Eric Rohmer, a devout Catholic, saw film as a '20th-century cathedral'. He made a sublime Christmas movie, too

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) the Christmas movie A Tale of Winter, which may be his best film.

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.”

Félicie is constantly chided by other characters who think her dim, but this statement is profound. It expresses the desire we all feel to know not only our human fathers, but also our Father above. Christmas responds to this profound desire, since it is the moment when God manifests himself to those who have awaited his advent in faith.

And Félicie is a model of faithful expectation. Though she is not a Christian and lacks Christianity’s sexual ethic, she resolutely refuses to tie herself to any man but the one she loves. One of her beaux, a sceptical, intellectual Catholic named Loïc (Hervé Furic), takes her to a performance of Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale. He warns her that “It’s pretty far-fetched … Lots of fantastic things happen. People who were thought dead, exiles who reappear resurrected.”

At the play’s most fantastical moment, when the onlookers are told “It is required / you do awake your faith” and a statue of a bitterly missed person comes to life, Félicie cries. She sees how faith can bring life to death, reunion to separation. She sees and believes.

I will not spoil the film by saying what happens next, but in this moment Rohmer gives us more than a hint about his own art. He believed that cinema could awaken faith by showing the divine in flesh. He expressed this belief in various ways at various points, stating that “Christianity is consubstantial with the cinema,” that film is the “20th-century cathedral” and that “the very essence of cinema” was “that world beyond”.

Whatever his phrasing, Rohmer’s point was always the same: film shows that we are embodied souls, and at its most sublime points to the God who took on flesh. It lets us come to know our Father. If this is true, there is something particularly fitting in celebrating the season by watching a Christmas movie. A Tale of Winter is one of the best.

Matthew Schmitz is senior editor of First Things and a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow

This article first appeared in the December 22 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here