LONDON, England / The Guardian / Culture / Film Blog / January 11, 2010
The French director's movies were quintessentially studenty - in the best possible sense
Eric Rohmer's death at the age of 89 is a reminder of the incredible energy, tenacity and longevity of France's great nouvelle vague generation. Rohmer had released his last film only last year, the sublimely unworldly pastoral fantasy Les amours d'Astrée et de Céladon (The Romance of Astrea and Celadon): a gentle, reflective movie, of course, but by no means lacking in energy or wit.
And, meanwhile, Jean-Luc Godard, Agnès Varda, Jacques Rivette and Claude Chabrol – at the respective ages of 79, 81, 81 and 79 – are all still with us, all nursing projects.
Eric Rohmer in 1985. Photograph: EPA
Rohmer came from the New Wave tradition of critic-turned-director; he was a former editor of Cahiers du Cinéma, and became the distinctively romantic philosopher of the New Wave and the great master of what was sometimes called "intimist" cinema: delicate, un-showy movie-making about not especially startling people, people often in their 20s, whose lives are dramatised at a kind of walking, talking pace. He avoided dramatic close-up, and tended to avoid music, except that that is supposed to be heard by the characters in the action from radios, for example – Lars von Trier's minimalist Dogme movement was in the spirit of Rohmer's modus operandi. What was utterly characteristic was Rohmer's feel for what the real life of a young person – albeit a certain type of middle-class, educated, young person – was like: that is, not shiny and sexy or grungy or funny in the Hollywood manner, but uncertain, tentative, vulnerable and more often than not dominated by a quotidian type of travel: bus travel, subway travel, train travel; travel to get somewhere for the summer, or to see a girlfriend or boyfriend.
The first Rohmer film I saw was Le rayon vert (The Green Ray), with my girlfriend, when we were both students, at the old Cambridge Arts Cinema in the 80s. I thought then and think now that Rohmer's films are quintessentially studenty – in the best possible sense. Young, callow-ish people do a lot of talking, in the way we all did, about what was wrong (or right) with their lives and relationships, and about the perfect place to go for the summer.
In this film, a young woman is unable to think what to do for the summer. She tries various places with various people, but always finds herself heading back to Paris, drawn perhaps to a place in which possibilities have not been thinned and options narrowed.
Eventually, she finds herself at the beach, about to experience the legendary "rayon vert", or flash of green light you can see at the moment the sun sets. Perhaps other twentysomethings, from a later era, would be more excited about finding the perfect beach in Thailand or Vietnam, but to us impecunious 1980s students, the idea of witnessing the "rayon vert" in Biarritz was a fascinating, exotic notion, and eminently plausible. It was as fascinating as absinthe. Yet everything was filmed in such a straightforward, realist way, and for someone in his mid-60s, Rohmer himself had a remarkable sympathy and un-patronising interest in young people.
Later, in 1992, Rohmer would make Conte d'hiver (A Winter's Tale), as part of his "tales of four seasons" series, about a young man and woman who have a passionate holiday romance but somehow manage to mislay each other's details and lose touch. It seems almost inconceivable in our world of social networking sites and mobile phones, but at the time it was entirely plausible, and another demonstration of Rohmer's sure touch for sensing the anxieties and dreams of un-moneyed young people, looking for love and adventure – and, as ever, having to travel banally to get it. I think Richard Linklater, in his movies Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, about a missed love-connection, was trying to channel some of the spirit of Eric Rohmer.
Rohmer's "talkiest" film is probably the one that made his name: Ma nuit chez Maud (My Night With Maud) from 1969, a black-and-white film that looks a little rickety now.
A man is forced through snow to stay the night with an attractive stranger, and finds his resolve to marry someone else severely tested by having to sleep over in her bed. But this is not just about sex, and the lack of it, or the promise of it, but about talk, about the adventure of intimacy and all the subtle, almost infinitesimal things we reveal about ourselves in talking. In his later years – though perhaps Rohmer's entire mature career is one long, richly distinctive, "late phase" – the director turned to period drama, and this is the point at which pub-quizzers may raise the question of what unites Rohmer with Christopher Nolan.
The answer is that both have cast the tremendous but underused and still underappreciated British actor Lucy Russell. Rohmer made her the French-speaking lead in his French revolutionary drama L'anglaise et le duc (The Lady and the Duke) from 2001. And finally, there is Rohmer's remarkable last film, Les amours d'Astrée et de Céladon, a Shakespearean fantasia, a midsummer noon's reverie, conceived along uncompromisingly classical lines, and a thing of quiet joy.
Along with his green ray – that flash of mystical revelation available to idealistic young people unencumbered by middle-aged banality – it is my favourite Eric Rohmer.
The cinema has lost a philosopher, a quiet rhetorician and a gentle ally of the young.[rc]
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2010