Philip Concannon on a new biography of Eric Rohmer that attempts to penetrate the secrets of the intensely private New Wave director.
Who was Éric Rohmer? Well, for a start he wasn’t Éric Rohmer. The man we celebrate as one of the central figures in the nouvelle vague began life as Maurice Schérer, and Éric Rohmer was just one of many names he adopted throughout his lifetime. When he wrote the novel Elizabeth in 1946 he published it under the name Gilbert Cordier, and when he was trying to raise money to make his first 16mm short films he did so as Antony Barrier. The Ciné-Club du Quartier Latin’s Bulletin introduced Barrier as “a young American avant-garde director who has just won the prize given in the United States for the best amateur film.” The report was written by Chantal Dervey, another pseudonym.
Why so secretive? In Éric Rohmer: A Biography (published in France in 2014 and now translated by Steven Rendall and Lisa Neil), authors Antoine de Baecque and Noël Herpe describe secrecy as “the true passion of his life” but note that this clandestine nature “did not conceal scandals, anti-conformist habits or provocative commitments, and still less a complicated family romance or a closeted second emotional life.” Rohmer simply kept his personal and professional lives completely separate, to the extent that the Schérer clan (with the exception of his wife Thérèse, who was complicit in the lie) didn’t know what he actually did for a living. Rohmer had grown up in a family driven by the importance of a classical education that looked down on cinema as a low artform, and Rohmer’s mother died in 1970 believing that her son was working a teacher, rather than an acclaimed filmmaker and critic. “That would have killed her,” he said.
Writing a detailed biography of a man who played his cards so close to his chest might have proved an insurmountable task, but five months after he passed away in 2010, Éric Rohmer’s family donated his archives to the IMEC (Institut Mémoires de l’édition contemporaine), and it is from these thousands of documents, as well as interviews with those who knew him, that de Baecque and Herpe have constructed their dense and absorbing overview of the director’s life. It is a portrait of a unique character among the band of French filmmakers who emerged in the late 50s and early 60s. Rohmer was older than his contemporaries and he found his voice much later, but reading A Biography one is almost surprised that he made a film at all.
For the first 25 years of his life, cinema was the furthest thing from Rohmer’s thoughts. Growing up with parents who respected music, theatre and literature but mistrusted films (he could only recall three cinema trips from childhood), he had little opportunity to experience them before he moved away from home as a young man, and it wasn’t until after the Second World War, when he was already 26, that he began his cinephile apprenticeship. Falling in with the young movie-lovers of Paris, he quickly began consuming cinema, making up for lost time, while writing criticism and short stories (the roots of his Moral Tales can be found in these writings) and taking steps towards making films himself, but it would be some time before Rohmer enjoyed any kind of success in this field.
The first two feature films Éric Rohmer made were both unhappy experiences. His adaptation of Les Petites Filles modèles was never finished and is now lost, but de Baecque and Herpe give us a fascinating insight into its production, showing us that while some aspects of Rohmer’s filmmaking sensibility were already in place at this point, fundamental aspects of the craft of filmmaking eluded him completely. After negotiating a few early difficulties, such as the perhaps unwise decision to scout for potential child actors around local schools and parks (Claude Chabrol later made fun of “this tall, skinny, dark-haired silhouette wearing a cape, slithering silently down the garden paths with a package of candy in his hand” getting himself arrested), the film began shooting in September 1952, but things quickly fell apart. Rohmer found himself isolated from his more experienced crew, who were affronted by his naïveté and his unwillingness to alter his preconceived ideas, and he only made matters worse by giving an interview to Jean Luc-Godard in which he complained about “French technicians’ routine way of working, which hampers inspiration.” In hindsight, he probably should have waited until he had finished working with said technicians before going public with his views.
Such problems followed Rohmer into The Sign of Leo, his earliest surviving feature, where his problems communicating his ideas to his cast and crew continued to create confusion and discord. One actor reportedly turned to Rohmer just before the cameras started rolling and asked what they were supposed to do. “Act, act!!!” came the reply. Later an actress asked him how her character should be dressed, prompting him to consult the script in front of her: “’She is dirty and badly turned out,’ you’re fine the way you are.” The Sign of Leo was filmed in 1959 but distribution problems and disputes over the cut meant it took over three years to reach cinemas – and then in a truncated form – when it seemed sluggish and out of step with the new wave pace set by films like Breathless and The 400 Blows. Following this disappointment, Rohmer found himself forced out of Cahiers du cinéma, with the editorship passing to Jacques Rivette in 1963. Now approaching his mid-40s, Éric Rohmer was an unemployed film critic who only had two failed features and an unsuccessful novel to his name.
The Éric Rohmer story that we know really begins in 1967, with the release of La collectionneuse, his first major success and the film that defined his distinctive filmmaking style, kicking off a golden run of films into the 1970s, but de Baecque and Herpe give plenty of space to the often overlooked years preceding it, as Rohmer tried to make ends meet with documentary works on artists and filmmakers for television. These projects seemed to satisfy his frustrated desire to become a teacher, as he said in a lecture on educational television in 1964: “Teaching children to see is one of the most urgent tasks of our teaching. Educational programmes allow us to put the document within the student’s reach, making him emerge from his lack of curiosity.” This remained one of Rohmer’s abiding passions, and while he habitually refused invitations to travel to film festivals and present his own work, he would happily give lectures on the work of other filmmakers, travelling to Germany for a presentation on F.W. Murnau’s Faust.
A Biography is a rich education too. As the authors work their way methodically through Rohmer’s activities in all media, sharing notes and correspondence from each production as well as their own critical perspective, they give us a revelatory insight into his body of work. We see how Rohmer’s passion for environmentalism informed his unusual but excellent 1993 feature The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque; we discover the story behind the production of his masterpiece The Green Ray, which involved a pre-release broadcast on Canal+ (the climactic flash itself unfortunately being impossible to see on 1980s television sets); and we learn how little Rohmer cared for any criticism of his films on the grounds of their content or perspective. “Hearing it said that he made reactionary films hardly bothered Rohmer at all. He would have found it far less tolerable to be accused of making bad films. He was answerable only on the terrain of cinema.”
As for more personal terrain, well, we certainly get as much information about Éric Rohmer – or Maurice Schérer – as we’re ever likely to get, but he remains an enigmatic figure nonetheless. He maintained his double life to the very end, his two worlds coming together for the first time when his longtime producer Françoise Etchegaray and the Schérers stood around his deathbed. “It was a shock for them as it was for me,” she writes. “They had taken back Maurice Schérer. He was no longer Éric Rohmer.” He was buried in the church of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, which his family recognised as the church that Maurice Schérer and his wife attended. For the other half of the congregation, it was an homage to My Night at Maud’s.
If any single anecdote could come close to summing Éric Rohmer up, perhaps it’s this one. In 1975 Janine Bazin wrote to Rohmer asking if he would appear in an episode of Cinéastes de notre temps, an offer he rejected. A follow-up proposal was made in 1988, and he finally agreed to take part in 1993, sitting in front of the cameras for ten hours of interviews during which he continually produced documentation “like a magician pulling rabbits out of his hat” to support each assertion, with these papers piling up on the desk in front of the bewildered interviewer. When they edited the footage down to two hours, the producers found they were no closer to unravelling the Rohmer mystique. “The more proofs piled up, the more Rohmer lingered over details that seemed prosaic, the more impenetrable the mystery became” Frédéric Bonnaud wrote. “In the end, after unpacking everything to the point of being engulfed in evidence provided by his films, he looked triumphant. He’d shown everything, he had fascinated us for two hours by presenting his discourse on method, but he did not reveal himself. The secret remains intact, the creation can continue. A devil of a man.”
Éric Rohmer: A Biography is published on June 14th 2016 by Columbia University Press.