickerton

  • Eric Rohmer: Biographie by Antoine de Baecque and Noël Herpe
    Stock, 605 pp, €29.00, January 2014, ISBN 978 2 234 07561 0
  • Friponnes de porcelaine by Eric Rohmer
    Stock, 304 pp, €20.00, January 2014, ISBN 978 2 234 07631 0

Eric Rohmer never left things to chance, but he did make use of the unexpected. It’s a paradox we find a lot in his films, and something he practised daily in the double life he lived for more than seventy years. In his film-making he demanded exhaustive preparation and absolute precision: he recorded countless sunsets disappearing into the sea in the hope of capturing one elusive green ray; he planted flowers so that a month later an actor could pick a rose; he posted mail to a false address to check a plot point that rested on a letter not reaching its destination. But when it came to shooting he abandoned himself to the moment. In 24 feature films made over half a century he rarely did two takes of a scene, despite hesitations, distracting gestures or wayward extras peering into the camera. He talked for hours with his actors before writing a screenplay, and based his dialogue on the phrases they used and their habits of speech. Often he drew on their own histories – love affairs, problems – for his plots. So when the camera started rolling, in Rohmer’s mind chance had become fate. Jean-Louis Trintignant complained about this laissez-aller during the 1968 shoot of what would become Rohmer’s most widely seen film, My Night at Maud’s. The actor said he felt ignored on set, but the director responded: ‘The ashtrays worry me a lot more than you do.’

The genius and the strangeness of Rohmer’s working method is now documented in a biography – the first – by the French film historians Antoine de Baecque and Noël Herpe. Compared to his New Wave comrades, Rohmer’s work has never been especially cool or iconic, yet more than François Truffaut’s or Jean-Luc Godard’s it divides audiences right down the middle. Those who like his films are often protective and passionate and have seen them all; those who don’t complain of boredom and pointlessness. The complaints are partly a result of the subject matter. Rohmer avoided political and topical issues or anything that could be polemical; he usually concentrated on couples in agony or friends arguing over some moral dilemma or philosophical problem. Even so Rohmer has developed a following over the years. In France some eight million people have seen his films at the cinema and he has loyal audiences in Japan, Scandinavia and the United States, where some of his films – The Marquise of O, Pauline at the Beach, Les Rendezvous de Paris – have sold half a million tickets each.

Rohmer’s films invite us to watch closely. It’s through visual clues – décor (including the ashtrays), the objects arranged in every shot, what a person’s house or place of work looks like – that we understand his characters. In Full Moon in Paris (1984), the setting is the new suburb of Marne-la-Vallée and a concrete housing block where Louise, played by Pascale Ogier, lives with her architect boyfriend. We watch the young woman as she walks up and down the stairs in her apartment, with its unframed Mondrian prints hanging on the wall, tennis rackets in one corner, fabrics, paints and plants in another. Nothing is rushed in this opening: we are simply encouraged, as always, to follow the rhythm of the characters, explore their world. At times Rohmer gives us a closer shot of Louise but more often the frame includes the environment around her. In a few scenes she gets on a train to travel one way or the other between an apartment in the suburbs and another in central Paris. The film opens with a proverb: ‘He who has two women loses his soul, he who has two homes loses his mind.’

Rohmer always makes geography clear. He makes sure we know where we are. A Tale of Springtime (1990) moves between three homes; the narrative of A Summer’s Tale (1996) is structured around a series of walks along Breton beaches; in Claire’s Knee (1970) it is Lake Annecy; the hub of activity in L’Ami de mon amie (1987) is a new suburban housing development. The films are about the space in many ways, but also about characters moving in space. Everyone walks in Rohmer’s films, and if they aren’t walking they are dancing or swimming or commuting. ‘I get all my ideas walking,’ the protagonist from L’Amour l’après-midi (1972) says. Only coffee or a meal justifies sitting down for long. But the epic promenades always have some motive in the storyline. In Full Moon in Paris Louise commutes because she worries that the relationship she is in is a compromise and is taking away her independence. She takes comfort in the creaky wooden floors of her central Paris flat, her books scattered on her bed, her excuse for a kitchen. Her dilemma plays out through her commutes, her conversations with friends and nights out dancing (which Rohmer wore earplugs to shoot).

Rohmer’s way of elevating the ordinary to reveal both its comedy and its tragedy, without resorting to filmic clichés – zooms, jerky cameras or rapid jumps in pace – has inspired subsequent generations of directors. Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s first film, The City Tramp (1966), was a homage to the lonely, errant protagonist in Rohmer’s The Sign of Leo (1962). The South Korean director Hong Sang-soo has said that Rohmer was his guide for his chronicles of the lives and loves – and the heavy drinking sessions – of young people in Seoul. Romania’s Cristi Puiu said he was inspired by Rohmer for The Death of Mr Lazarescu, a film based on an old man’s long journey from his rundown flat in Bucharest to hospital after a heart attack.

At the start of Eric Rohmer: Biographie we are told not to expect any shocking revelations. Rohmer told one big lie about his identity but behind it is a disappointing lack of drama. His mother died in 1970 believing her son was a literature teacher at a secondary school who went by his birth name Maurice Schérer. Rohmer avoided the cameras and public appearances to keep this myth alive; his wife, Thérèse Schérer, fuelled the lie with fictitious letters over many years updating Rohmer’s mother with news about Maurice and his stories from the classroom. If she had discovered the truth, Thérèse now says without humour, ‘it would have killed her.’ Rohmer also kept his wife and children away from his work, not wanting anything from home to mix with it. Thérèse knew what he did every day but he never invited her to his office, never introduced her to his colleagues and only once took his two sons to see one of his films. Sometimes the family would come on holiday with him when he was shooting but they weren’t allowed on set. According to de Baecque and Herpe, his family life provides ‘next to no interest for the biographer’. It was ‘simple, serene, reassuring and happy’. Long walks, visits to museums, classical music playing at home in the evening, early nights.

This is the official biography. It takes in the family’s testimonies about the husband, father and brother they knew: loyal, reticent, a creature of habit. But we also know that Rohmer delighted, Hitchcock-style, in stories of people living double or triple lives, in tales of mistaken identity and masterful deceit. When we are told he had nothing to hide behind his one big lie it’s hard not to think the opposite. There must be more. The biography slips in enough hints to encourage us to imagine a darker version lurking in the shadows. A few memorable images jar with the straight story: such as the tall, thin Rohmer in a black cape, prowling around the Parc Monceau with a hidden camera secretly casting for young girls, and his strange appearances on screen in his early works, usually in disguise and playing vampires or malicious characters.

We are nudged further in this direction by other recent releases of Rohmer material. Friponnes de porcelaine brings together six unpublished short stories he wrote in the 1940s which provided the basis for later films, and two brief treatments for projects that were never made. The most startling among these is the thirty-page screenplay ‘Un Fou dans le Metro’, due to be shot in 1963 but cancelled when manual ticket punching in the Paris Metro was replaced by machines. The story is told mostly as a running monologue by the paranoid protagonist, who rails against everything from his cleaning lady’s habit of moving things around to the long queues at the butcher’s. We are locked inside his sadistic world to the end, when the man triumphantly proves his innocence after a Metro worker accuses him of not paying his fare. He is indeed innocent but his reasoning is so crooked and relentless that the Metro worker breaks down at the police station, weeping and damning everyone including herself, her job and all the years she has spent trying to do it well. He watches with a mixture of detachment and satisfaction.

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Rohmer was born in 1920 in Tulle and grew up in a middle-class Catholic family. His father was a civil servant; his mother looked after her two boys and worried above all about the importance of a good education. The younger brother, Réné, was a brilliant pupil but Maurice’s shyness and stammer held him back. He failed the oral exam for the Ecole Normale Supérieure three times and, after serving without fighting for a year during the war, went in 1941 to study in Clermont-Ferrand, the future snow-covered setting of My Night at Maud’s. Two years later he moved to Occupied Paris and in a tiny apartment in the fifth arrondissement dedicated himself to becoming a novelist. As Allied troops entered the city he shut his windows and finished Elisabeth. Years later he reflected on having written a book about a group of young people on holiday while his city had been under fire: ‘I asked myself at the time, is it possible to write on present events? My answer had been: No, one can’t. One needs distance.’ He would never change his mind on this point, evacuating current events from nearly all of his films.

Gallimard published his novel in 1946 but it made no waves. He was 24 and had seen no more than half a dozen films in his life. So what drew him down into the dark auditoriums of the Latin Quarter to watch Lubitsch, Murnau, Lang and Keaton? What happened in just a few years to turn Maurice Schérer into Eric Rohmer, the controversial champion of Hawks and Hitchcock, and one of the leaders of the future New Wave?

The transformation took place, as for many of his generation, in the cafés of postwar Paris. There he met people who would reorient his interests and influence his thinking, in particular the strange and seductive dandy Paul Gégauff, who also fascinated Godard, Truffaut and Claude Chabrol with his detachment from any sense of obligation, his liking for controversy and his success with women. Rohmer was also impressed by the smart and fearless young critic Alexandre Astruc, who was writing for a lot of magazines and journals at the time, including Les Temps modernes. Soon Rohmer met its editor, Jean-Paul Sartre.

Young intellectuals began to take the cinema seriously when Hollywood movies arrived en masse in 1946, after Léon Blum ended the wartime ban. They were trying to work out a way of responding to the abundance of new images. Rohmer’s first published article, in the influential La Revue du cinéma in 1948, was ‘Cinema, the Art of Space’, in which he discussed the way the body is made to move around in space on film. It was an early celebration and definition – some five years ahead of its time – of mise en scène, soon to be a pillar of the New Wave’s critical manifesto and the basis on which films like Hitchcock’s Under Capricorn or Hawks’s Monkey Business were judged artistic masterpieces.

Rohmer’s writing on film went down well and in 1950 he set up his own journal, La Gazette du cinéma. The name ‘Eric Rohmer’ appeared for the first time on its masthead. Pseudonyms were popular at the time: Godard liked Hans Lucas, Truffaut went for Robert Lachenay or François de Montferrand, Chabrol called himself Jean-Yves Goutte. But for Rohmer the game was also a necessary act of concealment. He had been using a variety of false names since arriving in Paris: he was Gilbert Cordier for his novel Elisabeth and Antony Barrier for his first short films. In the end he settled on a combination of Erich von Stroheim and Sax Rohmer, the creator of Fu Manchu. The Gazette ran for just five issues but it raised his profile, and soon he was friends with Jean Cocteau and Henri Langlois.

Rohmer made the jump to feature film-making in 1952, but he later described the experience of adapting the Countess of Ségur’s 1858 novel Les Petites Filles modèles as ‘the worst’: it ‘nearly killed my passion for film-making completely’. In the book, a group of young girls live in a chateau with their mother and maid; they are joined by their newly orphaned neighbour Sophie, whose tempestuous and secretive demeanour gradually subsides as she learns good manners and the principles of virtue. The shoot began in mid-September, on location in an abandoned chateau without running water, telephone lines or heating. Circumstances were already difficult – accommodation for the crew was on the premises – but Rohmer was particularly disturbed by the working practices he discovered among his first relatively large crew, who insisted above all on the terms of work outlined by the state and backed up by unions. If Rohmer suggested experimenting with a shot, his camera assistant or light engineer wouldn’t hesitate to cut him short and tell him it was time to break for lunch. And then, when post-production on the film was virtually finished, the money dried up before the final mixing and editing. The reasons remain mysterious, though there is a story that one of the co-producers was taken to court for violently abusing a young woman. Shortly afterwards all the reels were accidentally destroyed.

*

It was seven years before Rohmer made another feature. In that time he had taken over at the increasingly influential Cahiers du cinéma after its editor, André Bazin, died unexpectedly in 1958. A year later Rohmer completed The Sign of Leo, just as Godard was finishing Breathless and Truffaut The Four Hundred Blows. But he could only watch as Godard and Truffaut triumphed while his own film sat in the cutting room: he had to fight for his version of the final edit, which didn’t reach cinemas until 1962 – when it sank without trace. Shortly afterwards Rohmer suffered another humiliation, this time inside the Cahiers offices. Since the start of the decade there had been rumblings of discontent over his leadership and his modest policy of not giving too much coverage to New Wave films on the grounds that it might seem incestuous. Jacques Rivette, who had recently started making his own features, was leading the charge. He gathered support from within the office and prepared a parallel issue which he used to kick Rohmer out and take charge himself. In his campaign for control Rivette stressed the need for film critics to pay closer attention to politics, and to the intellectual and artistic currents of the day, from psychoanalysis to structuralism. ‘Rivette’s strength,’ as de Baecque and Herpe neatly put it, ‘was to be programmatically modern when Rohmer was paradoxically so. Rivette’s position was strategic and it was the one in vogue in the spring of 1963.’

This is an important distinction. Rohmer is often – too simply – described as a classicist and a conservative, but he was always also interested in the modern, as can be seen from his long-running dialogues with architects, his fascination with the new suburbs, his use of an abstract violin score in The Sign of Leo, and his willingness in his eighties to use the cutting-edge technique of digital incrustation to stitch specially commissioned, hand-painted backdrops into scenes shot with real actors, in order to re-create 18th-century revolutionary Paris for The Lady and the Duke (2000).

With politics things were more obvious and Rivette was right to say that Cahiers under Rohmer would always avoid it. He rarely got involved in any kind of activism, with the exception of a pro-pedestrian campaign in 1974, another against smoking in 1980, and a turn to the ecology movement in the 1990s. He made a rare topical film on this subject in 1992 but he took a comical, non-polemical approach, concentrating principally on long beautiful shots of rolling green fields and trees. In The Tree, the Mayor and the Médiathèque (1993) all sides come off badly: ‘Oh, those salads!’ Arielle Dombasle says as she ambles through the countryside with her husband, the mayor, before they battle against the locals over the construction of a new building in a field where a very old tree grows. Fabrice Luchini is the man leading the resistance. ‘Some guys shoot down kids with machine guns,’ he says. ‘For me, it’s architects.’

After Rivette’s coup, Rohmer hit a wall: he had failed as a director, been humiliated as an editor, and his novel and short stories were ignored. But with hindsight the forced exit from Cahiers precipitated his becoming a full-time film-maker. It was at this point that Rohmer turned to his drawer of short stories, put there after Gallimard had turned down his collection Moral Tales ten years earlier. Now the material struck Rohmer as gold dust for films. All his friends had to hunt tirelessly for a decent novel to adapt or a writer to come up with something interesting. But Rohmer already had ideas. In 1963 he began planning a cycle of six films with the same title as his collection. (He found working in cycles congenial and others would follow: the six films grouped as ‘Comedies and Proverbs’ in the 1980s; the four features in the 1990s known as the ‘Tales of the Four Seasons’.) He set up a production company with his friend Barbet Schroeder, who sold one of his mother’s Emil Nolde paintings to finance the venture. Les Films du Losange was launched out of an old maid’s quarters in an apartment in the 16th arrondissement and had one project: The Girl at the Monceau Bakery, a 22-minute film which was quickly followed by Suzanne’s Career. These first two instalments of the ‘Moral Tales’ were bought by French television, earning Rohmer enough money to invest in the third. Rohmer would go on to follow this policy of investing the profits from one film into the next project religiously.

La Collectioneuse in 1967 proved to be the breakthrough film. Rohmer was 46. Some 300,000 people went to see it in France, enamoured by the strange, idyllic seaside setting where a young muse and two male friends spend their summer in an abandoned house: a trio living in paradise yet not satisfied by its pleasures and instead searching confusedly for something beyond the immediate and sensual. The radical visual style of the film contributed to the impression it made. Rohmer’s cinematographer was the young and untested Néstor Almendros, who had escaped Castro’s Cuba and was therefore shunned by many left-wing intellectuals when he arrived in Paris. Rohmer, though, made friends with him and they went on to collaborate for decades. For La Collectioneuse Almendros used a lighting technique that depended on mirrors and natural light. He filmed the body parts of the protagonists in close-up – a tanned leg, a torso, a head of ruffled hair – and then cut away to show the location: the pebbles on the beach, the sea, the wild grass around the old house.

Rohmer had also begun working for the Radio-Télévision Scolaire, an ambitious new channel aimed at schoolchildren. His first episode, in 1963, was on 18th-century physics. Over the next half-dozen years he made some twenty documentaries, on Victor Hugo, Pascal, Louis Lumière, Edgar Allan Poe, urban architecture, the evolution of the French language and a weirdly captivating programme on cement. It helped that Rohmer was always curious: Big Ears was one of his nicknames, for the enjoyment he took in listening to people, whatever their ideas. He was also obsessed by period drama. After The Marquise of O (1976), an adaptation from Kleist, and the very unorthodox Perceval le Gallois (1978), from Chrétien de Troyes, Rohmer returned to history in the last decade of his working life. He took the bus each day, changing at Montparnasse, and arrived at the office for 9 a.m., despite being in his eighties and having shrunk 20 cm because of scoliosis. As he meticulously prepared for The Lady and the Duke he was in crippling pain but refused all drugs, as he had all his life (even alcohol), for fear that they would take away his lucidity – it was all LSD as far as he was concerned. The subject of The Lady and the Duke had come to him from Grace Dalrymple Elliott’s Journal of My Life during the French Revolution, which the duchess had written in 1801 at the request of George III. Rohmer liked the idea of telling the story from the point of view of an English aristocrat. The film was greeted as a technical and counter-revolutionary triumph, though bemusement more than enthusiasm met his last two historical dramas: Triple Agent in 2004 on the ambiguous loyalties of a former general in the tsar’s army; and in 2007 an adaptation of the cross-dressing pastoral fantasy by Honoré d’Urfé, The Romance of Astrea and Celadon.

Réné Schérer is quoted in the biography as saying that cinema was his brother’s ‘revenge’ for his academic and literary frustrations: he ‘displaced his ambitions onto movie-making’. But revenge and status-seeking seem unlikely motivating forces. Rohmer’s academic career was hardly a failure: he taught a popular weekly class on cinema for twenty years and in 1971 successfully defended his thesis on Murnau’s use of space in Faust. He actively avoided big crowds and large crews, and rarely attended festivals or retrospectives. In 1976 he wrote to the Cannes president when The Marquise of O was in competition to apologise for not attending, on the grounds of ‘what I will let you call my crippling shyness’. His economic model for film-making was constructed specifically to give him the freedom not to be popular. If he kept costs low and generally made what he liked to call ‘amateur’ films, he would never need large audiences to make back the money he had spent shooting. And when he did take on a comparative mega-production, such as The Lady and the Duke, the scale obviously flustered rather than thrilled him. Arriving for the first day on set he took one look at the crew of more than a hundred and ran out of the studio. His producer and long-time collaborator Françoise Etchegaray remembers Rohmer telling her he was sure half the people in there were useless; he spent the rest of the first day working out who he could do without.

After Astrea and Celadon Rohmer stopped looking for new film projects and turned back to the Countess of Ségur. He had been writing a long essay about her when he died in 2010. It was only during his final days in hospital that Etchegaray, with whom he had worked daily for thirty years, finally met his wife. His two lives came briefly together at last, and he didn’t like it at all. ‘Get me out of here,’ he scribbled on a scrap of paper to Etchegaray. At his funeral the Schérers and the Rohmers came together again and by all accounts had nothing to say to each other. To the end, Rohmer maintained two lives so that he could keep living both. The safety of home seemed to protect him from the moral ambiguity that so troubled his protagonists – this girl or that one, two homes or one, touch her knee or walk away? Perhaps he feared that if he opened himself up to such hesitations, he would take the path leading to the unpredictable and mysterious Maud, rather than the faithful and consistent girl sitting in church.