French director and noted film critic Eric Rohmer, whose highly praised psychological meditations on life such as “My Night at Maud’s” and “Claire’s Knee” made him an iconic figure in French cinema, died Monday in Paris after being hospitalized for the past week. He was 89.
“He never sold out,” said Sony Pictures Classics co-prexy Michael Barker, who distributed several of Rohmer’s films, first with Orion Classics and then with Sony. “He symbolized the essence of independent film.”
Though Rohmer started as a writer and didn’t direct his first film until he was nearly 50, his career included several chapters and rebirths, and like fellow French cineastes Claude Chabrol and Jacques Rivette, he was still directing into his late 80s. He was awarded a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2001 for his body of work.
One of several free-thinking film critics who formed the French New Wave of dire ctors in the late 1950s, Rohmer was the founding editor of the influential Cahiers du Cinema, the magazine that espoused the auteur theory — that the director is the author of a film in the same way the writer is of his novel. He co-founded the journal in the early 1950s with Fran cois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Rivette, who, like himself, would go on to become major directors of the postwar era.
Many of his two dozen features fell into the groupings Rohmer called the “Six Moral Tales,” the “Comedies and Proverbs” and “Tales of the Four Seasons.” The highly literate films were criticized by some as uncinematic for their simple, unobtrusive camera moves and editing plus their heavy emphasis on dialogue. But Rohmer’s films were stylistically polished and expertly rendered.
Rohmer was born Jean-Marie Maurice Scherer in Nancy, northeastern France. He adopted his working name in his 20s.
He studied history in Paris and taught school in Clermont-Ferrand for a time before moving back to the French capital in the mid-1940s to work as a freelance journalist.
Never particularly interested in films, he began attending screenings at the Cinematheque Nationale in Paris and soon began writing for La Revue du Cinema, Arts, Les Temps Modernes and La Parisienne. In 1950, he and Truffaut, Godard and Rivette founded the short-lived La Gazette du Cinema.
Rohmer was editor-in-chief of their next effort, Cahiers, from 1956-63, during which the journal attacked the status quo in French films and revered a cadre of American and Italian directors including Hitchcock, John Ford and Howard Hawks. With Chabrol, Rohmer wrote 1957’s “Hitchcock,” still considered a definitive study of the director’s work.
He started making shorts in the early 1950s and released his first feature, “The Sign of Leo,” in 1959.
Rohmer announced an ambitious slate of six “moral tales” revolving around the conflicts within men, particularly in their dealings with women. He continued working on little-seen shorts, features and a series of documentaries for French TV.
While waiting for Jean-Louis Trintignant to be available for the third moral tale, “My Night at Maud’s,” Rohmer filmed “La Collectionneuse” for $60,000. It won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 1968 but was not released in the U.S. until after the 1969 debut of “Maud’s,” which netted a foreign-language film Oscar nomination as well as an original-screenplay nom.
Rohmer’s first color film, 1970’s “Claire’s Knee,” won the top prize at the San Sebastian Film Festival.
Moving out of the confines of contemporary films, Rohmer next shot two exquisite period pieces, “The Marquise of O,” from a 19th-century German short story, and the 12th century-set “Perceval” in 1978.
A new cerebral cycle of films called “Comedies and Proverbs” was launched in 1980 with “The Aviator’s Wife” and continued with “The Perfect Marriage” and the Berlin fest winner “Pauline at the Beach.”
Rohmer’s films from the mid-1980s to 1990 were some of his most accessible and commercially successful. French ingenue Pascale Ogier won the actress prize in Venice for the 1984 “Full Moon in Paris.”
Talky, charming and quintessentially French, “The Green Ray” was one of Rohmer’s most popular later films with U.S. arthouse auds. Other films from this period include “Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle” and comedy “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend.”
Rohmer remained at the top of his game as he entered his 70s, launching the “Four Seasons” series with “A Tale of Springtime” and “A Tale of Winter.” The films hewed to his carefully honed themes of intellectual banter and hand-wringing among the French middle class.
For his last few films, he delved into period material with “The Lady and the Duke,” “Triple Agent” and his last, 2007’s “The Romance of Astree and Celadon.”
He is survived by a brother and a son.