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New Wave makes waves again

Eric Rohmer films aim for a new generation

By David Sterritt Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 9, 2001

The films of Eric Rohmer are returning to the big screen, and moviegoers who care about human values should raise a resounding cheer.

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The event is called "Tales of Rohmer," and it's a well-planned package of 11 features and two shorts, intelligently designed to highlight the most elegant and enduring values of the French filmmaker's work.

If audiences take as much notice as the program's organizers hope, this traveling show will make Rohmer's name as familiar to young viewers of the 21st century as it was to their movie-loving parents in the '60s and '70s, when a new Rohmer release was regarded as a major cultural event - and just as important, a cheerful opportunity for smart cinematic fun.

Rohmer first made his mark in the 1960s as a member of France's innovative New Wave group, a loosely linked circle of five young directors who wanted to inject cinema with new freshness, creativity, and excitement.

Rohmer was a decade older than his gifted colleagues - Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, and Jacques Rivette - but he shared their youthful impatience with what they called "le cinema de papa," based on qualities they found old-fashioned and artificial. Together they forged a concept of directing rooted in sincerity, spontaneity, and a willingness to face life's complexities.

Rohmer's greatest New Wave contribution was "Six Moral Tales," a series of two shorts and four features focusing with good-humored intensity on dilemmas of life, love, and the penchant of well-meaning people to find themselves in ethical quandaries.

The third installment, "My Night at Maud's," became a runaway art-theater hit in 1969, establishing Rohmer as a major force. Many of his subsequent films have also been grouped into series with common themes: the diverse "Comedies and Proverbs," made in the 1980s, and "Tales of the Four Seasons," his most important '90s project.

Summing up New Wave

Rohmer shared many goals with other New Wave revolutionaries, so summing up his key objectives also encapsulates this important movement as a whole:

*A love for personal cinema. Scorning the emotional and intellectual fakery of most commercial pictures, Rohmer and the others believed film can be a means of personal expression, and that directing a movie can be as intimate and heartfelt as writing a story, a poem, or a letter.

They developed the "auteur" theory to stress the director's role as primary "author" of a film. This doesn't mean cinema has to be "art" instead of "entertainment," since great movies are often both - indeed, Rohmer and Chabrol wrote a trailblazing book on Alfred Hitchcock, finding the "master of suspense" to be a philosopher-poet with religious instincts. They sought a similar multifaceted approach in their own best works.

*Respect for literary values. All the New Wave directors love literature almost as much as they love film; a young character in Truffaut's first feature, "The 400 Blows," actually makes a shrine to Balzac in his bedroom. Rohmer has carried this as far as any of them, filling his pictures with eloquent dialogue and original narrative structures.

Not all his movies are tributes to the printed page, and the 1986 romance called "Summer" is downright improvisational. But other key works, like "The Marquise of O..." and "A Tale of Winter," pay homage to authors as different as Heinrich von Kleist and William Shakespeare in both subject and style. Anyone who loves good books will find much in Rohmer to admire.