Monday, 11 January 2010

Eric Rohmer RIP

Eric Rohmer, a ‘New Wave’ Pioneer of French Cinema, Dies at 89January 11, 2010
By Felix Kessler

Jan. 11 (Bloomberg) -- Eric Rohmer, a French director and leading “New Wave” filmmaker whose pictures fed art-house screens starting in the 1960s and held sway over cinema enthusiasts ever since, has died. He was 89.

He died today, Agence France-Presse reported, citing his producer, Margaret Menegoz.

Rohmer said his stylized features were more popular in the U.S. at first than in France, but also were often misunderstood as talky intellectual exercises.

Films such as “My Night at Maud’s” (1969), “Claire’s Knee” (1970) and “Love in the Afternoon” (1972) belied their sexy titles as principal characters filled their angst-ridden nights with endless moralizing.

For Rohmer, it all conformed to a personal vision: to make films portraying the inner lives of characters without adding extraneous drama -- thereby provoking pot-shots from critics and even other filmmakers.

American actor Gene Hackman, playing a hardboiled private eye in a 1975 Hollywood movie, dropped the gratuitous line that a Rohmer film “was kind of like watching paint dry.” The New Yorker’s high-brow Pauline Kael said Rohmer’s films took trivial matters to an extreme.

On the other hand, Rohmer’s longtime co-workers showed unwavering loyalty to the director and his painstaking methods. As his editor since 1992, Mary Stephen said she had “creative freedom” in cutting Rohmer’s pictures, which were mostly shot in natural light and sound, with no “voice-over” dialogue.

Compact Crews

It helped that Rohmer’s crews were compact. “When you say crew, you’re talking about one on camera, one on sound, one on everything else,” Stephen said. As in documentaries or student films, on dolly shots the camera operator could be in a wheelchair pushed by Rohmer.

Nestor Almendros, Rohmer’s highly regarded cinematographer, worked on eight of the director’s movies. He said Rohmer planned his locations so meticulously that he planted roses a year ahead of when he wanted them to bloom in scenes in “Claire’s Knee.”

He also scheduled the date for the filming of a snow scene in “My Night at Maud’s” months before the event -- and was rewarded when it snowed on cue, wrote Almendros in a memoir, “A Man With His Camera.”

“But it is not just a question of luck,” said Almendros. “The key lies in Rohmer’s detailed preparation, which he sometimes completes two years before shooting the film.”

His readiness to rehearse for almost a year meant Rohmer could shoot scenes quickly and in only a take or two, co-workers said. He was as devoted to his actors as they were familiar with his methods and quirks as a director.

Repeat Appearances

Beatrice Romand, a teenager in “Claire’s Knee” in 1970, portrayed the husband-seeking Sabine in “A Good Marriage” 12 years later. Then, after appearing in three more Rohmer movies, she played a lonely, needy widow in his “Autumn Tale” (1998), one of a quartet of films whose “seasons” denote aging or the passage of time.

Barbet Schroeder, who acted in Rohmer’s early short, “The Bakery Girl of Monceau” in 1963, then produced 15 more of his films as well as being director-producer of movies such as “Barfly” (1987) and “Reversal of Fortune” (1990).

Born Jean-Marie Maurice Scherer on April 4, 1920, in Nancy, France, he was a teacher and journalist who wrote a novel under the alias Gilbert Cordier before taking Eric Rohmer as his pseudonym, a melding of name of actor and director Eric von Stroheim and Sax Rohmer, author of the Fu Manchu crime series.

Godard, Truffaut

Along with Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, Rohmer wrote for the avant-garde Cahiers du Cinema and was editor of the film magazine for seven years. He wrote the script for Godard’s first French film, “All the Boys Are Named Patrick.” (It contains a shot of a man reading a French movie magazine with the headline, “French Cinema is Dying Under the Weight of False Legends.”)

Asked about their lives then, Rohmer said the would-be filmmakers responded by saying, “We don’t live.” As he put it later, “Life was the screen, life was the cinema.”

Rohmer was still struggling to get his films made when Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” (1959) and Godard’s “Breathless” in 1960 ushered in the New Wave to the acclaim of French enthusiasts. Not until “The Collector” (1967) and “My Night at Maud’s” (1969), part of his “Six Moral Tales” series, did Rohmer achieve any success.

Truffaut said colleagues had known for 20 years that their older comrade “was our master.” Truffaut stayed a kindred spirit though Rohmer, a conservative Catholic, had a falling out with the radical Godard, who urged filmmakers to join him in making “revolutionary” movies.

Historical Works

Not averse to period films, Rohmer already had made two when at age 81 he directed “The Duke and the Lady” (2001). The film was based on a memoir by the Duke of Orleans’s Scottish mistress during the time of the French Revolution.

Attacked by some who saw an “anti-revolution” flavor in the movie, Rohmer said it wasn’t made for political reasons but solely to help “cultivate a taste for history in audiences, both young and old.”

His editor on the film, Mary Stephen, said Rohmer in his 80s was full of “youthful energy” and showed an affinity for modern technology by shooting the two-hour-long film in digital video.

“Rohmer often says that he’s 18 at heart,” she said. “And he is.”

Editors: James Greiff, Laurence Arnold.

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