Eric Rohmer’s 6 Moral Tales

ERIC ROHMER’S Six Moral Tales series of films is a fascinating way to watch a major talent develop seemingly from nothing. They are available from Criterion in the USA and in a complete Rohmer set from Hong Kong (which includes the Criterion release minus most of the extras).

The Bakery Girl of Monceau (La Boulangere de Monceau) 1962
The Bakery Girl of Monceau is Rohmer’s first attempt to turn a book of short stories – the Moral Tales – into film. It is a simple film running for 20 minutes, photographed in black and white, with non professional actors, natural sound, and the dialogue and commentary synchronised not too convincingly during post production. The streets of the city, the shops and the passers-by seem to get more attention than the central characters. The film has a strong documentary feel to it.

A young student is attracted to a girl he sees in the street, strikes up an acquaintance with her, then, during her mysterious disappearance, spends his time trying to seduce the bakery girl of the title, on the grounds that she doesn’t matter to him. He finally wins her confidence, but drops her abruptly when the girl he has been looking for suddenly reappears.

The theme of the series makes its appearance. A man finds himself attracted to a woman, gets involved with another whom he regards as ‘unsuitable’, frees himself from the second woman and goes back to the first. In thinking of how or if the second woman is unsuitable the audience can reflect on the choices one makes in a relationship and what factors should or should not be taken into consideration.

Le Carrière de Suzanne (Suzanne’s Career) 1963
Suzanne’s Career, a 50 minute black and white film, continues the theme. This time two students insult and exploit a girl they have met in a cafe. Guillaume is the more unscrupulous, who both seduces the girl then steals from his friend. The other student, Bertrand, gradually builds up a relationship with Suzanne while being in love from afar with another girl, Sophie. Bertrand and his friend are unable to feel respect for Suzanne, and Bertrand gradually loses contact with his love Sophie. Suzanne, generous to both men, finally falls in love and marries another man.

In this case Bertrand is unable to make contact either with Suzanne, the girl he undervalues, or Sophie, the girl he loves. The ‘unsuitable’ girl, Suzanne, like the Bakery girl in the first film, appears to have more to offer, but the central male character is too misled by fixed ideas to see it. Hand held cameras, uninspired street scenes (rare in Rohmer), grainy stock and poorly dubbed post production dialogue make for difficult viewing. The device of ‘commentary’, common to both films, has a distancing, uninvolving effect on the viewer.

La Collectionneuse (The Collector) 1967
The third film in the series, La Collectionneuse, made in colour and a full length feature, shows three rather immature people at a holiday chateau by the sea. Two men alternately insult and try to seduce a teenage girl, who seems to respond first to one, then the other, before going off to Rome with some friends without a backward glance.

Adrian, a would-be art dealer,  is on holiday. His true affections are engaged by his fiancée, yet he appears to find himself attracted to the girl Haydée staying at the chateau. After much too much commentary on how he feels, most of which bears no relation to what he feels, he goes back to his fiancée. Adrian and his friend Daniel, shallow and arrogant as egotists often are, are consistently shown as refusing experience. The dialogue given the two men, and Adrian’s commentary, is clever, but superficial and a substitute for their emotional life. The teenager Haydée, seemingly not too bright, fritters her life away in casual love affairs. Though ‘unsuitable’ for the dealer Adrian, she is no more so than his fiancée Carole. The three of them are stalled, and so is the film. On the other hand the landscape, so important in later films by Rohmer, makes its first significant appearance. As he was so skilfully to do later in his career, Rohmer here uses colour to significantly highlight his story. Filmed in natural light however, the interiors are as murky as Daniel and Adrian’s philosophising.

It takes a moment’s adjustment from the defects of these films to see Rohmer’s irony, directed towards unperceptive male characters whose intellectual rigidity and fear of emotional involvement cause them to bungle their relationships, both with women they admire and those they don’t, and treat these women with real though unaware cruelty.
My Night at Maud’s (Ma nuit chez Maud) 1969
Three films, and not much to show for it. But things were about to change. Rohmer is a master of construction, and the three films mentioned so far show the drawback to this mastery, which gives the films a mechanical, over-intellectual feel. With such a cinema of ideas, Rohmer needs actors of some skill, able to give emotional depth to the parts they play, often of people unaware of their feelings. A layered style of acting is required, which only an actor of considerable power can give. Rohmer was next to work with two of France’s greatest actors, and the resulting film made him recognised around the world as a major artist of cinema.

Jean-Louis Trintignant had acted in movies for more than 12 years when he joined the cast of My Night at Maud’s. He had leapt to fame two years earlier as the lead in Lelouche’s A Man and a Woman, and earlier in 1969 had played the investigator in Costa-Gavras’ Z. Most people will know him as the judge in Kieslowski’s Three Colours: Red. Trintignant was almost 40 when he played in the Rohmer film, and the part was rewritten to suit him: instead of a student, or an uncommitted society loafer, Jean-Louis is a professional who has travelled the world and had many relationships. Françoise Fabian was a couple of years younger than Trintignant and had been working in film since 1960, with directors such as Malle and
Luis Buñuel. As the Maud of the film’s title she is a divorcée and single parent with a talent for choosing the wrong man.

The difference these actors make to My Night at Maud’s is immediately apparent. Rohmer drops the distancing commentary of the first three films: Jean-Louis speaks only a sentence of commentary on two separate occasions. Néstor Almendros, on his second assignment with Rohmer and working this time in black and white, first shows his mastery: the camera in this film is almost a character in its own right and the photography adds immeasurably to the impact of the film. Rohmer, with two such skilled actors, is not hesitant about using close up, and what’s achieved, sometimes without a word of dialogue, is something that richens and deepens the film, adds its emotional content.

Yet the dialogue in the film is extraordinary. Rohmer’s films are often disparaged as “talky”. Haven’t you ever met someone with whom you connected with quite deeply? What did you do? Chances are you talked the night away, and this is an inherently dramatic situation. In Rohmer’s films characters are always meeting and talking the night away, and you have to understand this is because they love one another – even though they might not know it. The talk is central to a real situation, and the adrenalin, special effect laden excitement we’re used to in films can be seen after viewing this film to be the bizarre oddity it is.

The film’s argument is coherent, complex and very challenging. It concerns faith and is quite subversive because it challenges the very foundation of faith. Building on Pascal’s wager, it suggests that most people have a faith because they want to get something by it. Wouldn’t it be perfect, suggests Rohmer, if you could have faith without believing in god? Perhaps on the grounds that the concept is so beautiful it deserves belief, whether it is true or not. Wouldn’t it be perfect if you could just love someone, without expecting to be loved in return?

The ‘action’ is similar to the earlier three films: two men, Jean-Louis and Vidal, treat a woman, Maud, with unperceptive cruelty, too busy constructing their own world from intellectual concepts and negotiating their own advancement through egotistical complacency and self satisfaction and unawareness of others. There is an important difference between the two men. One, Vidal, is an atheist, and close to despair, and not taken seriously by either Jean-Louis or Maud. His shallowness is its own punishment. Jean-Louis is given a ray of hope: he is idealist enough to have faith – but his faith serves his self-interest. Jean-Louis has already made his choice of woman by the time he meets the ‘unsuitable’ Maud, someone who fits nicely into the rational security system he has constructed. And Maud? She is the generous, emotionally responsive female of the other films, able to love despite her heartbreaks. Of course this is a gross simplification of what any woman really is, but it is the contrast Rohmer is interested in, and simplification helps make things clearer. And Maud is played by Françoise Fabian, who can give the character depth, essentially by adding ambiguity to the role, so that any viewer can enrich their interpretation by adding from their own experience when watching the film.

In the epilogue to the film Rohmer adds some concepts that were only implicit in the earlier films. That you can love someone without having a relationship with them, as Maud loves Jean-Louis. That possession, as Jean-Louis possesses Françoise, is a poor second to trust, which was what Maud offered him. That awareness of the situation, which Jean-Louis has for a moment when he meets Maud at the beach, will be something he soon erases from his mind, for we all seek to be comfortably numb rather than painfully aware.

My Night at Maud’s is a film I’ve grown up with. I first saw it when I was 20. I went to the little Gala cinema in Pitt Street in Sydney, where European films were shown, and where I discovered films like Mon Oncle, Les Enfants du Paradis and The Seventh Seal, a whole new world for someone who then thought film was Tony Curtis playing Ali Baba or Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin not being very funny. The film touched me, and still does, in that part of me which mourns the things and people I’ve lost. I felt like Demios, up from Eleusis for the Dionysia in ancient Athens and sitting through one of Agathon’s lesser efforts when suddenly Sophocles walks on the stage and introduces Oedipus Rex.

At first the dialogue impressed me, and I thought it very clever that a film maker could show people having a conversation about Pascal and making it involving, just as I was impressed that Ingmar Bergman could make a film, The Seventh Seal, about the imminence of death and why that makes life futile, or not, and why not. These things just had not been done before, to my knowledge, in film. I realised that Maud was a film about what did not happen, about things that could have happened, just as much as it chronicles the petty details of what actually does happen. I thought this masterly then, and still do today. Thanks to video and DVD I had opportunities to watch Maud half a dozen times again, and gradually came to understand the understated, or not stated, emotional issues of the film, as I grew up, lost opportunities I was unaware of at the time, reflected on that, and gradually built up the background to appreciate the immense understanding and compassion for human beings that motivated Eric Rohmer to first write stories, then make films.

Claire’s Knee (Le genou de Claire) 1970
Claire’s knee is not really the subject of this film (the knee, and Claire, make their appearance after more than one half of it has passed). It’s a sly and amusing study of desire, and the self-deceit we have about it, played out in the person and actions of Jerome, a 35 year old diplomat who finds himself attracted by an old friend and two teenage girls but finds it inconvenient to admit it.

Jerome explains to a friend, Aurora, that he is getting married to a woman he feels no desire for, but whom he knows he can live with for that reason. His friend doesn’t believe him, and neither do we. For the first half of the film Jerome demonstrates his lack of desire for his friend Aurora. Jerome then attempts to prove he is sincere by allowing the 16 year old Laura to fall in love with him, and then pursuing the 18 year old Claire in order to touch her knee, and then do no more. As the movie progresses we see he has many illusions about himself, and the desire he doesn’t feel may be only atrophied and repressed through fear of rejection, or shyness.

The part played in the earlier movies by a male friend to the central character in this movie is played by a woman, Aurora (Aurora Cornu), who sets in motion the events that occur in the film. The woman Jerome intends to marry remains offscreen, and the ‘unsuitable’ woman is played by not one but three women. The wrong that Jerome does to Claire is to try to break up her relationship with her boyfriend, and this is comically ineffective. Compared to the earlier films all this is much lighter and more whimsical.

Jean-Claude Brialy, an experienced and very popular actor in France who had worked earlier with Truffaut and Godard, plays Jerome so we can see the contradictions behind his ever so slightly fatuous self appraisal. Béatrice Romand, one of the best actresses to have worked with Rohmer and only 18 at the time the film was made (it was her first film) yet able to look as young as 14 in some scenes, plays Laura and virtually steals the movie with her virtuoso portrayal of adolescent sophistication, which shows considerably more self knowledge than the ostensibly older and wiser Jerome has. Aurora Cornu, a non actor playing herself (you can see her smile self consciously a couple of times at Rohmer where he directs beside the camera), has an important part as the character Aurora, perhaps as the woman Jerome really loves.

Rohmer uses close up of these three faces, a shot he uses sparingly in his films, as he tries to delve deeper and deeper behind the many layers of self deception we all (Rohmer wants us to believe) use to protect us from experience and the change it brings. As in the later Pauline at the Beach there is a contrast between the convoluted reactions of the adults and the more direct responses of the teenagers, suggesting we may be learning the wrong things as we grow up. Perhaps the most subtle of the Tales, it concerns the morality of self deceit.
Love in the Afternoon (L’amour l’après-midi) 1972
Love in the Afternoon is the most heartfelt and moving of the Moral Tales, and has an effect that resonates long after the movie is finished. Frédéric is a corporate attorney who is happily married and with a young child. Though he loves his wife he doesn’t share his thoughts with her. In fact he feels a little trapped in marriage. It’s what he wants but not all he wants. In a wish fulfillment sequence early in the film he imagines having all the women passing in the street, who just happen to be six of the actresses in earlier films in the series. Then he meets Chloé, an old acquaintance he is at first wary of. The two become closer, and build up an intimacy, and soon his fantasy looks like becoming a reality. But how sincere is love built to fill an empty space in an afternoon? The need to choose has a shattering effect on Frédéric. He seems forced to make a choice, and cannot.

Frédéric’s dilemma is an almost universal one. Into any relationship, perhaps soonest into the best ones, comes an unwelcome visitor: boredom. Solutions vary. Some make a fetish of duty and morality, others fantasize, others cheat on their partner, some become cynical about ‘men’ or about ‘women’, some become serial monogamists – there’s no effective solution, except to keep reinventing the relationship, have a new one with the new people each couple have become over time. But here’s a film that looks at the problem three ways. From the point of view of a pregnant woman full of uncertainty about her attractiveness (something many pregnant women go through); from the point of view of a man who wants to live as a polygynist but with a strong sense of justice that makes him unwilling to hurt another person (he is a lawyer after all); and from the point of view of a woman unsuccessful in her relationships, with a strong sense of liberty and contempt for traditional attitudes, who yet wants to hang onto real love and affection when she finds it. Three divergent and incompatible sets of needs, and the way Rohmer weaves these into a narrative makes for fascinating viewing. It amazes me that so many people say nothing happens in Rohmer’s films just because there are no explosions. Plenty happens, but you do have to have some knowledge of human nature to see it.

Bernard Verley stars as Frédéric, acting with an effective mix of charm and staidness that make the conflict Frédéric is experiencing plausible, while not making his final choice a foregone conclusion. Frédéric’s wife Hélène is played by Françoise Verley, a non-professional actor in a small part which yet is pivotal. It is remarkable that in the series the suitable women all have small parts or are off screen, while the ‘unsuitable’ women are usually the centre of each film. The movie also stars pop icon, model, singer and actress Zouzou (aka Danièle Ciarlet) as Chloé. Zouzou was idolised in the 60s in France as one of the most beautiful (and trendy) women in the world, whose career bore an uncanny resemblance to Andy Wahol protegée Nico’s. Zouzou’s past and existential problems were pretty much the same as Chloé’s, which make her authentic in the part.

This time around Rohmer reintroduces the commentary of the first few films, whereby Frédéric explains his motivations. I found it redundant. Rohmer is a highly observant and subtle film maker, and his character’s motivations are there to see. Perhaps increasing fame and a growing overseas market led him to add a commentary to ‘explain’ his film to all the bored, restive viewers used to passively watching scenes of men chasing each other with guns. It wouldn’t have helped.

Watching the series in order allows you to see Rohmer developing as a film maker, and experimenting with variations of the theme. It also lets you see how the different treatments add resonance to each other. In the treatment of romantic love, Rohmer looks at the spectrum: lust, affection, tenderness, companionship, passion, love and other variants. But he also shows how all these emotions lose out in the ever present conflict between liberty – and the results, self indulgence, self deception – and morality.

The films inspire many to talk at length about how much talk there is in a film by Rohmer. My advice to these folk is not to pay so much attention to what is being said, which admittedly is often clever and sophisticated, but to watch the space between what the characters feel and what they say. You can learn a lot doing that. The people who complain of Rohmer’s films being talky are ignoring, too, how masterly he uses silence, and how much the intellectual content of the dialogue is influenced by the emotional subtext that motivates it. It’s just like real life, and we tend to be a bit unperceptive about our real life.

A remarkably consistent film maker, Eric Rohmer has made more good films than most directors, and quite a few great ones. In this series I would include two such: My Night at Maud’s and Love in the Afternoon. I’ve thought both were pretty wonderful for about 20 years now, and I watch a lot of films. Rohmer was now about to embark on a series of films which he called Comedies and Proverbs which would see him reach his peak as one of cinema’s greatest directors (and inspire a multitude of viewers to think his films were about the conversations they contain).

©2010 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Facts courtesy IMDB. Please inform post author of any violation.

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