Picture this cinematic moment: A lonely young woman on vacation decides to place faith in moments of chance, convincing herself that if she witnesses a certain optical phenomenon her romantic life will improve. Standing at the beach, she waits for the sun to set, each second of its decline recorded by the camera. Finally the last fragment of light sink and, before disappearing, turns a vibrant green. Not too many filmmakers would take the time to linger on a sunset, but Eric Rohmer lets it settle in at its own pace, making it the climactic moment of his 1986 film The Green Ray (released in the U.S. as Summer)
Or this one: A young woman riding her bicycle on a country path gets a flat tire. Another girl passes by. Together they inspect the tire, find the leak and repair it, taking up some seven minutes or so of screen time at the opening of Rohmer's Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle. Mundane? Yes, but Rohmer films every step of the process with respect, as if he were seeing it for the first time. The cinema, he reminds us, allows us to see things anew, even the simplest things.
Rohmer's personal history is almost a contradiction of his own work, as complicated and elusive as his films are lucid and calm. First there's the man himself -- real name Maurice Schérer -- about whom very little is known. He guards his privacy and refuses to discuss his personal life and is even said to have lied about its details to the press. Though associated with the French New Wave and Cahiers du Cinema (which he edited from 1957-63, the very years in which such colleagues as Godard, Truffaut and Chabrol began their impressive careers), his films share few of the cinephilic concerns of his genre-busting companions. And though he is the oldest of the surviving Cahiers group, (he's 82, although some reports claim that his published birthdate is a hoax), he remains artistically young at heart, his films expressing a sympathy for the lives and concerns of young adults that makes him more a model for a new generation of contemporary French filmmakers such as Olivier Assayas and Benoit Jacquot than a relic of '60s glory days.
Where his New Wave colleagues pushed the formal limits of American and European style, Rohmer strives for simplicity and, aside from a few rare experiments, such as the tableaux-style medieval epic Perceval or his rarely seen The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque (which is said to be a musical about contemporary politics), remains devoted to an almost classical conception of cinematic realism. His films show real people, real settings, real lives; there is only one known instance of a special effect in a Rohmer film (that green ray of light mentioned above had to be created optically when the weather refused to cooperate with his filming schedule).
In 20-odd films over 50 years, Rohmer has addressed one great subject: the follies and contradictions of human nature: A man decides to test his moral strength by spending a completely chaste night with a young woman of opposing philosophical views. A rejected student spies on his ex-girlfriend. A woman convinces herself that she has found the perfect potential husband, unaware that he's already engaged. Men and women stubbornly look for love or just as stubbornly resist it. People behave unwisely in Rohmer's films, but their follies nearly always lead to revelation of some kind.
On Thursday night, and continuing through July, the Webster University Film Series will present a retrospective of seven of Rohmer's best films, by no means an exhaustive collection but an excellent introduction to his work taken from his two most celebrated projects, the "Six Moral Tales" and the six-part "Comedies and Proverbs" series. The first, an ambitious series of intellectual arguments transformed into comic dilemmas, launched Rohmer's career and introduced his intellectual wit and wisdom to international audiences; the second, a more loosely structured set of comedies based on familiar adages, offers some of the director's lightest yet most insightful reflections on the follies of the human heart. Slyly comic and erotic in an almost purely cerebral sense, Rohmer's films are admittedly an acquired taste (for years, reviewers felt obliged to quote Gene Hackman's comment in Night Moves that they were "like watching paint dry"), but the cinematic landscape would be a bleaker place without his luminous moments of inspiration. The series begins on June 7 with the first feature-length "Moral Tale," La Collectionneuse, the story of a young woman whose calculating approach to love sets a trap for two vacationing men in St. Tropez. Though intellectually less ambitious than later entries, such as My Night at Maud's (June 14), it's a fine introduction to Rohmer's lovestruck parade of fools. The series continues on June 21 with Claire's Knee, The Aviator's Wife (June 28), A Good Marriage (July 5), Summer (July 12) and Boyfriends and Girlfriends (July 26).