To those of us who have seen all of Eric Rohmer’s films it is impossible not to remember when, where, with whom we saw each one. I even remember the second and third time I saw his films. “My Night at Maud’s,” “Claire’s Knee,” “Chloe in the Afternoon” are grafted onto my life. Something happened between me and these films at the Thalia, at the Brattle, at the old Cinémathèque, or at the old Olympia Theater on the Upper West Side. But I can no longer isolate what that something is. I don’t even care to know what was exclusively Eric Rohmer’s and what was mine, what he was ever so cautious to convey and what I most likely misunderstood completely. The mix, as sometimes happens, becomes the work of art.
But then with Mr. Rohmer, who died this week at the age of 89, the mix is not incidental; it is essential. To see an Eric Rohmer film is not to escape from the drudgery of our daily lives; it is to sit quietly and have someone show us lives that are not entirely different from ours but different enough, situations we’ve all been in and couldn’t wait to get out of but could have learned from, if only we’d had the patience and the courage to sit through them.
Mr. Rohmer was the master of tact — tact in the way his characters behave with one another, tact in the way he himself, as a director, spun his tales, and ultimately tact with truth and fiction. In his hands, sex could be suspended, and passion, without ever boiling over, seldom went cold.
I can’t forget the scene in “My Night at Maud’s” when the very pious engineer in the business suit decides to sit on Maud’s bed while she is lying under the covers with only a T-shirt on, determined to seduce him. They stare at each other, and they talk, and she tells him things, and he tells her things, and still they talk, and it’s clear to everyone, including the characters themselves, that though this strange couple has just met hours earlier and may not share a sliver of love between them, what we’ve just witnessed is one of the most intimate scenes in movie history.
It is impossible to watch this scene or certain moments in “Tale of Autumn,” “A Good Marriage” or “Full Moon in Paris” and not envy the candor of Eric Rohmer’s men and women, their impulse to dissect each nuance of desire and then turn around and confide it right away to those who’d aroused them.
With my friends we used to call these situations Rohmerian. You meet A, you are drawn to A, but neither you nor A wish to rush things. You simply want to stop time a bit, and because neither of you cares to hide what you’re really doing, you decide to confess your maneuvers and are wildly grateful when told they were by no means unknown to the other. Rohmerian. What comes after this is seldom the business of art; it is the stuff of humdrum prose.
Since his death, the usual clichés about Eric Rohmer are once again pullulating on the Internet. He was talky. He was a mannerist. He was a classicist. Eric Rohmer — whose men are more into themselves than the women they are allegedly trying to seduce. Eric Rohmer — whose films, in the words of the character played by Gene Hackman in “Night Moves,” are like “watching paint dry.” Eric Rohmer — for whom courtship is a conceit for how people jockey into position vis-à-vis the things they want and seldom believe they’ll get.
What the commentary has missed is that Eric Rohmer was above all things a “moraliste.” The word is difficult to translate. All the men in his “Six Moral Tales” are either married or engaged to be married but, through a series of accidents, find themselves tempted to betray their beloveds. Each therefore is faced with a “moral” quandary.
It’s worth remembering that Mr. Rohmer was playing with words, using the word “moral” in a way that harks back to the French Moralists of the 17th century. Despite their emphasis on morality, men like Pascal, La Rochefoucauld and La Bruyère were urbane and disabused analysts of manners, mores and the human psyche. They were perpetually on the lookout for every insidious motivation in others and every instance of self-delusion in themselves. In the hands of a moralist, even sex becomes a conceit.
For all their self-analysis, Eric Rohmer’s men and women are not as penetrating as they wish to be. No one is evil, no one is too good either, and no one suffers, or at least not for long. They all muddle through courtship, never get their hands dirty; and the hard truths they must face are always given obliquely enough and never hurt. There are ugly facts enough on the outside.
With Eric Rohmer, as with Mozart, Austen, James and Proust, we need to remember that art is seldom about life, or not quite about life. Art is about discovery and design and reasoning with chaos. If there is one thing I will miss with Eric Rohmer’s death, it is the clarity, the candor and the pleasure with which one human can sit with another and reason about love and not forget, in Pascal’s words, that “the heart has reasons that reason knows nothing of.”
André Aciman, a professor of comparative literature at the City University of New York Graduate Center and the author of the forthcoming novel Eight White Nights.