Rohmer mon amour (éventuelle)
Although I was initially going to let my “top ten” list (see below) serve as my sole acknowledgment of Rohmer’s passing, I have since found myself unexpectedly and continuously moved by the death of the great French filmmaker. Perhaps I feel this way because I am only a recent convert to this most modest of the Nouvelle Vague auteurs. Of the five or six filmmakers I would consider to be personal favorites today (including Alain Resnais, David Cronenberg, and Hou Hsiao-hsien), Rohmer is the one director in this list whose ranking has undergone the most drastic upheaval.
Indeed, if you had asked me my opinion of Rohmer just a little over a year ago, I would have mentioned my fondness for elements of critical favorites like A Tale of Autumn and My Night at Maud’s, especially the latter's irresistable application of statistical theory to romantic love, but then would have admitted that his naturalism on the whole rather aggravated me, particularly in what I then considered to be a frequent refusal to divert his attention away from characters who I found to be shallow and a bit bourgeois in their intellectual prattle (something I myself, in retrospect, can admit I indulge in more often than I care to admit). I recall almost turning off in irritation The Green Ray—today my favorite film by Rohmer—during a scene when its protagonist, played by Marie Rivière, makes a big deal about her vegetarian habits while dining with some fellow vacationers. Neither did the self-absorbed actions of the male protagonist in A Tale of Summer do much to alleviate my aversion to what I interpreted to be on Rohmer's part a limited perspective—one that, as I wrote in my summary of the film back in 2007, seemed (to me at the time) hopelessly uncommitted to any kind of meaningful cause, political or otherwise.
If I was initially repelled by Rohmer’s characters, my feelings may only be a tribute to the filmmaker’s remarkably undetectable mise-en-scène, which formed enough of a nonjudgmental playing field for my own judgmental emotions to take free reign (often against the films themselves, ironically). Even before I realized this, however, I felt compelled about four months ago to give The Green Ray a second chance, despite my initial dismissal that it was a silly fairy tale for the lovesick upper-class. As I watched Rohmer’s film a second time, something astonishing happened: I began to develop a real compassion for Rivière’s wandering heroine, this person who had initially irritated me to no end. True, I still found some of her personality quirks a bit pretentious, but my critical opinion suddenly became beside the point. Through Rohmer’s refusal to subject Rivière to invasive close-ups or surround her with non-diegetic music, I increasingly felt that I was being asked not to identify with his protagonist per se but to simply observe her. Seeing Rivière break into tears during two or three key scenes in The Green Ray, my feelings for her character and my awareness of her artificiality as an actor began to come into excruciating conflict. Never had the “fourth wall” of cinema felt so invisible and yet simultaneously so devastatingly permanent, its existence only proven in my inability to comfort Rivière as she cried alone—alone, and yet observed by all, through Rohmer’s discreet, almost transparent camera lens.
What my epiphanic second viewing of The Green Ray revealed to me was that, like Howard Hawks at his most leisurely paced (e.g., Only Angels Have Wings, Rio Bravo), Rohmer persistently—and yet with a consistent, astonishing ease—worked to chip away the formalistic self-consciousness of cinema advocated by a more Brechtian peer like Jean-Luc Godard, thereby allowing his viewers to make intimate contact with his protagonists that nevertheless enhances the distance positioned between observed and observer. In other words, Rohmer's singular ability to draw his viewers so near to the emotions of his characters signifies—by process of a kind of poststructuralist différance—an awareness of cinema’s artificial presence itself, one just as alienating as Godard.
Let me put it another way: In pushing his naturalism to its uppermost limits, by bringing us as close to his characters as is cinematically possible, Rohmer better alerts us to the insufferable fact that the projection screen can never be completely shattered. He essentially suggests that, like his own protagonists who often have difficulty understanding their most intimate acquaintances (particularly apparent in his wonderful "Comedies & Proverbs" series of the '80s), we as viewers can never completely make contact with these characters’ thoughts and emotions, either, no matter how much Rohmer increases our proximity to them. This fragile yet undeviating gap between spectator and spectacle thus becomes a metaphor for the gap between our subjectivity and that of other human beings, where the suspension of disbelief Rohmer perfects in his naturalism only serves as a reminder of the same suspension we perpetuate in our self-deceptive belief that we can ever fully comprehend the thoughts and feelings of another person. No matter how much we strive to signify ourselves to others through words, gestures, and expressions (like the intellectual prattle of the male protagonist in My Night at Maud's or the tearful breakdown of Rivière near the end of The Aviator's Wife), Rohmer implies that the essence of who we are will always remain unknowable to everyone except ourselves, despite others' best efforts to give us their idea of comfort and affection.
It is finally this separation between the audience and Rohmer’s protagonists, however, that makes the resolutions in many of his films so affecting. When the scattered lovers of L'Ami de mon amie or A Tale of Autumn find their perfect matches, when the male hero of Claire’s Knee makes contact with the object of his desire, when concealed identity is revealed at the finale of Les amours d'Astrée et de Céladon, or when Rivière finally finds true love through a kind of divine intervention itself at the end of The Green Ray, Rohmer is in all these instances generously offering his characters a merciful resolution that his viewers, in their permanent role as distant observers, could never grant even if they wished to. Stepping in for the presupposed benevolence of his audience, Rohmer induces a compassion in his viewers that does not depend on their direct intercession—a compassion, in other words, that delights in witnessing the joy of others without taking credit for supplying this joy. By pushing his naturalism to such a maximum value that it exposes the inevitable alienation inherent in cinema, Rohmer teaches us how to love others from afar, which in the end may be the only way we can really love others anyway.