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.

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