As a luminary of the French New Wave movement, Eric Rohmer (1920-2010) epitomized multifaceted artistry. He distinguished himself not only as the seminal editor of Cahiers du Cinema but also as a discerning film critic, erudite writer, adept screenwriter, accomplished director, and influential educator. His cinematic oeuvre diverged from the provocative and iconoclastic ethos characterizing the works of luminaries like Godard and Truffaut within the New Wave movement. Instead, Rohmer’s films exuded a certain classicism, portraying quotidian existence with a simplicity and timelessness, underscored by profound philosophical dialogues.
In the realm of artistic expression, novels are often deemed superior to films in delineating the intricacies of characters’ inner worlds. However, Rohmer’s films stand as a notable exception, brimming with profound literary qualities reminiscent of Proust and Dostoevsky. Unlike narratives driven by intricate plots, Rohmer’s cinematic masterpieces are dedicated to plumbing the depths of human nature and exploring the recesses of the subconscious psyche.
Exploration of Psychological Truth in Love Narratives
Despite the tumultuous socio-political milieu of 1960s France, Rohmer’s cinematic repertoire remained steadfastly focused on intimate narratives of love. While some critics lamented this apparent detachment from grand societal themes, Rohmer’s steadfast commitment to portraying middle-class romance reveals an unwavering dedication to exploring the intricacies of the human heart. His characters, ranging from engineers to diplomats, engage in fervent discussions encompassing philosophy, art, morality, religion, and love, underscoring Rohmer’s pedigree as a novelist-turned-filmmaker adept at capturing the nuances of everyday life.
Rohmer’s meticulous attention to detail and adept portrayal of subtle psychological shifts constitute the revolutionary essence of his cinematic creations. Eschewing conventional narrative structures, Rohmer weaves captivating tales devoid of traditional plot arcs, relying instead on serendipitous encounters and intricate interpersonal dynamics to propel his narratives forward. In the preface to his collection “Six Moral Tales,” Rohmer candidly acknowledges his fascination with the intricacies of human thought and emotion, emphasizing the centrality of psychological veracity over didactic moralizing.
Central to Rohmer’s cinematic lexicon is the exploration of desire, emotion, and morality within the labyrinth of human relationships. Through nuanced depictions of loyalty, betrayal, longing, and disillusionment, Rohmer unveils the elusive nature of love’s complexities, inviting viewers to contemplate the tumultuous terrain of the human heart.
The Chronicles of Love and Indecision
Rohmer’s protagonists inhabit a realm of quietude and introspection, seemingly resigned to the purgatorial confines of their existence. Yet beneath the veneer of mediocrity lies a seething undercurrent of anxiety and existential turmoil. In Rohmer’s cinematic tableau, moments of silence serve as crucibles wherein the true essence of the characters is laid bare, revealing a spectrum of emotions ranging from quiet desperation to fervent longing.
Through exquisite cinematography, Rohmer deftly captures the subtle nuances of human interaction, juxtaposing serene landscapes with the tumult of inner turmoil. Whether traversing bustling streets or idyllic seascapes, Rohmer’s characters engage in impassioned discussions on matters of philosophy, art, and love, mirroring the dialectical nature of the human soul.
Navigating the Labyrinth of Desire and Morality
While Rohmer’s narrative aesthetic draws inspiration from the suspense-laden intrigue of detective cinema, his storytelling remains anchored in the realm of human psychology. Eschewing grandiose plot machinations, Rohmer’s narratives pivot on the intricate interplay of desires, emotions, and moral quandaries. Through protracted dialogues and introspective monologues, he lays bare the existential contradictions inherent within the human condition, eschewing facile moral judgments in favor of nuanced explorations of ethical ambiguity.
In Rohmer’s cinematic universe, characters grapple with the perennial dilemma of reconciling personal desires with moral imperatives, navigating a labyrinth of conflicting emotions and ethical quandaries. Against a backdrop of vibrant visual imagery, Rohmer invites viewers to ponder the complexities of human nature, presenting a kaleidoscopic tapestry of love, desire, and moral introspection.
Frederic’s reverie in “Love in the Afternoon” epitomizes the clandestine yearnings of men. He envisioned a enigmatic contrivance suspended from his neck, capable of emanating a magnetic field potent enough to obfuscate human volition. Thus emboldened, he traversed the thoroughfare and engaged in discourse with five fortuitous femmes. He triumphed with the initial four, yet the rebuff of the final damsel rudely awakened him to reality, vanquished and disheartened. Adrian, in “The Collector,” perceives himself as virtuous and immaculate, yet employs Ed as a pawn in his stratagem; reluctant to succumb to Ed’s allure, he redirects her attentions toward his confidant, Daniel. To these gentlemen, Ed assumes the guise of an object of longing, prompting both to distance themselves and vie for moral ascendancy. In “Clare’s Knees,” Gérôme, a diplomat affianced already, embarks on a sojourn and encounters two maidens, Laura and Claire. He seeks solace in Laura’s company but consistently reminds her of his betrothal. Confronted with Claire’s allure, his desire fixates upon her knees. Rather than labeling Gérôme’s fascination with Claire’s knees as a mere fetish, it is preferable to posit that his longing transcends mere corporeality, seeking affirmation and fulfillment of his clandestine and timorous desires. In “A Night at Maude’s House,” Jean-Louis and Vidale mirror each other’s dispositions. Vidale introduces Jean-Louis to Maude, and Jean-Louis, despite temptation, resists her advances. Unexpectedly, when compromising with one’s desires, a formidable barrier presents itself.
Without exception, the protagonists in the “Six Moral Stories” anthology grapple with covert carnal torment under the guise of rhetoric and rectitude. They are ensnared in the paradox of explicating their convictions while ceaselessly extolling their moral precepts and amorous philosophies. Their involvement in relationships is marked by vacillation between temptation and virtue, oscillating between ardor and austerity, ultimately capitulating to desire in a manner tinged with chagrin. This may be construed as Rohmerian eroticism—wherein events unfold, yet the denouement belies a sense of stasis.
The French philosopher Michel Selso contends that Rohmer’s oeuvre embodies a veritable dialectic, revering ontological realism amidst the vicissitudes of circumstance and individual belief. This dialectic lays bare the vicissitudes of love and survival, wherein opinions and pronouncements merely serve as proxies and masquerades. Within Rohmer’s cinematic milieu, both men and women confront the tribulations of love. If we invoke Freudian parlance—id, ego, and superego—the male characters in Rohmer’s narratives find themselves ensnared betwixt morality (superego) and desire (id), while their female counterparts grapple with the complexities of romantic choice. “The pursuit of happiness, the comedic or tragic resolution of love’s vicissitudes, are but facets of the ultimate quandary. The crux of the matter lies in the interplay between self-discovery and love’s embrace.” They navigate the labyrinth of love amidst the dialectic of liberty and obligation, sensibility and rationality.
Rohmer commenced his “Comedy and Proverbs” series in the 1980s, shifting the narrative focus towards women. The majority of these films adopt a feminine perspective, delving into the innermost recesses of the female psyche. In stark contrast to the timorous, hypocritical, and inert male archetypes prevalent in the “Six Moral Tales,” Rohmer’s portrayal of women is characterized by vibrancy, beauty, sensitivity, and passion. His narratives not only chronicle romantic entanglements between men and women but also explore the camaraderie amongst women, elucidating the myriad choices contemporary women confront in their quest for love. In “Green Light,” Delphine meanders aimlessly during a vacation, a soul adrift amidst a sea of sentimentality and dread. She remains out of step with the vibrant milieu surrounding her, eschewing the advances of men who seek her favor. Innately sensitive, she often finds solace in solitary tears, fervently believing in the ineffable power of love symbolized by the serendipitous appearance of a “green light” at dusk. She ascribes the advent of love to this mystical phenomenon, embodying a romanticism at odds with reality. In contrast, Sabine’s perspective on love in “A Good Marriage” is pragmatic and rational. A graduate student in art history, she exudes confidence tinged with naivety, aspiring to wed a prosperous suitor and assume the mantle of a contented housewife. Encountering the lawyer Aymond by chance, she harbors delusions of an ideal union, awaiting his proactive courtship. However, reality fails to align with her expectations, prompting her to embark upon a calculated pursuit of matrimony, heedless of the inevitable repercussions…
Rohmer’s enduring fascination with the emotional tapestry of contemporary existence underscores the complexities of choice amidst life’s labyrinthine contours. His female protagonists, whether romantic or pragmatic, navigate the precarious tightrope between sensibility and rationality, endeavoring to strike a harmonious balance between emotional entanglement and autonomy. Anna and Louise in “The Pilot’s Wife” and “The Full Moon Reflects Flowers” find themselves ensnared in the dichotomy of freedom and love. Anna, torn between a married paramour and François, grapples with the conflicting desires for personal space and emotional fulfillment, while Louise endeavors to reconcile her yearning for urban excitement with suburban domesticity. Alas, both are fated to dwell in the liminal space between freedom and love.
Undoubtedly, Rohmer emerges as a master of human observation, eschewing grandiloquence in favor of intimate vignettes depicting the myriad permutations of love. His narratives eschew the bombast of epic romance, instead, reveling in the minutiae of everyday encounters and happenstance, wherein divergent personalities collide amidst the quotidian, yielding poignant insights into human nature. Through the lens of his camera, Rohmer captures the ineffable chemistry between characters, elucidating the tumultuous vicissitudes of desire, the moral quandaries inherent in romantic choice, and the labyrinthine paths traversed in the pursuit of love. If we dare to invoke Chernyshevsky’s concept of the “dialectics of the soul” to elucidate Tolstoy’s oeuvre, then Rohmer’s cinematic tapestry may likewise be christened the “dialectics of the soul” in the realm of love.