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    a knight on the set of Perceval le Gallois

    Two Identities, One Faith

    The Unspoken Catholicism in the Films of Éric Rohmer

    Tim Markatos

    September 14, 2020
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    Maurice Schérer wasn’t interested in movies. Born in 1920 to a Catholic, middle-class family in Tulle, the young Frenchman preferred literature and theater. He loved his Latin and Greek classes so much that he staged a school production of one of Virgil’s Eclogues. He moved to Paris to prepare for the qualifying exams to teach classics past the secondary school level, but failed them twice. He tried writing: at twenty-four he published, under a pen name, a novel, Élisabeth, which sold so poorly that his publisher declined to work with him again. Alas. Schérer settled for substitute teaching classics at high schools in the suburbs; an unremarkable career, yet one that contented his mother, always concerned that he might fall in with disreputable Parisian artists and bohemians. She died in 1970 having no reason to believe that her son was anything other than a schoolteacher – certainly not the internationally acclaimed filmmaker Éric Rohmer.

    “Éric Rohmer” was born in the postwar Paris of abundant movie theaters, student-run film clubs, and arts publications with short, fiery lifespans. Friends with more established writing careers had helped him monetize his thoughts about his new favorite pastime with a series of writing gigs, first at La Revue du cinéma, which shuttered within the year he started writing for them, and later for Jean-Paul Sartre’s Les Temps modernes. He was a perceptive critic who brought his literary taste to bear on his essays while making distinctions between excellence in film and excellence in literature. “Adaptations are justified only to the extent that they confirm, not that Hamlet or The Brothers Karamazov were in fact cinematic works, but that the cinema can be Shakespeare or Dostoyevsky,” he wrote in one column for Les Temps modernes, or, as he’d double down in a later essay, “It is undoubtedly just as stupid for a filmmaker to remake Moby-Dick or The Brothers Karamazov as it is for a sculptor to recreate the Mona Lisa in marble.”

    Schérer first appeared under the name Rohmer in the film periodical La gazette du cinéma, which he founded in 1950. It was the official publication of the Latin Quarter Film Club, which he also helped to start in 1948. Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette, and Claude Chabrol were regulars at the club and in the pages of La gazette. Like many new publications, La gazette was born after its founder was cancelled at his last post: In a 1949 review of a film festival for Les Temps modernes, Schérer had caused a small controversy by expressing conservative sentiments (“at certain moments in the evolution of the arts the values of conservation may deserve to be lent priority over those of revolution or progress”) that Les Temps modernes’s communist competitors wielded as proof that the paper was turning reactionary. Editor-in-chief Maurice Merleau-Ponty put out the fire by firing him.

    La gazette du cinéma would only run for five issues, although it was influential enough that Sartre’s byline appeared in two of them. In its last issue, Rohmer published a rave of a film that would be monumentally important for him, Roberto Rosselini’s Stromboli. “Everyone is free to find other aspects to this film. As for me, I see only a few works that in our time have as magnificently, as directly exalted the Christian idea of grace,” he wrote in a rare piece acknowledging his Christian faith. In 1951, Rohmer and his cinema-club squad migrated to Cahiers du cinéma, recently founded by an older group of cinephiles. Rohmer was one of the magazine’s most valued contributors, and after editor-in-chief André Bazin died in 1958, Rohmer was named his successor. Rohmer ran the Cahiers office like a salon, inviting friends of the magazine to drop in, socialize, and bring new writers into the fold. His rule of thumb was that “only positive things should be said about films.” Negative takes were relegated to a short section in the back of the magazine; long-form pans were occasional and deadly (one of them caused a director to sue the magazine for being too critical of his movie).

    “Let us free ancient authors from commentaries, from the welter of sophisms and clichés. Let us get to know them as they were; let us seek to discover in what way they were modern and resemble us.”

    Around this same time, Rohmer and company became interested in making their own movies. Freed up from teaching by the income from his writing career, Rohmer tried it first, disastrously. In 1952 he shot Les Petites Filles modèles, an adaptation of a story by the Countess of Ségur, one of his favorite writers. He had no idea what he was doing. He got into frequent disagreements with the technical crew, who did, and who found his incompetence difficult to work with. When the movie was nearly completed in post-production, one of the producers, who owed 2 million francs in damages to a stripper he had beaten up after promising to cast her in the film in a role that never materialized, pulled the plug on the project. The film negative was shelved and eventually lost in a transition between labs.

    Rohmer rebounded on less ambitious projects. He spent weekends learning how to properly use 16 mm film and put Rivette to work as his editor. He continued to test out his ideas about proper literary adaptation with short films based on Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata and Poe’s Berenice. He made another full-length film, Sign of Leo in 1959, but couldn’t find distribution for it until 1962, after Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol, Rivette, and Agnès Varda had released their first features theatrically and signaled to the world the start of the French New Wave. Sign of Leo didn’t perform well at the box office, though it had its champions (including Godard – who starred in it).

    Throughout this period of filmmaking, Rohmer hesitated to give his and his colleagues’ films special attention in Cahiers, lest the magazine be accused of cronyism. It was an unpopular editorial decision. A group of editors and contributors sent Rohmer a manifesto calling on Cahiers to formally align itself with the New Wave. He refused to publish it, prompting a series of enraged letters back and forth between the two sides and ending with a thirty-three-page-long letter from Rohmer defending his initial position.

    Underlying the drama over the New Wave were the same concerns about Rohmer’s conservatism that had gotten him in hot water earlier in his writing career. Rohmer was aware of his reputation, and unafraid to defend himself:

    I don’t know if I am on the Right, but in any case, one thing is certain: I’m not on the Left. Yes, why would I be on the Left? For what reason? What forces me to be on the Left? I’m free, it seems to me! But people aren’t. Today, first you have to pronounce your act of faith in the Left, after which everything is permitted. So far as I know, the Left has no monopoly on truth and justice. I too am for peace, freedom, the eradication of poverty, respect for minorities – who isn’t? But I don’t call that being on the Left. Being on the Left means endorsing the politics of certain people, parties, or regimes that say they’re on the Left and don’t hesitate to practice, when it serves them, dictatorship, lying, violence, favoritism, obscurantism, terrorism, militarism, bellicism, racism, colonialism, genocide.

    His policy both as editor of Cahiers and as a filmmaker was to practice political neutrality and to disaffiliate from extremes. If anyone thought this made him a reactionary, it bothered him less than if they thought a movie he had made was bad. He only occasionally took public political stances throughout his life: he generally sided with environmentalist causes, he joined a pedestrians’ rights group opposing urban traffic, he wrote a letter of support to an anti-smoking campaign, and he was part of an opposition movement protesting the construction of I. M. Pei’s glass pyramid at the Louvre.

    Occasionally his commitment to neutrality came at the expense of good moral judgment. In 1950, while he was running the Latin Quarter Film Club, the club’s co-president Frédéric Froeschel organized a screening series of Nazi propaganda films. Jews, veterans, socialists, and Catholics descended on the theater a hundredfold to protest. Rohmer and Froeschel were both arrested and held in prison for twenty-four hours, until Froeschel admitted that he didn’t even own copies of the films: it was all a publicity stunt.

    At Cahiers in 1962, Rohmer published a review of John Ford’s Two Rode Together by another critic containing the line, “John Ford sees racism for what it really is, when it does not take the modern, execrable form of a more or less scientific doctrine: nothing other, ultimately, than a kind of rather provincial snobbism, hardly more ferocious than the real one – in short, a pure product of life in society.” This blatant understatement didn’t sit well in light of the recent Paris massacre of 1961, when police had systematically beat and drowned up to three hundred North African immigrants living in the city. Rohmer responded to the outcry by publishing in the next issue a piece by Rivette praising Octobre à Paris, a documentary about the massacre.

    Rohmer’s artistic philosophy was rooted in a supposedly universal ideal of beauty that was, nonetheless, incorrigibly Eurocentric. While Rohmer would often speak favorably of films made outside the West, it was usually on the condition that they confirmed his priors about how beauty is defined. His foundational essay “Celluloid and Marble,” contains its moments of racist myopia:

    We Occidentals are the people most suited to cinema, because the screen is repelled by artifice, and we have a more acute sense of the natural. The ethnologist can demonstrate all he wants that here no absolute judgments can be made, that it is just as normal to squat on a mat as to sit on a high chair like Homer’s heroes. It would be hard to convince me that a race that loves sports played in a stadium is not more in conformity with the rule of the species than one that is devoted to yoga exercises.

    “On rereading myself, what is it that shocks me? Above all, the narrowness of my point of view.”

    Yet Rohmer was capable of self-criticism. In the preface to a reprint of the above essay, he writes, “On rereading myself, what is it that shocks me? Above all, the narrowness of my point of view, which I would qualify, in my turn, as others have, as ‘reactionary.’” (Although it is not clear from the context that he has his racism, specifically, in mind.) Nevertheless, as his tenure at Cahiers drew on, a critical consensus formed against him. A writer more ideologically suited to the burgeoning New Wave was required for the job, so in 1963 Rohmer was fired once again, replaced by Rivette. In the long run their friendship healed, at least enough for Rohmer to co-finance Rivette’s twelve-hour film Out 1, and for Rivette to give him a role in it.

    When one door closes, another tends to open, and so it was that Rohmer finally found success as a filmmaker after Cahiers kicked him out. Using a collection of short stories he had written fifteen years earlier as his inspiration, he made the series Six Moral Tales between 1962 and 1972, earning international recognition and an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay in 1971 for My Night at Maud’s. Audiences gravitated to the beauty of the French landscapes and Parisian apartments populated by equally beautiful people in stylish dress, but it was the films’ bookish qualities that truly distinguished them. Rohmer had his own thoughts on that. “My films, you say, are literary: The things I say could be said in a novel. Yes, but what do I say? . . . I do not say, I show. I show people who move and speak. That is all I know how to do, but that is my true subject.”

    For the most part the Rohmerian movers and speakers are white and middle-class. They are students, lawyers, doctors, engineers, diplomats, designers, antique dealers, ethnologists, painters, musicians, secretaries, hairdressers, and psychologists. Rohmer only rarely worked with established actors – Jean-Louis Trintignant and Françoise Fabian, the marquee stars of My Night at Maud’s, were the exception. From 1978 on, he would work with a rotating cast of attractive young people whose careers he helped to launch. Béatrice Romand, Pascal Greggory, Arielle Dombasle, Marie Rivière, Fabrice Luchini, Gérard Falconetti, Pascale Ogier, Amanda Langlet, Rosette, and Anne-Laure Meury became like family over the decades; some of them would only ever act for him.

    Men and women talking about love, marriage, fidelity, faith: nothing captivated Rohmer’s camera more than the soul-baring dialogue. He preferred to shoot actors in medium and wide shots, the better to involve the whole body in the act of speaking one’s mind – or, as is often the case, obscuring what’s really on one’s mind by saying the opposite. The stories themselves tend to involve moral dilemmas which the characters talk through, either to themselves in voice-over narration, or with friends, lovers, bosses, or whoever happens to be around. While the Moral Tales all revolve around men’s perspectives and desires, women are the stars of most of his films from the ’80s and ’90s.

    Rohmer was perennially interested in moral reasoning, but never in moralizing. In A Good Marriage, a young woman decides to stop hooking up with married men and find herself a husband, so she enlists an unconsenting man to be the star of her fantasy. In Full Moon in Paris, a woman who has moved to the suburbs with her partner convinces him to let her stay in her old apartment in the city on weekends so she can continue to enjoy Parisian nightlife; it will be fine! she insists, but both end up cheating on each other. Rohmer lets everyone state their case and follow their actions through to their consequences, and leaves the viewer to decide what to make of it.

    Most of Rohmer’s movies were produced with Les Films du Losange, a production company he started with actor Barbet Schroeder after they worked together on the first moral tale, The Bakery Girl of Monceau. He ran the studio much like he ran the Cahiers office. Casts and crew would congregate for tea and conversation, and he would entertain visitors interested in working with him. Mary Stephen, his frequent editor, describes the situation like a film family, in opposition to the film industry that Rohmer was at pains to stay independent of.

    Far from needing to claim sole authorship of his stories, Rohmer often let his actors influence his scripts. In La Collectionneuse, he made tape recordings of the cast chatting off-set and used their verbal tics to write dialogue that was true to how they actually talked. For The Green Ray, he sketched a plot outline but asked Marie Rivière to improvise all her lines – partly to prove a point. “I’m reproached for writing sentences that are too long,” she recalls him saying. “But in life, people talk a long time without stopping. And I’m going to demonstrate that. No one will see the difference between a text I’ve written and an improvised text.”

    In addition to the original stories, there were also a handful of period pieces. The Marquise of O, adapted from a Heinrich von Kleist novel, appealed to Rohmer because Kleist’s writing seemed perfectly suited to adaptation for cinema. The film is classically beautiful, the soft-light-pouring-in-through-bay-windows variety, which makes his next film, an adaptation of Chrétien de Troyes’s unfinished verse poem Perceval, the Story of the Grail, all the more bizarre.

    “I believe in the genius of Christianity, and there is not a single great film in the history of cinema that is not infused with the light of the Christian idea.”

    Rohmer translated the poem from middle French into contemporary French himself, but kept most of his script in verse form. Characters in Perceval narrate their actions in the third person, and a chorus fills the space between scenes with instrumentation and song. To the dismay of his cinematographer, the entire film was shot in a studio with self-referentially artificial scenery and props. Rohmer wanted the film to resemble medieval society as people from that period would have actually depicted it. He drew on a philosophy he had preached as a classics teacher: “Let us free ancient authors from commentaries, from the welter of sophisms and clichés. Let us get to know them as they were; let us seek to discover in what way they were modern and resemble us.”

    Twenty years later, Rohmer would mount an even more daring production with The Lady and the Duke, an adaptation of the memoirs of Grace Elliott, a Scottish noblewoman and spy who lived in Paris during the French Revolution and survived to write it all down. Rohmer took two risks with the film: first by shooting it digitally, when digital cameras were still not in widespread use, and secondly by filming all of the exterior shots on a soundstage with a massive green screen and keying in hand-painted backgrounds in post-production. The technique is peculiar, never to be replicated by another filmmaker, for better or for worse.

    The Lady and the Duke was well-received, even by some of his usual critics, though several on the left saw it as aristocratic propaganda. Though Rohmer was a subscriber to France’s royalist weekly, he was at pains to keep his politics to himself. Only one of his contemporary films, The Tree, the Mayor, and the Mediatheque, explicitly deals with politics at all, albeit unconventionally. The film is more a satire about how people make political judgments and less a work of agitprop – although it ends with a musical number about the need to live closer to the earth and leave the world cleaner and greener for our descendants.

    Perceval le Gallois film poster

    Perceval le Gallois (1978) (imbd.com)

    As a rule, Rohmer tried to avoid antagonism and controversy in both his public and private lives. From 1957 until his death in 2010 he was married to Thérèse Barbet, a fellow Catholic he met at a dance. Rohmer, Barbet, and their two sons led a thrifty, plain life, which he intentionally kept separate from his professional world. During his years of filmmaking, Rohmer returned to teaching, this time in film studies for the cinema program at University of Paris-1. He was especially interested in film as a pedagogical tool and directed dozens of short, educational films for television and for classroom use between his feature-length projects. He disliked promoting his movies at fancy venues, though he was coaxed out to the Venice Film Festival for a lifetime achievement award in 2001.

    Rohmer went to Mass every week. At an event celebrating his centennial this March, a filmmaker asked Marie Rivière and Mary Stephen if Rohmer had ever spoken about his faith with his cast and crew. Without needing to think about it, both replied: “No.” No, although Rohmer is remembered as a Catholic filmmaker before almost anything else.

    In a rare comment on the subject, Rohmer explained how he saw the relationship of faith and film:

    I am a Catholic. I believe that a true cinema is necessarily a Christian cinema, because there is no truth except in Christianity. I believe in the genius of Christianity, and there is not a single great film in the history of cinema that is not infused with the light of the Christian idea.

    In his essays Rohmer generally refrained from writing about Christianity in apologetic or confessional modes, though he would not hesitate to confront opposing ideologies. In a piece for Cahiers responding to a secular colleague, Rohmer charged, “Be an atheist and the camera will offer you the spectacle of a world without God in which there is no law other than the pure mechanism of cause and effect.”

    “As a Christian, I say not acknowledging what’s good is evil.”

    One could also say that his whole filmography is a continuation of this rebuttal. The hairdresser miraculously reunited with her true love in The Winter’s Tale; grace bursting through Delphine’s malaise in the form of the green ray at sunset at the end of The Green Ray; the reconciliation between the marquise and her mother in The Marquise of O; the turn from adultery back to fidelity at the end of Love in the Afternoon; the extemporaneous defense of monotheism in The Romance of Astrea and Céladon; the reenactment of the Passion Gospels at the end of Perceval. And of course, My Night at Maud’s.

    It would be churlish to extrapolate from Jean-Louis’s personal expression of faith in My Night at Maud’s – except for in A Summer’s Tale, Rohmer denied that his characters were inspired by his own life – but elements of it ring true in the light of his filmography. In a conversation about Blaise Pascal, the young engineer Jean-Louis tells his Marxist friend Vidal, “I’m a Catholic, or at least I try to be, but he [Pascal] doesn’t fit in with my notion of Catholicism. It’s precisely because I’m a Christian that his austerity offends me. If that’s what Christianity is about, then I’m an atheist.” The subject comes up again at dinner with Vidal’s friend Maud, a charming doctor who spends the night pressing him on his beliefs. Over wine and dinner, Pascal comes up again. “I think there’s another way to look at Christianity,” Jean-Louis says of Pascal’s strict asceticism. Vidal notes, “his sister Gilberte wrote how he never said, ‘This is good.’”

    “Well I say, ‘This is good!” Jean-Louis replies excitedly. “As a Christian, I say not acknowledging what’s good is evil.” If his movies are any indication, it is obvious that Rohmer believed the same.

    Contributed By

    Tim Markatos is a designer and film critic in Washington, DC.

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