Éric Rohmer: A Biography (Preview)
by Antoine de Baecque and Noël Herpe. Translated by Steven Rendall and Lisa Neal. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016. 637 pp., illus. Hardcover: $40.00.

Reviewed by Chris Fujiwara

The great theme of this monumental book is the cunning collusion between cinema and reality that manifests itself in a rigorous and exemplary way throughout Éric Rohmer’s work. A collusion that the authors, Antoine de Baecque and Noël Herpe, often describe as a “trap.” For his La Collectionneuse, instead of a conventional scenario, Rohmer “constructed a trap, a rather closely woven dramatic canvas” within which the main characters could emerge. To put her at ease and make her “forget the presence of cinema,” Rohmer “set a clever trap” for young Laurence de Monaghan, the Claire of Claire’s Knee. Bernard Verley, who played the hero of Chloe in the Afternoon, is quoted describing Rohmer as “someone whose fiction is so strong that it coincides with reality.” Another actor, Pascal Greggory (Le Beau Marriage, Pauline at the Beach), said of the director that “every attitude we might have enters into his plans.”

We can call Rohmer’s trap, or his fiction, or his plans, “mise en scène”—a term for which he elaborated a complex definition through his activity as film critic and (from 1957 to 1963) chief editor of Cahiers du cinéma. The term plays a decisive role in the book (though one that the English translation sometimes disguises under the word “staging”). We read, for example, that when Rohmer lent himself reluctantly as the subject of an episode in the TV series Cinéastes de notre temps, he proved, in the words of critic Jean Douchet, “the metteur en scène of everything that could happen to him.”

At the same time, Rohmer left to reality and chance a large share in the responsibility of his work. As de Baecque and Herpe write, “Even as he asserts himself as a demiurge, as the absolute master of his creation, the filmmaker feels a resistance of the real that proves to be the stronger.” The making of each film was, in part, a “gamble” (as this translation usually renders the French pari, the same word that is used of the Pascalian wager that plays a key role in Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s). This led to an ambiguity in which the production of each Rohmer film was immersed. In their account of the filming of Pauline at the Beach, de Baecque and Herpe write of “things floating undecidably between everyday life and its cinematic transposition.” Often, Rohmer did not let the actors know when rehearsal ended and filming began.

Rohmer was born (in 1920) Maurice Schérer and, under that name, conducted his life as a teacher and a bourgeois family man in parallel with his life as a filmmaker. His mother died in 1970 without ever having known that her son was already a famous film director. Laurent Schérer, the younger of Maurice’s two sons, said that his father kept his family and his work apart (“I did not grow up as the son of a filmmaker”). A notable exception, blurring the line between identities: Rohmer invited Mme. Schérer’s advice about some editing cruxes in Full Moon in Paris and Summer. De Baecque and Herpe say little about the life of Maurice Schérer, letting the assumption stand that “it was simple, tranquil, reassuring, and no doubt dull; but certainly happy, like everything that has no story.” The authors apply both tact and psychological penetration to the mystery of Rohmer’s relationships with the numerous desirable women who populate his cinema. Asked, “But how do you manage to have tea every day with these magnificent girls?”, Rohmer replied, “My secret is absolute chastity.” In a letter to a member of the chorus of musicians of Perceval, Rohmer wrote of his relationship with his wife as a “deep and indestructible attachment”—a word he crossed out and replaced with “love.”

Providing abundant information about the production and reception of each of Rohmer’s films, de Baecque and Herpe also contribute intelligent critical commentary. They rehabilitate the often neglected Sign of the Lion, the director’s first feature film; they give Rohmer’s pedagogical films of the 1960s their just value; and they pay due respect to the qualities in La Collectionneuse and My Night at Maud’s that enabled Rohmer to establish himself as a great filmmaker with these two films. The authors highlight the autobiographical and self-critical aspects of Chloe in the Afternoon, the last of Rohmer’s “Six Moral Tales,” and note the changes in perspective and theme that distinguished his next series, the “Comedies and Proverbs.”

Interpreting Perceval as an epic of space and an allegory of the birth of cinema, de Baecque and Herpe underline the affinity of “Rohmer’s madness and genius,” as they term it, for the work of F. W. Murnau (whose Faust was the subject of Rohmer’s doctoral thesis, written, incredibly, during the same two-year period that saw the production of both Claire’s Knee and Chloe in the Afternoon). The deceptively modest The Tree, the Mayor, and the Mediathèque is celebrated as “one of Rohmer’s most ambitious films, the only one in which his involvement in his time is expressed.” After allowing themselves the most delicate of reservations about Boyfriends and Girlfriends and A Tale of Springtime, the authors note the quintessentially Rohmerian nature of A Tale of Summer and bring out the importance of the final films Rohmer made before his death in 2010.

De Baecque and Herpe’s comments on how Rohmer’s films reflected their times are valuable, especially for readers who may know little about those times except, precisely, through their reflections in cinema. Thus Chloe in the Afternoon outlines “a chronicle of Pompidou’s France, which was sinking into...boredom...at the same time that it nurtured dreams of escape in which the flare-ups of 1968 vaguely survived.” The characters of The Aviator’s Wife are “bogged down in...communication problems, as people called them in the early 1980s.” Full Moon in Paris, rooted in “the early Mitterand years” when “excess bloomed in all its forms,” was widely understood on its release to be “perfectly in phase with the spirit of the time.” De Baecque and Herpe also acknowledge, and enter into dialogue with, such criticisms as those of Alain Auger, who accused Rohmer of promoting an “unbelievably narrow vision” of an ethnically homogeneous, middle-class France…

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Copyright © 2016 by Cineaste, Inc.

Cineaste, Vol. XLII, No. 1