Though grouped with the Cahiers du Cinéma critics-turned-filmmakers who comprised the French New Wave, Eric Rohmer is eight years older than Jacques Rivette, ten years the senior of Jean-Luc Godard and Claude Chabrol, and was a full dozen years ahead of Francois Truffaut. Even so, Rohmer was still working as an editor at Cahiers when Truffaut and Godard had their respective breakthroughs (The 400 Blows, Breathless). By the time Rohmer joined their ranks, Truffaut was in a brief post- Jules and Jim (1962) wilderness and Godard was toying with Marxism. Rohmer’s capacious behavioral inquiries couldn’t help but seem somewhat aloof by comparison—though certainly not insensitive to the moral reckonings embedded in quotidian actions and thought processes.
In film cycles like Six Moral Tales, Comedies and Proverbs and Tales of the Four Seasons, Rohmer reshuffles the emphasis of Hollywood melodrama to privilege rationality and discussion over psychology and spectacle. The director co-authored a study of Hitchcock’s films with Chabrol—a passion which might seem surprising given his buttoned-up film style. But whereas Chabrol clearly aimed for formal mimicry (his films often feel like a frostier Hitchcock, full of doublings and leering gazes), Rohmer internalized the British master’s dedication to recurrent themes and willingness to chase the rabbit down its hole more than once. In hindsight, Rohmer establishing himself with cycles of films hinging on a common theme (the Six Moral Tales all envision a lucid, romantically committed man tempted by a dalliance) seems not just a sign of thematic patience but also canny self-marketing.
The Six Moral Tales certainly came as a surprise success, though latter-day descendents—e.g. Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004)—have fared equally well with those who love the sound of measured, self-investigative talk. My Night at Maud’s (1969) and Claire’s Knee (1970) were the most widely seen of the Rohmer films, and one wonders if this wasn’t partly a matter of fortuitous timing, with 1970 audiences hungry for a lucid discourses on the language of love. Though Rohmer is hardly a provocateur (indeed, many of these early films construct magnificent "lessons" in monogamy), there is still a kind of liberation in all the frank talk, and certainly a musical value, as well, in the bubbling streams of reason. Rohmer almost never uses scores in his films, avoids close-ups and has a strong feeling for natural-light—all of which makes him seem like the most classically novelistic of his New Wave brethren.
There is always the feeling with Rohmer’s films that they might float away at any moment. This quality is inextricable from the airy pleasure of his great films, and the expendability of his lesser efforts. As critic David Thomson writes, "The films have a subtle and absorbing tension between the intellectual inflexibility (or resolve) of the characters and the evanescence of the situations in which they act." Rohmer’s latest tonic, The Romance of Astrea and Céladon, is filled with the evanescent. The film, which plays the SFFS Screen at the Sundance Kabuki beginning this week, an earnest adaptation of a 5th century fable seen through the 17th century eyes of Honoré d’Urfé, spins an anachronistic story of nymphs, druids and injured love in the rolling French countryside. Thin-lipped Céladon throws himself into a river after his milky maiden Astrea renounces their love in a moment of misplaced jealousy. Unbeknownst to her, Céladon is rescued by nymphs. She grieves, but he refuses to seek her out in deference to her "prohibition" of their love.
Rohmer’s project here is to divest romance from politics and irony, and while the film’s conflicts never develop past trifles, its placid farce does produce lovely scenes: a hippie idyll in which a desolate Céladon lives in a hut made of branches and lives off of herbs and berries; Astrea’s slow weeping on a hillside; and the constant tincture of bird sounds and summer-morning light radiating the outdoors with a fullness of beauty which raises the spiritual stakes of the lighthearted romance. The film feels remarkably spry for Rohmer’s age (he’s now 88), though his dialog now platforms and meanders where it once implicated and mined. It’s hard too not to consider The Romance of Astrea and Céladon in light of The Last Mistress and Lady Chatterley (2007), both of them also French adaptations of classic prose. These films have entirely different tones, but where Rohmer peers into the past and sees a comedy of errors, Catherine Breillat and Pascale Ferran’s disquisitions on romance are cauldrons of passion and social standing—love as a play, and then some. And of course, both films are by women, the gender which has for so long propelled the moral quandaries of Rohmer’s films, and eludes him still.
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