The French director who specialized in art-house fare
A leader of the so-called new wave of arty French directors, Eric Rohmer made more than 50 movies, most of them critically acclaimed, which offered little action but plenty of talk. His own persona was as enigmatic as his films.
“Rohmer guarded his private life fiercely,” said the London Guardian. He was born either Maurice Henri Joseph Scherer or Jean-Marie Maurice Scherer, in either 1920 or 1923, in either the southwestern city of Tulle or the northeastern city of Nancy; he derived his pseudonym from director Erich von Stroheim and Sax Rohmer, author of the Fu Manchu books. After teaching high school literature, he fell in with Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and other postwar cinephiles in Paris, where he “established impeccable credentials for a future filmmaker” by writing critical essays for the influential magazine Cahiers du Cinéma.
“In 1952, Rohmer made his first attempt to direct a feature film,” said The New York Times. “But the project was abandoned when its producer declared bankruptcy.” His 1959 debut, The Sign of Leo, “a moody tale of an American expatriate who finds himself down and out in Paris,” drew little attention. But he soon achieved success with the series he called “Six Moral Tales.” Shot from 1962 to 1972, each entry dealt with, as Rohmer described it, “a man meeting a woman at the very moment when he is about to commit himself to someone else.” The best known of the series was probably My Night at Maud’s (1969).
A brilliant visual stylist, Rohmer was better known for his abundant dialogue, said the London Daily Telegraph. “His characters yakked more than any others in cinema, constantly analyzing their feelings and moral predicaments.” Their conversations were “generally conducted on a high philosophical plane, and were more likely to turn on pages from Pascal than on recipes or fashion.” Some of Rohmer’s works, such as Perceval le Gallois, his highly stylized 1978 version of the Grail legend, were stand-alone pieces. Usually, though, he made “interconnected clusters of films,” devoid of recurring characters yet “linked by a common theme or approach.” He preferred, he said, “to treat the same subject six times over, in the hope that by the sixth time the audience would come to me.”
Though hailed by his peers, and a 2001 recipient of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, Rohmer was so secretive that he had no telephone, rarely granted interviews, and once attended a premiere in disguise to avoid detection. He was married to Thérèse Barbet, who for years reportedly thought her husband was some sort of businessman.