Eric Rohmer doesn't go to the movies anymore.
"When you're young you need to go see a lot of films," says the 79-year-old writer-director. "It helps you to find a style. Now I prefer to go out into the world, to find stories inspired by real life."
The prolific, independent-minded auteur has been writing and directing those stories for 40 years, producing dozens of films, including such memorable ones as "Claire's Knee" (1971), "Pauline at the Beach" (1983) and "The Green Ray" (1985). In these famously literate, wordy, unadorned, naturalistic films set in the varying landscapes of his native France, Rohmer has explored the emotional and moral complexities of young, bourgeois, beautiful people in search of true love.
Ever a student of human relations, this legendary New Wave torchbearer has taken great pains to remain incognito on the streets of Paris. Once, Rohmer recalls, he appeared on a late-night talk show, convinced nobody would see him. When a local merchant recognized him from the TV appearance, it so threatened his shield of anonymity, he never went back to the store. Rohmer continues to shy away from publicity; he avoids the film festival circuit, turns down television appearances, refuses to be photographed. When he agrees to spare an hour for a reporter, it's in his modest office at Les Films du Losange in the bourgeois 16th Arrondissement, where he still turns up every day.
Over the years, critics have wondered why the aging Rohmer remains so fascinated with youth--in particular his cinematic weakness for lithe young girls--and how the notoriously reclusive writer-director manages to stay so in touch with the feelings of young people.
Rohmer still teaches a production seminar at the Universite de Paris, bringing in working takes of films in progress. Editor Mary Stephen met him as a student there 20 years ago and has worked with him on and off ever since, including his new film, "Autumn Tale," which opens in Los Angeles on Friday.
"He prefers to talk to students," Stephen says. "He doesn't like the movie world. He walks on the street, takes the Metro. It's important for him to have contact with real life. Journalists always ask why he makes films about young people. He's surrounded by young people. He gets his inspiration from young people."
But now the towering, skin-and-bones, baby-blue-eyed Rohmer has shifted his attention to middle-aged love with "Autumn Tale," the final installment in a quartet of films called "Tales of the Four Seasons" that began a decade ago.
"I wanted to show that I'm not only interested by young people," Rohmer says matter-of-factly.
In "Autumn Tale," which takes place in the wine-making Rho^ne Valley, Isabelle, a pretty, secretly bored married bookseller, appoints herself matchmaker for her best friend, the widowed winemaker Magali, writing a personal ad on her behalf and doing the interviewing herself. The film, the latest of Rohmer's meditations on romance, was released in France in the fall of 1998 and won the screenplay prize at last year's Venice Film Festival. It opened recently in New York to excellent reviews, many of them touting its energy and freshness.
"Autumn Tale's" two female leads are in their 40s, but Beatrice Romand, who plays Magali, was a mere 15 when she starred in "Claire's Knee" almost 30 years ago and has since made half a dozen films with Rohmer; Marie Riviere, who plays Isabelle, made her first film with him in her early 20s and has subsequently made three more.
"I've known them since they were very young," Rohmer says of the actresses. "I still consider them the same age," he adds, and laughs gently.
"He once told me he can only work with people he met when they were very young, [before they are] set in their ways," says Stephen, who is one in a close circle of friends and associates Rohmer has cultivated over the last few decades. "He has said that he wouldn't take the star editor of the moment. He doesn't like working with stars. It's more important, the human relationships, the complicity.
"He's very loyal to the people he works with--it's very much like a family situation," Stephen says. "It's never [just] professional. It's always a personal relationship."
While Rohmer insists that his films are not autobiographical, and are only loosely based on real people and events, Stephen believes that watching some of his intimate circle grow up has influenced his filmmaking. "It began with 'Winter's Tale,' " Stephen says. "You know we started working with him when we were 20 years old. But we're all still around him at 40."
In interviews, Rohmer does not disclose or confirm even the most vaguely personal information, including the fact that he has been married for 40 years and has two sons. But holding court behind his massive desk, Rohmer speaks in fast-paced bursts, waving his hands around as he straightforwardly answers questions about his artistic process and the ideas behind his work.
Rohmer grew up in Limousin, France, and was in his 40s before he became a well-known director. A schoolteacher-turned-film-critic, he founded his own magazine, La Gazette du Cinema, with Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette, and later became editor of the influen-
tial New Wave journal Cahiers du Cinema. With Claude Chabrol, he wrote a respected book about Alfred Hitchcock. These New Wave directors helped one another get their early efforts off the ground.
His first film, "The Sign of Leo" (1959), opened to little effect. But the subsequent string of films he titled "Six Moral Tales," including such New Wave landmarks as "Claire's Knee" and his first real success, "My Night at Maud's" (1969), established him as a leader of French cinema and one of the world's most respected directors. While Rohmer's New Wave compatriots--including his founding partner in Les Films du Losange, Barbet Schroeder, and Chabrol--went on to bigger, more commercial projects, Rohmer has chosen time and again to make small films about the nuances of the heart.
"I love police novels, I love American westerns," he says, "but I couldn't make one. I don't have a desire to adapt a well-known novel."
In the Rohmer school of filmmaking, the first rule is: no waste. Rohmer works fast and cheap with a minuscule crew: "Autumn Tale," which is being released in the U.S. by October Films, was shot in six weeks with a handful of support staff; the budget was reportedly less than $2 million. He doesn't use booming soundtracks or special effects; his on-screen aesthetic goal seems to be the absence of artifice. He's a firm believer that a movie need not cost a fortune to have an impact. What counts is that the films on screen look rich enough," he says.
By keeping costs low and doing much of the work himself, the seemingly tireless Rohmer has remained the master of his own vision. "He knows very well what he wants," Riviere says. "Therefore he's not afraid to go against the trends. He's free."
Rohmer begins the creative process by imagining a story line, then vaguely sketching his characters. "My story is adapted each time to the place where we film and to the actors I choose," he says. Until that point, his characters remain skeletal notions, without histories or professions.
His camera has roamed many corners of France, from Lake Annecy in "Claire's Knee" to Dinard in "Pauline at the Beach" to the vineyards of the Rho^ne Valley in "Autumn Tale."
"France is a very varied country, and all the places are interesting," he says. "I look for a place with agreeable people and one that isn't too expensive. The [Rho^ne Valley] offered good subsidies, and the people I met there were extremely likable and nice, and they helped me a lot. In France, people really love cinema. When I filmed the [wedding scene in "Autumn Tale"], people came to see the filming and worked as extras without pay."
Once he had determined the film would take place in the Rho^ne Valley, he made Magali a winemaker, and the script flowed from there. "I can write one in less than a month," he says. "The longest part is that I write my scripts longhand and they have to be typed."
Riviere says that he gave her the script a month before shooting started. As usual, she says, it contained virtually no stage directions. "He gives us the liberty to express ourselves with our own gestures," Riviere says.
"I think that the actors should be creative and have their own ideas, . . . not the direction but the way of interpreting a text," Rohmer says. "I don't mark the tone 'joyous,' 'worried'--it's for them to find."
Rohmer allows only two or three takes for each scene, his way of making sure that the actors' lines don't become leaden. Says Riviere: "This way you must accept yourself with your mistakes. You have to learn to be satisfied--or not."
Critics like to point out that not much happens in a Rohmer film; Rohmer himself has often explained that he is less interested in what characters do, than in what they think while they are doing it. The fact is, people talk a lot in his films. Just like in real life, he insists.
The dialogue in a Rohmer film is often so natural-sounding that people often think it's improvised. "The Green Ray" was completely improvised by the actors, but that's an experiment he hasn't repeated.
"In other films, I work a lot with the actors, and I keep certain expressions that they use," says Rohmer, who has been known to tape his actors speaking and incorporate it into the script. "I don't want the people in each of my films to speak in the same way. It's good to vary a bit their way of speaking, their turns of phrase and their vocabulary. . . . When I write, I look for a natural tone."
Rohmer says that incorporating other people's speech into his scripts helps to keep him from repeating himself. "It's very important to vary the settings--like [Francois] Truffaut did--and to vary the actors," he says. "If I use [Riviere or Romand] again, it's because I haven't made a film with [them] for a long time."
For all his attention to words, Rohmer says that words aren't everything in his films. "I've often said that I became a director because of watching silent films," Rohmer says. "They talked a lot in silent films, even if we didn't hear it. But it's not only the words. I think that my characters must have a grand presence, a physical presence."
Rohmer will not talk about future projects, though he has let slip that he's thinking of doing a period piece about a British aristocrat who grew up in France. Rohmer has little reason to promote his next project, he says. "I have a pretty loyal, constant public," he says. "Not huge, but loyal."
While Rohmer made one film in Germany, an 18th century German-French co-production called "Marquise de O" (1976), he remains a fiercely French filmmaker. "I couldn't do a modern film about another country; I couldn't portray the people, the language," he says. Rohmer balks at the idea of trying to make films with an international appeal; in his mind, the best way to have a universal appeal is to portray your slice of the universe as clearly and precisely as possible.
"In France, they like foreign films better than French films," he says wryly. "At the moment we are looking for the idea of a European film, but I have the impression that it doesn't work. You can't do the films of [Luchino] Visconti anymore.
"When French films try to imitate the American model, it doesn't work in America. I think if you make a film that shows the reality of a country," he says, "it has more of a chance to work."