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August 20 - August 30

The Human Comedies of Eric Rohmer

The death earlier this year of Eric Rohmer – the filmmaking pseudonym for Maurice Schérer (1920-2010) – brought to a close one of the longest and most celebrated careers in French cinema. Like many of his New Wave colleagues, Rohmer was a film critic first, beginning in 1948, before serving on the editorial board of Cahiers du cinéma in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the same period during which he began making short films with a group of friends that included Jacques Rivette and Jean-Luc Godard. He made his first feature, The Sign of Leo, in 1959, but its failure with audiences and critics led to an atypical pause in his prolific career, with Rohmer’s second feature, La Collectioneuse, not appearing until 1966. The success of this second film enabled Rohmer to quickly make a follow-up, My Night at Maud’s, which went on to international acclaim and assured his career as the elder statesman and skeptical sage of the New Wave.

In spite of the popular misconception that Rohmer’s films are “slow,” they are assuredly narratives, affectionately focused, in general, on the lives and loves of the mostly young and attractive, with almost all of them running under a brisk two hours. They are also primarily comedies grounded in the sympathetic observation of human foibles, particularly the prickly connection, or lack thereof, between professed beliefs and behavior. The emphasis placed on spoken dialogue in Rohmer’s films has led some to claim his filmmaking is “uncinematic.” In fact, Rohmer’s classical approach to filmmaking makes the dialogue a crucial part of the image, rather than subordinating the image to words. It comes as no surprise that two of Rohmer’s major influences are Jean Renoir and Howard Hawks, two masters at creating exciting cinema from the encounters between characters whose life essence is expressed through the spoken and sung word – a vision of the cinema shared by Rohmer and his colleague Godard in which speech is most definitely an act. Although visually Rohmer remained a classicist, uninterested in widescreen or elaborate camera work, his films are also graced with a luxuriant visual beauty, especially those made in collaboration with famed cinematographer Nestor Almendros.

The failure of The Sign of Leo had the benefit of forcing Rohmer to think pragmatically about the sustenance of his career, leading to the decision that by presenting his films as a series, he could build an audience for them. After grouping two shorts and four features as “Six Moral Tales” in the 1960s, Rohmer created the “Comedies and Proverbs” from six of the seven films he made in the 1980s before ending with “Tales of the Four Seasons,” made during the 1990s. Taken together, Rohmer’s oeuvre is as rich in character and insight as the vast cycle of novels by Balzac, one of his favorite authors, and it could be labeled with the name that Balzac gave his cycle: “The Human Comedy.”

Special thanks: Sandrine Butteau, French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, New York; Anne Miller, Eric Jausseran, Consulate of France, Boston; Scott Foundas, Film Society of Lincoln Center.

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Friday August 20 at 7pm

My Night at Maud's (Ma nuit chez Maud)

Directed by Eric Rohmer.
With Jean-Louis Trintignant, Françoise Fabian, Marie-Christine Barrault France 1969, 35mm, b/w, 110 min. French with English subtitles

The third of Rohmer’s “Moral Tales” and his first international hit, My Night at Maud’s centers around a serious young Catholic engineer who, over the course of several days around Christmas, explores the intersection of chance and choice in his life. Adjusting to a lonely life in provincial Clermont-Ferrand after years living abroad, he finds himself torn between the woman chance has thrown him together with and one he has never met but instinctively believes to be his ideal. The film’s centerpiece is the titular night, which the snowbound Jean-Louis Trintignant spends with a charming, agnostic divorcee, sharing ideas about philosophy and life and, eventually, her bed. Pascal’s Pensées figures heavily in their circular and sparkling debates about religion, marriage and free will.

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Friday August 20 at 9:15pm

The Aviator’s Wife (La femme de l’aviateur)

Directed by Eric Rohmer.
With Philippe Marlaud, Marie Rivière, Anne-Laure Meury
France 1981, 35mm, color, 104 min. French with English subtitles

The first of Rohmer’s “Comedies and Proverbs” follows the proverb “It is impossible to think of nothing,” the wisdom of which is tested by two couples who dedicate themselves to analyzing, and overanalyzing, their own situations and relationships. The film revolves around several episodes of miscommunications and misunderstandings between a young woman and her slightly younger lover after he catches her former boyfriend leaving her apartment early one morning. To begin the new series, Rohmer reverted to shooting in 16mm – a choice celebrated by the dynamic yet decidedly un-Rohmerian handheld footage that begins the film – giving The Aviator’s Wife a refreshingly semi-documentary feel for Paris at the dawn of the 1980s.

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Saturday August 21 at 7pm

Claire's Knee (Le genou de Claire)

Directed by Eric Rohmer.
With Jean-Claude Brialy, Aurora Cornu, Béatrice Romand, Laurence de Monaghan
France 1970, 35mm, color, 105 min. French with English subtitles

Of all the male protagonists in the “Six Moral Tales”—each a man in a steady relationship who finds himself tempted by an unexpected other woman—the lead in Claire’s Knee is arguably the least sympathetic, being a generation older than the unsuspecting, adolescent Claire who is his unwitting temptress. Nouvelle vague stalwart Jean-Claude Brialy plays Jerome, a self-satisfied libertine approaching middle age whose once firm decision to marry his longtime girlfriend is shaken by his encounter with the young Claire. Jerome’s habit of recounting his exploits in a self-serving manner makes explicit Rohmer’s belief that the “Moral Tales” protagonists think of themselves as heroes in a novel, narrating their lives to themselves and others as much as living them. The hints of murky depths in Jerome’s character contrast with the glowing imagery of Annecy in the summer, filmed by Nestor Almendros using a palette inspired by another libertine, Paul Gauguin.

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Saturday August 21 at 9pm

The Lady and the Duke (L’anglaise et le duc)

Directed by Eric Rohmer.
With Lucy Russell, Jean-Claude Dreyfus, Alain Libolt
France 2001, 35mm, color, 125 min. French with English subtitles

Famous for insisting on precise real-life locations for his films, Rohmer made a surprise volta face with his decision to use digital video to create a computer-generated 18th century for The Lady and the Duke. For his adaptation of the memoirs of a Scottish noblewoman living in Paris during the French Revolution, with friends both at the royal court and among supporters of the uprising, Rohmer used digital technology to transform a series of perspective paintings, based on period engravings, into vivid tableaux backgrounds. The result is a virtual Paris that hovers between the historical and the imagined, a haunting expression of Rohmer’s stated intention “to find the true by way of the false.”

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Sunday August 22 at 7pm

Summer (Le rayon vert)

Directed by Eric Rohmer.
With Marie Rivière, Rosette, Béatrice Romand
France 1986, 35mm, color, 98 min. French with English subtitles

July is the month when Parisians flee the city for their long anticipated vacation, with many middle-class residents depending upon on the kindness of friends with country or beach homes. Summer’s thirtyish and single Delphine watches her friends leave the city without having any fixed plans of her own, a wonderful pretext for Rohmer to foreground the quick-witted but unsettled heroine’s proclaimed devotion to chance as the cure for her loneliness. Unusual for Rohmer was the decision to film Summer in 16mm, in part to encourage improvisation during the shoot, a clear expression of his confidence in lead actress Marie Rivière. The film’s French title translates as “the green ray,” in reference to the rare burst of verdant light sometimes said to be visible just as the sun goes below the horizon. The question of whether or not this phenomenon is myth, fact or optical illusion serves as a guiding metaphor for the film.

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Friday August 27 at 7pm

A Good Marriage (Le beau mariage)

Directed by Eric Rohmer.
With Béatrice Romand, André Dussolier, Feodor Atkine, Arielle Dombasle France 1982, 35mm, color, 97 min. French with English subtitles

The La Fontaine proverb that begins this film asks, “Who has not built castles in Spain?” and the film follows with a cautionary tale about the dangers of hatching elaborate and improbable schemes. Rohmer favorite Béatrice Romand plays a young woman bent not on playing the field but rather waiting to meet the ideal man for marriage. In typical Rohmerian fashion, her resolute goal-orientation makes her alternately admirable and insufferable as she wills herself into awkward courtship and miscommunication. Ultimately, Rohmer’s heroine finds herself in a whirlwind of changing mores, the wake that followed the social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s and the crossroads that recurs as the setting for the entire cycle of “Comedies and Proverbs.”

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Friday August 27 at 9pm

The Sign of Leo (Le signe du lion)

Directed by Eric Rohmer.
With Jess Hahn, Van Doude, Michèle Girardon
France 1959, 35mm, b/w, 100 min. French with English subtitles

The failure of this, his first feature, which was independently produced by Claude Chabrol, meant that Rohmer was unable to direct another film for several years while the rest of his cohorts were busily making names for themselves. Critics at the time faulted the passivity of The Sign of Leo’s main character, a Parisian layabout buffeted by forces beyond his control as he waits for a long-anticipated inheritance. Yet the tension between chance and free will that is the driving force in Rohmer’s work finds its first crucial expression in The Sign of Leo, a film championed (and acknowledged as an influence) by the likes of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Rohmer’s rarely-screened directorial debut contains fascinating footage of bohemian life in 1959 Paris, for example, a cameo appearance by Godard in a party scene.

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Saturday August 28 at 7pm

Autumn Tale (Conte d'automne)

Directed by Eric Rohmer.
With Marie Rivière, Béatrice Romand, Alain Libolt
France 1998, 35mm, color, 110 min. French with English subtitles

The last of Rohmer’s “Tales of the Four Seasons” (1990-98), the quartet which would be his final series, Autumn Tale is a magisterial late work – gentle, autumnal and mellow – that remains among the director’s very finest. In contrast to the dominant emphasis on youth in so much of his previous work, Rohmer now focuses instead on two middle-aged friends, played by his two favorite actresses, Marie Rivière and Béatrice Romaine, as the heroines of an intriguing plot spun from the matchmaking efforts of one for the other, and perhaps for herself as well. This well-intentioned intervention engenders a string of complications that culminate in a masterfully choreographed wedding sequence that alternates between comedy, melodrama and farce.

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Saturday August 28 at 9:15pm

The Marquise of O (La Marquise d'O...)

Directed by Eric Rohmer.
With Edith Clever, Bruno Ganz, Peter Lühr
France/West Germany 1976, 35mm, color, 102 min. German with English subtitles

Rohmer followed the great successes of his “Six Moral Tales” with a marked departure from his playful studies of shifting ethical codes in contemporary France by adapting an 1808 novella by Heinrich von Kleist. Like the novella, the film begins with the publication of a remarkable newspaper advertisement, signed by the Marquise of the title, in which she reveals that she is pregnant and desirous of the man responsible to reveal himself. While chance encounters spontaneously drive the protagonists of the “Moral Tales” to examine their own consciences, here fate forces the Marquise to confront both her own comportment and the prejudices of her day. Taking full advantage of the film’s West Germany locations and entirely German cast, Rohmer and Nestor Almendros enriched the period film with rich quotes from German Romantic painting.

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Monday August 30 at 7pm

Pauline at the Beach (Pauline a la plage)

Directed by Eric Rohmer.
With Amanda Langlet, Arielle Dombasle, Pascal Greggory, Feodor Atkine France 1983, 35mm, 94 min. French with English subtitles

One of Rohmer’s most accessible films, Pauline at the Beach focuses on a merry-go-round of love and sex between four people who meet on vacation, all under the watchful eye of a pair of adolescents, who ultimately seem the wisest characters of all. Guided by the proverb roughly translated as “He who talks too much undoes himself,” Rohmer derives rich comedy and drama from the gaps between the moral positions declared by each of the adults and promptly contradicted by their subsequent actions. The film marks the final collaboration between Rohmer and cinematographer Nestor Almendros, who ignites the summertime beach setting with luminous imagery inspired by Matisse.

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