PARIS — Eric Rohmer doesn't go to the movies anymore.
"When you're young you need to go see a lot of films," says the 79-year-old writer-director. "It helps you to find a style. Now I prefer to go out into the world, to find stories inspired by real life."
The prolific, independent-minded auteur has been writing and directing those stories for 40 years, producing dozens of films, including such memorable ones as "Claire's Knee" (1971), "Pauline at the Beach" (1983) and "The Green Ray" (1985). In these famously literate, wordy, unadorned, naturalistic films set in the varying landscapes of his native France, Rohmer has explored the emotional and moral complexities of young, bourgeois, beautiful people in search of true love.
Ever a student of human relations, this legendary New Wave torchbearer has taken great pains to remain incognito on the streets of Paris. Once, Rohmer recalls, he appeared on a late-night talk show, convinced nobody would see him. When a local merchant recognized him from the TV appearance, it so threatened his shield of anonymity, he never went back to the store. Rohmer continues to shy away from publicity; he avoids the film festival circuit, turns down television appearances, refuses to be photographed. When he agrees to spare an hour for a reporter, it's in his modest office at Les Films du Losange in the bourgeois 16th Arrondissement, where he still turns up every day.
Over the years, critics have wondered why the aging Rohmer remains so fascinated with youth--in particular his cinematic weakness for lithe young girls--and how the notoriously reclusive writer-director manages to stay so in touch with the feelings of young people.
Rohmer still teaches a production seminar at the Universite de Paris, bringing in working takes of films in progress. Editor Mary Stephen met him as a student there 20 years ago and has worked with him on and off ever since, including his new film, "Autumn Tale," which opens in Los Angeles on Friday.
"He prefers to talk to students," Stephen says. "He doesn't like the movie world. He walks on the street, takes the Metro. It's important for him to have contact with real life. Journalists always ask why he makes films about young people. He's surrounded by young people. He gets his inspiration from young people."
But now the towering, skin-and-bones, baby-blue-eyed Rohmer has shifted his attention to middle-aged love with "Autumn Tale," the final installment in a quartet of films called "Tales of the Four Seasons" that began a decade ago.
"I wanted to show that I'm not only interested by young people," Rohmer says matter-of-factly.
In "Autumn Tale," which takes place in the wine-making Rho^ne Valley, Isabelle, a pretty, secretly bored married bookseller, appoints herself matchmaker for her best friend, the widowed winemaker Magali, writing a personal ad on her behalf and doing the interviewing herself. The film, the latest of Rohmer's meditations on romance, was released in France in the fall of 1998 and won the screenplay prize at last year's Venice Film Festival. It opened recently in New York to excellent reviews, many of them touting its energy and freshness.
"Autumn Tale's" two female leads are in their 40s, but Beatrice Romand, who plays Magali, was a mere 15 when she starred in "Claire's Knee" almost 30 years ago and has since made half a dozen films with Rohmer; Marie Riviere, who plays Isabelle, made her first film with him in her early 20s and has subsequently made three more.
"I've known them since they were very young," Rohmer says of the actresses. "I still consider them the same age," he adds, and laughs gently.
"He once told me he can only work with people he met when they were very young, [before they are] set in their ways," says Stephen, who is one in a close circle of friends and associates Rohmer has cultivated over the last few decades. "He has said that he wouldn't take the star editor of the moment. He doesn't like working with stars. It's more important, the human relationships, the complicity.
"He's very loyal to the people he works with--it's very much like a family situation," Stephen says. "It's never [just] professional. It's always a personal relationship."
While Rohmer insists that his films are not autobiographical, and are only loosely based on real people and events, Stephen believes that watching some of his intimate circle grow up has influenced his filmmaking. "It began with 'Winter's Tale,' " Stephen says. "You know we started working with him when we were 20 years old. But we're all still around him at 40."
In interviews, Rohmer does not disclose or confirm even the most vaguely personal information, including the fact that he has been married for 40 years and has two sons. But holding court behind his massive desk, Rohmer speaks in fast-paced bursts, waving his hands around as he straightforwardly answers questions about his artistic process and the ideas behind his work.