Underviewed, Undervalued, Underground

How to Appreciate: Eric Rohmer

(In the first of an ongoing series of dogmatic featurettes, Cinema Underground offers some unique strategies and suggestions to help you toss off the chains of your accursed learning, and start recognizing the true greatness of some REALLY great artists! Get appreciating!)

Eric Rohmer. People are not so crazy about him. What a shame. I rank him easily among the highest tier of directors, just a hair behind the Supreme Masters of Film (TM).

But I understand that people don’t get him.

Oh they LIKE him just fine. His tasteful, mannered films are just the sort of thing that smart people bring up at parties or on their blogs to flout their own sophistication or to vet others for their respective taste, or lack thereof. There’s always plenty of beautiful women and rustic scenery in his films. And plenty of talk.

Those who dismiss Rohmer do so on the grounds of this talk, asserting that his films are little more than pretty lectures. He even named his most famous film cycles “Moral Tales” and “Comedies and Proverbs.” How pedantic! Indeed, all that dialogue about meanings, morals and feeling in a Rohmer film could make for a miserably cerebral experience… if you let it.

Instead, I’d like to offer three tips that should help provide insight into his particular genius:

1. Don’t get caught up in the dialogue!

Rohmer’s characters recite some of the smartest, wittiest dialogue in cinema. Whether debating the merits of vegetarianism or meekly blurting forth a confession of love, his characters revel in the joust of words and the interplay of ideas.

But as in Shakespeare and Chekov, Rohmer’s characters so often use words to dress, disguise and dissemble. They are works in process, working their selves out through words. Most, like Delphine from Rayon Vert, only ever partially know themselves and Rohmer generously reveals his profound truths through a lavish attention to appearance, idiosyncrasies and non-verbal behaviors.

We learn something about what his characters think by what they say; but we inevitably learn more by what they DON’T say and instead must live. What else is My Night at Maud’s but a weak man’s attempt to rationalize himself out of one relationship with a woman who’s all wrong…

…into another one with the woman of his prayers? (The fool!!)

2. Take a French approach to beauty!

To truly enjoy a Rohmer film, just channel your inner Gaul! Unleash your “joie de vivre.” Affect a certain “je ne sais quoi.” But most of all, cultivate a refined aesthetic and intellectual appreciation for the subjects, themes and rituals of French life, such as…

…the capricious aristocracy of beautiful young men and women

…the holy communion of public discourse and intellectual debate

…the sophisticated cathedral of Parisian culture, but also the rustic parish of provincial life

…and the consecration of certain elegant, timeless, aesthetic forms.

Like his compatriots, Rohmer is no mere hedonist in his deep reverence for the myriad facades of beauty.  His lush landscapes and cultured modern interiors are more than just pretty backgrounds; his actors are not attractive so as to be merely admired. Rohmer is both keenly aware of and yet seemingly indifferent to beauty–so rarely does he stoop to embellish. The use of natural light is perhaps his only signature flourish; yet each frame, each word and each moment is virtually suffused with the brilliance of his pleasing artifice.

It is almost as if, through this constant exposure, Rohmer wishes to both awaken and inure us to the power of beauty in the everyday. If his characters are sometimes compelled, perplexed or restored by this beauty, perhaps Rohmer still dreams that the viewer can yet attain a kind of elevated connoisseurship–both sensual and intellectual–capable of raising the experience of the mundane into the realm of the spiritual.

3. Embrace the comic resolution!

For all their urbane attractions, sometimes the endings of Rohmer films can feel inexplicably glib (My Night with Maud, Love in the Afternoon), artificial (The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque) or even absurd (Claire’s Knee); his plots often hinge on chance (A Tale of Winter), coincidence (Rendez-Vous in Paris) or a kind of light-handed manipulation (A Summer’s Tale); and certainly there is a farcical element to the ever-revolving mixups and misunderstandings of his lovestruck protagonists (Full Moon in ParisMy Girlfriend’s Boyfriend) that makes the films themselves seem… almost frivolous.

But look closely and you will see that Rohmer is simply operating in the rarefied register of Classical comedy, heir to the rich tradition of Aristophanes, Shakespeare and Moliere. His narratives serve the profound comic function of social tonic and spiritual restorative. The song that ends The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque, for example, and the device of the two daughters conspiring to create harmony out of political discord does not negate or absolve the measured scrutiny that Rohmer gives all sides of his provincial fable; rather, it simply elevates the viewer to a position where she may transcend the didactic illusion of a fragmented world.

The heavy hand of Fate is thus, not merely a writer’s convenient loophole, but the suggestion, the hope and the possibility of the existence of magic in our everyday lives. Like Hermione animating to life at the end of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, Rohmer’s unlikely endings can be seen as the apotheosis of the same generous, witty, humane holy spirit that animates all of his lovely creatures.

Truly, Rohmer’s wind bloweth where it listeth…

–DK

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