La gauche, la droite et l’ennui

The current strange times may prompt re-evaluations of one’s priorities or perhaps even encourage one to see one’s past life, or attitudes, in a different light. Receiving a biography of Eric Rohmer (1920-2010) for Christmas reminded me of my long-forgotten, twenty-something, self, when I had an actual enthusiasm for some of his films, such as “A Summer’s Tale” or “My Night at Maud’s”. I mentioned him in passing in the first blog on this site and I have discovered now that the details of his career are rather different than I had thought. For instance, he never formally studied history. Also, contrary to what I had heard, a late film of his was not criticised for being anti-republican (except by one socialist journal). Instead, its highly publicised launch was actually made the occasion for Rohmer to receive a state-honour for his life’s work (he had been a reserve soldier in World War Two and had done some documentary work for the French education department in the 1960s but otherwise he kept his distance from “official” France). So much for biographical details. I’m making the biography the subject of a blog now partly as a diversion from my current research and writing, and partly because reading it has prompted me to reflect “just a little” on debates that I have essentially always dismissed; namely, those who always attribute ideological significance to all forms of writing or storytelling.

Rohmer’s cinema was essentially innocuous. As per this book, however, his cinema found its audience for essentially political reasons. In the wake of the May 1968 student upheavals, people suddenly grew bored with talk of “left” and “right”, or “communism” and “anti-communism”, and an audience emerged, when there was literally none before, for Rohmer’s talkative films in which introspective characters dissect their own emotions on screen about “relationships”, “fate” and even “morality”. To my surprise, Rohmer’s relative disinterest in contemporary politics, beyond issues such as architectural planning and the environment, had led critics to deem him to be of “the right”, or even “the far-right”, in the pre-1968 days. This was because, in one critic’s words: “Rohmer raises human problems in moral terms: that is the contrary of a left-wing attitude…In his little world, moral behaviour can seem to be determined solely by a character’s will: this is a deracinated, idealist and thus finally reactionary view.” (p.256).

I think I have a something of a individualist temperament, a bit like an old 19th century “romantic”. I have never considered that a reason to consider myself as “bourgeois”. In old French critical writing, however, to be an individualist was supposedly inherently “reactionary” and even offensive in its absence of a publicly-orientated morality. This attitude was evidently a “left-wing conformism” of the day, even if an infamous Italian novel of the era (by a self-professed “left-wing author”) implied, notwithstanding the final twist in its tale, that only “the right” were capable of being “conformist”. To some extent, I think I am inclined to see all political people as inherently “conformist”. Why? Essentially, because they make the thought, or values, of others their own mental reference points. Consider this too: up until at least 1968, left and right wing journals in Europe evidently served as their own “echo-chambers”, each with their own “subscribers” who felt connected with a particular idea of society through this paper-edition of what is now known as “social media”. If it was a “bourgeois” attitude to consider this trend to have been all a great folly, how does that compare to criticisms of social media today?

Returning to Rohmer, however, some evidently always criticised his work for invariably including young, pretty and white “bourgeois” figures who, in ignoring politics, were supposedly interested only in banalities. These people, in refusing to embrace “the left” or the “the right”, had evidently succumbed to some form of “boredom”. Conversely, does that mean that those who embraced commitments to “the left” or “the right” did so precisely in order to avoid “boredom”, countering indifference with commitments? Rohmer himself rarely referred to politics, but he is quoted at one stage in the biography as saying this: “I wasn’t hostile to May ’68, but whereas the people who participated in it saw it as a beginning, I saw it rather as an end. May ’68 was the first stone thrown into the pond of Marxism. The ideological collapse of Marxism began in ’68 because I believe that May ’68, paradoxically, cured many people, including perhaps me [a former Sartre fan], of communism and anticommunism. I think that the kind of Marxist fever that took place after May ’68 carried within it its condemnation and its end: it was a last flare-up. That’s how I saw May ’68 and that is why, personally, I remained absolutely indifferent, serene, with regard to what might happen. I continued with my work (p.210)”

As per his biographers, Rohmer’s private life and that of his wife and children were too mundane to be of any interest. Instead, the key detail of the life of this unsuccessful fiction-writer turned film critic and then successful filmmaker was that Eric Rohmer (real name: Maurice Scherer) was “intended” to be an academic but he always failed to gain admittance into academia because he was poor at oral interviews. In short, his manner was deemed too shy and hesitant to command authority as a fellow persuader. The diffident shall not be seen or heard…

Despite the best efforts of the authors (who, as critics, were perhaps more interested in Rohmer’s 1950s career as a film critic than his later work as a film-maker), it seems to me that his work occupied a type of middle ground that made it relatively immune to critical analysis. That may have been both its appeal and its merit. It focused on individuals rather than ideas. Furthermore, any disinclination to define one’s thought with reference to the ideas of others tends to be the very antithesis of academic writing, the motto of which could be said to be “never think alone” (as if to think alone would be inherently dumb, rather than the opposite). Therefore, it is hard to think of either Rohmer or his work in any sort of academic terms.

The unexpected political context to the biography (the first to be based on Rohmer’s private archive) is, appropriately, not its primary thrust. On the whole, it is a overly verbose and typically French read. Translated from the French, the authors’ use of language seems to have sought a precision, or refinement, in the description of sentiments, rather than rational thoughts, rather like the characters in Rohmer’s own films. That may be a quintessentially French literary trait and Rohmer was a man who evidently always loved literature (he had also taught classical and French literature in schools), so much so that a frequent criticism of his films was that people spoke more like they did in a literary novel than in “real” life.

Details revealed in the biography show that, in their initial cinematic reception in both France and abroad, practically speaking, he had a handful of “hits” and then many films that very few went to see. For example, his two late historical films, The Lady and The Duke (2000) and Triple Agent (2003), apparently had an audience of something like one million and ten thousand respectively. The first, uniquely for him, featured CGI (to depict the French Revolution); the second was filmed in his conventional style or, rather, one that was established in his successful late 1960s films and frequently repeated thereafter. In short, the film focused on daily scenes, separately by still-frames of calendar dates, in which characters do little except talk, while the film’s conclusion is as inconclusive as the blank diary-dates in which its events supposedly took place.

For me, the exceptional appeal of films that took such an inherently dull form was that it had the capacity to make life seem to be exceptionally vivid no matter how mundane. This was evidently intentional. Rohmer believed that the camera’s documentary-like ability to capture a scene exactly as it was enabled it to become the perfect contemporary instrument for the creation, or perhaps even the revival, of a “classical” sense of realism through the following method: every scene he shot took place in natural surroundings, be it in town or in country, and the actors were mostly young, unself-conscious, amateurs who were asked to be themselves as they were filmed amongst an actual general public. The actual and fictional was thus blended into one. Rohmer also believed that a story could be told as effectively in a film as in a novel if this purely observational, documentary-like, tone was maintained. That was the Rohmer “school”, although he had relatively few followers. His biggest fan amongst his “new wave” colleagues was evidently Francois Truffaut, who financed a few of his films (most notably his initial success Maud) and, surprisingly, Truffaut got a mention on the RTE homepage recently.

Bizarrely, when Rohmer died in 2010, his relatives and his professional associates met awkwardly for the first time for the funeral of a man that they had only known under a completely different name. His parents (who wanted him to be a university-man) loathed the bohemian world of cinema, so he had kept his growing involvement a secret. To his parents, as well as his wife and children (who knew of, but knew nothing about, his professional life as a filmmaker), he was Maurice Scherer, a very private and reserved teacher of French and classics, amateur historian and later (albeit not after until his parents died) a part-time, guest college lecturer on film. However, to the public and the world of film he was Eric Rohmer, a reclusive figure who directed not only of a particular style of films but also a troop of amateur-turned-professional actors that could be counted on to turn up in each of his films, if in few others. In effect, he ran a very successful cottage industry. But did he succeed in creating a new vision of art? Was Rohmer’s fictional world, which generally consisted exclusively of “nice people” expressing refined thoughts, too contrived to be natural or not?

Although Rohmer used his own scripts (many of his early films were based loosely on unpublished fiction he had written over twenty years previously), to give his work a natural tone he relied heavily on his own actors for their input. To his great dismay while he was dying, one of those actors attempted in court to claim the royalties for one of his films as a co-author (a claim that was only dismissed after he died). This sad affair was, in the words of one of his actors, ridiculous, because “when you worked with him, you knew his method, you knew exactly how he took his inspiration from the life of his actors and actresses. We have gave him stories, expressions, anecdotes, part of our lives. He transformed them into a story, dialogues and a film” (p.546), documenting social life in a non-committal and non-judgmental way. From about 1982 onwards, very many of his films not only involved a central female character but, this book reveals, actually ended up being done on the suggestion of his actresses, whom he had either recruited or, often, had actually initially approached him, as a fan, making suggestions or even demands (including she who later attempted to claim authorship of one of his films). This trend grew so much that, in his later years, his production crew consisted almost entirely of women, although feminist film critics evidently never admired either their or Rohmer’s own chaste (possibly even slightly “Catholic”) vision of cinema. Although he was ill and virtually handicapped for much of the 2000s, Rohmer still went to his office everyday (carried by the arm by his long-time female secretary) and was apparently working right up until he died. One of his old actors, Arielle Dombasle (who had made her film debut in Rohmer’s unusual vision of Perceval in 1978), had persuaded him to do a film about a (relatively) young pop-singer (herself) who was “eccentric, weird and Catholic and who…makes friends with an astrologer” (p.547). Riveting stuff. It was perhaps fortunate that he never got around to doing that one.

On a personal level, I suspect that what gave Rohmer’s work an appeal to my younger self was the extent to which it allowed society and people in general to seem “nicer” than they actually are: in other words, a slightly “rose-tinted glasses” view of life that could serve as a counterbalance to the petty “one-up-man-ship” or even cruelty one might well witness in others during one’s actual life, including in “relationships”. Rohmer’s characters, even if they could be self-absorbed, were never so self-seeking, deceptive or vindictive and I think I identified with that “vibe”. However, perhaps that is also why he got labelled as a “bourgeois” storyteller? There was a gentility and yet a naturalness to his work that may not have been seen before and that may not be seen again. Part of me, at least, still tips my hat, in respect, to Eric Rohmer, “le grand momo” (“the great irritant”: his nickname amongst his professional contemporaries), who somehow managed to keep working and producing films of a high quality for six decades despite the fact that the rest of the world was reportedly always looking in the opposite direction.

As a conclusion, I’ll note that this biography surprised me by revealing that Rohmer, at least as a youth, had some elitist ideas about the superiority of “western civilisation”. However, I find it hard to agree with the notion that he was of “the right”, even if he was self-evidently not of “the left”. As a documentarian of everyday “boredoms”, however, he perhaps managed to occupy a unique position, where the worlds of the documentary, literary fiction and the soap opera somehow blended entirely into one. There is no “middle” within that trinity. The deceptive simplicity of his style sought to be of such self-evident worth in an entirely “contemporary” (i.e. of the current day) fashion. That may have made his work refreshing or, at least potentially (I have not watched his films for years), perpetually “fresh”, no matter how mundane their subject matter. I have heard it said that it is “human nature” for people to mentally dramatise one’s own life in order to create motivations for one’s present or future actions, be they actual or only potential, so as to feel “alive” or to be in tune with one’s passions. A cinematic documentary of our everyday lives may show up, as in the scenes and dialogues of one of Rohmer’s stories, the difference between our actual appearance and actions and the nature of those very thoughts that, in our self-understandings at least, are the principal animators of our lives. We may mentally cherish things, people or ideas not for what they are, but only for what they may seem to represent in our internalised vision of the life that we lead. We may, in fact, be engaged in an endless struggle against…”boredom”!