Six Moral Tales
by Howard Schumann
Not only is there beauty and order in the world, but there is no beauty and order apart from the world - Eric Rohmer
Between 1962 and 1972, French director Eric Rohmer, together with cinematographer Nestor Almendros on all but the first two, directed a series of films known as Six Moral Tales . The tales deal with the complexity of relationships between men and women, usually involving a love triangle, unfulfilled longings, and missed opportunities. These early films are male-centered and the young protagonists often reveal egotism and immaturity yet, through thoughtful self-reflection, grow from their failures. For some, Rohmer is talky and static but, for me, his films are a liberating experience: his characters true to life and his dialogue replete with intelligence and poetry.
According to Jurgen Fauth of WorldFilm: "The loveliness of Rohmer's films lies in the acute observation, the light humor, and the mature way in which the characters' problems are handled. The people in these films look a little less glamorous than film stars, but they are much more real, and they're a lot smarter and more articulate, too. When you think about it, it's quite remarkable to watch people talk about love for ninety minutes and never have them utter anything trite, tired, or shop-worn".
According to Rohmer, his films describe "less with what people do than with what is going on in their minds while they are doing it." Rohmer's interest lies in exploring the "what-ifs" of relationships and the roads not taken. He describes his tales as follows: "Everything seems very simple and all my characters are a bit obsessed with logic. They have a system and principles, and they build up a world that can be explained by this system ... It's not exactly happy, but that's what the films are all about." Rohmer's characters are thinkers and are not inclined to act spontaneously.
They use a lot of time and energy perfecting techniques of avoidance and develop skill in the art of perfectly rationalized self-deception. Rohmer, however, does not judge or evaluate his characters but accepts them the way that they are. Despite the fact that there is a great deal of talking in his films, they are sensual and possess a reserved elegance that is delightfully charming. In the words of film critic Eliot Wilhelm, "Rohmer's films are a kind of reverse Seinfeld: they can appear to be about nothing, but in fact are almost always profoundly stirring and emotionally resonant in ways that may make you smile contentedly to yourself, hours, days, or weeks afterward."
Following is a look at each of the Six Moral Tales . The final three are considered to be among Rohmer's best.
THE GIRL AT THE MONÇEAU BAKERY (La
Boulangére de Monçeau) (1963)
The first film, The Girl at the Monçeau Bakery, only twenty-three minutes in length, centers on the dilemma of a young man (Barbet Schroeder) forced to choose between women. The young man, a law student, is infatuated with Sylvie (Michele Girardon), a girl he sees walking on the street each morning and thinks about how to introduce himself. After making a brief connection, the girl suddenly disappears and he spends his days looking for her on the streets of Paris . His search takes him to a nearby bakery where he buys one cookie each day and begins to notice Jacqueline (Claudine Soubrier), the bakery counter girl.
She is shy and withdrawn but when she finally agrees to go out with him, the first woman reappears and he is faced with a choice between a girl he hardly knows but loves and a promising relationship with a girl that has taken to him. He arrives at his choice but it is done coldly and with little regard for the feelings of the rejected woman, rationalizing this by telling himself, "My choice had been above all, moral. One represented truth, the other a mistake, or that was how I saw it at the time." The film, though a first effort, offers believable characters and conveys a strong sense of location, providing a loving glimpse at Paris in the 60s.
SUZANNE'S CAREER (La Carriére
de Suzanne) (1963)
In Suzanne's Career , the 54-minute second film of Rohmer's suite of Six Moral Tales , two friends, both students at a local university, vie for the affections of Suzanne (Catherine See). Guillame (Christian Charriere) is the more aggressive and the most manipulative but Bertrand (Phillipe Beuzen) goes along with his schemes and his character is not beyond blemish. Both scheme to have Suzanne pay for their good times and ignore her at parties to make her jealous while telling each other how they detest her.
There is a great deal of narration in the film and we are privy to Bertrand's thoughts and feelings as he sorts out for himself what is right and what is wrong. Suzanne is sweet but seemingly rather passive and easily exploited and we root for her to assert herself, and in typical Rohmer style we don't have to wait very long. This is a lovely film and, though it goes on a bit too long in pursuing its resolution, the ending is deliciously satisfying.
(La Collectionneuse) (1967)
The Collector , the first feature-length film
of the series, mind-games, strategies, and overt manipulation thwart
the possibility of satisfying relationships. The 54-minute film is beautifully
photographed and has an elegance, charm, and wit that bears favorable
comparison with his more acclaimed works. Adrien (Patrick Bauchau),
an art dealer, and Daniel (Daniel Pommereulle), a painter spend the
summer in a house on the French Riviera. Also vacationing there is Haydee
(Haydee Politoff), an elegant but rather aloof young woman who sleeps
with many boys in the area and has earned the title of "collectionneuse,"
a collector of men. Adrien, smug and self-centered in a charming sort
of way, is interested in Haydee but tells himself that her promiscuity
is a trick for him to seduce her and he refuses.
The summer turns into a love triangle with Adrien convincing Daniel to pursue Haydee to ease the pressure of his own conflict between his rationalizing intellect and his passions. In the moral scheme of things, Haydee may represent the sexual revolution of the 60s and Adrien that of traditional morality, yet the film takes no sides, presenting the issues without judging the characters and giving us much to think about. The Collector is perhaps the most philosophical of the six but in the end the pursuit without passion leads to a feeling of emptiness and missed opportunities. Like most of Rohmer's films, there are no peak dramatic moments or confrontations, just everyday life elevated into art.
MY NIGHT AT MAUD'S (1969)
Night at Maud's is the fourth in the series though it
was released before La Collectioneuese. In this film, an introverted
Catholic engineer (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is introduced by his Marxist
friend Vidal (Antoine Vitez) to Maud (Francoise Fabian), a charming
and worldly divorcee and ends up staying the night in her apartment.
Jean-Louis, Vidal, and Maud spend the evening talking about philosophy
and religion, particularly about their differing views on Pascal. After
Vidal leaves, Maud tells Jean-Louis about her marriage, her ex-husband's
Catholic mistress, and the tragic end to her affair with the only man
she truly loved.
When he is persuaded to avoid a snowstorm and stay overnight, Jean-Louis has to overcome Maud's advances and his own temptations to remain faithful to his ideal mate, a blond, Catholic girl (Marie-Christine Barrault) he recently met at church. Rohmer presents his characters in very natural, almost mundane situations, and heightens the realism by using only natural sounds of the environment. On the surface, My Night at Maud's appears very simple but underneath there is much complexity. Jean-Louis is conflicted between his Catholic principles and his love of sensual pleasure.
He lives in a world centered almost entirely on himself, engaging in much philosophizing about choice but never choosing. He operates out of how he "should" or "should not" act rather than out of his experience of what works. When life does not fit his pictures, he deceives himself with endless rationalizations. Through his experience with Maud, however, he is shaken out of need for complete self-control and discovers a deeper layer of his being. In My Night at Maud's , Rohmer employs a light touch and witty dialogue to bring his characters to life, creating an impersonal elegance that is totally captivating.
CLAIRE'S KNEE (1970)
Claire's Knee is a playful sex comedy that almost gets a little too playful for conventional morality. Filled with gorgeous Alpine scenery and strikingly honest dialogue, the film gives us plenty to think and talk about. In the film, Jerome (Jean-Claude Brialy) is a good looking diplomat who is on a brief vacation in the alpine village of Talloires before he is to be married. He meets an old friend Aurora (Aurora Cornu), a novelist, who wants to observe Jerome interacting with other women so she can be inspired to write something about it. To this end she persuades Jerome to court two teenage daughters of the woman she is staying with.
He first tries to court Laura, superbly played by Beatrice Romand,
an unusually perceptive teenager, but fails. At first their relationship
is fun but later becomes tense when both realize the inappropriate nature
of their behavior. He then turns attention to the beautiful but less
profound Claire (Laurence De Monaghan) and develops an obsession to
fondle her knee, a seemingly perverse fixation but, in Rohmer's eyes,
it seems rather innocent. Jerome is on the verge of temptation but is
rescued by the careful decisions of his own conscience and his commitment
to his fiancée. In Claire's Knee, everyone learns through
failure that it is sometimes necessary to step back and get a handle
on the possible consequences of your actions.
CHLOE IN THE AFTERNOON (1972)
in the Afternoon is the last of the Six Moral Tales
. Frederic (Bernard Varley), is a happily married, well-to-do lawyer
married to Helene (Francoise Verley), a somewhat chilly English professor.
He is attracted to other women and misses the time when he was free.
"I feel marriage closes me in," he says, "cloisters me,
and I want to escape. The prospect of happiness opening indefinitely
before me sobers me. I find myself missing that time, not too long ago,
when I could experience the pangs of anticipation." Frederic rationalizes
that his fantasies about other women are merely a reflection of the
depth of his love for his wife. In one amusing sequence, he dreams that
he possesses an amulet that gives him control over the will of any passer-by,
a power of which he takes decided advantage of.
When Chloe (Zouzou), a free-spirited friend he used to know shows up, Frederic finds a release in her companionship and is able to confide in her in a way that he is unable to do with his wife. They spend afternoons together talking about love and relationships. She confesses that she doesn't want to be married but would like to have a child, particularly one with Frederic. The central tension of the film is the choice Frederic must make between his passion for Chloe and his love for his wife. Although he is tempted to have an affair with Chloe, he spends too much time pondering the pros and cons and doesn't act. Chloe on the other hand is in love with Frederic and has a come-what-may attitude toward his entanglements.
Like Jerome (Claire's Knee) and Jean-Louis (My Night at
Maud's), Frederic is weak and indecisive and is forever attempting
to justify his inability to choose. He stands on the edge of temptation
but is never quite ready to jump. Rohmer does not make any moral judgments
but hints that Frederic's temptation and pangs of conscience are something
most of us go through at some time in our lives. Though there is a lot
of talking in Chloe in the Afternoon, it never seems false
or tiresome. This is a very charming film that Pauline Kael called "in
every respects, a perfect film." It has a natural rhythm with characters
that are so real that you don't want to leave them when the film ends.
As Frederic's ultimate choice looms, we are privy to some sharp and
insightful dialogue that illuminates the complexity of relationships.
The story is told from the husband's point of view and we are left wondering
how different it would be if told by his wife. Her tears at the end
provide a clue.
©2005 Howard Schumann