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Celebrated 'New Wave' French film director Eric Rohmer dies

Text by Jon FROSCH

Latest update : 2010-01-12

French filmmaker and critic Eric Rohmer, a seminal figure of the French New Wave and director of celebrated movies such as “My Night at Maud’s”, died on Monday in Paris. The filmmaker’s work was regarded as distinctive for its emphasis on words.

French filmmaker and critic Eric Rohmer, a seminal figure of the French New Wave and director of celebrated movies such as “My Night at Maud’s”, died on Monday in Paris. He was 89.

Following the news of Rohmer’s death, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said of the director, “Classical and romantic, well-behaved and iconoclastic, light and serious, sentimental and moralising, he created a 'Rohmerian' style that will survive him.”

Though that style was known as less bold and provocative than that of some of Rohmer’s fellow New Wave directors such as Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, the filmmaker’s work was regarded as distinctive for its emphasis on words.

French New Wave cinema

The French New Wave refers to a group of French filmmakers of the late 1950s and 1960s known for rejecting classical cinematic conventions. Their work was marked by what were seen as experimental editing techniques, a bold visual style that used unconventional camera angles, and subject matter that reflected existential themes, as well as a new political and social engagement. Some of the most famous French New Wave directors include François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette, and Eric Rohmer.

‘The most literary filmmaker of the New Wave’

Rohmer’s films often featured long takes of meandering, reflective conversations between men and women in love. French Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand praised Rohmer for having "invented a cinematographic language that draws (its strength) from the subtleties of the French language".

Rohmer’s best-known film in the English-speaking world is 1969’s “My Night at Maud’s”, centered on a long discussion between a young man and his friend’s lover. Upon its release, The New York Times’ film critic said the film played “almost as if it were music” and marvelled at how Rohmer made “so much talk so unaffectedly cinematic.”

The attention to language found in Rohmer’s films reflected the filmmaker’s interest in the ways in which people use words to circle around their desires. In an interview about his 1979 film “Perceval le gallois”, a story about a 12th century knight, Rohmer said: “When you compare how people speak now to how people spoke in the Middle Ages, you find that we’re much clumsier and more obscure now…we said things very simply and directly then…”

Rohmer enjoyed considerable critical support throughout his career. In an interview with, Franck Garbarz, a critic for French film magazine “Positif” remembered Rohmer as “the most literary filmmaker of the New Wave” and “a great painter of the female soul”.

But the talkiness of Rohmer’s movies also earned him a reputation among more mainstream audiences as the director of films that could be a challenge to sit through. A character played by Gene Hackman in Arthur Penn's 1975 film "Night Moves" famously griped: “I saw a Rohmer movie once….It was kind of like watching paint dry.”

From film critic to film director

Born Jean-Marie Maurice Scherer on April 4, 1920, in the eastern French city of Nancy, Rohmer worked early on as a journalist and then as a teacher.

Rohmer published the novel "Elisabeth" in 1946 under the pseudonym Gilbert Cordier.

In 1950, he moved to Paris, where he eventually joined the film revue Les Cahiers du Cinéma and became acquainted with other young film enthusiasts – Godard, Truffaut, as well as Claude Chabrol and Jacques Rivette – that would begin their careers as critics before becoming world-famous film directors.

Rohmer set up his own production company, Les Films du Losange, and made 24 feature films over a 50-year career. Among those that garnered both rapturous critical praise and a devoted arthouse following outside of France included “Claire’s Knee”, a story of erotic obsession, and “Pauline at the Beach”, about the romantic entanglements of young women on summer vacation.

Impact beyond French borders

Rohmer has been cited as an inevitable influence on American filmmakers - such as Woody Allen, and more recently Noah Baumbach (“The Squid and The Whale” and “Margot at the Wedding”) – whose films favour romantically and intellectually charged dialogue over action.

In an interview with FRANCE 24, Marc Cerisuelo, Professor of Cinema Studies at the University of Provence, explained that Rohmer was indeed both a quintessentially French filmmaker and one that had an impact far beyond French borders. “By being so specifically French in the quality of the language and dialogue in his films, in the attention to his characters, he was able to become universal.”

Date created : 2010-01-12