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Looking for Eric Rohmer in Paris

In 2008, American film student Peter Kenneth Jones spent his summer on a “religious pilgrimage” in Paris. Every day, he walked up and down Rue d’Ulm in the 5th arrondissement, hoping to bump into his favorite movie director, Eric Rohmer.

One day during lunch in Paris, a young man played by Barbet Schroeder sees a beautiful young woman. He begins to see her regularly. Same time. Same place. But he can’t work up the nerve to talk to her — it takes the encouragement of his lunch mate to convince him. Finally, after a minor intervention of fortune, he summons the courage and asks her to meet him for a coffee later that day. “I can’t today. I’m busy. But I always see you, so I’m sure we’ll find another time,” she replies. The man is ecstatic. But then something strange happens: the next day he doesn’t see her. And the same thing happens each day after that. Where could she be? The man starts to skip his lunches in order to walk up and down the boulevard where he used to see her daily. No luck. Dejected, he wanders around Paris and begins to frequent a bakery where he indulges in sweets to keep his heartache at bay.

What happens after that? Since this is Eric Rohmer’s 1963 film La Boulangère de Monceau (The Bakery Girl of Monceau), the young man loses his way, and strays from his path, only to have what he originally desired return in the most unexpected fashion. In the process he learns something about himself that would’ve been unknown had it not been for this chain of events. This is a story of how I came to a similar realization, seeking Eric Rohmer himself.

I was 21 when I went to Paris for the first time. It was a college study abroad trip and I was already a French cinéphile immersed in the study of Rohmer’s films. As I was about to depart for Paris my father introduced me to a graduate student at the University of Chicago writing her dissertation on Rohmer. An American Rohmerian will know that coming across a fellow Rohmerian in the United States is a rare pleasure. A lunch was arranged and a few days later my father, the student (whose name I cannot remember), and I sat down together to talk about Rohmer. As the lunch came to an end the student mentioned two interesting pieces of information: 1) An author named Noël Herpe, who knew Rohmer well, was recently at the University of Chicago working on a book about Rohmer. The student knew him and offered to introduce me during my coming trip to Paris. 2) She then said, “It’s funny. I actually know where Rohmer lives. Well, not exactly, but he lives somewhere on Rue d’Ulm, in the Quartier Latin.” This piece of information struck me as strange. What am I supposed to do with this, I thought? But just for fun I looked up the street before I left for Paris and there it was, a short one-way street that dead ends at the Panthéon.

On the plane ride over my anticipation for Paris grew. I thought about the Rohmer lunch and in particular about this knowledge I found myself with regarding Rohmer’s possible home. Did he even live there? At the time he was 87 years old and very sick. So if he lived there was he even home or was he convalescing somewhere else? I had no answers to these questions. But then The Bakery Girl of Monceau came to mind. I thought of the main character traveling his lunchtime boulevard as if it were a religious pilgrimage. Suddenly I had an idea, I knew what I could do with the knowledge of Rohmer’s home. I decided to do the same thing. I would walk up and down Rohmer’s Rue d’Ulm once a day in the hopes of bumping into him. If by chance I did see him I would have something to say: “Mr. Rohmer I am an American student and I love your films. They mean the world to me. I’ve been walking up and down your street once a day in hopes of bumping into you — just like Barbet Schroeder in The Bakery Girl!

I was convinced this was perhaps the second greatest idea humanity had ever seen. I knew that my chances were slim, but if it worked — imagine the story! And then I remembered Noël Herpe. Between my self-created vigil and a meeting with Noël Herpe — a man who knew Rohmer well — I gained a sudden confidence I would be able to meet my hero on my first trip to Paris. In fact, I felt so confident I promised myself in that instant, more than thirty thousand feet in the air, that I would not leave Paris without meeting Rohmer.

Paris was everything I had expected it to be. The films I’d been meticulously watching over the years barely did it justice. But I was on a mission, and I stayed focused on my pilgrimage. The schedule was simple: class early morning, a possible organized excursion after class, and then we were left to our own devices. The moment class was over I headed for Rue d’Ulm. I exited the metro at the Odéon stop, walked up to the Panthéon, and then down Rue d’Ulm. The street is about a 15-minute walk from the metro station so I arrived quickly. Looking up at the street sign I took a second to smile to myself before taking my first step. As I walked down Rue d’Ulm for the first time the thoughts came a mile a minute: what if this works? Will I really say what I’m planning to say? Will he be with his family when I see him? Should I have him sign something, should I ask for a picture, or maybe ask for nothing, the story will be enough? I bounced on my feet as I came to the end and made my way back. No sign of him. Nothing to be concerned about. It was just the first day.

The next morning I emailed Noël Herpe explaining who I was and that I’d love to meet up with him at his earliest convenience. In the meantime, I came upon a new discovery. A small theater near the Panthéon was playing a retrospective of Woody Allen’s career on 35mm. I grew up in the world of DVDs so there are few Woody Allen films I’ve seen on the big screen, let alone 35mm. Now everyday after class I would get off at the Odéon stop, watch whatever matinee Woody Allen film was playing, head over to Rue d’Ulm, and then grab a bite to eat before heading back to the hotel. The inclusion of the Woody Allen films added a cinematic flare to my mission that seemed all too appropriate. I was giddy with excitement at turning my trip to Paris into this regimented pilgrimage. From that day forward, while the rest of my classmates were taking in the tourist sights, I was busy heading to the Latin Quarter, watching Woody Allen films, and then making my pilgrim’s walk down Rue d’Ulm hoping to bump into Eric Rohmer.

A few days later, Noël Herpe responded to my email and said he would be happy to meet with me. He suggested I come to his apartment mid-day. By this time, I’d been to Rue d’Ulm four or five times without achieving my goal and I thought that Noël Herpe might help. Our meeting had a splash of comedy to it. It was not what either of us expected. Somehow Noël had the idea that I was writing a dissertation on Rohmer’s use of Paris in his films. That seemed like a good idea for a dissertation, but it wasn’t mine, and I was only a college student. All I could do was try to live up to his assumptions about me. The conversation quickly turned to Rohmer’s films. We talked a bit of our affinity for him, of how I came to discover him (since, again, an American this interested in Rohmer was a rarity), and of Noël’s upcoming book (recently published in English as Eric Rohmer: A Biography). But my mission lingered in my mind and I was anxious to turn the conversation towards my needs. So as soon as I could I broached the subject. “I know Rohmer is old, sick, and very private. But I’m only here for a month and it would mean the world to me if I could meet him. I don’t need a picture or anything. Maybe a signature or just a handshake. Can you help me?” Noël was skeptical. Rohmer was indeed sick, old, and very private. He didn’t say no outright to facilitating a meeting — he was too polite for that— but he didn’t sound optimistic.

I began to email Noël regularly. He continued to give me the same response: “He’s old, he’s sick, he’s private. I’m not sure it’s possible.” Though I was feeling a bit discouraged I continued my pilgrimage day in and day out; but unfortunately, no sign of Rohmer. Finally, in a reply to one of my non-stop emails just a few days before I left Paris Noël said, “I’m sorry. But it’s not possible.” I was heartbroken. Here I was in Paris, so close yet so far from meeting the man I admired most in the world, the man whose work had awakened my love of cinema and convinced me to pursue a career in film. But Noël’s email continued. “Though a meeting is not possible you can write to him at his production company. Here’s the address.” It was like a slap in the face. I felt like a child being told to write to Michael Jackson at his record label. Production Company? Why did Noël feel the need to kick a man when he was down? My last day in Paris came soon after. I saw my last Woody Allen film and took my last walk down Rue d’Ulm. No Éric Rohmer. The next day I left Paris.

About a month later I was back at college. It had been a tough month, school work was getting me down, and things had just ended with a girl I was dating. On top of all of that I was still recovering from my failed attempt at meeting Rohmer. A gloom set over my life causing me to question everything — including my love for film. I called my father to share my woes.
“What should I do? How do I get out of this funk,” I asked him.
He thought for a second before saying, “Why don’t you write that letter to Rohmer? Did you ever do that?”
“No. What good will that do? I only have the address for his production company.”
“No harm in trying,” he said.

He was right. So I set about writing the letter. My letter centered on a question that I’d always had about Rohmer’s Conte d’automne (Autumn Tale). In the film two former lovers: a female college student and her male professor are wading the waters of a platonic relationship. As they meet up one day it’s clear the student has moved on more than the professor has. Throughout their rendezvous the latter continues to try and reignite their physical dimension. But the woman will not be dissuaded. Towards the end of the scene Rohmer uses a long take, about 1 minute and 49 seconds, where the girl plainly lays out the realities of their situation. The teacher sits with silent confidence allowing her to say her piece as to why they are better apart than together. As she concludes her speech he implores her to sit on his lap. Having had her say, she feels she’s in a place to relent, so she sits on his lap. The moment she sits down the strap of her camisole falls off her shoulder. They both look to the strap as she delicately places it back on her shoulder.

The first time I saw this scene I was awestruck by the moment and had to rewind the tape that I was watching. I had never seen anything like it. So quiet, so understated, yet the moment that strap falls, and the reactions it illicits, are so perfectly timed and so perfectly complementary to the scene — I still get chills thinking about that scene today. I’d always wondered: did Rohmer plan that? He is known for meticulous planning. Or did it just happen? If he did plan it, how did he pull it off? It would be one of the greatest choreographed moments in cinematic history if he had planned it, but the more likely explanation had to be that it just happened. Still, I wanted to know and so I asked him the question: did you plan that scene or not? After a few drafts I sent my letter off.

I truly didn’t expect a reply. In fact, thinking back now on that time, I can say that I forgot about the letter completely. But only two weeks later I did get a response. It wasn’t just any response either, it was a handwritten response from Eric Rohmer himself! Rohmer wrote on the back of a postcard for what would be his last film — Les amours d’Astrée et de Céladon (The Romance of Astrea and Celadon). I had told him in the letter that I had yet to see the film because it wasn’t playing in the U.S. yet. But there was a problem. He wrote the letter in French, and unfortunately it continues to be a foreign language to me. Luckily, in my second attempt to learn the language, I was in a French class at the time so I had the teacher translate for me.

Here is what Rohmer wrote, with an English translation.


29 septembre 2008

Cher Correspondant,

Non, le glissement de la bretelle de Rosine ne fait pas partie du scénario. C’est un de ces aléas qui donnent du charme à la scène et que je conserve avec soin—à condition toutefois qu’ils ne coupent pas le fil du récit. A revoir ce passage, je trouve extrêmement gracieux le mouvement avec lequel Alexia rajuste son “top”. Merci d’avoir été sensible à ce petit détail, fortuit mais essentiel.
Bien à vous,

Eric Rohmer

[Dear Correspondent,

No, the slip of Rosine’s strap was not part of the script. It is one of those chance events that give charm to the scene and that I conserve with care — on condition however that they do not cut the thread of the narrative. On reviewing this passage, I found extremely graceful the movement with which Alexia readjusted her “top”. Thank you for having been sensitive to this small detail, fortuitous but essential.
Sincerely,

Eric Rohmer]

Like a kid getting exactly what he wanted for Christmas I paraded my letter around to every person I knew. It was, at that moment, the greatest thing that had ever happened to me. It wasn’t just that I got a response from Rohmer, though that was amazing in and of itself, but it was the whole story that suddenly became significant. It dawned on me that the way my story with Rohmer ended was in the most Rohmerian fashion imaginable. Like the young man in La Boulangère de Monceau, I had wandered Paris intent on something, failed initially, became dejected and distracted, but in the end, what I initially set out for reappeared in an unexpected, and unexpectedly significant, manner. Rohmer’s final line kept running through my mind. “Thank you for having been sensitive to this small detail, fortuitous but essential.”

My tale brought me closer to Eric Rohmer than I could have hoped, not merely because he responded to me, but because he confirmed the passion that we share. And in the end this validation set me back on the cinematic course that I had strayed from. It was an unrepeatable encounter, a small moment that carried substantial meaning, and had one last Rohmerian twist. Eric Rohmer died only a year and a half later.


Peter Kenneth Jones is a writer/director from Chicago, currently living in Los Angeles. He has worked on a number of feature films and is currently directing a film about the French photographer Henri Dauman.

  • I greatly enjoyed your article about Eric Rohmer, and I too am an admirer of his films. When I lived in Paris in the late 1960s, one of my close friends was the cinematographer Nestor Almendros and one of the perks of being his friend was getting opening night tickets to all the movies he filmed. Thus I was among the first in Paris to see Le Genou de Claire and Ma Nuit Chez Maud.

    The first year I worked in Paris, I lived almost opposite the Palais de Chaillot where the Cinémathèque was then located, and spent many pleasant hours there. It provided cheap and interesting entertainment, and I was somewhat starved for movies because I had been living in Florence which was then a kind of cinematic backwater and where all American movies were dubbed into Italian, often hilariously so. Among the films I had seen there were Chi Ha Paura di Virginia Woolf? and Che Fine Ha Fatto Baby Jane? And I loved the re-release of Gone With Wind – Via Col Vento – with a scene in which Mammy had to say “Avanti, avanti, Signorina Rossella!.” instead of “Hurry, hurry Miss Scarlett!” I don’t know how she managed to get it all out, and with a southern accent to boot.

    On weekends, I would frequently go to the two p.m. feature at the Cinémathèque, then the four p.m. feature, go home to have a bite of dinner, and then return for the eight p.m. feature, and when there was something really good on, stay for the ten p.m. feature. Between showings, while waiting in the lobby, I often saw the Holy Trinity of the Cinémathèque chatting with each other in the middle of a blue cloud of Gauloise smoke: Henri Langlois, its founder, a passionate cinephile who saved thousands and thousands of films; his portly mistress, Mary Meerson, and tiny, gnarled Lotte Eisner, absorbed in conversation.
    I got to know Lotte quite well and remember spending one idyllic Sunday afternoon at her apartment. Because there were no florists in her neighborhood open on a Sunday, I went into the lone shop that I could find and bought her a pineapple, standing behind a couple who were also buying a pineapple. I walked several paces behind them. It must have been a very surreal scene, both of us carrying pineapples down a completely deserted street on a Sunday afternoon. They stopped and rang a bell. It was Lotte’s bell, and the couple turned out to be Werner Herzog and his wife, also invited to tea by Lotte.

    Those were among the best days of my life.

    I wish you a lot of luck with your work in film. I will watch for it.

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