There are great artists, and then there are those who are part of a cultural shift. They are not always one and the same, though a case could certainly be made for filmmaker Eric Rohmer.
Rohmer, who died in Paris Monday at 89, was not the most visually visceral or widely known of the French filmmakers who became known as La Nouvelle Vague, or The New Wave. Rohmer was more stylistically simplistic than such contemporaries as Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, favoring conversations over camera tricks and editing; but oh, the conversations his characters have.
The debates over faith in the great My Night at Maud’s, discussions on the nature of life in Claire’s Knee, the seemingly innocent circular flirtations of Love in the Afternoon (aka Chloe in the Afternoon) and love, always love.
Even in old age, Rohmer infused his films with a young romantic’s heart; one of my favorites is A Summer’s Tale—made when Rohmer was in his mid-70s. Like many of his films, A Summer’s Tale is elegant in its simplicity: A young man arrives in a beach town, awaiting the woman he (thinks he) loves; but while he waits, he meets two other very different women. The pleasure comes from watching how the relationships unfold, the questions that are raised, the choices that are made.
Rohmer often bound his films to an overriding conceit (the movies that make up his “six moral tales” and “four seasons” series account for nearly a third of his cinematic filmography; he also directed frequently for television). Just as often, his stories featured a man on the precipice of commitment or a man trapped by commitment. But Rohmer always took these tales to singular, unexpected places.
I came to Rohmer late, first seeing a small handful of his films in the mid-1990s, then wondering what took so long to discover his warm, sly, distinctly human work. I am still catching up with Eric Rohmer (his work spanned six decades, after all), and I know I am not alone. Hopefully his passing will spur others to give one of his movies a try; he may be gone, but his films remain alive, timeless and eternally youthful.