Book review: The Taste for Beauty by Eric Rohmer

Arguably the most conservative and ‘old-school’ of all the French New Wave directors, Eric Rohmer’s cinema is closest to the cinema of Jean Renoir. His films are largely dialogue oriented, in which events are empirical evidence to ‘show’ instead of ‘represent’ in order to simply tell a story. For Rohmer, the film is a ‘rendition’ of a story, which ‘gives to the present what other arts have denied it.’

The Taste for Beauty, which comprises of Rohmer’s writings on film, crafts a genealogy of a cinematographic mind at work, displaying an array of insights on the nature of filmic movement, and the specific transformations of this movement in the hands of film maestros. His own emerging insight on the process of film-making can be summed up in his reading of F.W. Murnau’s films. For Rohmer, Murnau ‘constructs a world and then documents it’, referring to the importance of involving the documentary aspect in cinema. Similarly for Rohmer, Rossellini creates a location-space that creates a form for the actor’s movement. ‘Saying’ something in cinema is fraud for Rohmer, and he much rather believes in the art of putting them on screen or suggesting their presence off –screen i.e. the art of ‘showing’ in cinema.

Rohmer’s insights on cinema are truly original. He is able to craft an impressionistic relationship between different elements in cinema without, as in the case of certain ‘filmosophers’, making the relationship fetishistic or exclusivist. His insights on color, which for him is necessary to portray a sense of realism in cinema or to make ‘the real’ more precise, is simply a relationship between a set designer and a photographer that furnishes certain moods. In this way Rohmer draws up a cinema of relationships that defy easy categorization so that these relationships have an operation, like a function in mathematics (f(x)) performed on them through the act of making a film. For Rohmer, film is an act of purifying the screen, instead of ‘purifying the image’ (as it is for French philosopher Alain Badiou) that proceeds from a ‘primary’ purity to a ‘restored’ purity.

 

Rohmer mixes his insights on cinema, with his own approach to film-making. His cine-renditions comprise of, like in Western classical music, an initial motif, which is slowed down, sped up or shrunk in order to purify it. In other words like in the cinema of Ritwik Ghatak, Kumar Shahani and Mani Kaul, cinema is a medium that draws its basis from music. Here instead of a set of notes, the rendition performed is on a text, which often emphasizes the temporality of its own construction. Evoking the aesthetic of Yasujiro Ozu, Rohmer emphasizes the ability of cinema to exalt everyday objects and daily actions to epic proportions.

 

These attempts at ‘the real’, are a discovered reality instead of a reproduced reality that achieves the truth when it approaches immobility. As in the cinema of Orson Welles, cinema discovers this reality by placing you in front of a mirror to ‘show’ you an aspect of reality you did not see, precisely through artificial and rehearsed gestures. For Rohmer, the transparency of this gesture comes precisely from its opacity. This opacity signifies the mysterious workings of the inner life. Action adds to gesture, so that the thought of the person is projected onto the action and the succession appears as an ‘extraction’ from life, closest to ‘the real.’ The working of a body that represents the affliction of the soul carries these gestures and actions, forward. In other words, in Rohmer’s cinema, ‘the real’ is produced through a ‘false’ rendition of text through bodies with the affliction through the soul. This produces in the spectator a ‘thinking subject’ through a cinematographic analysis of the soul in question.

Rohmer’s most significant insights are on the cinema of Alfred Hitchcock (on whom he co-authored a book with Claude Chabrol). His reading of Rear Window implies that the film is a parable for Plato’s Cave, with the photographer as witness in the cave and the events at the other end of the window as the images produced in the cave. Viewing the event produces a renewed consciousness, but as in all of Hitchcock’s films is an event centering on violence. More significant is his response to Vertigo, which for him a film where the rendering of the story, something whose importance has already been established, is in its form.

In other words, for Rohmer, Hitchcock’s cinema is one of Platonic ideas, instead of representations, that produce mental-images; is one where the straight line and the circle meet. This in turn produces an ascending spiral of cinema signifying consciousness, and a descending spiral representing pathology. Hitchcock symbolizes this essential concept by representing it in the zoom-track vertigo sequences and the representations of the spiral and circle in the title sequence. For Rohmer, Vertigo is about poetry and geometry travelling together, in order to provide a cerebral-image of movement (Gilles Deleuze has a very similar insight on Hitchcock in his book Cinema 1: The Movement-Image)

Although Rohmer’s approach to cinema is impressionistic, he prefers dialectics over metaphysics, arguing that the different elements of a cinematographic ‘rendition’ are antagonistic. More importantly for him, the relationship between man-made beauty and natural beauty produces a sense of harmony, restraint and a conforming with established notions of form and beauty i.e. classicism. In this context, Rohmer draws from the most important influence in his cinema, stated earlier, Jean Renoir. For Rohmer, Renoir’s work is an epitome of the transformation of a natural order into a cinematographic order. This cinematographic order appears by dissolving the narrative text through theatre. For Rohmer, this text is an exterior, an outside, whereas cinema places us inside the realm of action. This rather ‘old-school’ approach to ‘masterpiece cinema’ emphasizes the great work of art as that which produces a new idea of beauty that was previously unknown.

Most importantly Rohmer’s cinema is able to pursue the ascending spiral of consciousness in cinema through an engagement with the object that the perceptional consciousness of the spectator elucidates through a rendered story, that shows character, through bodies in which the soul is analyzed so as to produce in the spectator a thinking subject

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s