Eric Rohmer’s timeless antidotes

  • Themes: Film

The French film director Eric Rohmer observed and chronicled the behaviour of his contemporaries, and offered an alternative rooted in Christian morality.

Eric Rohmer.
Eric Rohmer. Credit: Collection Christophel / Alamy Stock Photo

‘Art is a reflection of our time; isn’t it also the antidote?’ So wrote the French film-maker Eric Rohmer (1920-2010) in 1949, a rhetorical question that provides a fitting epigraph to all of his films. A case in point might be Full Moon in Paris (Les nuits de la pleine lune), released 40 years ago in 1984. A tragi-comedy of manners (it belongs to a group of four Rohmer films gathered under the heading ‘Comedies and Proverbs’), Full Moon in Paris is one of the director’s ultra-contemporary films. It follows the tergiversations of Louise (Pascale Ogier), a young woman who is in a settled relationship with Rémi (Tchéky Karyo) and lives with him in the new town of Marne-la-Vallée, but also attempts to hold on to her independence by keeping a pied-à-terre in central Paris where she works, so that she can continue to go out in the evenings without Rémi, who dislikes parties. Like many of Rohmer’s protagonists, Louise has a firm theory about how her life should be and expects reality to conform to her desires, and the film ends with a typically Rohmerian twist of fate, shattering her delusion. Full Moon in Paris operates in two ways: as a quasi-documentary time capsule of fashionable mid-1980s Paris and as a timeless morality tale.

Rohmer, who was for several years the editor of the film magazine Les Cahiers du cinéma, is closely associated with other 1960s Nouvelle Vague directors such as François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. Yet his oeuvre stands alone, deeply personal both in terms of the director’s style and of his preoccupations. This is in part because Rohmer, an older man than his Cahiers colleagues and, unlike them, a political conservative – he was, unfashionably, a Catholic Monarchist – brought to film-making a sensibility nurtured by the Classics (which he taught in a lycée before leaving academia for a cinematic career), the German Idealism of Hegel and Schelling, and by literature. Two of his other films, Perceval le Gallois and La Marquise d’O, are adaptations of Chrétien de Troyes and Wilhelm von Kleist respectively.

Alongside all this, Rohmer, whose fictional terrain is to do with love, illusion and truth, was interested in observing and chronicling the behaviour of his contemporaries. With Full Moon in Paris he turned his attention to the twentysomething section of Parisian society in the 1980s, characterised by optimistic hedonism and a lack of interest in political ideology or, indeed, in any absolute values. Like all the films in Rohmer’s Comedies and Proverbs series, the first image of Full Moon in Paris carries a proverb, like a silent film intertitle, which states: ‘He who has two wives loses his soul; he who has two houses loses his reason.’ Like the life jacket we later see hanging as decoration on a wall of Louise’s Parisian studio flat, this proverb – allegedly of Champenois origin but in fact of Rohmer’s own invention – carries a warning. The character of Louise, who cannot settle down properly in one home with her partner but keeps another home elsewhere for herself alone, is in effect trying to live two lives. Her individualistic resistance to bourgeois conformity represents the trail of May 68 utopianism. It is significant that Pascale Ogier, who plays the part, happened to be the daughter of Bulle Ogier, an actress who starred in many experimental films of the 1960s and 1970s and is associated with the French counterculture of that period.

Full Moon in Paris presents a comprehensive evocation of 1980s Paris, its black, grey and neon-coloured fashions and distinctive tastes in architecture and design (including a vogue for Mondrian posters and 1930s Modernist teapots). It also extends to the film’s music, for which Rohmer collaborated with the post-punk electro-pop duo Elli et Jacno, whose melancholy sound, featured during the party scenes, the director described amusedly as a sort of ‘electric minuet’. Forty years on, the film exerts a powerful nostalgic pull for a lost time. This documentary quality, a social historian’s determination to record reality as he observes it, illustrates what Rohmer has called his ‘Balzac side’. The characters’ social environment and professional identity explain them to a large degree: Louise is a trainee interior designer who attempts to order life to her own taste. Her partner Rémi is an architect who, as an expression of his integrity, chooses to live not in Paris’s historical centre but in one of the postmodern blocks of Marne-la-Vallée in which he believes. Louise’s best friend and confidant Octave (Fabrice Luchini), a writer, is a dangerous weaver of fictions about real life.

This attention to context goes hand in hand with Rohmer as a moralist – and indeed as a Christian filmmaker. In Rohmer’s films people spend a lot of their time talking, often as a way of concealing their thoughts and feelings; they are also shown, often to great comic effect, to behave in ways entirely at odds with their declared intention. Thus Louise, who has explained her desire to keep a room of her own in Paris as an expression of her ‘absolute need of solitude’, is seen, after minutes spent alone in her flat, to pick up her address book and try to arrange a plan for going out. This echoes Rohmer’s interest (explored more explicitly in his films My Night at Maud’s and A Tale of Winter) in the ideas of 17th-century Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal, whose contention it was that man seeks in constant divertissement (diversion) to escape the contemplation of his ineluctable fate – death – when he should instead turn to God. Full Moon in Paris, a comedy about a girl who will not give up the escapism of nightlife and parties, carries serious undertones. Louise’s story is that of a creature of error driven by narcissism, lust and self-deception. This is a familiar Rohmerian situation. With their lightness of touch, Rohmer’s films, which often feature pretty girls (sometimes, as for example in Claire’s Knee, pursued by older male predators), have been misread as libertine; in fact, they are about the dangers of desire, and signal insistently that it is the ability to repress or resist it that defines civilisation.

Nevertheless, with very few exceptions, religion in Rohmer’s cinema remains submerged and is not made explicit. Though the workings of grace unfold, they are expressed under the guise of happenstance. And so, although Rohmer believes in the moral freedom to make choices, chance encounters abound in his cinema, such as at the end of The Green Ray (whose heroine reads as omens the playing cards she sometimes finds in the street) or A Tale of Winter – where a long-lost love miraculously reappears during an ordinary bus ride. Much in Full Moon in Paris appears to hinge on chance encounters, until the last scene which shows us Louise’s crushing downfall when she least expects it, as she walks into the trap she has set for herself. The ending provides the antidote to her delusion. It also reveals another story that has been unfolding throughout unbeknownst to Louise – and to us – though the signs were there from the beginning.

At once a charming slice of life and an astringent crucible of morality, Full Moon in Paris holds within itself the best of Rohmer’s cinema for which another epigraph could be Schiller’s line: ‘Live with your century, but do not be its creature; serve your contemporaries, but give them what they need, not what they praise.’


Muriel Zagha