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Dudley Andrew reviews Eric Rohmer’s Film Theory

Marco Grosoli, Eric Rohmer’s Film Theory (1948–1953): from ‘école Schérer’ to ‘Politique des auteurs.’ Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2018. 303 pp.

Review by Dudley Andrew

10 July 2019

An awe-inspiring volcano rises in the center of Marco Grosoli’s compelling chronicle of the formation of Eric Rohmer’s system of ideas about cinema. For over a hundred pages Grosoli climbs with Rohmer in his apprenticeship as an ambitious novelist under Jean-Paul Sartre’s spell, until halfway through the book when he reaches a peak where a furious eruption demolishes the path traveled thus far. Never one to flaunt his feelings, this time Rohmer immediately broadcast the dramatic moment of a complete “conversion.” It was September 1950 at a Parisian movie theater when a flash of light knocked him off his horse at just the moment in Roberto Rossellini’s Stromboli when Karin (Ingrid Bergman) fell to the ground, overwhelmed at the might of the spewing volcano. Spiritually denuded before its majesty, Karin lets go her pride, and empties her forsaken soul laying it open to be filled by a larger power. In Grosoli’s unambiguous allegory, it is Immanuel Kant’s universal philosophy that comes to fill and anchor a transformed Eric Rohmer. The solidity of the German philosopher will keep him tied thereafter to a classical idea of art. From 1950 till his death in 2010, Rohmer was thereby able to withstand the tides of fashion that have since washed over Europe: from phenomenology to structuralism, semiotics, psychoanalysis, poststructuralism, and posthumanism. Was he out of date or timeless? Your answer, Grosoli implies, depends on what you think of Kant’s relevance.

An established and uncommonly assiduous researcher, Grosoli has located and apparently memorized all of Rohmer’s writings, as well as much of Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, François Truffaut, and Claude Chabrol. But it is the scope and depth of this new book that proves him to be one of the deepest thinkers of his generation of film scholars. For he reads with a purpose––too much of a purpose some may argue. Within any film review, no matter how minor, he sees in X-ray the skeleton of an unstated philosophical position. The New Wave emerged, he is sure (and I agree), not haphazardly, but by a design it may not even have known was there, that of a mature philosophy most clearly intuited by Rohmer, the eldest of them, the master of a “school of criticism” that would evolve into the Politique des Auteurs.

In a candid introduction, Grosoli alerts us that Rohmer didn’t directly engage in philosophy or even cite the thinkers who surely illuminated—and even drove––his film theory. Rohmer didn’t want or dare to engage in such discourse. Despite his erudition, and rather like André Bazin, he was intellectually modest, letting his worldview appear via the films he chose to dwell on and his manner of valuing them. This attitude highlights a key tenet of Rohmer’s philosophy of criticism: that abstractions should always and only arise through attention to concrete instances. At most he practiced comparative aesthetics, the better to understand what stirred him in certain films. What is it about this twentieth–century artform, Rohmer asked, that it alone has produced such beauty?

Those of us who have written about the Cahiers critics, myself included, generally reverse this attitude, often to our detriment. For instance, in André Bazin: généologies d’une théorie (2010), Jean Ungaro extruded 225 pages of philosophy from the limited number of Bazin’s articles available to him at the time. While Grosoli may have examined Rohmer’s entire written corpus, he too indulges in page upon page of philosophical digest, first explaining the attractions of Sartre and phenomenology (particularly Martin Heidegger), and then laying out the Kantian system of Pure, Practical, and Aesthetic reason that Grosoli shows guided the convert as he led the Cahiers critics toward the Politique des Auteurs and The New Wave.

Assuming that Antoine de Baeque and Noel Herpe’s biography has done the job for him, Grosoli identifies only a few knots that tie Rohmer unmistakably to one thinker’s system and then to the other’s. The book opens with the publication by Gallimard in 1946 of Elizabeth, the novel Rohmer wrote under the influence of Sartre, who was one of those extolling “The Age of The American Novel” (John Dos Passos, William Faulkner). Grosoli doesn’t recount that after the novel’s disappointing reception. Rohmer, though still a thoroughly literary man, began to transform his drafts of short stories into ideas for films he might one day make (they would evolve into Les contes moraux). In the process he rethought the relation of language to images in a way different from Sartre. Grosoli does make a great deal of one biographical fact in Rohmer’s quest for clarity and independence, his companionship with Alexandre Astruc, whose more successful first novel did not keep him from turning toward cinema also, though never turning from Sartre the way Rohmer would. 

Indeed an entire chapter is devoted to Astruc, who becomes the hinge of the door through which Rohmer left the Sartrean antechamber of his early years and entered permanently into the living space of Kantianism. Astruc, unlike his friend, mentioned Kant directly in a 1949 article, “Dialectique et Cinéma.” Although Kant appears but once in this two-page piece (and nowhere else in Astruc’s 400 pages of collected writings), Grosoli ingeniously deploys it to lay out a comprehensive notion of cinema and time. Astruc’s Kant evidently coincides with Heidegger’s interpretation of that master, and so Grosoli provides several instructive pages on Heidegger. While Astruc is known to have been an enthusiast of Heidegger, I doubt that Astruc read the relevant text Grosoli is drawn to, Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics, since this wouldn’t be available in French until 1953 and Astruc confesses, in his account of his Black Forest interview with Heidegger, that he barely understood German. It is also a bit disconcerting that Astruc says nothing about Kant in his autobiography (and indeed little about Rohmer who gets three brief remarks), and mentions the philosopher just once in all 400 pages of his collected criticism. Still, Grosoli needed only a single prod to embark on an ambitious explication of Kant’s Critiques, and the results are compelling. Suddenly Rohmer’s wide-ranging essays come into clear focus. Then on page 144, Grosoli lets on that toward the end of his career Rohmer would make Kant one center of his utterly fascinating, if tangential, book on Mozart, Beethoven, and the shift in Western culture from classicism to romanticism. Kant was Rohmer’s secret polestar all along, it can now be said with more confidence.

Grosoli’s extended explications of major philosophical positions could be trimmed, since repetitions recur, though each successive time that Kant’s view is distinguished from Sartre’s, Grosoli and Rohmer become sharper. Again and again we learn how Rohmer ranked cinema above literature because of its natural way of “manifesting” rather than “expressing” situations and perspectives. Sartre had gambled that individual expression in the arts (literature and cinema alike) is thrown forward by the imagination and the will into the future. Rohmer ultimately found this insubstantial compared to Kant for whom beauty (and morality) are ascribed by individuals to what they see as manifestly and universally proper and “right.” Better than a writer’s tendentious pen, cinema’s mercilessly impersonal apparatus is capable of displaying propriety and rightness emerging before our eyes within narrative development on screen. Such a powerful, if debatable position deserves the insistence Grosoli gives it. He is as sure of Rohmer’s viewpoint as was Rohmer himself. There is no equivocation. Even though, like Rohmer, he obviously prefers Kant to Sartre, Grosoli does not need personally to endorse Rohmer’s Kantianism, just to present it, to make it manifest. And indeed he does just that: when a generation of film critics looked to Rohmer (and built with him a Politique des Auteurs) they did so because his ideas about film were consistent and deep, as if Kant himself had derived them.

Amsterdam Press has done something bold and commendable in giving us this sustained and serious study of film aesthetics. A sure sign of that seriousness are the copious footnotes, including the original French in whatever the author has had translated. Although fluent, Grosoli’s English retains mannerisms of the European writer in those translations and in his own prose. Problems with definite and indefinite articles are common (Bergman’s exclamation at the climax of Stromboli, “che mystero” should not be “What a mystery,” but “What mystery!”). Where have copy editors gone, like those who in past decades saved me from many awkward locutions? They would never have let the title of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film appear here as “The Rope" or Charlie Chaplin's as "The Golden Rush." These may seem small-minded objections, but my aim is to encourage the Press to be sedulous in readying the second part of Grosoli’s study, covering 1954–1960, which promises to be of even greater relevance to the history of film as well as of theory. 

From its perfectly selected cover image to its index of names, Eric Rohmer’s Film Theory (1948–1953) is a volume you ought to purchase and possess. Yet Amsterdam is one of many presses that seems ready to sell it piecemeal, since it has laid out the chapters as autonomous essays. Each has its own abstract, bibliography, and list of abbreviations. However, one should read this book as a whole, following the arc of its argument which is geometrically so very satisfying, rather like that of Rohmer’s films. For instance, Grosoli's inspiring fourth and fifth chapters descend from the Kantian conversion on the high volcanic mountain to the plains of daily critical activity below, where we encounter Kant leading Rohmer from aesthetics to ethics, or better, imbricating one within the other. Grosoli isn’t interested, as you might think,  in the “moral” questions that Rohmer’s films will later pursue; instead he insists on Rohmer’s complex overriding idea of human value embodied in “authored” cinema capable of delivering "films with a soul.” You might be surprised to learn that the films that he and his confreres loathed were introspective (and mainly European) while they admired “la solitude morale” of the heroes of Hollywood genre films (Howard Hawks, the key auteur), reserving a special place for Hitchcock about whom Rohmer and Chabrol composed an entire book in 1956. 

Here Grosoli lets Kant help solve a longstanding critical conundrum: how is it that, though based on novels by the same authors, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1955) is taken to be thin and facile while Vertigo (1958) reaches the heights of metaphysics? Indeed how can Hitchcock be so admired by those who disdain smug storytellers for manipulating their audiences with a wry smile? Aren’t such auteurs guilty of “bad faith”? Kant enters to complicate this Sartrean commonplace, saving Hitchcock and helping Grosoli bring out in neon––if it wasn’t clear to us before––the centrality of authorship to Rohmer’s idea not just of cultural production but of human relations. Authorship is accompanied by responsibility, for it offers to the world a principle (of taste, of beauty, of justice) that someone––the author––insists must be universal. Subscribing to this classical view, Eric Rohmer doesn’t mind being labeled a conservative. Grosoli shows in rich and sympathetic detail just why classicism has made so much sense––has often felt so right––during this auteur’s seventy years of criticism and filmmaking. In the meantime, modernist and postmodernist alternatives, each more “radical” than its predecessor, have come and gone, one after the next.