Eric Rohmer: Prolific film-maker, critic and novelist whose pioneering work homed in on romantic tangles

"The cow is there." So begins E M Forster's The Longest Journey. That remark surfaces in Eric Rohmer's A Winter's Tale (1992) as an allusion by a character. But who, why, and when? Unlike Forster, Rohmer – often glibly called a novelist in film – leaves a blur of enchantingly civilised exchanges which do not always galvanise 90 minutes' traffic on the screen.

Throughout his late-starting, long-lasting career, Rohmer's work – some three-dozen films – fascinates in spite of itself, even if, as David Thomson put it, "a few years after any film, it has been folded into the mix of the others, like an extra egg going into the batter." Gilbert Adair asserted that "Rohmer's characters are not only among the most foolish, ineffectual and pathetic milquetoasts ever to have graced a cinema screen, but that, on a generous estimate, 90 per cent of the celebrated talk is sheer, unadulterated twaddle." For Pauline Kael, Rohmer "is playing such a quiet, complacent, adult game that I think we may wish to pretend to ourselves that this neutral, controlled surface is a higher form of art than it is."

Although tangential to New Wave urgencies, Rohmer was co-author, with Claude Chabrol, of a pioneering, pre-Francois Truffaut study of Hitchcock and equally rooted in film history. Born Maurice Schérer in 1920 and brought up in a Jesuit spirit (his younger brother, René, is a philosopher), he began as a reporter and taught in a Paris high school. Despite one novel, Elizabeth (1946), published as Gilbert Cordier, he found that, although steeped in Balzac, fiction did not suit him; he was, however, adroit at the criticism which, in the mid-Fifties, led him, via La Gazette du Cinéma (founded with Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette), to edit Cahiers du Cinéma until 1963.

His references were wide ("I never talk about Sartre, but he was still my starting point"), and he was insistent that "Murnau is the greatest of all film-makers" and "the taste for plots is part of my Balzacian side" although "the situations I know best in life are those in which people talk. Situations in which no one talks are the exception. It has nothing to do with literature but, rather, with reality." Elsewhere he observed, "what I say, I do not say with words. I do not say it with images either, with all due respect to the partisans of pure cinema, who would speak with images as a deaf-mute does with his hands... I show people who move and speak."

His now-scarce volume Le Goût de la Beauté is continually, aphoristically rewarding. Of Sergei Eisenstein, "each of his shots represents to the millimetre the rules of the Golden Mean" while "even Douglas Fairbanks's films contain a sense of space that many avant-garde films would envy." For Rohmer, film's turning point was not the advent of sound, but "the moment when the allusive procedures of narration replaced the descriptive mode".

He asserted in the late-Forties that, "film took more than 30 years to learn to manage without speech, and so it is not surprising that, after 18 years, it still has not learned to use it"; The Magnificent Ambersons was superior to Citizen Kane because "the smallest word is important".

Film-making naturally followed his criticism, with the short Journal d'un Scélérat (1950) and Présentation (1952), followed by Bérénice (1954) – in which, based on the Poe story, he also appeared – and La Sonate à Kreutzer (1956). Truffaut noted in 1961 of the latter two that both, "shot in 16mm with the sound recorded on a tape recorder, are wonderful. I have seen them often and I went to see them again quite recently just to be sure: they compare well with the best professional films in 35mm that have been made in the past five years."

Earlier, in a 1956 letter, Truffaut had said, "it's no secret, or scarcely one, that Eric Rohmer is none other than Maurice Schérer, but a new model, more direct and less allusive." Inspired, curiously, by the English novelist Sax Rohmer's gung-ho tales, this new name perhaps put off the scent a family which looked askance at film-making – his mother never knew – while Truffaut and others nicknamed him "Momo".

The following year, Rohmer married Thérèse Barbet, and also found time to collaborate with Chabrol on the Hitchcock book. His marriage endured, his private life exactly that. Of a conservative and Catholic nature, which set him apart from contemporary French film-makers, he began in the mid-Sixties (alongside television documentaries) a series of wry tales after completing the outwardly bleaker Le Signe du Lion (1961).

For many, La Collectionneuse (The Collector) (1967) was, in effect, his first film, a part of his "Contes Moraux" which he first attempted as novellas. With lingering beach shots, it heralds his sexually charged, muted power plays: Haydee Politoff dignifies her man hunger by regarding each as a tasty morsel, a situation which further inflames Patrick Bauchau, who shares a villa with her and another man. Rohmer deals in Forsterian "muddle": love's tangles – or mere conquest – can always appear with hindsight as something that could have been so easily, unvexingly ordered, but Rohmer understands that human nature swiftly forgets such lessons.

With Ma Nuit chez Maud (My Night at Maud's) (1969), Rohmer – almost 50 – found wider success, especially abroad, for he was out of kilter with post-'68 radicalism. Even so, it was made, profitably, with government backing. An account of chance, Catholicism, Pascal and Christmas, it features Jean-Louis Trintignant as a bachelor engineer who – his heart set upon a woman seen in church – meets a friend, Vidal (Antoine Vitez), who persuades him to visit Maud (Françoise Fabian), where the three-way conversation amounts to a form of test, of both men: in the engineer's case, whether his avowed beliefs preclude succumbing to something palpably on offer. Summary belies its effect, a film in which snow is as brilliantly photographed as the sunlight was to be in Le Genou de Claire (Claire's Knee) (1970) – in both cases by his frequent cinematographer Néstor Almendros. Maud's magical ending is outdone only by Le Rayon Vert (The Green Ray) (1986).

Claire's Knee also features a novelistic structure: a diplomat, about to be married, visits an old friend, a novelist, who, for her own purposes, advises him to see what ensues if he lets himself fall for the teenaged daughter – Laura – of the divorced woman with whom she is staying. As it is, the eponymous, even younger stepdaughter (Béatrice Romand) comes to the fore as the diplomat obsesses about daring to rest a hand upon her knee, as her boyfriend can do fearlessly. The duplicitous twist to bringing about this gesture is worse than unabashed physicality would have been; it is as entrancing as it is preposterous, and the shimmering lakeside in Claire's Knee lingers again in Pauline à la Plage (Pauline at the Beach) (1983), in which Rohmer displays a penchant for photographing bottoms while emotional triangles clang against a background of self-willed misunderstanding.

Pauline was part of a series Rohmer called "Comédies et Proverbes", which had begun with La Femme de l'Aviateur (The Aviator's Wife) (1980) following two historical forays – the German-made La Marquise d'O... (The Marquise of O... ) (1976) and the stage-set Perceval le Gallois (1978) – after a four-year gap when the "Contes Moraux" concluded with the temptations of L'Amour l'Après-Midi (Love in the Afternoon) (1972). Rohmer would return to the past with the delightful Revolutionary drama of L'Anglaise et le Duc (The Lady and the Duke) (2000), which, amidst painted sets, works to better effect than Triple Agent (2004), whose late-Thirties claustrophobia does not quite transcend its brown-filtered setting. Far more effective was another turn in cinematography with Les Amours d'Astrée et de Céladon (2007).

Rohmer's films were always carefully wrought in their dress and staging, whether in apartments or on a mountainside. This was again evident in the "Comédies et Proverbes", by which time he had a semi-repertory company. With The Green Ray in that series, Rohmer turned improvisation to brilliant account. Partly inspired by Jules Verne's novel, about the rare blessing wrought when a setting sun emits such a ray, its music develops a theme created by Rohmer himself around Bach, while Delphine (Marie Rivière) attempts to ease the grief of being dumped. She goes hither and thither, resists men and talks about vegetarianism as solitude turns to petulance, from which she is rescued by a man duly endorsed by such a ray.

Put like that, it sounds absurd, but works magically. Rohmer waited to film that sun: digital effects could not match that emotional rush, an ecstasy which in his other films is sometimes as ersatz. Again with Rivière, Conte d'Automne (An Autumn Tale) (1998) traversed the generations. After a four-part view of the seasons, there seemed no reason to doubt that every two years another film would turn a variant upon Rohmer's preoccupations.

The acerbic critic Joe Queenan, however, took a different tack. He set up a dinner similar to A Tale of Springtime's ten-minute scene which "cleverly weaves together the theories of Kant and Husserl with the vastly overlooked importance of maieutic dialogue"; Queenan's guests were "three of my most pretentious friends, all of whom have spent time in France, all of whom, I have reason to believe, adore Eric Rohmer." They scanned the menu while Queenan enthused over "Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, and even threw in a few nice words about his Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics... They all looked at me like I was a complete asshole and went back to discussing how much they used to like The New Yorker before Tina Brown took over."

Chuckle as one does at that, Rohmer's collection Le Goût de la Beauté will outlive those by Queenan, whose one film was a calamity. Several, perhaps more, by Rohmer will endure.

Christopher Hawtree

Eric Rohmer, film-maker: Born Tulle, France 4 April 1920; married 1957 Thérèse Barbet; died Paris 11 January 2010.

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