The Voice of a Frenetic, Heated Cinema – E̒ric Rohmer: A Biography by Antoine de Baecque and Noël Herpe
A Book Review by James Knight.
E̒ric Rohmer’s irrefutable place in the cathedral of film auteurs has been long since reserved. With films such as My Night with Maud in 1969, and Claire’s Knee in 1970, being among others, examples of the Rohmerian cinema that found poetry and philosophy in the mundane. A cinema that never judged. A cinema which treated its audience with the ultimate respect. Following Antoine de Baecque and Noël Herpe’s comprehensive new biography of the elusive Rohmer (translated from French to English by Steven Rendall and Lisa Neal for a new edition from Columbia University Press), the question is raised of why this is the first published E̒ric Rohmer biography (and according to Derek Schilling’s blurb will in all likelihood also be the last). But maybe the answer is simple; for the details regarding Rohmer’s life as a renowned filmmaker completely and utterly overshadowed his almost detail-less private life away from filmmaking. He was exclusively a man of cinema.
Antoine de Baecque, a professor of cinema at the University of Nanterre (who has published books on both Jean-Luc Godard and Francoise Truffaut), and Noël Herpe, a senior lecturer at the Universite̒ de Paris VII (who has published books on Rene̒ Clair and Sacha Guitry), have constructed biographical narrative of fervent admiration married with careful theatrical analysis, asserting their subjective critique with readability and freshness. Using extensive research and archives from almost one hundred and forty boxes containing more than twenty thousand items left behind after Rohmer’s death in 2010, the biographers have made the seemingly ephemeral details of Rohmer’s career into the DNA of an artist. Similar in a way to how their subject described cinema, “it makes it possible to look at things differently and see what was up to that point invisible” (191).
Maybe the most fascinating detail concerning Rohmer the man was his own complicated relationship to his own personal identity, “E̒ric Rohmer” of course being a fabricated pseudonym, his real name being Maurice Sche̒rer. In fact, he kept the Rohmer side of his ego secret from his mother who went to her grave believing that her son was a professor of classics, totally ambivalent to his career in the cinema. But, “Maurice Sche̒rer’s family life has almost no interest”, write the biographers. “Without scandal or uncomfortable secrets, it was simple, tranquil, reassuring, and no doubt dull” (127). Despite the biography being more than six hundred pages long the Maurice Sche̒rer who spawned E̒ric Rohmer remains curiously enigmatic, tantalisingly lost forever.
So, who is E̒ric Rohmer? And can we better learn his identity through the study of his films? The biographers certainly seem to think so. Where the book succeeds is on the journey it takes the reader. The same journey Rohmer himself ventured on, deep down the tracks of creativity. We learn what he thinks of his own films, “I found a relationship among them, the story of a man, who, seeking a woman, finds another” (145). As well as what he thinks about cinema in general: “classicism is not a step backward but a step forward” (45). This is how we learn about E̒ric Rohmer. Rohmer the meticulous thinking, Rohmer the great organiser of space, Rohmer the perfectionist. Burrowing through his notebooks the biographers find shot-by-shot decoupage outlines of planned films where every detail had been considered. He was embroiled in cinema.
On the chapter concerning The Collector (1967), Rohmer’s most visually stunning colour film, the biographers explore the filmmaker’s non-classical writing techniques: “he constructed a trap, a rather closely woven dramatic canvas that would allow him to watch his three young people develop” (218). Key moments in the script were left unwritten, with Rohmer eventually filling the gaps with the thoughts and secrets he had recorded on his tape recorder from the long interviews he conducted with all of his actors, stating, “only the effects, the tricks – everything I hate – can be written down…I refuse to say what cannot be said” (224).
As the book progresses we get some wonderful insights into Rohmer’s on-set working methods with his actors (whom he saw as characters and not professionals) and his difficulty in communicating with them. For instance, during the filming of My Night with Maud (1969), a dismayed and disgruntled Jean-Louis Trintignant reproached Rohmer for supposedly paying more attention to the ashtrays in the shot than to him. “I’m less worried about you than the ashtrays”, replied Rohmer (233). To stories of Rohmer’s infamous tightness on set, like whilst filming A Good Marriage (1982), during the shooting of a restaurant scene, cinematographer Ne̒stor Almendros was perplexed to discover that Rohmer, whilst filming with several actors sitting around the same table, and too cost-minded to decorate the table with the appropriate amount of cutlery and plates but instead with just the single plate, told the Oscar winning cinematographer, “when we shoot from the other side, we’ll move the plate” (349). This thriftiness was present right to end of his career, and just picture the comedic image of the scrupulous Rohmer roaming the set of the financially most expensive film of his career, The Lady and the Duke (2001), a film which required digital special-effects, individually interviewing each of the one-hundred plus on-set crew members, “looking for those he could dismiss” (497). But this image aside, The Lady and the Duke, as well as Triple Agent (2004), and The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (2007), show Rohmer’s adaptability, despite his then increasing age and wavering health, to never stop learning. To be a young film scholar all over again, eager to learn the new ways of the new cinema, conjuring comparisons to filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, who is in his own way keeps adapting and updating.
The book, however, isn’t all applause and wonder for Rohmer. There’s harsh criticism directed Rohmer’s way for, “the Westernness of classical beauty, that of the arts and of civilisation does not tolerate mixtures. In Rohmer’s cinema…no character is black…and neither does he introduce marks of ‘foreign’ cultures or artistic references that are not to Western works” (413). Throughout the book the biographers make no attempt to “hide” other criticisms of Rohmer’s work, notably how his films are almost in complete ignorance to the “common” man.
Not only an important filmmaker, Rohmer was of course a significant voice in the frenetic and heated world of French cinema criticism. From his early support for the auteurism of Alfred Hitchcock, to his infamous critical battles with Jacques Rivette, when Rivette tried to wrestle the control reigns of Cahiers du Cine̒ma from Rohmer’s grasp. “I want film criticism to finally free itself from the ideas dictated by its elders”, says Rohmer the critic (66). The book continuously lavishes the reader with countless extracts from Rohmer’s critical canon, each making for a fascinating read whilst also helping to chart Rohmer’s evolution through cinema. An evolution with the starting point of a young Rohmer and his almost complete disregard for cinema, “the only art that hardly influenced the young man at all was film” (10), report de Baecque and Herpe, before exploring the young Rohmer’s fascination with the theatre. It’s a fascination which eventually led to what only can be described as Rohmer’s disastrous foray into the theatrical world with his 1979 production Catherine of Heilbronn, by Heinrich von Kleist. Pierre Marcbru reviewed the production, writing “if Kleist had known that Rohmer would translate him, he would surely have drowned himself earlier” (290).
But, “what mattered more than anything was his work as a filmmaker” (206), write de Baecque and Herpe, and no doubt their enthralling biography will remain the ultimate text on the life and legacy of E̒ric Rohmer, just like Rohmer will live on as one of the ultimate figures of cinema.
James Knight is a Welsh-born postgraduate film student, currently living and studying in Paris.