Audiences used to know what to expect from Eric Rohmer's movies. The venerable French director (who receives a Lifetime Achievement Golden Lion at next week's Venice Festival) was a miniaturist who fashioned beautifully crafted, modestly budgeted comedies about the foibles of young lovers. Just as Bonnard painted endless portraits of his wife in the bath or Cézanne focused his gaze again and again on Mount Saint Victoire, Rohmer invariably returned to the same subject matter. "He is one of the few directors who has always held to their own style. In a way, he was like an old circus horse, always delivering," distributor Andi Engel says of him. "He never disappointed the people who followed him. He was loved for that. He was artistic and he sold some tickets... perfect!"
The worst that could be said of Rohmer (real name Jean-Marie Maurice Schérer) was that, in his own elegant way, he was a bit of a satyr. As he grew older, the leading actresses in his films grew younger. "I wonder if, after the destruction of the rest of the world, Rohmer might not still be making his fourth sixth-part series, on love at different times of day with holograms of yet more slender, lovely girls and torrents of misunderstanding," critic David Thomson quipped of him.
Just when he was in danger of being taken entirely for granted, the 81-year-old has confounded observers by making the most ambitious and contentious film of his career. L'Anglaise et le Duc is a historical epic set in French Revolutionary Paris – a costume epic shot entirely on digital cameras. It has huge crowd scenes, elaborate special effects, and takes its pictorial inspiration from late 18th-century paintings. Rohmer's screenplay is based on a memoir by Scottish-born aristocrat Grace Elliott, a woman who bears more than a passing resemblance to Georgiana, Duchess Of Devonshire, the character popularised in Amanda Foreman's recent, award-winning biography. Elliott was painted three times by Gainsborough, became the mistress of the Prince Of Wales (later George IV), and was in Paris as the Revolution began.
True to form, Rohmer has picked a virtual unknown to play her – the English actress Lucy Russell (who co-starred in Christopher Nolan's Following). As she explains, Elliott was uniquely placed to observe the events of 1789. "Her former lover, the Duc D'Orléans, was both leader of a revolutionary faction and a first cousin to the King, whose death he voted for. Elliott spent several years in prison and once even had her head shaved prior to what she expected to be her execution." (Thanks to the death of Robespierre, she was pardoned at the last minute.)
As one of the acknowledged masters of post-war French cinema, Rohmer used to be almost beyond criticism. But not any more. Prior to its release in France next month, L'Anglaise has already split opinion. Amazingly, the Cannes selection committee snubbed the film. Rohmer has also provoked fierce resentment among former colleagues by abandoning his long-term backers Films Du Losange and defecting to the somewhat bigger-pocketed Pathé instead.
Just as Woody Allen has split with his long-term producer Jean Doumanian, Rohmer has (at least for now) severed the ties with the Hungarian-born Margaret Ménégoz, who has worked on almost all his movies over the last 20 years.
Andi Engel, a friend of Ménégoz, believes he is making a big mistake. "I talked to her and she was heartbroken. She looked after him for all these years. She was his bread and butter. I think she got it right when she said that she didn't mind him leaving her. What really upset her was that this is a huge production with special effects... it's a new way of making expensive films in France. What does this man have to do with this way of film-making? It was that which broke her heart, not that Rohmer left her."
For some, an even greater betrayal is that he has shown the dark side of 1789 and – worse – that he has taken the aristocrats' point of view rather than that of the heroic revolutionaries. He has gone against the grain of a sacred classic of French cinema, Renoir's La Marseillaise (1937), which offers a determinedly idealised version of the events leading up to the Revolution and is revered by audiences and critics. As Charles Tesson wrote in Cahiers du Cinema recently, "he lifts the curtain on one of the less glorious episodes of the French Revolution, one still considered taboo".
"It's the first French film about the French Revolution seen from the other side," Russell suggests. "But Grace Elliott wasn't against the Revolution per se. She was against the extremes – people being killed and their body parts being paraded on the streets. It was a horrific time and this film shows that. I was surprised by how much comment [the film] caused. This was 200 years ago."
Critics still clinging to the myths of the nouvelle vague are equally dismayed that Rohmer has made a historical epic based on somebody else's book – not what any self-respecting auteur with a disdain for "Le cinéma de Papa" ought to do. So what's made Rohmer decide to change the habits of a lifetime? One sceptic suggests it's "the vanity of an old man" who is determined to show that he can handle big budgets, and to ensure that what could possibly be his final movie is a spectacular one.
A more generous view would be that he's just determined to try new things. Lifetime achievement awards are generally given to actors and film-makers in their dotage, but Rohmer's Golden Lion has gained a different significance. Not so long ago, Emir Kusturica was quoted in Sight and Sound as saying that "95 per cent of directors after the age of 42 start doing shit". But Rohmer, along with his New Wave colleagues Godard, Rivette and Chabrol, and the Portuguese master Manoel de Oliveira (who began his career in the silent era), seems to have plenty of life in him yet.
Despite his reputation as a reserved academic (Rohmer hates having his photograph taken and travels to and from his sets by public transport), he's always had a romantic streak. He is a passionate admirer of Robert Louis Stevenson's fiction – he rarely ventures abroad, but he and his wife are known to have gone on holiday in Scotland to explore the locations written about in Stevenson's The Master of Ballantrae. Grace Elliott's story clearly reminded him of Stevenson's rip-roaring stories.
"In general, historical films are based on events well known by the public," he recently told French journalists. "They're about important people and important incidents. Here, I've made a film on a little-known aspect of the Revolution with an actress who's absolutely unknown. That's more difficult, but it's what interests me."
'L'Anglaise et le Duc' opens in the UK later this yearReuse content