Sunday, February 1, 2015

Éric Rohmer’s Early Cahiers Interviews

Éric Rohmer’s editorship of Cahiers ended in June 1963 after Jacques Rivette, and others, organized his decommission, so that they could better promote an emerging modernist cinema and their Nouvelle Vague peers. In his new biography, Antoine de Baecque and Noël Herpe writes about this episode, “We know that the symptoms of betrayals, denial, agony (also see renaissance) have punctured, since its origins, and all of the way to today, the tumultuous life of the magazine, but it is certain that it sadly inscribed itself, in the summer of 1963, in the spirit of Éric Rohmer.” With this putsch came both good and bad. It created an intense resentment and split the magazine, while it also initiated Rohmer to teach and work in television, which would eventually lead to his filmmaking career.

In this period the magazine was changing. The layout modernized in the November 1964 issue (N.160) and was turning towards a more conscious cinema, and towards a burgeoning structural theory. The magazine, with its new writing team, was becoming again “an instrument of combat.” Rivette was the unofficial chief editor for the first two years and, on the clash Rohmer-Rivette, de Baecque highlights Rivette’s review of Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux (August 1963), “The confrontation is brutal, almost savage: It is no longer Goethe that defines beauty, but Barthes who is the one that is structuring the thoughts on modern art.” While in their March 1970 issue (N.218), in an editorial, the redaction explains that Doniol-Valcroze and Truffaut bought the rights of the magazine back from Daniel Filipacchi, so that they could assert their independence, and that moving forward, the three main points of the new Cahiers line are: (1) information and critical reflection, (2) to promote the circulation and distribution of little known films, and (3) conscious of cinema’s ideological intervention, the magazine will find a critical theory necessary to address it, based on the Marxist science of historical materialism.

In their November 1965 issue (N.172) there is one of their more ‘polemical’ round-tables Vingt ans après: Le cinema American et la politique des auteurs by Comolli, Fieschi, Guegan, Mardore, Techine, and Ollier. Even though it reads less violently today, it's a continuation of their changing of lines, a revision of their traditional auteurism, from Hitchcock, Hawks, Renoir, Rossellini to Resnais, Godard, Bunuel and Antonioni. It's a calling into question of the original ideas of the magazine, a revisioning of favored directors, a wider approach to authorism, more towards producers and studios, and a transition towards a semiotic approach to film analysis.

In the wake of this division Rohmer would slowly return to the magazine, though at first there many conflicts, and his first interview would also appear in this issue (N.172). It’s his first at the magazine, and unfortunately, it’s not available in English (it’s a shame that these, or any of his Cahiers interviews, were not included in Eric Rohmer: Interviews). The following are some highlights from L’ancien et le nouveau: entretien avec Eric Rohmer which was put together by Jean-Claudc Biette, Jacques Bontemps et Jeau-Louis Comolli, who, in their introduction, write about Rohmer, that he “has never stoped guiding us,” and that “by leaving the marble of Cahiers, hasn’t he given celluloid his best critiques?”

Some of the highlights of it are:

“I’m in agreement with Pasolini on the fact that the cinematographic language is in fact a style. There isn’t a cinematographic grammar, but more so a rhetoric that, in reality, is extremely poor, and on the other hand, extremely moving.”
“I don’t think that the modern cinema is one that is forced to give the impression that it’s being filmed. There are now a lot of films where we feel the camera, and it has also been like this in the past, but I don’t think that the distinguishing factor between a modern and classic cinema resides in this. Nor do I think that the modern cinema is exclusively poetic, and that the older cinema is one of prose and story. For me, there is a form of modern cinema of prose and of the romanesque, where the poetry is present, but isn’t constitutive: it just emerges, without being directly solicited. I don’t know if I can explain myself on this point, because this would force me to judge the films of my contemporaries, which I refuse to do, but either way, I’m under the impression that at Cahiers there is one side, criticism, where there is too much the tendency to be interested in a cinema where we feel the camera, and the auteur – which isn’t the only auteur cinema – to the detriment of another cinema, the cinema of narrative, which is considered to be emblamic of classicism, which in my opinion isn’t more or less that than the other. Pasolini cites Godard and Antonioni. We could also cite Resnais and Varda. These are filmmakers that are really different, but that, from one perspective, can be put within the same group.”
“The word Modern is, by the way, a little galvanized. One can’t aim to be modern, or is if he merits it. And one can’t be scared, as well, to not try to be modern. It can’t start haunting artists.”
 “But I’ve thought a lot about the cinema, in terms of a medium, and, on this subject, I have a lot of ideas. The Americans were really naïve, by which I mean that they’ve never written on the subject, or seriously thought about the cinema as a medium as an end in itself. If you were to question them, almost all of them (maybe with the exception of Hawks, who has some ideas, even though they are simple) just see it as a matter of ‘technique’ or in terms of the world as an object, that’s all.”
“I don’t agree. You’ll probably say that I’m reactionary, as well as classical: for me, the world doesn’t change, or at least only very little. The world is always the word, not any less confused or clear. What changes is its art, it’s the way people approach it.”
“Thinking about it, I think Bazin offered new ideas, while we brought forward taste. The ideas of Bazin are all great, while his tastes were contestable. The judgements of Bazin were not ratified after the fact, by which I mean he didn’t really impose an important filmmaker. He certainly liked some important filmmakers, but I don’t think what he said about them really imposed them. For us, we never really said anything important about a theory of cinema; on this subject we just further developed Bazin’s ideas. On the other hand, I think that we found good values, and the others that came after us rarified our taste: we imposed filmmakers that have remained important and that, I think, will remain so.”
“A symbolic cinema is what is actually the worst. We see it every now and then, these films whose images want to play the exact role of a word or a phrase. This trend is long over. Let’s not insist on this subject.”
            “Actually, I’m extremely indiferrent to politics – or at least, in its literal sense – but I’ve always felt this way. I don’t know if I’m on the ‘Right’, but that which is certain, anyways, is that I don’t feel like I’m on the left… The ‘Left’ doesn’t have a monopoly on truth and justice. I’m also for those virtues – who isn’t? – and also for peace, liberty, the extinction of poverty, and the respect for minorities.  But I wouldn’t necessarily calls this being a ‘Leftist’.”
“That which makes us change our political position, sometimes, from one extreme to the other, it’s chance, reading, a sentence, a woman, a friend, love for something new or a sense of opportunity.”
This is the start of Rohmer’s relationship with the magazine as a filmmaker. He would be interviewed 18 times in Cahiers from 1965 to 2010. He would have a follow up interview, during this current actively political period, in their April 1970 issue (219), by Pascal Bonitzer, Jean-Louis Comolli, Serge Daney and Jean Narboni. And even though, they describe in its introduction, “All the while, in this interview with Eric Rohmer, we are in opposition towards him,” it offers many important points regarding the magazine in this period, and Rohmer’s metaphysical, political, and cinema view. There’s a clash between Rohmer’s metaphysics against their historical materialism.

Rohmer, who excels in the art of the conversation, and who is generally known for his positive nature, in these interviews, he stands out by his frustration towards his interlocutors and his necessity to take points to their logical conclusions. Some of the addressed points here are: the reception of the film, the representation of the ‘Marxist’ character in Ma nuit chez Maud, and their differences on how to perceive Bazin…
Here are some of its highlights:
            “What you guys are doing, is a critique, and what I’ve found elsewhere (even though it’s really interesting. And I agree in a certain way), regarding everything that has been said about the film, it is perhaps the most insightful. But how would I respond to this? My relation to the film isn’t important here. Without a doubt since, as you know in the past I’ve been a critic, you are trying to get me to do a critique of my own film, which is something that I absolutely refuse to do, and which I would be incapable of.”
“Here, I don’t want to do a commentary on my intentions, and I don’t think that you could get me too, unless by a trick, get me to do a commentary on my intentions. I don’t like this. This doesn’t interest me, and I don’t think that would be even able to say anything interesting on the subject.”
“I don’t think that from ‘historical materialism’ there can be drawn real fundamental truths. For example, for me, I don’t attribute it any worth. Except that of a philosophical system, among others. But it’s not a science.”
“Of course. But it was, in our period, full of studies of signification that abstracted ideas of the direct in relation to Bazin: the cinema like an instrument of discovery. For example, our production of critiques in the Fifties had a profound relationship with Nature, to discover natural object whose beauty was revealed through cinema. This point, I see that you don’t share it…”
“You talk about the events of May 1968. But my ‘Contes Moraux’ don’t seek its inspiration from these ‘events’, nor am I pretending that others can’t find inspiration from them, nor am I even saying that one day I won’t be inspired by them. The role of a filmmaker can be political. For example: Cousteau is taking up a fight against the polluting of oceans. The problem of pollution is, and will be, the major problem of our remaining century. This is a political problem since its resolution is a governmental problem, or, if you would prefer, a collective decision by the human society.”
On the subject of Rohmer, it’s worth mentioning that Antoine de Baecque and Noël Herpe’s new biography Éric Rohmer (Éditions Stock) won the literary prize from the Syndicat Francaise de la Critique de Cinema for the Meilleur livre français sur le cinéma. A must-read for anyone passionate about the director.


Gregory Peck said...

Hi, thanks for these fascinating insights - Rohmer's love of ecology surfaces again and demonstrates his 'different' political stance that anticipates later developments (and also is addressed in one of his most explicitly political films, L'Arbre, le Maire et le Mediatheque). As the author of Eric Rohmer Interviews, I would just like to explain that we would have loved to include Cahiers interviews but sadly the publishers who now own copyright (Hachette) refused us permission, point blank. We fought hard and managed to get a later interview published - a 1993 interview with Antoine de Baecque which discusses Rohmer's 'amateur' aesthetic. The 1970 interview is available in full in English on the Senses of Cinema website.

David D. said...

Hi Gregory, Thanks for this information. That's even worst that they did not allow you to include these - they are fascinating, and important to understand Rohmer's development and his relationship with the mag. I'll have to check our the de Baecque interview, sounds interesting. Best, David