Eric Rohmer dies at 89; French filmmaker made ‘My Night at Maud’s’

Rohmer on the set of his 1996 film, "A Summer's Tale."
(October Films)

Eric Rohmer, a former film critic who became one of France’s most respected filmmakers and was internationally known for movies such as “My Night at Maud’s” and “Claire’s Knee,” died Monday in Paris. He was 89.

Rohmer’s death was announced by his producer, Margaret Menegoz. Relatives said he was hospitalized a week ago but offered no further explanation, according to Agence France-Presse.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy called the writer-director a “great auteur who will continue to speak to us and inspire us for years to come.”

“Classic and romantic, wise and iconoclast, light and serious, sentimental and moralist, he created the ‘Rohmer’ style, which will outlive him,” Sarkozy said in a statement.

A former editor of the influential French film journal Cahiers du Cinema, Rohmer was a member of the French New Wave of filmmakers who began emerging in the late 1950s and included Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Jacques Rivette and Claude Chabrol.

Rohmer, who made his first short film in 1950, was still editor of Cahiers du Cinema when his first feature film, “The Sign of Leo,” was released in 1959 to little notice.

It was not until “My Night at Maud’s,” an art house hit released in the United States in 1970, that Rohmer was established as a major force in cinema. The film earned Academy Award nominations for best foreign language film and for Rohmer’s screenplay.

“My Night at Maud’s” was the third installment in what Rohmer called “Six Moral Tales,” a series of two shorts and four features that included “Claire’s Knee” and “Chloe in the Afternoon.”

The series, Christian Science Monitor writer David Sterritt wrote in 2001, focused with “good-humored intensity on dilemmas of life, love, and the penchant of well-meaning people to find themselves in ethical quandaries.”

Film reviewer Kevin Thomas said Monday that Rohmer, whose films were known for their long conversations between characters, “made his mark getting us to pay attention to what people said to each other.”

“He made adult conversation witty and, above all, cinematic,” said Thomas, a former Times staff writer, noting that “talk on the screen is so often merely static.

“He could have his characters engaged in talk for hours and yet it was completely involving. You never were watching a filmed play but rather the continual revelation of characters through what people said to each other and how they said it and how each person reacted to what was said to them.”

It was, Thomas said, “a breath of fresh air that people talking could actually hold your attention without resorting to conventional action and dramatic conventions. It was very French in tone, very civilized. But that didn’t mean things couldn’t turn nasty or romantic.

“I would say he was one of the most distinctive of French filmmakers. . . . You could always spot a Rohmer film pretty quickly.”

Rohmer often said that many of his films consisted of a “story that deals less with what people do than with what is going on in their heads while they are doing it.”

Not everyone was a Rohmer fan.

In director Arthur Penn’s 1975 movie “Night Moves,” Gene Hackman’s private detective says: “I saw a Rohmer film once. It was kind of like watching paint dry.”

Despite the focus on talking in his films, Rohmer told The Times in 1999 that words aren’t everything in his work.

“I’ve often said that I became a director because of watching silent films,” he said. “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 was born Jean-Marie Maurice Scherer in Nancy, France, on April 4, 1920 and grew up in Limousin.

He taught literature, worked as a freelance journalist and published a novel before becoming a film critic. He also launched his own film magazine, Gazette du Cinema, with Godard and Rivette; and collaborated with Chabrol on a book examining the films of Alfred Hitchcock. And he served as editor in chief of Cahiers du Cinema from the late 1950s to 1963.

“Being a critic helped me as a filmmaker in that it was a way of learning, of meeting people, of seeing old films,” he told The Times in 1971. “We were united, we encouraged each other. The cinema was our only pleasure, our only concern.”

As a filmmaker known for using a tiny crew and minimal lighting, Rohmer has been described as being “fast and cheap.”

“It’s not a question of money,” he told the London newspaper the Guardian in 1996. “It’s also because my films are better that way. I can get closer to real life if they have a lightness of touch.

“I must admit that the fact that my films are cheap means I don’t have to rely too much on box-office success, but it also allows me to film in places where you just couldn’t take a huge film crew.”

In 2001, Rohmer received a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival for his body of work.

His most recent film, “The Romance of Astrea and Celadon,” was released in 2007.

A complete list of his surviving family members was not available, but they reportedly include his younger brother, philosopher Rene Scherer and his son, journalist, Rene Monzat.

Devorah Lauter, a special correspondent in Paris, contributed to this report.