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Rohmer blossomed late, but contributed much

Jorg von Uthmann
Pierre Verdy 1981 associated presss Eric Rohmer worked in sweeping cycles of films, often using nonprofessional actors, to express the heart's deepest feelings.

PARIS Eric Rohmer was so cagey about his life that, according to legend, his mother died not knowing that her schoolteacher son Jean-Marie Maurice Scherer (his real name) was a film director of some repute.

One of the founding fathers of the "Nouvelle Vague" (New Wave), the movement that revolutionized French cinema in the 1960s, Rohmer died Monday in Paris at the age of 89.

Like his comrades-in-arms Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol and Jean-Luc Godard, he led an assault against the sleepy "cinema de Papa" in the influential magazine "Les Cahiers du Cinema." From 1957 to 1963, Rohmer was its editor-in-chief.

To that posse of iconoclasts, filmmaking was by no means an industry. A movie, they claimed, was a work of art akin to a novel, with only one "auteur": the writer-director.

Rohmer was nearly 50 when he got his first break. It came with "Ma Nuit Chez Maud" ("My Night at Maud's," 1969), a black-and-white comedy about faith and carnal temptation.

His next films, "Le Genou de Claire" ("Claire's Knee," 1970) and "L'Amour l'Apres-Midi" ("Love in the Afternoon," 1972), were also successes. As the New York Times critic Vincent Canby wrote, "Claire's Knee" was "something close to a perfect movie."

The three films belong to a six-part cycle, "Contes Moraux" ("Moral Tales"), and are to be viewed as variations on a theme. Instead of attempts to teach a moral lesson, they are subtle investigations into the human heart, where smug certainties clash with the forces of desire.

Such situations are well known in French literature; Stendhal and Proust come to mind.

"I wanted to portray in film," Rohmer once said, "what seemed most alien to the medium — express feelings built deeply into our consciousness."

At this, his movies succeeded, without sounding bookish or stilted. While he seldom used music, he had a sharp eye for evocative settings. Weather was an important factor.

Rohmer often employed unprofessional actors and adjusted the dialogue to their way of talking. He preferred young actors. "I can't get people older than 40 to talk convincingly," he said.

His camera technique was economical. Most of his movies were shot with a 16 mm camera, then blown up to the standard 35 mm format.

In the 1980s, Rohmer started a new six-part cycle, "Comedies et Proverbes," which turned out to be no less engrossing than the first. He invented some of the proverbs himself. The central characters were often articulate young women who refused to play by conventional rules and paid the price. In "Le Rayon Vert" ("Summer," 1986), unlike in previous films, the dialogue was almost entirely improvised by the actors.

Rohmer's third cycle, "Tales of Four Seasons," was, by common consent, not up to the standards the public had come to expect. The same is true of the films he made outside his specialty field, the anatomy of modern-day mating games. The strangest among them, "Perceval le Gallois" (1978), is a faux-naif adaptation of a 12th-century Grail legend, with medieval music, mime and verse.

As a person, Rohmer was an austere introvert and something of an ecological zealot, with deep misgivings about cars, telephones and technology. He was married and had two sons.

His best movies are that rare combination of amusing and profound — highly sophisticated, yet completely natural. "Rohmer is constantly inviting you to be intelligent," wrote the late philosopher Gerard Legrand. "In fact, more intelligent than his characters."