Beginning Friday, the Film Center will screen a 13-movie, two-month retrospective of French filmmaker Eric Rohmer, who turned 80 last week. Though he’s directed almost three dozen films since his first feature in 1959, Rohmer has often labeled these works as serials. And aside from the inexplicable omission of Perceval–his greatest film–this retrospective certainly does justice to his major periods: it includes all of his “Six Moral Tales,” five of the six “Comedies and Proverbs,” and a third entry from the “Tales of the Four Seasons” that has never been shown here.

The breadth of these offerings acknowledges the beauty in Rohmer’s work, but it also illustrates the limitations of his art. Seeing eight of these films last weekend, I noticed a repetition of plot, character, and situation. Rohmer was less formally innovative than Jean-Luc Godard or Jacques Rivette, and he lacked the personal engagement that gave Francois Truffaut’s best films their most incisive qualities (The Soft Skin, for example, can be seen as Truffaut’s critique of his own infidelity and the breakup of his marriage). Rohmer was a generation older than his French New Wave contemporaries, and perhaps this gave his films their almost classical concern with story. But his age may have also contributed to his lack of interest in challenging the conventions of storytelling. And while his characters may reach epiphanies, they’re usually denied the liberating possibilities of change.

Born Jean-Marie Maurice Scherer, Rohmer taught high school literature during the Nazi occupation and wrote a novel, Elizabeth (1946), under the name Gilbert Cordier. In 1948, he arrived in Paris, where he contributed essays and criticism to several prominent film publications. Along with Godard, Rivette, Truffaut, and Claude Chabrol, Rohmer wrote for the seminal film journal Cahiers du Cinema. In 1951, the same year Cahiers was founded, Rohmer wrote and directed his first short, Charlotte and Her Steak, which showcased Godard as a lone actor attempting to seduce two women who are never shown. He also worked in television and made educational and industrial films.

Over the next few years Rohmer wrote and directed several other shorts, reportedly experiments in literary adaptations, that initiated his professional collaboration with Barbet Schroeder, the Iranian-born producer and oil heir who’s better known today as a director (Barfly, Reversal of Fortune). He continued to write, collaborating with Chabrol on a superb 1957 study of Alfred Hitchcock, and that same year Rohmer was named editor of Cahiers, a position he held until 1963. Unlike the debut features of Truffaut, Godard, and Chabrol, Rohmer’s 1959 The Sign of Leo was ignored by the public and dismissed by the critics. In 1963 Rohmer and Schroeder formed their own production company, Les Films du Losange. Schroeder–a brilliant documentary filmmaker (Idi Amin Dada) as well as an actor and producer (he produced Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating)–plays the lead and narrates the action of The Baker Girl of Monceau (1963), the 23-minute, 16-millimeter, black-and-white short that inaugurates the “Six Moral Tales.”

The Film Center retrospective opens with two widely known films–My Night at Maud’s (1969) and Claire’s Knee (1970)–but Rohmer’s early works are more revealing, laying out the style and themes he would go on to explore in his later movies.

One theme, introduced with The Baker Girl of Monceau, is the impossibility of genuine relationships between men and women. Schroeder is a law student who becomes fixated on a beautiful young Parisienne, Sylvie, whom he frequently passes on the street. Elated at the prospect of their next rendezvous, he grows quickly frustrated when his epic wanderings around her neighborhood fail to bring them together. The man approaches his dilemma rationally, treating love like a mathematical formula. “Dinner took 30 minutes, and my walk 3, so my chances of seeing her were multiplied by ten,” he says in the voice-over narration. Making repeated stops at a local pastry shop, Schroeder is beguiled by the counter girl. He arranges a date with her, but the moment is sabotaged when Sylvie turns up. “My choice had been above all, moral,” the young man insists. “One represented truth, the other a mistake, or that was how I saw it at the time.”

The movie established the outline and shape of much of his later work: role playing, class distinctions, the elements of chance and fate, the confusion wrought by love and friendship. Rohmer’s stories are concerned with language and manners and the way these affect relationships. The Baker Girl of Monceau anticipates Claire’s Knee, where the diplomat played by Jean-Claude Brialy, a month from being married, must resolve his infatuation with two sexually precocious teenage girls, Laura (Beatrice Romand) and Claire (Laurence de Monaghan). Typically Rohmer treats the action as a philosophical inquiry, but as always it’s ineffable and elusive. “She aroused in me a real yet undefined desire,” he says of Claire. “All the stronger because it’s undefined. A pure desire. A desire of nothing.” The object of his desire is introduced in precisely the same manner as Haydee Politoff, the self-contained title figure of La collectionneuse (1967)–she’s wearing a bikini.

With the exception of the first two films, the cinematographer of the “Six Moral Tales” was the excellent Spanish-born Nestor Almendros. With Raoul Coutard and Henri Decae, Almendros is among the notable technical collaborators of the major New Wave directors, having also worked extensively with Truffaut. The formal beauty of these works (the play of natural light, water, and landscape in La collectionneuse and Claire’s Knee, the white-on-white compositions in My Night at Maud’s) is essential to the vivid sense of place. The stories match the locations, creating a profoundly physical sense of recognition. Stripped of music and camera movement, the movies acquire a tone–droll, ironically detached–that appears to be organic and realistic.

With the “Comedies and Proverbs,” that tone turns colder and less forgiving, and there is a recurring sense of resignation and defeat. The first two entries of the cycle, The Aviator’s Wife (1980) and Le beau marriage (1982), chart the aftermath of a failed affair between a married man and a younger woman.

In the first film, whose alternate title is “One Can’t Think of Nothing,” a 20-year-old postal worker (Philippe Marlaud) is unconvinced that a handsome pilot has ended his affair with the sophisticated 25-year-old woman (Marie Riviere) the postal worker is nominally involved with. The movie’s point of view shifts from Riviere to Marlaud with the inventive use of an iris shot, and the dominant perspective suddenly becomes the fractured, tormented psyche of the young man, who now obsessively follows the pilot (Mathieu Carriere) and his mysterious companion. His tortured state is further complicated by the appearance of another romantic interest, a relaxed and confident young girl (Anne-Laure Meury). The movie turns on a remarkable 30-minute sequence between Marlaud and Riviere inside her cramped apartment where they tentatively unravel the difficulties of their relationship. Rohmer’s cinema seems predicated on observation, conversation, and social milieu, but this scene illustrates the rigor and daring of his best work. He constantly finds ways to play off the physical space between them; the cutting and camera movement draw out their fear, regret, and possessiveness. “You’re doing nothing but talking, but you’re not saying anything,” Riviere says.

In Le beau marriage, the protagonist, 25-year-old Sabine (Romand), is angered and frustrated by the demands and responsibilities of her married lover, and she promptly ends their relationship. Emboldened, she suddenly announces her desire to marry, and focuses her energy on a 35-year-old bourgeois Paris lawyer (Andre Dussollier), the cousin of her best friend (Arielle Dombasle). The movie is framed by images of Sabine standing before a window–the first time in the house where she meets the lawyer, the second on a train following her last encounter with him at his Paris office. The first shot holds out the possibility of romantic ecstasy. The second is more contemplative, tentative, and rueful. The movie opens against a deep red background with La Fontaine’s question, “Can any of us refrain from building castles in Spain?” The final image provides the answer.

By contrast, the dark and penetrating Full Moon in Paris (1984) opens with a tracking shot of an industrial suburb, settling on a cold, sterile house, accompanied by a stern warning, in the form of a notorious French saying: “He who has two women loses his soul. He who has two houses loses his mind.” The action unfolds from November through February, and the cold, damp look extends from the suburban landscapes to the anonymous buildings and barren concrete of the city’s streets. Louise (Pascale Ogier, in a career performance) asserts her sexual independence and freedom from her lover by maintaining a Paris apartment. She rejects the aggressive pursuit of a writer played by Fabrice Luchini (“I can’t accept that one aspect of you is beyond my reach,” he tells her). But the apartment that suggested sexual escape, freedom, and fulfillment turns into an abject symbol of her loneliness and isolation. Rohmer is less interested in sex than in its consequences. The image of Ogier’s naked body in flight from a sexual experience is one of the most unsettling images of exile ever shown.