Eric Rohmer: Anonymously World-Famous

Sunday, January 17, 2010

 Laurence de Monaghan's knee, star of Claire's Knee, wth Jean-Claude Brialy While Eric Rohmer began making films in the 1950s, he had only broken through as an internationally famous filmmaker the year before, with “My Night at Maud’s” in 1969 which won numerous critics’ prizes, was nominated for Oscars for Best Screenplay and Best Foreign Language Film, and was his first feature film to be shown in the U.S. He was 49.

“My Night at Maud’s hero, Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is an uptight Catholic, decides to marry a blandly pretty young blonde, a total stranger he sees at church and is too shy to approach. Through a friend, he meets and ends up spending the night at the apartment of Maud (Françoise Fabian), a divorcee, religious  skeptic, intellectual, and to my 17-year-old eyes, overwhelmingly sexy woman. Through the course of the night they have a lively discussion that contrasts her freewheeling attitudes to life with his more ascetic, religious, and to his eyes, Francoise Fabianless superficial, disciplined and scrupulously ethical ones. While Maud’s stories were earthy, their discussion was often very bookish, with much talk about Blaise Pascal’s “Pensées.”  Despite Maud’s attempts to seduce Jean-Louis, nothing happens. (It doesn’t take much imagination to see “Maud”’s influence on “My Dinner With Andre.”)

I had never seen anything like “My Night at Maud’s.” To me it was utterly captivating… and sensual in every sense of the word.

Obviously I was incredibly excited to see his follow-up, “Claire’s Knee.” Once again it was a story of a guy who is attracted to a beautiful woman, but for various reasons, is unable to follow through. I would learn later that these two films were part of a series called “Six Moral Tales,” each of which were variations of this same basic plot: a guy aching for someone, but not being able to do anything about it because of his social situation, or conflicted sense of morality. This kind of thing is extremely rich soil for story-telling, and has fueled not only Rohmer’s early oeuvre, but also much of Jane Austen’s and Ang Lee’s film careers.

In his tribute to Rohmer, A.O. Scott wrote in the Times that the subject of Rohmer’s work was passion. Perhaps so, but I believe that the Moral Tales are the films most people think about when they think of Rohmer--and they are more precisely about thwarted passion, and conflicted feelings--not passion per se.

Anyway, in “Claire’s Knee,” this time it’s Jean-Claude Brialy who gets to play the guy who’s about to get married, when he’s tempted by a looker. While on holiday before his wedding, he meets Claire (Laurence de Monaghan), a 16-year-old girl, who is beautiful, but not tremendously fascinating. Rohmer shows us that by giving her a far more interesting teenaged sister, Laura (Beatrice Romand), who has a crush on Brialy’s character. But when Claire goes up a ladder and Brialy locks eyes with her knee, he becomes consumed with the idea of caressing it. But how? What possible excuse could he find to do that?

In my high school art class, I was given the assignment of taking a small image, marking it up in squares and squaring up a much larger piece of paper to blow it up into a watercolor a few feet wide . Of course I used the ladder shot from “Claire’s Knee,” which encapsulated everything I loved about Rohmer, and was irresistibly timeless. There was nothing about the luscious landscape, Brialy’s hat, beard, sweater draped over his shoulders, or de Monaghan’s legs that would have looked out of place in an impressionist painting.

One thing people toss off as an anecdote about Rohmer is that he hid his identity as a film critic and director by using Eric Rohmer as a pseudonym. Even the name he was born with is subject to discussion – it was either Maurice Henri Joseph Schérer or Jean-Marie Maurice Schérer, depending on who you talk to. Scherer published a novel under the name Gilbert Cordier in 1946, and later took the name “Eric Rohmer,” from Erich Von Stroheim and Sax Rohmer, author of the “Fu Manchu” stories.

Generally it’s said that he didn’t use his real name for some undisclosed family reasons, but I was told by someone who should know who exactly it was in his family he didn’t want to upset. (I’m just going to say Freud and that’s all you’ll get out of me.) And he didn’t just change his name either. I once saw a hilarious photograph of him decked out in an obviously phony beard, although if memory serves, it was closer to a Van Dyck than--thank heaven!--a Fu Manchu.

Just stop for a second and think long and hard about being in the closet for most of your life about the thing you love the most. The Cinema was his Grand Passion, and his early writing was dedicated the proposition that it should be taken as seriously as any art form. But presumably, there was somebody that mattered to him who would be very disappointed to discover he was married to a vocation so far beneath him.

His life might make a good movie, don’t you think?

Maybe that’s why he made it so many times.

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Postscript: Years later, I was the publicist on his 1978 film “Perceval le Gallois,” when he came to New York to promote it during the New York Film Festival. I was told then that the disapproving family member was no longer with us, but I don’t know for sure whether this was his first NY press junket.