Bright Lights Film Journal

Rohmer If You Want To

That Eric Rohmer, who passed away this morning, was both critic and film auteur seems as unsurprisingly organic as the manner in which his movies interpolated text and image, philosophy and drama. In 2006 I quit my first post-college job after suffering a minor breakdown; I spent the following penurious summer on the couch, gathering my wits in the spirited glow of Ray, Ozu, Kiarostami, Sirk, Dreyer…and Rohmer. I had never heard of him before Criterion released the Moral Tales on DVD, but I was immediately drawn — as a voracious reader and critical thinker — to the hybrid of plot and concept, of ethics and exposition, in Rohmer’s work. Ma Nuit Chez Maud still seems unlike any other movie: wholly unafraid of telling rather than showing or slackening the ornately analytical strands that link Pascal’s eschatological wager to the gnarl of post-pubescent sexuality in the protagonist’s conscience.

Like his American descendant Whit Stillman, Rohmer overthinks sex while admitting to his audience in remarkably subtle gestures (an aridly lusty smile from La Collectionneuse, a rich rectangle of exposed flesh in Claire’s Knee) the ubiquity of sheer animalism. And this, too, was Rohmer’s novel, irresistible approach to cinema: Maintaining an eloquently controlled, meticulously calculated surface while clandestinely, and sublimely, relying on the instinctual. Has film art ever been so pensive and yet so confident? So cynical and yet so hopelessly romantic?

Stillman, and to a lesser extant Noah Baumbach, have taken up the Rohmer torch in some respects — the emphasis on garrulous relationship dialectics and camerawork that favors the tone of communal settings over isolated, individual emotions–but neither has the erudition nor the respect for their audience to be as tenderly didactic as Rohmer. His was a cinema both essayatic and lyrical, sterile and aroused, strong-willed but indecisive. His was a cinema made for critics like yours truly, who often wonders whether or not the concept of Eternal Return can help him decide whether to eat Thai food or Pakistani on a leisurely Wednesday afternoon. There might never be another director so self-indulgent and so down to earth. I’ll miss him.