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Eric Rohmer: Moralist at the heart of French cinema

Eric Rohmer was one of the founding figures of the French New Wave in film-making, alongside Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffau

Eric Rohmer was one of the founding figures of the French New Wave in film-making, alongside Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut. He made more than 50 films, including the Oscar-nominated My Night at Maud's, which tells of an engineer who is trapped one evening by the snow in the company of his best friend's lover, a divorcée whose liberalism challenges his own conservative values. It was the third of Rohmer's "Six Moral Tales", a series that was begun in 1963. In each, a man is tempted to stray from a female partner, but ultimately finds himself able to resist. Rohmer's own Catholicism informed many of the circumstances in which he situated his characters.

A teacher of French and German literature, he was also a novelist, albeit as the author of only one work, Elizabeth, published under the pen name Gilbert Cordier. His films had a strong literary flavour in which dialogue played a large part but often nothing of great consequence occurred. He was more interested in how people thought than in what they actually did. Not everyone was persuaded: Gene Hackman, playing a jaded detective in Arthur Penn's Night Moves (1975), famously equated watching a Rohmer film with "watching paint dry".

Rohmer kept his private life private, adopting pseudonyms. The name under which he directed was inspired by the actor/director Erich von Stroheim and the 19th century English novelist Sax Rohmer, creator of the criminal Dr Fu Manchu. Famously idiosyncratic, Eric Rohmer was something of an environmentalist before it became fashionable, and professed to never having driven a car nor ridden in a taxi. He avoided interviews and, though his films were seldom shown beyond the art house circuit, he thought of himself as "commercial".

In 1956, he assumed editorial control of the seminal French film review Cahiers du cinéma, which redefined film criticism as an art form. His first foray into film was abandoned when the producer was declared bankrupt. His second, Le Signe du Lion (1959), which told of an American expatriate wandering the streets of Paris, failed to score as highly with the public as did the work of his contemporaries, Truffaut and Godard, with 440 Blows and Breathless respectively. But just three years later, his short film i>La Boulangère de Monceau, the first in the "Moral" series, was a critical success. He returned to the feature-length format in 1967, winning the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, with La Collectionneuse.

"I would prefer that there is a French sub-culture in France as opposed to an American one," he once said. "Even if I admire American cinema enormously, I think that each nation should guard its cultural hegemony, otherwise things could become dangerous." He was born on March 21, 1920 and died on January 11. He is survived by his wife and two sons.

Published: January 16, 2010 04:00 AM

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