Eric Rohmer, 89, Made Intellectual Films About People’s Emotional Lives

BY Arts Desk  January 11, 2010 at 5:39 PM EDT

French director and film critic Eric Rohmer died Monday at the age of 89 in Paris. His death was announced by Margaret Menegoz at Les Films du Losange, the production company he helped start. No cause of death has been given at this time.

Rohmer was among the group of intellectuals and filmmakers who later became identifed as the French New Wave, a vigorous style of storytelling that often seemed raw and even improvised. Regarded as aesthetically conservative compared to his colleagues, Rohmer took a more literary approach, producing films dominated by dialogue and voiceover narration. His characters worry and suffer over love and desire, play emotional games and have long conversations about the ideal way to feel and behave. He was best known for a series from the 1960s called ‘Six Moral Tales,’ all stylish and leisurely films that address the cerebral side of passion. They were not, as they sounded, tales with morals, he explained in 1971; they were films that were less concerned with what people were doing than what they were thinking while they were doing it.

In a statement Monday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy hailed Rohmer as a “great auteur who will continue to speak to us and inspire us for years to come.”

Rohmer was born Jean-Marie Maurice Scherer on April 4, 1920 in eastern France. The name ‘Eric Rohmer’ was actually a pseudonym, a combination of the names of an actor and a writer he admired. He taught literature as a young man before becoming a founding member of the short lived “La Gazette du Cinema,” along with Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut. He then became an editor (and eventually editor in chief) at Cahiers du Cinema, the groundbreaking film journal which changed the discipline of film criticism and was the first to herald the new generation (and new approach) of avant garde film artists. His film scholarship continued when he collaborated on an in-depth study on Alfred Hitchcock, with fellow director Claude Chabrol.

Rohmer’s film “My Night at Maud’s” was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Screenplay in 1969. But his work — characterized by its slow, conversational pace — was not universally beloved by or universally accessible to either critics or spectators. In a movie by Arthur Penn (himself heavily influenced by the French New Wave), the actor Gene Hackman plays a character who says the experience of watching a Rohmer film is like watching paint dry.

“[He makes] films that deal with foibles and relationships of realistic if self-absorbed people,” wrote his biographer Terry Ballard, instead leaving “obvious attention-getting devices” like violence (a la ‘Breathless’) and experimental camera angles to his other New Wave colleagues.

He produced two more series, first “Comedies and Proverbs” in the 1980s (including “Pauline at the Beach”), and “Tales of the Four Seasons”, which he began at age 70 (His 1998 “An Autumn Tale” was a critical success.) In 2001 Rohmer received the high Golden Lion honor at the Venice Festival for his achievements over half a century of work in film. He retired from filmmaking in 2007 after completing his final film, ‘Romance of Astree and Celadon’, a mythical romp celebrating the ecstacies, agonies and eternalities of young love.

Having managed to live a very private life, Rohmer is believed to be survived by his younger brother, philosopher Rene Scherer, and his son, journalist Rene Monzat.

Watch the trailer for “My Night at Maud’s”:

Watch a clip from “An Autumn Tale”:
(Spoiler Alert: This is the final scene of the film)