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Eric Rohmer and the Roaming Eye

On the passing of a New Wave legend.

As a person, he was the most deferential of the New Wave directors, yet the most persistent. Eric Rohmer. He died yesterday, aged eighty-nine, and he had made 50 films in that time--as regular, as festive, but as resigned as birthdays--and they were all the same film, about men and women looking at each other. It sounds commonplace as a subject, perhaps, calm and contemplative.

But consider for a moment. Are you more or less a man or a woman? Are you more or less tied up with someone? Most people--you understand--answer “yes” to both those questions and to this one, the dangerous supplementary, “Are you still looking? Or still hoping to be noticed?” As soon as you put it like that you realize what a dangerous game looking can be, and then you remember how in 1957, with Claude Chabrol, Rohmer wrote a book called Hitchcock, about the way that amused, indolent English director fell in love with nearly ever woman he saw--until he had to imagine them murdered.

Not that Rohmer easily resorted to violence or fateful action. Far more often, his young people watched and talked, and tried to reconcile the facts of life with those hopes that hardly wither just because you’re growing older. Take Frederic in L’Amour, L’Apres-midi. He is a good-looking fellow with a beautiful wife who is expecting a second child. Isn’t this the way the story is expected to go--if we’re lucky? But Frederic is luckier than normal and unluckier. He was a touch innocent before marriage it seems, and he is quite pleased with himself now that marriage has given him the wisdom (or is it a curse?) that finds every woman beautiful. That’s why he looks on the street, after lunch, in the afternoon. In England and America, L’Amour, L’Apres-midi was translated as Love in the Afternoon (no matter that Billy Wilder had used that title already), but in the French it does not say this. It merely states an adjacency and leaves the chemistry to us.

So Frederic notices an old girlfriend. She’s fallen on hard times and Frederic thinks he is bound to help her. Isn’t it a natural kindness, a human duty? Or does her plight make her sexy? The crisis comes when he sees her naked and is prevented from action only by the sight of his haggard face in the mirror, watching the play.

That was 1972, and it was the last Rohmer film I watched closely. He was so steady a director--like Bonnard painting his wife in the bath or a meal cooling on the table--that many of us picked Rohmer for just a period. The films I loved were Ma Nuit Chez Maude, Le Genou de Claire, La Collectioneuse, and L’Amour, L’Apres-midi. I realize now--decades later--that as I stopped watching him very closely, in a way that I might see my reflection in the mirror, my marriage began to come apart.

Should we really live our lives according to the films we see? Are the screen’s stories waiting to take us over? No, of course not. We are free agents, n’est-ce pas? We walk down the street in the afternoon with hardly a glimmering of being noticed. Until we see someone. The great insight of Eric Rohmer was surely that, intellectually, he had seen the advantage of being blind. But, of course, the blind can smell and hear the smothered music in a shy voice. Truly, life is absurdly dangerous, and Eric Rohmer stepped out every day as sure of the peril as Alfred Hitchcock.

David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.