Talking About Rohmer
Below I talk with Ordinary Gentleman David Schaengold about the remarkable work of the recently deceased director Eric Rohmer.
A character played by Gene Hackman in Arthur Penn’s film Night Moves memorably says, “I saw a Rohmer movie once. It was kind of like watching paint dry.” A subtler form of this criticism is present in the habit—especially noticeable in the obituaries—of comparing Rohmer to great novelists and painters. Whether the reference is to Sherwin-Williams or Cezanne, the insinuation is that while Rohmer may have crafted delicate tales and created striking visual compositions, he was not really a filmmaker; he never made movies. Rohmer did place speech over spectacle, but only out of a belief that in life the real action takes place in conversations. In his essay “For a Talking Cinema,” Rohmer noted that twenty years after the introduction of sound to film, words still were seen as secondary to the image. Rohmer called for the kind of cinema he would go on to create, one in which speech was integral to the structure.
Possibly related, David, is the observation you once made to me that Rohmer offers a successful example of Brechtian cinema. What did you mean by that?
DS: Well, you’ll pardon me if I don’t say right off. I’d like to invoke Rilke first, specifically the Archaic Torso of Apollo. Rilke’s poem is meant to convey the experience of being slowly transfixed by a work of art, I think he ends with perhaps the most famous non sequitur in lyric poetry after describing the torso, he says, abruptly: “you must change your life.” It is an odd thing to say so unadornedly, but Rilke was, I think, evoking a particular feature of the phenomenology of aesthetics. The torso, like all works of art, is frustratingly silent on what, precisely, you must do to change your life, but the imperative is categorical and unforgettable.
The much-maligned Brecht, I think, meant at least in part to remind us of this element in art and that it can sometimes work at cross-purposes with the sentimental nature of art, which we might call less tendentiously its dramatic character, after Aristotle, or perhaps its empathic function if we were trying to characterize it phenomenologically. Brecht believed that the theater should not try to play at your heart-strings but that it should confront you, that successful art left you unshakably convicted that you must change your life (of course his approach has nothing in common with the kind of art that tries to win you to a cause, political or otherwise, by sentimental means). Jeanne Dielman is supposed to be the cinematic exemplar of Brecht and indeed it succeeds on Brechtian terms, but Rohmer was earlier, and, I think, better. This is unexpected because he so stirringly invokes the sensuous nature of art. In fact, it would be interesting to attempt (I will admit to having done so) an explanation of why a highly sensuous but non-sentimental art is ideally suited to make a viewer think he must change his life. This is exactly what Rohmer accomplishes. Of course there is some drama; he is himself not an orthodox Brechtian, but it does seem, in watching his films, that we are not meant to rejoice with the protagonists in their triumphs or sweat with them over their dilemmas as we do in traditional drama. We are rather directed to observe and participate in the film as a total work modulated by several degrees of distance,a and I think the dedicated viewer of Rohmer finds a tremendous and objective moral significance arising from his films. It is impossible to remain indifferent to honesty or fidelity or complacent about boorishness after repeated viewings of his work, even if these virtues are rarely presented as such and never advocated for in the way that, say, On the Waterfront advocates for a being a good honest fellow. Does that seem like a reasonable account of Rohmer?
MS: I like your description, David. It certainly doesn’t seem incidental that Rohmer entitled his most famous series of films the Six Moral Tales. I suspect that the Rohmer felt more of a connection to the medieval morality plays than he did to the works of Brecht. Demonstrating the connection between the two is the fact that when Perceval came out, the oddly Christian work was hailed by Brechtian critics. So I think you’re picking up on a very important strain in Rohmer’s work.
Your description of Rohmer brings to mind another statement of Rilke’s. He once wrote that the role of two people in love was to guard each other’s solitude. This strikes me as relevant because while most films try to take us by hand and lead us through a world. Rohmer allows us an uncommon degree of independence.
This feeling of independence is the result of, among other things, how little use Rohmer makes of the camera. I’d like to suggest–I think we both agree–that his sparing use of the camera gives the moments when he does pan or zoom a special resonance and deliberate power. Think of the closing scene of Love in the Afternoon, when the camera modestly turns its gaze from the embracing husband and wife. Or think about the way the camera fails to cut away from Laura when she first emerges in Claire’s Knee. For a moment we are seeing her through Jerome’s eyes. But we learn as much about Jerome as we do about her.
My approach to Rohmer’s film has always been very personal. I saw my first Rohmer film early in the summer, only a few weeks after I had graduated from college. I immediately felt that I had never seen a film that spoke so directly to me. One obituary called Rohmer an “ally of the young.” No doubt the connection I felt to him was due in large part to the fact that I am young, privileged, and typically prone to romantic bungling. But maybe it also has something to do with the way Rohmer’s films are at once so distant and yet so intimate — again, that feeling of solitude.
DS: Perceval does seem more like what we expect from Brechtian work, stylistically, than the Moral Tales, at least as far as I can tell without having seen it (damn region codes), so it doesn’t surprise me that critics of that persuasion were pleased. It seems unlikely that any were still alive when Triple Agent was released, but that would have pleased them too, I suspect.
The notion of “independence” is exactly right, I think. Rohmer is so far from trying to enslave us with exposition that he sometimes seems hesitant even to point out anything to us at all. This has often led to profound confusion about the import of his work, so that the blurb writers at the Criterion Collection can write, with a straight face apparently, that the Moral Tales are “sexy and liberating.” Of course that’s true in a way, but not at all in the way that they mean. This reluctance to play down to us makes the rare moments when Rohmer’s camera does create meanings of its own all the more powerful. I’m glad you mentioned the final shot of Love in the Afternoon, when the couple departs stage left and our gaze swivels stage right, because it’s my favorite camera movement in all of cinema. Maybe because movies are by their nature voyeuristic, I’ve never seen a camera other than Rohmer’s that does so much to acknowledge the existence of modesty. Many people can probably think of scenes in movies that have made them ask themselves uncomfortably, “Should I be seeing this? Shouldn’t this maybe be kept private?” The marvel of that final moment in Love in the Afternoon is that we are so deliberately not seeing. Even more marvelous is how that not-seeing makes us suddenly aware of how immodest our gaze has been during the previous hour and a half of the film.
So far this dialogue has been a bit disappointing. No disagreements!
MS: David, sorry for the delay in my reply. Maybe this will provoke some disagreement: In my First Things piece on Rohmer, I call him a “Catholic” director. Trying to see art in political or religious terms is often misleading or trivializing, and I don’t think Rohmer’s faith fully determines the content of his art. Far from it. But I do think speaking of Rohmer in this way helps call our attention to some of the most individual elements of his films. We’ve already hinted at some of these: Rohmer’s approach to modesty, virtue, and commitment in an age of sexual liberation all reflect his moral concerns as a Catholic.
That said, I’m still a bit uncomfortable speaking of “Catholic” art. Some might object to the idea of Catholic art on the same grounds that they would object to the idea of French film or Southern literature: In our post-modern, post-national world, the only real culture we have is global. And that global culture is typified above all by alienation and dispossession. All of us, it turns out, are outsiders to discredited and receding cultures. In this view, it’s no more problematic to call Rohmer’s vision Catholic than it is to call his films French.
I agree that these terms are problematic, but l still think the critic is often right to use them. Do you think this is a useful way of speaking about Rohmer’s art, or am I just muddying the water?
DS: You could be a Catholic filmmaker in many senses. You could belong to a tradition of Catholic filmmakers, for instance, who shared some elements of a vision of the world, influenced each other, etc., in the sense that Greene, Mauriac, Waugh and later Percy were Catholic novelists. Rohmer is obviously not a Catholic filmmaker in this way.
But of course he is Catholic filmmaker in another sense, in the same way that Renoir can be called a Humanist filmmaker. Renoir’s camera is filtered with sympathy, Rohmer’s with charity. He has been compared, not unreasonably, to Austen. They do have a central and rare trait in common: they see through their characters’ bullshit. An equally central difference is that Austen often seems to be motivated by hatred or contempt for her creations, echos as they no doubt were of her self-deluded contemporaries, while Rohmer’s camera, even as it damns, loves, and invites us to love. It could almost be called an adaptation of the literary mode of the gospels, which has strikingly few precedents (Tolstoy?). The exception is Pauline at the Beach, in which Rohmer seems almost wrathful, perhaps explained by the presence of a true innocent, unusual in his films.
I am worried that I have fallen into a trap that you have pointed out to me before: foolishly comparing Rohmer to writers, as if he were only accidentally a filmmaker.
MS: Let’s end with a clip from La Collectioneuse.