There’s a famous quote from the Arthur Penn film Night Moves: “I saw a Rohmer film once, it was kind of like watching paint dry.” There’s a lot of truth in that.
Rohmer was one of the French New Wave filmmakers. He started very late, one of the last to contribute. A deeply conservative Roman Catholic, he was ideologically very opposed to many of the other filmmakers within the movement, who tended to be socialist, communist, anarchist or in the case of Godard, Maoist. He was arguably the most pure of the French New Wave directors, however, because he just went and shot films with non-professionals—the films were rehearsed, but there was only a small crew. So unlike most of his contemporaries, he lived by the original New Wave ideal which was close to cinema vérité.
Rohmer’s most famous films are his “Six Moral Tales” series, which he made in the ‘60s and ‘70s. However, this set contains his comedies, his “proverbs” films, and a scattering of others. He was basically only interested in the lives of upper middle class and rich people, and so they are the subjects of his films, usually sort of French proto-hipsters. Unusually for a male director, most of his protagonists are female.
His interest in bourgeois life is, unfortunately, what makes most of his work boring for this viewer. I don’t have any interest in these people, so watching endless stories from their lives is just not my thing. There are lots of long dialogue-based scenes, not unlike Linklater’s Before series, but at least there was something interesting about Linklater’s characters.
The first two in the set are Rohmer’s last attempts to make much more “cinematic” films. The first is a period drama, The Marquise of O, the second is an Arthurian legend, Perceval, which connects him to another French filmmaker, Robert Bresson, who made an Arthurian film and also had a strong Catholic sensibility.
The Aviator’s Wife is the kind of film that you could easily see Truffaut do. It’s about a young man who thinks his girlfriend is cheating on him and who then starts spying on her. It’s a pleasant enough French dramedy.
I found Pauline at the Beach incredibly boring, although it became a kind of arthouse hit in the US. It’s a frothy sex comedy, proving that the French can also churn out shlock.
The best of the lot was Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle. It’s about two young girls and the escapades they have. One is a country girl, a surrealist painter who is very conservative in her own weird way and really whiny, while the other is a city girl, a free spirit who gets up to mischief. There are some great scenes—in one, the city girl is in a supermarket where someone else is shoplifting and being followed by security. At the checkout, she grabs the shoplifter’s bag and runs out to keep the thief from being caught—an act her friend can’t understand. It’s a cool little comedy, and you can see the influence of this tale of female friendship on Noah Baumbach’s films Frances Ha! and Mistress America, and the Lena Dunham show Girls.
Some of the rest, including A Good Marriage and My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, are perfectly fine. The dialogue is very naturalistic; the most obvious example in this set would be The Green Ray, which was much more improvisational than his usual tightly scripted films.
The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque is his satire on French politics. A socialist wants to build a kind of arts centre, and infighting ensues between small-town political factions.
Tarantino is a massive softie—we all know that—and has a real thing for romcoms. During his Video Archive days in the ‘80s, he was a massive booster of Rohmer in LA. He says: “Well, they’re not dramas, they’re comedies, but they’re not really very funny, all right? You watch them and they’re just lightly amusing, you know? You might smile once an hour, you know?” And that’s a good way to describe them.
The set does come with lots of extras. There are intros from Rohmer on half of the films, and an appreciation of Rohmer by Richard Ayoede. Ayoede is a big fan of Rohmer, and while it’s a bit rambling, it’s interesting to watch. French TV documentaries on one of his cinematographers, two episodes on the making of and release of Perceval, and an hour-long French doc on Tchéky Karyo, one of the stars of Full Moon in Paris, are included; and there are half a dozen archival interviews with cast members from various films, There’s an audio interview of Rohmer, a ‘60s documentary short he directed, trailers for the films, and of course, a massive booklet.
Rohmer is an acquired taste, but if it’s yours, you will enjoy this set. Even for those who are, like me, not really into it, there are certainly some films in this set worth seeing.