Sunday, January 17, 2010

Rohmer Passes

The recent death of French filmmaker Eric Rohmer, at age 89, reminds us not just what a significant director he was but how the French revere their artists, from allowing Rohmer to work into his late eighties, something which rarely happens in America, to the moving eulogy given him by French President Nicolas Sarkozy when word arrived of his passing. Sarkozy’s comments, calling him a "great auteur who will continue to speak to us and inspire us for years to come” is more than apt but it might prompt those who are suspicious of the praise meted out to any celebrity who dies, to think Sarkozy is exaggerating. He’s not. Rohmer really was one of the greats.

His films, the best known of which were unveiled in his series’ Six Moral Tales, Comedies and Proverbs, and Tales of the Four Seasons, spanning the 60s to the 90s, usually featured young people, women more often than men, talking about, seeking and finding love, with an emphasis on the romance behind most hookups. But Rohmer never simplified his characters' search for love and his affection for the people at the center of his films was such that they achieved a humanity and generosity that is still a rare commodity in the cinema. They also influenced everyone from American filmmakers Richard Linklater (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset) and Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, Barcelona) to his fellow countryman Oliver Assayas, whose Summer Hours (L'heure d'été), owes much of its tone and structure to Rohmer’s way of seeing. For me, his films were often the highlights of the Toronto International Film Festival, movies I eagerly looked forward to seeing, especially because I knew it was likely my only chance to see them as they often wouldn’t open commercially in Toronto. And I rarely felt short changed by any of them, right through to the end of his career and his final 2007 film, the sweet Les Amours d'Astrée et de Céladon (The Romance of Astrée and Céladon.).

The finest of his films, including La Collectionneuse (The Collector) (1967), Le Genou de Claire (Claire's Knee) (1970); Le Rayon vert (The Green Ray / Summer) (1986); L'Ami de mon amie (My Girlfriend's Boyfriend/Boyfriends and Girlfriends) (1987); Conte d'été (A Tale of Summer) (1996) and Conte d'automne (A Tale of Autumn) (1998) memorably and indelibly laid out the courtship rituals of men and women in such an acute way that you were bound to recognize yourself in at least one of the people onscreen. I know his work was an acquired taste, as the obits quoting the infamous and insulting line of dialogue uttered by Gene Hackman’s character in Night Moves, wherein he likened a Rohmer movie to watching paint dry (talk about the pot calling the kettle black), made clear, but I’d venture to say that if you want to understand how a certain (middle class) sector of Western society lived and loved - and thought - in the 20th century, you could do no better than checking out one of Eric Rohmer’s lovely, delicate movies.

--Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto.

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