Eric Rohmer: French without tears

For 40 years the director has detailed the intricacies of youthful love. Geoffrey MacNab on the unique auteur
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You can't say that Eric Rohmer's preoccupations have wavered much. True, he recently made his own version of a historical epic (2001's L'Anglaise et le Duc) and he delved into the murky world of espionage with Triple Agent (2004), but most of his films are delicately crafted, intimate studies of young men and women with complicated love lives. You could call them chamber pieces if it weren't for the fact that so many are set outdoors: parks or beaches or vineyards or gardens.

He is a poet of the banal and the understated. His work is often extremely funny - or, at least it is once you get used to the deadpan way in which he tells his stories. It's also touching and often melancholic in the way it explores the misunderstandings of the youthful lovers or the yearnings of older characters.

Rohmer has never been to everyone's tastes. The influential French critic Robert Benayoun called him "that Robinson Crusoe of obscurantism", although Benayoun's objections were as much to Rohmer's critical writings as they were to his movies. Pauline Kael wrote of his "semicomic triviality". There is a moment in Arthur Penn's Night Moves (1975) in which one of the characters mentions: "I saw a Rohmer film once. It was kind of like watching paint dry." Such remarks belie the extraordinary affection in which he is held by admirers who relish the playfulness and wry wisdom found in his best work.

Watch Rohmer's wonderful 1963 short, La Boulangère de Monceau, the first of his cycle of Six Moral Tales, and you'll find all the same themes that have run through his movies ever since. La Boulangère is about a conceited young French law student (played by his fellow director Barbet Schroeder, with whom he set up the production company Les Films Du Losange) courting a posh young woman he meets on the streets of Paris. He pretends to bump into her so that he has an excuse to talk to her. For weeks, he haunts the neighbourhood where she lives. To his dismay, she seems to have vanished. Every day, while waiting underneath her apartment in the hope that she will appear, he visits the local bakery shop to buy himself a cake. He becomes enamoured of the young assistant working in the shop. He talks her into a romantic assignation, but drops her instantly when he finally spies the original object of his affection.

Rohmer relishes undercutting the student's self-importance by showing him in an increasingly ridiculous and craven light. One gag running through the movie is his inability to dispose of his litter. Once he has eaten a cake, he simply drops the paper in the gutter. The film is only 20 minutes long but it is rich and fascinating fare. There is eroticism (the student stroking the assistant's face and neck and trying to sweet-talk her into an affair), class tension, snobbery and then, ultimately, betrayal.

Many of the themes of La Boulangère are also found in Le Rayon Vert (1986) and Le Beau Mariage (1982), both from his Comedies and Proverbs cycle. The former, which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Festival, is vintage mid-period Rohmer. Its heroine is Delphine (Marie Rivière), a secretary in her mid-thirties whose holiday plans are in disarray. Paris is emptying for August and she has no one to go on holiday with. Imagine a slightly more drippy and dreamy Gallic version of Bridget Jones and you'll come close to her essence. Rohmer throws in lots of classical allusions and asides about tarot cards, astrology, and fate. The ending, with the lovers watching the sunset, is just a touch maudlin, but the film is full of the director's trademark humour and observation. The best moments are those showing Delphine discussing her love-life with friends or making a spirited defence of vegetarianism in front of some sceptical acquaintances. "A lettuce is a friend," she declares to their bewilderment.

Le Beau Mariage is about a young woman in search of the perfect man. She meets a lawyer with all the right credentials to be her husband, but he proves frustratingly elusive. "It's the story of a young girl who takes her desires for reality," Rohmer commented. "Above all, it's a comedy. I find that my films are taken too seriously; people don't laugh enough. The films I write are on the border between the comic and the serious. It doesn't take much to push them over the line."

There is a telling line right at the end of the film. "I've never been able to deal with my weakness for pretty young women," the lawyer tells the ingénue who wants him for a husband. The same remark could be applied to Rohmer. As the director has grown older, it has become easier to question his motives for making quite so many films about lovelorn young gamines. "I wonder if, after the destruction of the rest of the world, Rohmer might not still be making his fourth, six-part series on love at different times of day with holograms of yet more slender, lovely girls and torrents of misunderstanding," the critic David Thomson once wrote of him.

What stops the ageing auteur from seeming like a satyr, or his films appearing exploitative, is the delicacy of his observation. He is an intellectual: a professor and former literature teacher who used to write very dense film criticism, but there is little heavy about his films. Even when his characters ponders weighty subjects - for example, the young man discussing philosophy and religion through the night with a woman called Maud in Ma Nuit Chez Maud (1969) - there is always a sense that the director is gently satirising them. At the same time, he takes the romantic longings of his young protagonists seriously. He may show their self-deception and conceit, but he treats them with a gentle and sympathetic hand.

Rohmer also has a knack of eliciting unaffected performances. This isn't just because he so often casts unknowns and works quickly, shooting chronologically with a small, unobtrusive crew. It also has something to do with his manner on set. "He doesn't give direction at all, " claims Alexia Portal, who played the ingenue in Conte d'Automne (1998). "He doesn't like to talk about the psychology of the characters. He doesn't want the actors to think too much about what they are going to do and say."

One guesses that the lightness and irony in Rohmer's work may have been a reaction against the failure of his debut feature, Le Signe du Lion (1959). Unlike the debuts of his colleagues in the French New Wave, Jean-Luc Godard's A Bout de Souffle (1960) and François Truffaut's Les Quatre Cent Coups (1959), it sank at the box-office. Seen today, it stands up surprisingly well. It's about a flamboyant American musician in Paris who thinks he has inherited a fortune from his aunt. He goes out on the razzle but, when the money fails to come through, he ends up on the streets in abject poverty.

The film makes for grimly compelling viewing, but it is the antithesis of his subsequent work. Rohmer's genius is for hinting at his characters' yearnings and disaffections in a playful way that appeals to both heart and intellect. His films are like highly codified games. When he changes the rules and slips into the realm of tragedy, or loses his detachment, the spell invariably risks being broken.

The early works of Eric Rohmer, including 'Le Signe du Lion' and 'La Boulangère De Monceau', have just been released on DVD by Artificial Eye. Tomorrow 'The Independent' is giving away the award-winning 'Le Rayon Vert' and on Sunday 'The Independent on Sunday' is giving away the 'Le Beau Mariage'