New Wave makes waves again

Eric Rohmer films aim for a new generation

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

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.

*Respect for humanly scaled storytelling. Rohmer knows how to fill a screen with eye-dazzling beauty, but his interest always lies in expressions of the face, inflections of the voice, and emotions. Neither his erudition (which is vast) nor his creativity (which is profound) overshadow his fascination with the everyday feelings and ideas that his characters share with the rest of us.

Even lesser films like "Full Moon in Paris" and "A Tale of Summer" reveal his never-ending affection for the mysteries and vicissitudes of ordinary human nature.

A Rohmer primer

Which of Rohmer's movies make the best introduction to his work? Here are some suggestions, chosen from the "Tales of Rohmer" program:

"My Night at Maud's," 1969. The third "moral tale" is perhaps the richest, telling the crisply ironic story of a religious man caught between a like-minded woman and a mischievous free-thinker. Rohmer's wittily philosophical dialogue takes on deliciously romantic tones when spoken by superb performers like Jean-Louis Trintignant and Francoise Fabian, and Nestor Almendros's black-and-white cinematography is luminous.

"The Marquise of O...," 1976. A young 18th-century woman escapes a sexual assault, then finds herself inexplicably pregnant. This is one of Rohmer's most openly literary films and also one of his most visually delightful, with superb acting by Edith Clever and Bruno Ganz.

"Le Beau Mariage," 1982. An art student decides it's time for matrimony, and she's not discouraged by the inconvenient fact that her chosen spouse-to-be has no such intention. Beatrice Raymond is exquisite as the single-minded heroine.

"Summer," 1986. Originally called "The Green Ray," this low-key comedy looks compassionately at a woman's loneliness during a lovelorn vacation. Watch it sympathetically, and you'll find it as likable as it is delicate.

Not all of Rohmer's greatest movies are included in the traveling series. Perhaps the programmers felt his 1978 drama "Perceval," a tale of King Arthur's time visualized in the style of a medieval miniature, would be too offbeat for general audiences; and that "A Tale of Winter," from 1992, might seem too culturally complex and sincerely religious for today's tastes. But if the show brings Rohmer to the attention of a new generation, renewed attention to these movies will follow.

'Tales of Rohmer,' organized by Winstar Cinema, opens as part of a more extensive Rohmer retrospective at Film Forum in New York, today through March 15. The traveling show will visit more than 30 cities including Boston, Chicago, and Atlanta.

Book speaks volumes on New Wave films

Movie fans interested in more information about Eric Rohmer and the New Wave group can find it in "French New Wave," a new book written by critic Jean Douchet in collaboration with Cedric Anger (Distributed Art Publishers, $75). It contains dramatic film stills and colorful photos of real-life personalities.

Douchet's treatment of this large subject details the early labors of the New Wave cineastes as film critics; their success in becoming directors of their own personal projects; their complex relationships with the '50s and '60s film industry; and the emergence of the "auteur" theory.

He explores the revolutionary implications of New Wave ideas about camera work and lighting - at once artfully stylish and expressively realistic - and the group's approaches to sound, dialogue, and story construction. A biographical dictionary and a survey of the movement's international influence round out the volume.

For anyone interested in French film, the pictures alone make it worth having. And its heart is certainly in the right place: Douchet has dedicated it to Eric Rohmer.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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