Most people admire the sheer obstinacy of Eric Rohmer, who continues to make rather donnishly talky films, generally grouped together under a vague theme, long after his sort of very French and certainly intellectual cinema went out of vogue.
Not everybody likes them. They are sometimes thought just too damned civilised. But a good many older critics, and certainly older cinema-goers, still find them a blessing among the crude clatter of Hollywood and the often boringly predictable ‘art’ of many of Rohmer’s European contemporaries.
The Six Moral Tales form probably his most famous series. Most would vote for My Night at Maud’s or Claire’s Knee as the best of these variations on the theme of a man committed to a woman but deflected by a chance meeting with another. My favourite, however, is La Collectionneuse, the freshness of which makes up for its lack of sophisticated perfection of form. And Haydee Politoff’s bikini-clad young collector of men, who is the fulcrum of the drama, adds an erotic frisson even Claire’s Knee didn’t manage. Rohmer’s camera fixes on her as she walks, bronzed and half naked along the beach, as if to see if he can analyse not just her body but the nature which leads her to sleep with a different partner each night, virtually without thought or more than momentary pleasure.
The real central character, however, is Adrien, the good-looking but decidedly solemn intellectual who decides that he will not be seduced, much as he would like to be, but instead will wait for the English representative of true love briefly seen at the start of the film. He shares a St Tropez villa with the temptress and a rather more immediately likeable painter (Daniel Pommeruelle, a real-life artist). Rohmer analyses his three leading characters rather as if they were moths flying a little too near the light of desire. It’s nothing like a conventionally romantic or erotic film, but its hazy aura of summer in the south of France gives it at least an air of romantic and/or sexual expectation.
Rohmer has said that his films reach out only to the small minority prepared for the cinema’s less spectacular pleasures, and he certainly adhered to the tenets of the critic and writer André Bazinmore more than his fellow critics and film-makers with the influential New Wave Cahiers group (who in the end rejected him as reactionary).
Whether he actually is sometimes tiresomely old-fashioned is a moot point. Certainly he has more in common with Renoir, the old master of French cinema, than either Godard, Truffaut, Rivette or Chabrol. His point, well-made in La Collectionneuse as in all the Moral Tales, is that the secret dilemmas of individuals are as important as those of ‘the people’ or the state. But if that seems obvious, the films themselves seldom are. They are variations on a theme that almost seems to have a musical dimension – fluent, sometimes surprising and always intriguing to listen to if seldom powerful enough to rip your emotions apart.
Drama, for Rohmer, is made up of a number of frequently small incidents which culminate in an inevitable denouement. There are many kinds of film-making but Rohmer’s would be very difficult to beat within the confines of his chosen metier.