Éric Rohmer wasn’t his real name. He was born Maurice Schérer, the name by which his mother knew him her whole life. As far as she was concerned, Maurice was a teacher in a lycée in Paris. She never knew of the existence of Éric Rohmer, nor that her son was an internationally lauded filmmaker and one-time editor-in-chief of Cahiers du Cinéma. His cinema, too, was self-denying. Rohmer idolized André Bazin, the influential French film theorist who argued that cinema was the “culmination in time of photographic objectivity”—that film should forgo the artifice of its creation and instead claim to be a snapshot of reality, a reflection of the world taking place in front of the camera. Ignore the origins of the image and its mediation, said Bazin; the world one chooses to depict is the world itself.
Many of Rohmer’s productions followed this model closely. The cast and crew, including Rohmer, would live in shared accommodation, often extremely frugal and without basic amenities, near the filming location, and where possible scenes would be shot in sequence. The hierarchical status of the auteur, bussed in from a luxury hotel, was anathema to Rohmer’s working methods. As his filmmaking developed, he rejected 35mm for 16mm, with the latter’s visible grain making for a less obviously cinematic image. He also moved away from the wider frames associated with large-scale or epic cinema toward a more televisual, square 1:33 frame, with The Green Ray (1986) even premiering on French television before its cinema run. In the words of his biographers, Rohmer considered this televisual framing, with its defiantly non-cinematic look, as opening the film up to the “epiphany of banality.”
Banality might suggest inconsequentiality, but it’s not as simple as that. Rohmer was seeking a mixture of Bazinian objectivity and what he called, reworking a famous remark from Rimbaud, an “absolutely classic” style. This emphasis on the classical hints at the incongruity of Rohmer, or “le grand Momo” as he was known, among those younger and more politically radical New Wave filmmakers like Godard and Truffaut, whom he used to edit for Cahiers, and with whom he is often grouped. Such a grouping collapses filmmakers clumsily under the banner of “French cinema,” but Rohmer’s classicism has always set him apart from his younger colleagues, who eventually ousted him from Cahiers.
In place of the rapid-fire scene cuts, extreme close-ups and structural innovation embraced by the French New Wave, Rohmer’s films are characterized by long, locked-off frames and slow tracking shots of people walking through sunny towns, cities and countryside. The films radiate a quiet beauty. The buildings and clothes come in muted pastels, and the sound design is marked by the ambient noises of distant traffic or the wash of the sea. In one sequence in The Green Ray, the restless Delphine (played by Marie Rivière) wanders down a leafy lane, reaches a barred gate, and is met by a sudden breeze. Suddenly, she is on the verge of tears. The closed pathways mirror the dead-end jobs and relationships that have defined her life in Paris; she is here in this beautiful place, stuck. In the Bazinian tradition, no attention is drawn to the filmmaking apparatus in the process of telling the story; here, style is an apparent absence of style. We sit with the characters, hear their opinions and watch them work out their problems, all the while remaining, from our omnipotent position, one step ahead of their epiphanies. What we get in Rohmer’s calm, sophisticated mise-en-scene is a sensation, a “feel,” or what today might be called a vibe.
The Green Ray is one in a sequence of six comedy-dramas that Rohmer made between 1981 and 1987 that he called “Comedies and Proverbs.” Last summer, I watched them all. Rohmer was not a director I knew well—I was much more familiar with Godard, Truffaut, Varda and Melville—but seeing these films in close succession proved to be a revelatory experience. I was watching them from my home in Liverpool in the long, grim aftershadow of Brexit, as the U.K. hauled itself out of a fifty-year relationship with Europe. In this context the films appeared as dispatches from a shared memory now abandoned.
The distance from Europe palpably intensified the Frenchness of Rohmer’s work for me. The “Comedies and Proverbs,” based around the rootless lives of young people in Paris and northern France, are set in beautiful, sunny landscapes, cities and suburbs. They unfold slowly, often without a musical soundtrack, and are filled with long scenes of conversation. They appeared so markedly un-British—so un-cold, so un-mean, so un-isolated—as to create a sort of nostalgia for the France depicted by Rohmer, or not just France but the more nebulous sense of “Europe,” whatever that means now.
This nostalgic response to his films, it turns out, is already something of a cliché. At the height of my Rohmer phase, I wondered if anyone was writing on his work in 2022, and whether his reception had changed in recent years. The first thing I came across was not film criticism but a 2021 article in GQ about “the Rohmer Guy.” The success of Luca Guadagnino’s Mediterranean romance Call Me By Your Name had, it turned out, prompted a resurgence of interest in the kind of fetishized “continental” scenarios and personas at which Rohmer excelled:
Have you met a Rohmer guy? Perhaps you already are one, or desire to be one, and don’t know it yet. A Rohmer guy is a guy who looks like he should be an extra in the movie The Green Ray: wearing a sweater while hanging out at the beach, despite the heat. Rohmer guys like to wear loose fitting shirts—preferably in polyester or linen … a Rohmer guy does not have to have even seen an Éric Rohmer movie.
What is important here is the onscreen textures, the clothing, the visuals. Rohmer’s films are depicted as empty, a mere prompt to style: “The best scenes in the French director’s oeuvre are the ones where nothing really happens at all. A light breeze passes over a woman’s face in Biarritz. A man drives a boat across an opalescent lake on the Swiss border.” Was I a Rohmer Guy? The suggestion that Rohmer’s contemporary influence need not involve seeing the films at all takes the fetishization of the French “vibe” to an extreme—but I recognized something of my own initial reaction to Rohmer, my embrace of the “feel” of his work ahead of its politics. And yet, the closer I looked at Rohmer’s films, the more unstable this impression became.
My family rarely traveled abroad during my youth, but we did visit Brittany once in the mid-1980s, at the exact time, and in the same place, that Rohmer was making these films. My unhappiness at the U.K.’s isolation from the continent felt enmeshed with a memory of my youthful trip, the vibrancy of Rohmer’s filmmaking conveying a doubled nostalgia for things past. In the post-Brexit U.K., the entrenchment of political opinion on the referendum, which has now become so taboo that it’s barely discussed, has created a new fetishization of Europe in the liberal mind, where the ongoing immiseration of British life can seem ever more unappealing when set against some—any—European utopia over the water. Regardless of whether it is true or not—and it often isn’t—this fetishization manifests Europe as less isolated, less inward-looking, more relaxed, more dedicated to cooperation between nations.
In retrospect, it’s easy to see the slow gestation of Brexit in the British consciousness, a blunderbuss-style xenophobia that often conflates France with the EU and “Europe” in general. (A notorious broadside from The Sun back in 1990 railed against French president Jacques Delors for exporting “dodgy food,” promoting a single European currency and banning British beef.) There are two competing images of France: the sunny beaches, wine and culture depicted in Rohmer’s films; and the obfuscatory, cowardly bureaucrats of the tabloids’ imagination. After the rancorous rhetoric of Brexit, it’s tempting for those who feel disenfranchised to merge all these versions of France into something else, a Not-Britain in which the conservative small-mindedness of the isolated island is forsworn in favor of a looser, easier sense of community. Rohmer’s “Comedies and Proverbs” seemed to me to scratch exactly this itch, their lack of obvious politics and auteurism allowing me to bathe in the vision of a more fair-weathered place. I saw it in the footloose way in which Marie Rivière travels from town to town in The Green Ray, meeting groups of acquaintances, discussing the ethics of vegetarianism over lunch, before deciding abruptly to move on to another location. I saw it in the crisscrossing romances of Pauline at the Beach, where the painful elements of relationships are continually deferred—“Love can’t be forced,” says Arielle Dombasle to Amanda Langlet—to some future outside of the frame of the film itself. I saw it in the films’ lack of schematic plot; the spirit of farce lies, gossamer-like, over these stories, but they never become clotted with incident or convolution. Fundamentally, it’s an easy form, an approach that feels dialogic, situations changeable according to debate or whim.
The production of the “Comedies and Proverbs” was concurrent with François Mitterrand’s socialist government (1981-1995) and the consolidation of mass tourism in France. It was a time when mainstream French politics were broadly leftist, and the image of France abroad, particularly across the channel, had become a byword for accessible, laissez-faire sophistication. The era marked the decline of the international popularity of the more radical French cinema of Rohmer’s contemporaries: Truffaut had died prematurely in 1984, and Godard, with the exception of his starry 1987 adaptation of King Lear, maintained a lower profile.
Rohmer’s Mitterrand-era films can be seen as an inversion of the New Wave’s work in Gaullist France: leftist government, conservative style. In 1986, having moved past the revolutionary shock of the nouvelle vague and a seventies slump, during which French cinema gained a reputation among British audiences for saucy B-movies and arthouse erotica, Claude Berri’s Jean de Florette (1986) became a major hit across the Channel. The film appealed to audiences abroad with some of the most evident “heritage” touristic motifs France had to offer: romance, agrarianism, wine country, beautiful landscapes. The Green Ray, the story of a single woman, Delphine (Marie Rivière), who vacations in a series of different places after a breakup, was drawn into this wave and became a minor U.K. success story, with the Sunday Telegraph suggesting it had been made with “one eye on the French Tourist Board.” The film does indeed make the most of the cinematic qualities of the French landscape; Rivière wanders across fields, mountains and beaches, before finding peace while observing the eponymous flash of green light that accompanies the setting sun. The success of these films in the U.K. was partially dependent upon their representations of a certain French lifestyle; one did not have to book a package holiday to bask vicariously in the rustic, touristic visions served up on the screen.
Not all of the “Comedies and Proverbs” are set in the picturesque countryside, or even in Paris. Full Moon in Paris (1984) and Boyfriends and Girlfriends (1987) make extensive use of the newly built brutalist Parisian suburbs, less commonly seen in French cinema of the time. As in The Green Ray, the plots of these films revolve around characters in interstitial situations. In the former, Pascale Ogier portrays a woman torn between her suburban lover and a more bohemian life in Paris; in the latter, Emmanuelle Chaulet and Sophie Renoir play friends who move awkwardly through a series of partners. Rohmer’s camera lingers on characters wending their way, often aimlessly, through these concrete suburban structures and their clean architectural lines. Boyfriends and Girlfriends, unusually for Rohmer, contains a number of wide establishing shots from above, showing the intricate layout of the housing, shops and colleges that make up the new town of Cergy-Pontoise, on the northwest outskirts of Paris.
Rohmer had more than a cinematic interest in these new towns. He didn’t just use them as locations for the “Comedies and Proverbs,” but acted as a consultant on the development of Cergy-Pontoise himself. After speaking at a conference for the local development authority in 1984, he was recruited to the town’s sponsorship and development committee. Rohmer’s biography reveals that he believed the brutalist architecture gave form to his characters’ “hopes, to their ideals, and to their disappointments,” but his interest in these new places was not so much utopian as pragmatic: for him, new towns and suburbs were necessary to stop the defacement of French cities with modern architecture. Modernism was not in and of itself a problem—“Modernism is not ugliness alone,” he wrote, “we have to learn to see it”—but it could tarnish the heritage of a traditional French city. He believed it was an immature form—its very presence retrospectively tainting the purity of traditional architecture. Throughout the “Comedies and Proverbs,” Rohmer alludes to a connection between the depthlessness of the characters and the “mediocrity in the construction” of the modern architecture in which they reside. Despite his supposedly Bazinian approach, his involvement in the development of the built environments in which the films take place suggests an unprecedented degree of directorial control, unfamiliar even to the most overbearing of auteurs, and yet this role remains invisible to all who watch the film.
In his later work, the mask of invisibility began to slip further. In The Tree, The Mayor and the Mediatheque (1993), the “absolutely classic” approach of the “Comedies and Proverbs” is gone, replaced with something more polemical. The setting is the village of Saint-Juire-Champgillon, where the socialist mayor, who is more interested in seeing his mistress in Paris, proposes a large-scale modern media center in the middle of the village. The implication of this plan is that the success of the project will give the mayor a foothold in national politics, and thus a way out of the village and back to Paris. A local teacher, played by Rohmer regular Fabrice Luchini, launches a campaign against the building on the grounds of tradition and environmentalism—the possible damage done to a local tree becomes a key part of the campaign—and the resultant farce concludes with the project being abandoned because of unsafe ground. The land itself rejects the architecture.
The film dramatizes a distaste for the despoilment of rural France by a metropolitan class, and the deregulation that allows local politicians to carry it out. This also manifests in The Tree as an interest in environmentalism as conservation. While environmental policy is often more commonly associated with the left, it has stronger ties to the right in France, with the Ministry of the Environment established in 1971 under Georges Pompidou, de Gaulle’s former prime minister. During the filming of The Tree, Rohmer even wrote a song about his vision for a more rural French future, titled “We’ll All Live in the Country,” which approaches the preservation of the natural environment as a matter of national heritage. The film marks a trend in Rohmer’s work whereby the politics of the right become more visibly entwined with his aesthetic; the concept of political progress is associated here with a decadent leftism. Unlike the more dialogic form of the Comedies and Proverbs, The Tree seeks specifically to problematize liberal values by associating them with a self-interested betrayal of nationalism. The film premiered in France as the Mitterrand government, hamstrung by its disastrous results in the 1993 legislative elections, entered its twilight years and France moved rightwards toward Jacques Chirac.
The last decade of Rohmer’s life, before his death in 2010, saw him abandon modern France altogether, in favor of historical and mythical dramas. Of these late films, the revolution-era drama The Lady and the Duke (2001) caused controversy in France for its pro-royalist stance. The film depicts the relationship between Louis Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, and the Scottish spy Grace Elliott, which ended with the duke being sent to the guillotine. The film is manifestly on the side of the aristocracy; the revolutionaries are depicted here as a wild, uncontrolled mob. It’s also Rohmer’s most artificial-looking film, using digital composite photography to distinguish interiors and exteriors, giving the film a self-consciously stagey look, and allowing Rohmer an unprecedented degree of control over the environment. Here, France takes the form of a painted portrait passing by a carriage window, or a digital vista seen from a hilltop.
This is Rohmer’s most openly conservative film, and his most aesthetically experimental. The painterly visual effects suggest a move away from the Bazinian realism of the “Comedies and Proverbs,” and toward something more like a mythos of aristocratic France, but the juxtaposition of these artificial landscapes with the violent action of the revolution also effaces the relaxed tone of the earlier films. By making the landscape more artificially attractive and the politics more visible, the film performed a sort of Verfremsdungeffekt on me, not least because in its painterly nostalgia for the aristocracy, I was brought face to face with the obverse of my fetishization of France; a French fetishization of British nobility.
In the midst of my Rohmer binge last summer, Liz Truss—at the time the leading candidate for prime minister—was asked by the press whether France was a friend or foe. Her reply, “the jury’s out,” caused international consternation, and prompted Emmanuel Macron to suggest that the U.K. not “lose [its] bearings too much.” Truss’s blustering, widely derided as diplomatically naïve, was of course only echoing the longstanding populist Franco- and Europhobia of the British press. Those ideas that the British have about the French, that symbolic encapsulation of their un-Britishness, are still being mined for their political capital. This, I realized, was what was ostensibly so appealing to me about the Rohmerian mise-en-scene, in an era in which British culture displays its most provincial and nasty qualities. French vibes, texture and lack of obvious auteurial interference provided a refuge for me, a place for meditation or comfort. It presented what felt like a fuller world, a better world, than the one on my parochial little island. In accepting that style, I was forgoing what was lying beneath the crystalline surface—and missing what the interplay of politics and aesthetics in his work revealed about my own escapist impulses. Éric Rohmer, or Maurice Schérer, cannot hide himself completely; in perceiving those moments of visibility we reveal something of ourselves.