No other filmmaker mined precisely the same territory as the French director Eric Rohmer, who died Monday at the age of 89. Rohmer's early short films came out of the French New Wave era, but he was one of those weird cases — Jacques Demy was another — of a French director whose distinctive sensibility ran counter to the prevailing winds. His specialty was small-scale comedies of manners — he called them moral comedies — in which the characters ponder and debate their sexual choices. The comedy is never in the erotic adventures (which don't always come about), but in the way in which sexual arousal spins them (and their considerable intelligence). Rohmer's topic was sex in the head, and he was a master of it.
Even on the rare occasions when he moved outside the setting of contemporary France to make a costume piece like The Marquise of O, he didn't really abandon his style. His movies are literate and elegant, and though his camerawork is fluid and relaxed yet precise, it's rarely noticed. You're focused instead on the exquisite faces and expressive bodies of the actors, who play out their dilemmas against often breathtaking pastoral settings that Rohmer refuses to linger on for as long as you might want. (He collaborated with such superb cinematographers as, at the peak of his career, Néstor Almendros.)
His movies are divertissements of an unusually cerebral order, and the very perfection of his calibration of the best ones ensures their ephemeral quality. Yet I would happily return to a movie like Chloe in the Afternoon or Pauline at the Beach. In the second of those, from 1983, Arielle Dombasle — a sun-haired beauty with long, long legs and a slightly dippy sexiness that recalls the young Ann-Margret — tells her friends, "I burn with love," and when she shudders with the pleasure of anticipation, she reminds you of Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch describing how she puts her undies in the icebox.
Rohmer didn't stop making movies until just three years ago, but if you want to get acquainted — or reacquainted — with him, I'd recommend the back-to-back comedies that brought him international renown, My Night at Maud's (1969) and Claire's Knee (1970). They're ideally achieved examples of moral wit delivered by a filmmaker with a remarkably controlled sensual technique.
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