Eric Rohmer Remembered in “Six Moral Tales”

An American Cinematheque Tribute

By Diane Sippl

Tucked away complacently in his Parisian home under the pseudonym “Eric Rohmer,” and noted for spending years without a phone, a car, or even a taxi ride from time to time, but with family, faith, and a firm devotion to nature, cinema, and its related arts, Eric Rohmer presented us with many paradoxes.  To start, even after his passing this year, he is one of the most enduring auteurs of the French New Wave despite his proclaimed distaste for the very auteurism that put the nouvelle vague on the map. His outpour of work was ceaseless for sixty years, with predictably recurrent themes within a rigidly self-styled and vastly self-theorized brand of realism. And yet those austere and seemingly quotidian films still swim free as fish in the waves of the Côte-d’Azur, well ahead of the lure that pulls fans back every time.

In one weekend at the American Cinematheque’s Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, (July 16th and 17th) old fans and newcomers alike can see how it all started.  Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales will be shown with double features each night, and viewers can also enjoy the rare chance to see the two shorter films, The Bakery Girl at Monceau and Suzanne’s Career, which are really where it all started, before La Collectionneuse in 1967, Rohmer’s first color film, gloriously shot by Nestor Almendros far from Paris.

To catch the marvel of a Rohmer film in the moment is one thing, but to reduce it to words is possibly the one feat he would deny us, even if he himself wrote close to 300 articles, reviews, and books doing just that. Remember, this is the man who never allowed photos of himself on the set and drew up contracts to the effect that he would not be required to promote his films, who refused festival appearances even at Cannes, and who donned a disguise of a moustache and glasses on the exceptional occasion that he arrived in Venice to be lauded. In 2001 that city’s festival awarded him a “Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement,” which highlights the fact that no sizeable film museum or cinématheque could refuse a periodic retrospective of his oeuvre.

Rohmer the realist claimed over and over that art cannot improve upon life itself, and that the best that cinema can do is to present life to us with as little interference as possible, to be a window on the world, to help us to see. It’s not difficult to accept this premise upon viewing his films as they charm us with the whims and wiles of the characters. What’s astonishing is to go behind the scenes for a minute and see exactly how it all transpired.

Nearly two years ago Patrick Bauchau, a prolific international film and television actor over the last three decades, was called to the stage of the Bing Theater at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and a surprising déjà vu set in — in body and voice, mind and spirit....

It was a balmy summer night. Bedecked from head to toe in white (collarless shirt, slacks, slip-on shoes, and vest), all that the actor needed was a straw hat to crown his casually dapper Saint-Tropez image. Elegant, astute, articulate, he was the prototypical Rohmerian cad and more. Bauchau was urbane and debonair (among other pursuits, his Belgian father and Russian mother ran a finishing school in Switzerland). If the actor’s physique and coloring suggested the figures of Gregory Peck and Sean Connery rolled into one, his lifestyle was perhaps closer to that of John Lennon. An Oxford graduate in Language Studies (he is fluent in five), Bauchau spoke with graceful stage diction but also nuanced, hip English that anyone of Rohmer’s calling (the director had been a fiction writer and professor of French Literature) would have eaten up alive. By the end of the evening, it was difficult to decide who was more the enigma, Rohmer or Bauchau (who as the protagonist of the night’s film, the rarely screened La Collectionneuse, was an uncanny stand-in for the persona of the writer-director). To follow are excerpts from Bauchau’s responses; I conclude with my afterthoughts.

Bauchau began, “Rohmer started with TV movies for schools — he had been teaching literature and then made these educational films — and gradually he went from Molière to his “Moral Tales.” He would do six variations on one theme, beginning with La Boulangère de Monceau and La Carrière de Suzanne, then to La Collectionneuse, and then to My Night with Maude, Claire’s Knee and Love in the Afternoon. 

At that time I was in New York checking out what was happening in cinema. I wanted to be a part of it, maybe even direct, and it seemed there were two people who were really doing something fresh — John Cassavetes, who had made Shadows, and Barbet Schroeder. They were unbelievable. When I returned to Paris I got to know the clan at Cahiers du Cinéma, the New Wave magazine Rohmer edited, through Barbet, who was acting in Rohmer’s first “Moral Tale” and then producing Rohmer’s films through his own company, Les Films du Losange. So soon enough I got a role in the second “Moral Tale,” and then again in the third one to be shot, La Collectionneuse.

We used to meet at the home of Madame Schroeder, Barbet’s mother, and Rohmer got us to talk about our lives. We talked into his Nagra and Rohmer recorded us; this was the basis for his screenplays. 

The dialogue for La Collectionneuse is overwritten. In French you hear that it has an 18th-century flavor to it. Rohmer saw the 18th century as the apex of civilization. He liked the quality of the language at that time (for example, in La Marquise d’O…). So Adrien, my character in La Collectionneuse, read Rousseau.

There never really was a script. In the mornings Rohmer would give us a page of dialogue, which was what he
thought was our take on the scene. We then improvised, which is a big word, because we had no chance for mistakes or experiments. We had two hours of film stock, so we had a single take to get it right — or not at all.

It was Nestor Almendros’ first feature, so he used mostly natural light. We shot from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m., keeping the same hours as the characters in the story, and then again at 4 p.m. to be able to use the same quality of light. We had no electricity. No sound track was shot. It was all dubbed.

This was my first dash at acting — Rohmer just threw it at me. It’s a real ‘60s piece — it was a shocker when it came out. Every critic in France hated it. They tossed us off as a bunch of hippies. Yet a guy found a 60-seat theater in Paris and kept it running for three years. No one made a nickel from this movie (except maybe Barbet).

In the film, Haydée is totally mysterious… What became of her? The last scene ends with us on the road, and she’s invited into another car when friends pass by. She goes off with them to Italy — as she did in life. La Collectionneuse ended in Saint-Tropez. Just then the actress (Haydée Politoff) went to Italy and became a movie star for ten years and then married a British rock star and moved to San Francisco and may be living in America now, somewhere around Big Sur.

Carole, the girl who ran off to London at the beginning of the film, is my wife, Mijanou, and it was her last role.

There’s a Proustian feeling to Rohmer’s films. His fascination with tapestries and sculptures, for example, shows him to be a figure of an ancien régime, not a nouvelle régime.  There was a monarchist aspect to his personality. He always kept a very private life. No photos have been taken of him in the forty years since he started his company with Barbet. Maurice Scherer was his real name. We could see him at tea time, Barbet and I and others — you could visit him then — and he was surrounded by girls, and they talked, and talked, and he got it all down….”

Looking at Patrick Bauchau, I reflected on Rohmer’s breakthrough as a filmmaker. When La Collectionneuse won a Silver Bear at the 1967 Berlin Film Festival, outside of showcasing Rohmer’s own personal brand of realism, it launched his appeal for filmgoers across Europe. The 35 mm film, shot in luminous Eastman Kodak color stock and with a shooting ratio of 1.5 to 1, established Nestor Almendros as an innovator of naturalistic cinematography. The tiny coterie of crew and cast (who lent their real-life personalities to their characters via Rohmer’s incorporation of snatches of their recorded conversations into his original script with their shared writers’ credits) had lived together in one villa at Ramatuelle near Saint-Tropez to make the film, which cost $12,000. The first run of La Collectionneuse in Paris brought 50,000 viewers to see it (most of them at the Left Bank art cinema, Studio-Gît-le-Coeur) with 300,000 tickets sold in all runs.

This master of realism, who would have been 89 today, began with the “Moral Tales” and then made “Comedies and Proverbs” and “Tales of the Seasons” as well as numerous, and even very recent, experiments in cinema.  We follow Rohmer’s intimately aligned and maligned characters to the beach or the vineyard or the pied-à-terre, from the Riviera to Normandy or to Paris under the full moon, where cerebral but spontaneous, they ponder and amble and crisscross each other with the directionless precision of a well-made play. They talk and think out loud (via a narrator) and talk some more. It’s Marivaux at Le Mans or Molière at Annecy, but in jeans and bikinis. Self-absorbed, and mildly and unconsciously obsessed, Rohmer’s casualties of jeux d’amour pull themselves “together” despite the value of the risks they might have taken.

The series at the American Cinematheque’s Aero Theatre is presented in association with the French Film and TV Office, French Embassy, Los Angeles, and CultureFrance.

A handsome and comprehensively documented DVD box set of all Six Moral Tales is available from The Criterion Collection.  Video interviews of Rohmer and essays on his films by renowned figures who either knew him or admire his work abound in the accompanying materials, both digital and printed.

All photographs are of  Haydée Politoff and Patrick Bauchau (with Daniel Pommereulle), La Collectionneuse.

La Collectionneuse

Director: Eric Rohmer; Producers: Georges de Beauregard and Barbet Schroeder; Cinematographer: Nestor Almendros; Music: Blossom Toes and Giorgio Gomelsky; Editor: Jacquie Raynal.

Cast: Haydée Politoff, Patrick Bauchau, Daniel Pommereulle, Alain Jouffroy, Mijanou, Annik Morice, Denis Berry, Seymour Hertzberg.

Color, 35mm, 87 minutes.  In French with English subtitles.

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