Eric Rohmer’s 10 favourite films

Read the great French director’s letter to Sight & Sound in 1961 with his personal vote for the 10 best films of all time.

Eric Rohmer’s 1962 Sight and Sound ballotBFI National Archive

There’s something endlessly fascinating about the favourite films of great directors, for the ways in which the choices can be seen to have overlapped, inspired or entirely contrasted with the filmmaker’s own work. This ballot sent to Sight & Sound magazine for their second ever once-a-decade poll to determine the greatest films ever made reveals the 10 favourite films of Eric Rohmer in 1961.

At this point, Rohmer was known as a film critic for the Parisian journal Cahiers du Cinéma. He had made his directorial debut with Le Signe du lion (1959), but had not yet achieved the international acclaim that would be his later in the 60s, after the release of such ‘moral tales’ as La Collectionneuse (1967) and My Night with Maud (1969).

In his own words, his 10 choices “are the films that, if the cinema were to disappear, would give the best idea of its greatest successes”.

True Heart Susie (1919)

Director: D.W. Griffith

True Heart Susie (1919)

For his earliest choice, Rohmer championed this lesser-known film by silent pioneer D.W. Griffith. While Griffith is by far the flashier director, you can almost imagine a Rohmer version of this story of a country girl (Lillian Gish) who secretly helps the career of the neighbour boy she loves, unwittingly elevating him beyond her social status. Rohmer became famous for his own tales of morality and meddling in the affairs of the heart.

The General (1926)

Directors: Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman

The General (1926)

Rohmer’s second choice was Buster Keaton’s 1926 comedy classic about the misadventures of a train engineer during the American civil war. About Keaton he later wrote: “the laughter Keaton triggers is similar to that provoked by a small child solemnly attempting a task far beyond the competence of his years; a child trying to be a ‘grown-up’. A certain amount of condescension, but also some genuine admiration, are present in this laughter. We’re ‘delighted,’ which means that, without diluting the laughter’s intensity, it can be tinged with an admiring smile.”

Sunrise (1927)

Director: F.W. Murnau

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

German director F.W. Murnau’s first film in Hollywood is fondly remembered as among the finest silent films, and certainly one of the most beautiful. Its plot would provide Rohmer with the template for his series of Six Moral Tales (1962-72): a man committed to one woman has his resolve tested by his attraction to another.

La Règle du jeu (1939)

Director: Jean Renoir

La Règle du jeu (1939)

Jean Renoir’s 1939 social satire set in a country house over a shooting party weekend was a critical flop upon release but has provided lasting inspiration for everything from The Shooting Party (1985) to Gosford Park (2001) and, by extension, Downton Abbey (2010-). Some critics saw Rohmer’s early films as heir to the tradition of this highly literate masterpiece.

Ivan the Terrible (1944)

Director: Sergei Eisenstein

Ivan the Terrible (1944)

Sergei Eisenstein’s majestic two-part epic on the life of Ivan IV of Russia came joint seventh in the 1962 Sight & Sound poll, with Rohmer among 16 critics who voted for it. Its highly stylised production design perhaps provided inspiration for the Frenchman when he came to make his own eccentric historical films – the Arthurian romance Perceval le Gallois (1978) or the French revolution drama The Lady and the Duke (2001).

Journey to Italy (1954)

Director: Roberto Rossellini

Journey to Italy (1954)

Roberto Rossellini’s 1954 drama about an English couple’s marriage fraying during a holiday in Naples was recognised by French critics like Rohmer as a milestone in cinema’s depiction of nuanced emotional realities. Certainly, the subject of people on holiday was dear to Rohmer’s heart and was a setup he revisited time and time again.

Red River (1948)

Director: Howard Hawks

Red River (1948)

Rohmer was among the very first critics to take the work of Howard Hawks seriously, so it’s no surprise that he found room in his top 10 to champion this 1948 western. John Wayne and Montgomery Clift star as a father and adopted son who come to blows during a cattle drive along the Chisholm trail.

Vertigo (1958)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Vertigo (1958)

Rohmer himself only made one film that could even broadly be considered a thriller, the 2004 espionage drama Triple Agent, but his admiration for Alfred Hitchcock is well known. Together with Claude Chabrol, in 1957 he wrote a pioneering study on the master of suspense, and was quick to appreciate how extraordinary Vertigo is. He included it on his Sight & Sound ballot when Vertigo was still held in very low regard, and long before its gradual climb to current Best Film Ever Made status.

Pickpocket (1959)

Director: Robert Bresson

Pickpocket (1959)

Rohmer and his fellow critics at the French journal Cahiers du Cinéma were famously dismissive of much 1950s French cinema, but a key exception were the films of Robert Bresson, who they saw as forging a path towards the kind of personal cinema that interested them. This 1959 wallet-snatching tale was inspired by Dostoevsky and was released in cinemas just as the initial features of the French New Wave (Les Quatre Cents Coups; Les Cousins) were arriving.

La Pyramide humaine (1961)

Director: Jean Rouch

La Pyramide humaine (1961)

Simultaneous to the French New Wave’s reinvention of fiction cinema, the cinéma vérité movement in France revolutionised film documentary with its street-level aesthetic and fly-on-the-wall intimacy. At its forefront was Jean Rouch, whose 1961 La Pyramide humaine, a sort of fictionalised ethnography set in Ivory Coast, was Rohmer’s final ballot choice. Rouch’s film was one of the few contemporary French films that Rohmer wrote about as a critic before abandoning criticism for filmmaking.

An Eric Rohmer season ran at BFI Southbank from January to March 2015.

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