In Arthur Penn’s 1975 neo-noir film Night Moves, a surly Gene Hackman remarks, “I saw a Rohmer movie once. It was like watching paint dry.”
And in a way, it is.
The films of French New Wave director Éric Rohmer (née Maurice Henri Joseph Schérer, 1920-2010) are ever on the brink of boring. Having seen sixteen of these films in the space of a year, I can admit that the common complaint that they are “talky” and “literary” is certainly true. Made with a low budget in a quite often dull setting, with the presence of music rare, they consist almost solely of dialogue, and this dialogue can be lengthy, intellectual, and even self-indulgent. In the Rohmerian universe, well-articulated discourse is the action. But, a simplicity underpins all of this; despite all possible off-putting pretensions, I think these films are simply rom-coms disguised in a philosophical edge.
From the Six Moral Tales in the 1960s, to the six Comedies and Proverbs in the 1980s, and the four Tales of the Seasons in the 1990s, Rohmer’s large catalogue of around twenty-six feature films seems all alike: middle class urban intellectuals search for purpose through discussions of love which achieve just about nothing. However, there is a comforting serenity to Rohmer’s films which stops them from quite reaching the boredom towards which they lean. Without any heavy-handed didacticism or 1960s esprit révolutionnaire, they may lack some of the excitement, but also, and perhaps more importantly, they lack the noise of Godard or Truffaut.
Rohmer is one of the few directors to have been awarded an adjective to describe the particular qualities of his films; ‘Rohmerian’ denotes a film based in conversation, where the characters are intellectually and romantically hyper-aware (this adjective could be used to describe Linklater’s Before trilogy, for example.) Such qualities Rohmer himself anticipated in his own film theory. Beginning his career as one of the leading figures of the Nouvelle Vague group writing for the French magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, alongside influential names like Godard, Chabrol, and Truffaut, Rohmer propagated radical theories on filmmaking. Most evident in his later work, Rohmer’s 1948 essay “For a Talking Cinema,” arguing for a style of film centred in dialogue.
This can seem intimidating. The 1969 My Night at Maud’s, Rohmer’s first critical success, and certainly most ‘talky’ film, involves several long dinner table scenes where the conversation revolves around topics spanning from Blaise Pascal, to mathematics, to the meaning of existence. None of these are particularly inviting. And such conversations can last for a surprisingly long time. What can become quite erotic discussions—as the title, My Night at Maud’s, might suggest—are never consummated, as Rohmer qualifies his films with a traditional Catholicism; despite any allusions, the ending always points to a conservative morality.
Such themes do not, surprisingly, weigh down the films. The direct translation of Contes Moraux to Moral Tales loses in translation some cultural nuance; the French literary moraliste is less of a didactic ‘moraliser,’ as one might say in English, but rather an interpreter. Rohmer acts thus not as a missionary, but as a philosopher, looking at human relationships through an analytical but non-invasive lens. Beyond the literary dialogue lie simple tales of lust, destiny, and chance.
This simplicity is reflected in the visual serenity of Rohmer. His films are not as stunning, nor impressive, as might be those of his Nouvelle Vague contemporaries, but peacefully pleasant. Rohmer’s low budget allows for a sensitivity to light and weather which contributes to a tranquillity; it is a pared-down documentary style of filming. The Rohmerian world is completely comfortable and manageable, without strong action, violence, or vulgarity. This is not artlessness, however. Françoise Etchegaray, the producer for most of Rohmer’s films, revealed that the aesthetic basis for each film has “a painter of reference.” MUBI used this remark to create a 2021 video essay series wryly entitled “Like Watching Paint Dry” (recalling Hackman’s line) to explore the direct influence of certain paintings on Rohmer’s colour scheme; a gradually illuminated painting is set next to scenes from the relevant film, be it Nicolas de Stael for the 1987 My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, or the geometric palettes of Mondrian for the 1984 Full Moon in Paris.
Perhaps one of the rarer cases of a director’s final films being his best, the 90s Tales of the Seasons encapsulate the spaciousness of Rohmer’s filmography. The resolutions earlier governed by traditional Catholicism give way to simple depictions of human folly and destiny.
The Tale of Summer (1996), the penultimate of the Four Seasons anthology, is one of my favourites precisely for this unassuming nature. It is the only of the four (and one of the only in his whole catalogue) to feature a male protagonist – the attractive, socially awkward and brooding student Gaspard. Walking along an empty beach on his rather depressing summer holiday in Brittany, Gaspard laments: “I feel everyone’s alive around me but me. I don’t exist. I am transparent, invisible.” Such Sartrean sentiments have as little substance as you might expect. Rohmer doesn’t wish for us to question our whole existence; this is an uncritical demonstration of the dogmatism and melodrama of youth. The conclusion of the film reflects this irony; Gaspard does not find his great love, but rather leaves town because he has found a good deal on music recording equipment. The final of the series, The Tale of Autumn, (one of Rohmer’s last films, made when he was 78) is another bittersweet and unassuming, truly ‘Rohmerian’farewell; characters in the autumn of their life who own a vineyard with similarly maturing grapes (however absurd that might sound as a comparison) find love through humorous coincidence.
Ending on an ambiguous and un-profound note is perhaps where Rohmer finds his simple romantic profundity. Philosophising gets us nowhere, why not just leave life up to destiny?