While thrilling art-house audiences with his urbane, witty films, Éric Rohmer attended Mass each Sunday at the Church of St Medard, subscribed to the royalist weekly La Nation française, and kept up his membership in the Louisquatorziens, a group devoted to the genius of the Sun King. Publicly, he was one of the leading directors of the French New Wave. In private, he was a Catholic of the old type: loyal to pope and king. As his peers scuttled from one fashionable cause to the next, he admirably refused all political engagement, lapsing only in 1974, when he joined an anti-automobile group called Les Droits du Piéton, and in 2002, when he supported Pierre Rabhi, the Green presidential candidate whose slogan was “Growth is not a solution, it is a problem”. (Rohmer, no leftist, correctly saw that the Greens had come to echo his own aristocratic and reactionary ideals. He asked: “Doesn’t progress often consist in moving backward?”)
Rohmer despised the kind of “engaged” art that indulges in pamphleteering. Rather than trumpet his religious convictions, he used them to construct a unique approach to film-making. Used rightly, he believed a camera could capture the movements of both body and soul. “Be an atheist and the camera will offer you the spectacle of a world without God in which there is no law other than the pure mechanism of cause and effect,” he said. But the greatest film-makers did more:
I am a Catholic. I believe that true cinema is necessarily a Christian cinema, because there is no truth except in Christianity. I believe in the genius of Christianity, and there is not a single great film in the history of cinema that is not infused with the light of the Christian idea. A mystical cinema? Yes, if it is true that a clear grasp of immanence leads to transcendence.
Rohmer believed that by showing us the singular being of real things, their absolute and irreducible givenness, film could point beyond our everyday reality to the God who is the source and ground of all our being. In this sense, all of Rohmer’s films are religious. But on a few occasions, he expressed his beliefs more explicitly: My Night at Maud’s, Perceval and (above all) A Tale of Winter, which may be his best film, and is certainly the only Christmas film he ever made.
It begins with two lovers frolicking by the seaside. When summer ends, Félicie (Charlotte Véry) goes home to Paris, and Charles (Frédéric van den Driessche) promises to write to her. Only one problem: she gives him the wrong address, and they have no other way of finding each other.
Five years later, Félicie has given birth to Charles’s daughter and still hopes he will appear. While she waits, she moves in and out of other men’s houses. But she places a photo of her lost love where her daughter sleeps, because “A child should know what her father’s like.”
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