Eric Rohmer, the French film writer and director, died two weeks ago a rebel, a filmmaker with such conviction in his own intellectual tastes that he remained unswayed by the clamour of popular views on cinema and entertainment for half a century. His body of work is not just vastly entertaining, but also a treatise on narrative art.
Rohmer has been one of my greatest literary inspirations: It was on first watching his films in the 1980s that I understood what a compelling modern story could consist of without involving crime, murder, tough-talking policemen or spaceships. The novels I was reading weren't about those things - they were mostly about politics, morality, relationships and social class - but films, my peers and I thought, had to have a gun in them. Film, we kept hearing, was a visual medium and thus must rely on the visual for its thrills. A bunch of people talking was not visual and therefore not thrilling.
I think the first Rohmer I saw was a beach comedy called Pauline à la plage, from 1983, full of beautiful Parisians on holiday and everybody falling for the wrong person. I didn't realize it at the time, but it resembled French comic theatre of the 18th century - writers such as Pierre Beaumarchais, with the farcical plot turning on miscommunication and misunderstanding.
But there was more to it: It seemed strangely contrived, with each character representing a moral position and explaining that position in words. And it was muted and quiet: I realized only half-way through it that there was no musical soundtrack, no music playing at all besides the tinny romantic tune that came out of one character's record player. I realized later that there were hardly any close-ups of actors' faces either: The camera maintained a distance, like a spectator at a play.
There was nothing extraneous to dramatize these situations, unless you count the physical beauty of the players. It was both literary and theatrical - but it was undoubtedly a film, with real outdoor landscapes and charming houses and the escapism that such backdrops provide. Even with its reminders of artifice, it was compelling.
I came away with the understanding that one could have not just a story but an actual plot - a tight, timing-dependent sequence of events that create a tension that is relieved by a conclusion - based entirely on everyday dramas, in which the greatest jeopardy a character ever faces is the loss of love or the missing of a meeting. It was a lesson that there needn't be a death or a threat of death to create this tension. This realization made me understand that I had the experience and imagination necessary to make up similar stories. And I started writing them.
I was impressed too that the film I had just watched had a moral, an overt message (it was the proverb "He who talks too much will hurt himself"). This was outrageously heavy-handed, and yet the film seemed so light. As were the films in his Comedies and Proverbs series that I went on to watch, especially Les Nuits de la pleine lune, a dark betrayal story about sophisticated city life that makes even the brand new suburbs look glamorous.
It was while watching the earlier Six Moral Tales series - the amusing series that included the jaded La Collectionneuse and the gorgeous, sad and unbearably sexy L'Amour l'après-midi - that I realized that Rohmer was not just a moralist but something of a misanthrope: His characters almost all show venality or narcissism, even when they retreat from the brink of infidelity (as all the guys do in the Moral Tales series).
Rohmer's imagination was a pretty and affluent place, but it was also a sober and severe one. He saw through people as if he were a psychiatrist. I think he was actually a rather wicked man. (I mean that, of course, in the most positive way.)
It's not surprising that I was inspired to write novels by Rohmer's films: His film oeuvre is as much a comment on literature as it is on cinema. He has said himself, unapologetically, that the novel is his greatest inspiration, and that he was trying to duplicate its complexities on screen. This literariness is in direct opposition to the mantras of North American film schools, that teach you that the visual and visceral effects of film - its sensational qualities - must be used to the full if it is to be worth making at all. ("What makes it a film rather than a novel?" ask the producer-instructors, warningly.)
Rohmer loved Balzac and once said that his "taste for plots" was part of his "Balzacian side." It is odd then that in a few recent obituaries his films were called plotless. Such nonsense is evidence of the orthodoxy that Hollywood has taught us all: A plot, these critics must think, involves a gun.
Rohmer's last movie, made in 2007, was so abstract and contrived it was like watching a lecture. Les Amours d'Astrée et de Céladon is an adaptation of the classic proto-novel L'Astrée, a pastoral romance published in the 17th century. In the film, idealized shepherds and shepherdesses discuss love and morality, in poetry, in an idyllic rustic setting. The acting is almost non-existent, the staging stiff, and there is no attempt at verisimilitude of any kind. All there is to concentrate on is the thoughtful complexity of the arguments, and the slowly developing, and rather strange, asexual morality that emerges. It is a kind of anti-film, by today's standards, and made by someone who, with his degree of fame and influence, could have made a wildly successful commercial movie. To do something like this was to take a defiant stand, and it displayed a fearsome artistic integrity.