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12 January 2010updated 14 Sep 2021 4:03pm

Gilbey on Film: Eric Rohmer remembered

The French New Wave director specialised in love gone astray -- and the occasional severed head

By Ryan Gilbey

With the death yesterday of Eric Rohmer, incorrigible romantics and cinephiles everywhere lost a great ally and cheerleader.

He was 89 when he died, and seems to have been that age for at least two decades; certainly when I first saw a Rohmer film (the 1983 Pauline at the Beach, a bright but barbed roundelay), the image I held of him was a white-haired sage who hadn’t forgotten what it was like to be young and impetuous. He was often commended for his understanding of youthful hearts; he was nearly 50 by the time he made his late-Nouvelle Vague masterpieces My Night With Maud and Claire’s Knee, and retained those films’ acuteness in even his most recent work.

While cherished for his stories of love misdirected and mishandled, he made the occasional surprising departure, such as 2001’s French Revolution drama The Lady and the Duke. How surprising was it? Well, it was shot on digital video, featuring digitally enhanced backgrounds and mise-en-scène. (In Ten Bad Dates with De Niro, a book of movie lists, the critic Anne Billson included it in her tally of “Ten Places You Wouldn’t Expect to Find a Severed Head”: “Of all the film directors in the world, Rohmer — auteur of tasteful films full of droopy young French people who talk a lot — is probably the last in whose oeuvre you would expect to find a severed head. And yet here it is, on a pike.”)

My own late-period favourite remains A Summer’s Tale, from 1996, one of his “Contes des quatre saisons“. He moves his camera and directs his cast with such intuition and clarity that you are drawn into a scenario that seems at first to be a bagatelle.

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It concerns Gaspard (Melvil Poupaud, who also turns up unexpectedly in this week’s British thriller 44-Inch Chest), a pretty young graduate holidaying in Dinard. There, he has sort-of arranged to meet his sort-of girlfriend, Lena. Gaspard is like that; he’s a sort of musician, too, though the sea shanty he’s toiling over suggests he should sort of quit sort of immediately.

He starts hanging out with Margot (Amanda Langlet), a student who is spending the summer waitressing. They walk and talk and flirt with each other, and Margot has enough savvy to rebuff Gaspard’s cumbersome advances. But that’s OK: another local girl, Solene (Gwenaëlle Simon), wants his body. She and Gaspard begin their own little romance, which is just dandy until Lena (Aurelia Nolin) finally shows up.

Rohmer’s knack in the film is for bringing compassion and emotional complexity to the tritest situations. You could find a predicament like Gaspard’s on at least two stages in the West End in any given month. But Rohmer is more interested in stripping away Gaspard’s façade than exploiting his discomfort, revealing not the hapless puppet we had expected, but a master puppeteer capable of surreptitiously manipulating those around him — at least until his strings start to get knotted. The protracted takes and gentle volleys of dialogue create a kind of harmony out of the emotional discordancy, so that it takes you a while to notice that the romantic entanglements have gone as haywire as Gaspard’s hair.

“I’m curious about people,” Margot tells Gaspard at one point. “No one is totally uninteresting.” That could have been Rohmer speaking. In fact, it wouldn’t make a bad epitaph.

Ryan Gilbey blogs for Cultural Capital every Tuesday. He is also the New Statesman’s film critic.