Skip to main content

A Tale of Winter, Eric Rohmer.Courtesy of Les Films du Losange

I have a confession: I don't always love French New Wave films. They're often too cool for me, too: "I have at long last fallen in love with you. Obviously, I can never see you again."

But Eric Rohmer's films are different. Not just because they're lovely to look at, though they are – all those summer skies and beaches and beautiful twentysomethings in pinks and blues. And not just because they're about people attempting – and often failing, poignantly and/or hilariously – to fall in love. I've always liked him because, as rigorous as his work is, I can feel his beating heart in it. He likes his characters. They're not perfect; they dither, they screw up. But he's on their side.

"There's a mortifying wit in his work," says James Quandt, TIFF Cinematheque's senior programmer, who just launched a six-week Rohmer retrospective at Toronto's Lightbox. "You can cringe. But he doesn't condemn his characters. He always allows them an escape." (The series, Dangerous Liaisons: The Films of Eric Rohmer, which runs through Aug. 28, includes 24 films and two programs of shorter work, from his breakthrough My Night at Maud's, through Pauline at the Beach and The Green Ray, to his final film, The Romance of Astrée and Celadon.)

"He's always looking for the truth of the soul," the actress Marie Rivière, who starred in four Rohmer films, wrote in an e-mail. He sees the greatness in ordinary people, and the universality in their real-life problems – "the little nothings that go to your very being." (She'll be in Toronto in August to introduce three of her Rohmer films, as well as the documentary she made about him, In the Company of Eric Rohmer.)

For Rohmer, who was born in 1920 and died in 2010, "truth" was elusive. His narrators say one thing, his images another, and his characters' dialogue something else again. He leaves the takeaway to us. Frequently, his characters' desires are at odds with their actions – "We watch them talking and talking, but misleading themselves," Quandt says. They insist that they're seeking happiness, then do things to contradict that. As someone comments in Rivière's doc, "His films are about the being, and the being is a paradox."

Personally, too, Rohmer rejected the idea of "a" truth. He hated divulging any details about himself. He hid behind fake mustaches at film festivals. He lied about his age. His very name is a construct, a mash-up of Erich von Stroheim (the director) and Sax Rohmer (the author). His birth name is in dispute: It's either Maurice Henri Joseph Schérer or Jean-Marie Maurice Schérer. Even his mother, so the story goes, never knew he was a director; she died thinking he was a professor.

Contrary to the American school of acting – "show all thoughts" – Rohmer's characters, like real people, try to hide their feelings. Also, he doesn't care much about plot. (I'm with him on this; I think plot is overrated.) In a Rohmer film, character is plot, and dialogue – pages and pages of it – is action.

"His films are emotional suspense thrillers," Quandt agrees. "Will the engineer in My Night at Maud's fall prey to Maud's charms? Will the hairdresser in A Tale of Winter track down her lover? Will the diplomat in Claire's Knee ever touch it? It's not conventional suspense; it's ethical, moral suspense."

Rohmer's focus on the primal human quest – the search for love – and the endless paradoxes within that, keeps his films feeling unfettered and fresh rather than stale and dated. But his technique was ahead of his time, too: He liked rehearsals. He shot in chronological order, in natural light, with no extraneous musical track. (He waited a year to make My Night at Maud's because it takes place on Christmas Eve, so that's when he wanted to shoot it.)

He shot quickly, rarely interrupting takes, usually moving on after only one or two. Over the years, his crews grew smaller and smaller; by the end he was down to himself, a sound person and a director of photography. He preferred using small cameras, and didn't try to eliminate extraneous sounds or control people walking by. His favourite lens was the 50 mm, because to him it most closely resembles our human vision. He didn't believe in close-ups, because that's not the way we see the world. And he didn't use the camera to tell the story – no whip-pans or slo-mo, just the occasional pinning of the main character in the frame, usually to highlight her loneliness.

Rohmer didn't brook actorly psychologizing; he'd simply tell his cast, "Do what you want." When he first worked with people, he wanted them to memorize his text; when he got to know them, he let them improvise. "It was very important to him that I'd be able to cry at the exact moment that was written in the script," Rivière recalls. "We would rehearse that in the location until I could do it. I think it helped me to trust me. That's an important point that he gave all his actors: to learn to trust ourselves.

"Eric also used to pay lot of attention to the way we moved," she goes on. "For him, the body gestures expressed a lot – sometimes the same as what we're saying, sometimes the contrary." He was always telling his actors to talk more slowly and to move more. He let the actors tell him where they wanted to go, and asked his cinematographers to follow. "As he knew me better, it became easier to shoot what loneliness was, as we all know it at one – or alas, many times – in our lives."

"His films are renewable treasures," says Mary Stephen, the Canadian-raised film editor and composer who worked with Rohmer for 25 years. "They are deceptively simple, and deceptively talkative and slow. But when you take apart a Rohmer film from an editing point of view, there's no wastage in it – every scene propels it forward. Yet they are psychologically complex, never yielding to a black-and-white rendition of the human heart."

That explains why Rohmer has displaced Godard and even Truffaut as the go-to influence for modern filmmakers, including Whit Stillman, Fukada Koji, Hong Sang-Soo, Richard Linklater, Zoe Cassavetes, Olivier Assayas and François Ozon. "Noah Baumbach lets everyone know that his film Margot at the Wedding is a direct homage to Rohmer's Pauline at the Beach," Quandt says. "You can also see his influence in the mumblecore movement. Neil LaBute cites him as an inspiration, if you can believe that. And a few years ago, there was talk that Judd Apatow was going to remake My Night at Maud's with Michael Cera, with the title They Talked All Night."

Whether or not you like the idea of Apatow doing Rohmer, he got that title right. Watching Rohmer's characters talk all night is one of cinema's great pleasures. Because they're not just nattering. We're watching them think, and thinking makes them beautiful.

Dangerous Liaisons: The Films of Eric Rohmer runs through Aug. 28 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox,