We lost another master this week, the former Cahiers du Cinema film critic and filmmaker Eric Rohmer, who was 89. He has long been a staple of art houses. If you were a cinema buff that came of age in the 1970s, you probably saw his "Six Moral Tales" series. If your time was the 1980s, you probably saw some of the six "Comedies and Proverbs" films. And if it was the 1990s, you may have seen some of his "Tales of the Four Seasons." As a critic, I was honored to review the last of these, Autumn Tale (1998), which I saw as a flat-out masterpiece. Although I felt bad when I reviewed his final film last year, The Romance of Astrea and Celadon, and found it nearly unbearable. (Though many others have defended it. Maybe I was too hasty?)
Rohmer's films were known for their talking, and I believe there was once a crack about his films being like "watching paint dry." The real secret of Rohmer's films is that they're all about smart, well-spoken people. They are studious and know lots of things. They may even be "experts" on human nature. When they fall in love or get stuck in some kind of romantic tangle, their first reaction is to try to reason their way out, using logic and words. In the end, however, there are no words or reasons or logic that can withstand the power of love. The characters are silenced as the credits roll, but the emotions linger on.
In Autumn Tale, Beatrice Romand -- who worked with Rohmer six times over the decades -- plays the single proprietor of a winery. Her two best friends each try to set her up with a man, and the story climaxes with all the characters gathering at a wedding. It sounds like the clunkiest of romantic comedies, but Rohmer's grace lies in the intelligence of his dialogue, the relaxed settings, the food, the wine and the sunshine, and the general calm and unhurried pace of things.
Perhaps Rohmer's best-known film is Claire's Knee (1970), which was the fifth of the "Six Moral Tales" series. It's centered around Jerome (Jean-Claude Brialy), who is all set to be married, but is spending his final summer as a bachelor. He runs into a writer friend Aurora (Aurora Cornu) and meets the teenager Laura (Romand again, in her first Rohmer film). Laura develops a crush on the older man, and Aurora coaxes Jerome to follow up on it so that she can write about the situation in her next novel. It's all very calculated and controlled, until Jerome sees bony, alluring Claire (Laurence de Monaghan) and is suddenly possessed of a desire to caress her knee. This is yet another strange fit of passion that Jerome can talk about all he wants, but can never fully explain away.
There are around 25 Rohmer films (not including shorts and early TV work) to be experienced, but the sad news is their deplorable state on DVD. Fox Lorber released a batch of quickie Rohmer titles in the late 1990s; their quality is wretched and they are all out of print, though some of them can be had cheaply if you're desperate. MGM fared slightly better with the few titles they had in their library, including Pauline at the Beach (1983) and A Tale of Springtime (1990), but those are likewise out of print. Autumn Tale has never been released on DVD in the United States. Only the Criterion Collection box set of the complete "Six Moral Tales" is worth having at the moment, and it's a large chunk of change ($100). But taken together, all these films, I think, build a kind of special universe. It's a unique and singular body of work that -- because of its emotional truth -- will never go out of style.