The philosophical films of the late French master are ripe for reassessment on home video.
As the Film Society of Minneapolis-St. Paul prepares to open Eric Rohmer’s “A Summer’s Tale” Friday at St. Anthony Main, local lovers of French movies may recall a page-turning querelle between a critic and curator some years back.
When the dear departed Oak Street Cinema booked a three-week Rohmer retrospective in 2001, a City Pages critic reviewed the series as if he were a student radical hurling Molotov cocktails at the balcony windows of bourgeois Parisians. Chiefly, he accused Rohmer of having “orchestrated the death of the European art film.” After trading charges of overstatement and aesthetic conservatism, Oak Street curator Robert Cowgill — given the last of 4,700 words printed on the subject (those were the days) — panned the critic’s sensibility as “swaggeringly dismissive.”
This strange case aside, Rohmer’s delicate romantic comedies and “moral tales” are hardly known for inspiring heated debates among American filmgoers. “A Summer’s Tale,” made in 1996, 14 years before the director’s death at age 89, was never projected on U.S. theater screens until its HD restoration this year — a fact emblematic of Rohmer’s diminutive stature relative to his New Wave colleagues Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard.
Still, in recent years, Rohmer’s talky treatises on love and ethics have come up in conversation about director Richard Linklater, whose “Before Sunrise”/“Sunset”/“Midnight” trilogy draws from the Frenchman’s use of dialogue to drive stories that are as philosophical as they are romantic. Cinephiles should follow the trail back to “A Summer’s Tale” — about a vacationing man and his three potential girlfriends — and to the seven Rohmer features available on demand.
“Pauline at the Beach,” the 1983 film whose teenage title character learns about love the hard way by falling for an untrustworthy boy, is the only one of Rohmer’s six “Comedies and Proverbs” films on VOD (on iTunes and Amazon Instant Video). But Hulu Plus has all of Rohmer’s celebrated “Moral Tales,” from 1963’s black-and-white short film “The Bakery Girl of Monceau” to 1972’s vibrantly colored feature “Love in the Afternoon,” both about men with wandering eyes.
Many Rohmer fans would agree that the strongest of moral tales is 1969’s “My Night at Maud’s,” wherein the director’s basic preoccupations — with sexual temptation, personal choice and odd coincidence — interact complexly and beautifully. As in all films of the series, the male protagonist (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is in love with one woman while being drawn to another. But the simplicity of Rohmer’s plot belies the seriousness of his questions, complicated enough to resist easy answers.
For newcomers, the great discovery is that Rohmer’s “Moral Tales” don’t teach lessons so much as explore mysteries. What we learn from Rohmer — who began as a critic — is the importance of watching and listening intently. As in life, the meaning isn’t given, but made.
Also notable on VOD
Another early Rohmer short available on Hulu Plus is “Presentation, or Charlotte and Her Steak,” in which Godard plays an overbearing young man who repeatedly wants more than Charlotte cares to give — or so it seems.
In the course of the 10-minute film, Charlotte allows the man to enter her apartment while she reheats a piece of meat for a snack. Might our pan-frying heroine be cooking up a scheme to seduce or humiliate the guy? Or is she simply hungry? Maybe sometimes a steak is just a steak.
Send questions or comments to Rob Nelson at VODcolumn@gmail.com.