The first words I heard Eric Rohmer speak were on my voicemail. "Bonjour, c'est Eric Rohmer", said a deep French voice. It was March 2006 and I was living in Paris. I had written a letter to the celebrated French film-maker a couple of weeks before, hoping to interview him for my dissertation. I never imagined anything would come of it.
"Why do you want to meet me? Everything I have to say is written in my books," he said when I returned the call. After a little persuasion he relaxed. "Come over next week."
Rohmer's studio was located in an imposing building in the 16th arrondissement. I entered a dark, marble-floored lobby and Rohmer stood before me – tall, broad and imposing, despite a prominent stoop. I was immediately struck by his piercing blue eyes, which hinted at his sharp wit and restless energy. He led me into a modestly sized, dimly lit room facing the avenue below. There was an abstract painting on one wall, frenzied blue and white impasto brushstrokes suggesting an agitated seascape by Robert Lapoujade.
"I find that painting absolutely alive", he said.
Later on, Rohmer talked more broadly about the relationship between painting and film. "Cinema is the art of our era. It allows us to show in a new way things that the other arts no longer show. Literature has more or less abandoned the narrative, and painting has abandoned the portrait. Cinema allows us to show portraits, and describe narratives."
Our meeting was punctuated with Rohmer jumping up to fetch things – including, to my delight, preparatory notes for some of his films. "Excusez-moi," he said politely, and ducked into the next room, shuffling back moments later with a pile of coloured exercise books. He explained excitedly that the colour of each matched the palette of each particular film. For example, yellow in La Boulangère de Monceau (1962) reflects the colour of bread, whilst blue in Pauline à la Plage (1983) represents the sea.
He also let me in on a secret – he was in the middle of a new film, Les Amours d'Astrée et de Céladon, and it was to be his last. I saw it at the BFI two years later, and was captivated by its freshness.
I had hoped I might see Eric Rohmer again, but it wasn't to be. He died last week, aged 89. All I have is the memory of my encounter – and the possibility of revisiting his films. I will have to make do with these.