The Perfect Moment

A frequent collaborator's memories of working with Eric Rohmer
by Nestor Almendros  posted January 12, 2010
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The great cinematographer Nestor Almendros (1930-1992), who was honored with a Museum of the Moving Image retrospective in 1989, worked with François Truffaut (The Wild Child, The Last Metro), Terrence Malick (Days of Heaven), Robert Benton (Kramer vs. Kramer, Places in the Heart) and Alan Pakula (Sophie’s Choice). But his closest collaborative relationship was with Eric Rohmer, who died on January 11. They made seven feature films together, including La Collectionneuse, My Night at Maud’s, Claire’s Knee, Chloé in the Afternoon, The Marquise of O., Perceval, and Pauline at the Beach. Their work together was marked by its deceptive simplicity, naturalistic lighting, and distilled, classical sense of composition. These excerpts from Almendros’s artistic memoir, A Man With a Camera (1984, now out of print), offer insight into Rohmer’s creative process:

La Collectionneuse (1967)

In the cross-cutting shots, instead of following the usual procedure of doing the whole take first of one actor, then of the other, alternating them in the editing process, Rohmer shot only what was essential—the person speaking or listening—so that there was never any duplication in the editing, which was exactly what he had planned. We used only 15,000 feet of negative for La Collectionneuse. In the laboratories they thought they were the rushes of a short. In this sense Rohmer is like Buñuel, who conceived each scene in only one way, having given it a great deal of thought beforehand.

My Night at Maud's (1969)

Rohmer's guiding principle was that in a black-and-white film there must be no reference to colors. For example, if the characters say they are drinking a crème de menthe, the spectator will feel frustrated, because he wants it to look green; this won't happen, however, if the actors are drinking water or vodka. Rohmer particularly wanted the film to have an austere quality, and without color, any superfluous or anecdotal visual details were eliminated

Some people think Rohmer is in league with the devil. Months before, he had scheduled the exact date for shooting the scene when it snows; that day, right on time, it snowed, and the snow lasted all day long, not just a few minutes. As a result, there is no break in the film's continuity, and we had real snow, which is very hard to get and looks more perfect that the artificial snow we used in Adèle H. But it is not just a question of luck; the key lies in Rohmer's detailed preparation, which he sometimes completes two years before shooting the film, and which takes into account a number of previsions and probability calculations.

Claire's Knee (1970)

The countryside in the Annecy region was lovelier than the film shows, extraordinarily varied and exuberant, truly a paradise for an amateur photographer. But Rohmer resisted the temptation to let too many pretty panoramas turn the film into a collection of picture postcards. I agreed with him, and so we restricted ourselves to two landscapes. We even tried to make sure the background was not too attractive, because the characters always had to stand out. The film has variety because these two landscapes are shown at different times and in different light.

Rohmer shoots fast, but he doesn't shoot all the time. Most directors arrive in the morning, line up a shot (if they didn't do it the day before), and film perhaps an hour later, shooting constantly up to the very last minute of the workday. Not Rohmer. He may arrive in the morning and do nothing concrete until noon. Though he may seem to be daydreaming, he acts with amazing speed when he decides what he wants. He may film up to ten screen minutes in a day (the average is three, which is more than acceptable), and then dismiss the crew before the scheduled time. His work rhythm is very irregular: sometimes with no warning he will just not turn up, or he may take time off to run (he was jogging long before it became a fad). I admit that I felt confused at first. But I began to get used to these odd tactics during the shooting of Claire's Knee. Sometimes we lost whole days, and the crew would become panicky, thinking the shooting was falling behind schedule. But Rohmer was probably only waiting for the perfect moment, either from the point of view of the light or of the actors, and would make up the time in a single day's work.

Since the technicians and actors lived very close to where we were filming, we could all stand by. Therefore, we shot the film chronologically, which allowed the actors to become immersed in the rhythm of their characters, virtually to live them in time and space. All the effects Rohmer had calculated beforehand occurred like clockwork: the roses planted a year earlier bloomed exactly when we needed them, the cherries ripened and reddened just when they should, Claire (Laurence de Monaghan) arrived at Talloires exactly when she first appears on the screen.

As he had done in La Collectionneuse, Rohmer wrote the dialogue, making use of the way each actor actually talked. Again, with the one exception of the scene where Fabrice Luchini and Brialy sit under a tree and talk, there was no improvisation, and the actors recited a carefully worded text that they had memorized. Rohmer is open to any kind of suggestion as long as it has nothing to do with content. On this, he is inflexible. He likes to use new people, who add freshness and enthusiasm. He talks a lot, but he is really thinking out loud, explaining to anyone and everyone what he is trying to do. So one of my functions was to listen to him. Rohmer expects the crew to be entirely at the film's disposal, to dedicate themselves to the work. If people go to see other movies or discuss other films while they are shooting his, Rohmer gets jealous. In this, he is exactly the opposite of Buñuel, who forbid the crew to talk at meals about the film they were making. While he is filming Rohmer stops all normal activity: he barely eats or sleeps, and pays little attention to his family or friends. He goes into a sort of creative trance and devotes all his strength to what he is doing. Rohmer's energy and drive are superhuman. Since he has neither assistants nor a scriptwriter, he keeps track of everything himself, down to the least important problems. He even does errands: he sweeps the floor of the set after a day's work and makes five o'clock tea for the crew. As might be expected, such dedication and intensity generate a similar enthusiasm in all his collaborators. Anyone who has worked with Rohmer on a film finds the experience unforgettable.

The Marquise of O. (1976)

Nothing is worse than the abuse of technical devices: diffusers, telephoto lenses, slow motion, etc. When they have nothing interesting in front of the camera, many directors resort to tricks. Fortunately, Rohmer doesn't need such affectations. Limits have a great deal to do with style. When there are no limits, there is no style.

My working relationship with Rohmer improved each time we worked together, and it became excellent during this film. Though we are very different in background and character, we are almost identical in certain ways. Our tastes in décor are somewhat ascetic, almost Calvinistic. We are bothered by superfluity and by fake luxury. We like to simplify. This commonality of outlook made working together easy, because we did not waste energy trying to persuade each other. I could suggest something to him, knowing that he would almost always accept it, and if the same thing had not occurred to him already, it was because, for instance, he was busy with the actors. I became a little like his alter ego, and this saved him time. We had similar tastes but different identities, so we complemented each other. Rohmer is much more intellectual, more literary, and his capacity for abstraction is much greater than mine, whereas I am probably more sensual, more physical. And then, aesthetically speaking, Rohmer tends to hold back. With other directors I exercise a restraining influence, getting them to eliminate unnecessary elements like dollies or strictly ornamental close-ups. The opposite is true with Rohmer, whose conception is very stark, so that I sometimes feel he should vary the visual construction of his films a little, move the camera slightly, take a closer shot. Sometimes, though rarely, I can persuade him to do so. 

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THE AUTHOR

Nestor Almendros (1930-1992) was an Oscar-winning cinematographer who worked with Eric Rohmer, François Truffaut, and Terrence Malick, among other filmmakers.

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