Judge Joe Armenio says TV dating shows would be dramatically different if Eric Rohmer had envisioned them through his distant camera.
"While the narrator is looking for a woman, he meets another one, who
occupies his affection until he finds the first woman again."
The above quotation summarizes the story of all six of Eric Rohmer's Six Moral Tales, which are devoted to mining the infinite psychological complexities inherent in such a basic scenario. This willingness to probe the same basic story again and again reminds me of no one so much as the Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu (both also have a highly formalist detachment, although Rohmer is much more ironic). In any event, one has to hand it to Rohmer for sheer cussedness. His films stubbornly violate some of the first rules of both mainstream and experimental films (keep the dialogue to a minimum; show, don't tell), and he stuck to his talky guns even though he didn't have a major filmmaking success until nearly the age of 50 (he had also been a teacher and an influential critic for the most influential of nouvelle vague publications, Cahiers du Cinema). Rohmer's cinema is defined by its relentlessly analytical and self-deluding male protagonists, its lofty irony, its refined, restrained camera style, and its almost tactile sense of place. Criterion presents his first major series of films, the Six Moral Tales, in a bountiful box set that intelligently illuminates the work of this major filmmaker. This is what DVDs are for.
Facts of the Case
The Bakery Girl of Monceau (1963): In this 23-minute short, made on 16mm in the streets of Paris, producer Barbet Shroeder plays a law student who ducks into a bakery occasionally while roaming the streets in search of the elusive object of his affections. He begins a flirtation with the girl at the bakery, but what are his intentions?
Suzanne's Career (1963): This is another 16mm short (more like a featurette at 55 minutes). Bertrand (Philippe Beuzen) is friends with Guillaume (Christian Charierre), a womanizer whom he seems to both despise and admire. Guillaume takes up with Suzanne (Catherine See), then takes advantage of her financially when she proves willing to give him money. Bertrand plays around the margins of the relationship, both pining for another girl and feeling alternately contemptuous of and attracted to Suzanne.
La Collectionneuse (1967): Adrien (Patrick Bauchau) is a smug art dealer who takes a vacation at a friend's summer house; also staying at the house are an equally smug friend, Daniel (Daniel Pommereule), and a mysterious, promiscuous woman named Haydee (Haydee Politoff). Adrien believes that Haydee's every action is devoted to snaring him, but he's not at all sure whether he wants to be friends with her, teach or a lesson, ignore her, or pimp her out to his art collector friend.
My Night at Maud's (1969): Jean-Louis Trintignant (Three Colors: Red) plays Jean-Louis, a Catholic engineer working in Pascal's hometown of Clermont, who has a rather fraught relationship with that philosopher. He discusses Pascal and other subjects with his friend Vidal (Antoine Vitez), who introduces him to Maud (Francoise Fabian), a beautiful divorcee. Jean-Louis is convinced he's going to marry a beautiful girl he's seen at church (Marie-Christine Barrault), but his attraction to Maud threatens to change all that.
Claire's Knee (1970): While on vacation, a diplomat named Jerome (Jean-Claude Brialy) meets a precociously analytical 16-year-old (Beatrice Romand) and her quiet, beautiful sister Claire (Laurence de Monaghan). Although he's engaged to be married, Jerome engages in a verbose flirtation with Laura and a more purely physical attraction to Claire.
Love in the Afternoon (1972): Frederic is a successful businessman, married with one baby and another on the way, but he enjoys fantasizing about women he sees on his daily rounds in Paris. An impulsive old friend named Chloe (Zouzou) comes into his life and, while he is irritated by her at first, a friendship begins to build.
These are "moral tales," but not in that they teach a straightforward lesson: they're all doggedly ambiguous and ironic, and the audience is never given a single figure with whom to identify. As Rohmer has said, they're "moral tales" in the sense that the protagonist is always acting according to some moral code. Rohmer is the master of the deluded and contradictory male protagonist, spinning elaborate rationales and justifications, desperately trying to understand his attraction to some elusive, inscrutable female (although Rohmer's females tend to present a guileless exterior, they are usually just as complex as the men and occasionally as confused; I think it would be wrong to suggest that men are the only deluded figures in Rohmer). The director presents all of this with the driest of ironies and with a detachment that transcends sympathy, pity, or scorn for his characters. This detachment is heightened by Rohmer's calculatedly invisible camera style: he favors a still, somewhat distant camera and never uses close-ups, cuts, or music to tell the audience what to think.
Watching the films in order gives a sense of Rohmer's development as a filmmaker; the early 1960s shorts were made on the cheap at a time when Rohmer had trouble getting funding (his first feature, 1958's La Signe de Lion, had flopped), and they are rough around the cinematic edges; one misses the polish of the later films' virtuosic cinematography and evocative use of direct sound. Still, the elements of Rohmer's style are in place; in The Bakery Girl of Monceau Schroeder's character woos the young title character out of a complex mixture of spite, attraction, frustration, and boredom. He never loses his sense of superiority to her and when he jilts her, he justifies it on moral grounds, saying that it would have been immoral to lead her on when he didn't really care about her. The film has a strong sense of place as well, establishing with a patient clarity the boundaries of its Paris world.
Suzanne's Career has one of the most interesting stories of all six tales, and is also more concerned with plot: there's some business involving stolen money, break-ups, and reunions, although Rohmer doesn't resolve these threads in anything like conventional ways. It's the only one of the six stories told from the perspective of a character who's basically a third wheel. Bertrand's tortured combination of jealousy, admiration, and contempt for both his friend and Suzanne makes a particularly painful kind of psychological sense; Suzanne herself remains just out of reach, always more than the sum of her suitors' analyses. Inevitably, these first two films have the weakest video quality of any of the films in Criterion's set: Suzanne's Career, in particular, looks awfully hazy and soft.
Let's consider La Collectionneuse next, even though the later My Night at Maud's is number three in Rohmer's conception (even he has said that the numbers don't mean much; he meant to make My Night at Maud's first, but Trintignant wasn't available). This is the first of Rohmer's films to be made in color and in 35mm, and the first to be shot by the great cameraman Nestor Almendros; The Rohmer-Almendros team had a unique ability to evoke place and time through precise attention to setting, to physical detail, and especially to weather. La Collectionneuse was shot quickly and cheaply. Direct sound is still missed, but this is the first example of Rohmer's fully mature style. The story is a surgically precise analysis of preening manhood confronted with unapologetically open female sexuality; it's fairly grueling to watch, as Adrien and Daniel are about as insufferable and irritating as Rohmer has ever allowed his characters to be. The film also has one of the worst performances I've ever seen in a Rohmer film, Eugene Archer's hammy, menacing, sub-Orson Welles turn as the American art collector, Sam. It's a jarring false note in a series that seems to contain nothing but perfectly wrought performances.
My Night at Maud's was Rohmer's big commercial breakthrough, which is slightly ironic because it's the film in which he flirts most openly with the flaws his detractors accuse him of: the dialogue here is relentless and often on esoteric subjects, but Rohmer doesn't let Jean-Louis talk about Pascal at length simply because the director finds Pascal interesting; rather, Jean-Louis' thoughts on Pascal illuminate the ways in which he's torn between sensuality and faith, between chance and the rational, between (as he sees it) Maud and Francoise. Almendros's stark, wintry black-and-white photography is peerless, captured with perfect clairty by the transfer. For all of Rohmer's characteristic detachment, this also strikes me as the most tender of his films, the most emotional: he often sets the camera on one character for long stretches in the middle of a conversation, allowing us to really look at them, to feel the way their seemingly assured talk hides complications and insecurities. The ending, with its transition from winter to summer and its sense of both the fragility and tenaciousness of emotions, is gorgeous; for me, there are few images in Rohmer's films more moving than that of Francoise distractedly digging in the sand, remembering what happened long ago but still lives in her.
Claire's Knee is on a similarly exalted level, although I think I like My Night at Maud's a bit more if only for its combinations of wintriness and warmth, elevated talk and deep fragility. In Claire's Knee, Almendros's photography is summery, evoking the vacation that Jerome has taken from life with his fiancee. Jerome's relationship with his girlfriend is tepid; he says that he's marrying her because they get along and live well together, and that passion isn't necessary to a relationship. His views are challenged when he meets Laura, who is one of Rohmer's most charming female creations: articulate, thoughtful, desperate to project a suavity and detachment beyond her years. Laurence de Monaghan's Claire is a more typical Six Moral Tales female: alluring, seemingly simple and guileless, always just out of reach of her pursuer.
Love in the Afternoon was translated as Chloe in the Afternoon for its original American release; maybe Love in the Afternoon sounded too much like a skin flick? Anyway, Chloe in the Afternoon seems like a more evocative title, but Criterion has chosen to go the literal route. The film seems like a step down from the heights of My Night at Maud's and Claire's Knee. The premise flirts with cliché (married businessman has to choose between a life of stability and an unpredictable freedom), and Zouzou's Chloe is never quite convincing as a wild child: she seems more like a typically bright and analytical Rohmer character who happens to do impulsive things when she's not on camera. Still, Rohmer's feel for settings is just as strong as ever: Paris exists here both as a vibrant city and as a vehicle for our understanding of Frederic's character.
All four of the feature films look fantastic, and all are, of course, given a full-frame presentation that preserves their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The copious extras can be divided into two basic categories: short films by Rohmer and interviews with Rohmer as well as his cast and crew (if you're interested in which extras are on which disc, see the Scales of Justice to the right).
Short films by Rohmer:
Presentation, or Charlotte and Her Steak: This is one of Rohmer's first films, made in 1951 with a very young Jean-Luc Godard in the lead role, but not released until the early 1960s at the height of the nouvelle vague.The scenario is already typical Rohmer: Godard attempts to make his girlfriend jealous by introducing her to another girl, while she tries to keep him at arm's length, nonchalantly cooking a steak. The dialogue, however, is a little precious in its cutesy paradoxes and reversals: "I wish I were dead so you'd think of me," for example.
Veronique and Her Dunce (1958, 18 minutes): This terrific early short is one of Rohmer's most overly funny and charming films: Nicole Berger (Shoot the Piano Player) plays a young girl who tries to serve as a tutor to a mischievous young boy. It's a warm and sly little essay on the nature of teaching, with lots of perfectly chosen details (Berger slips her uncomfortable shoes on and off under the table, showing a fidgetiness that unites her with her student).
Nadja in Paris (1964, 14 minutes): Nestor Almendros shot this Paris travelogue, in which an American exchange student wanders through Paris neighborhoods and shares her impressions.
"On Pascal," (1965, 22 minutes): Rohmer directed this piece about the philospher for a French TV show. What could have been a simple talking-heads documentary becomes a Rohmer conversation piece with some surprising complexities: priest Dominique Dusarle admires Pascal as a rationalist and scientist, while philosopher Brice Parain prefers Pascal's austere Catholicism.
A Modern Coed (1966, 14 minutes): This is an "educational" film in which a narrator tells us about trends in female college attendance: more women are going to school these days, they're not just trying to land husbands, and so on. Nestor Almendros shot this one, too, and there are a couple of unexpectedly striking images, such as the final sequence, featuring a woman and her baby.
The Curve (1999, 16 minutes): This is a video, starring its director and writer, Edwige Shakti. Rohmer, as he says in his interview with Barbet Schroeder (discussed below), came up with the basic scenario for this film and gets a credit for "decoupage." Shakti plays a young woman whose boyfriend is an art lover, and who tends to compare her to women in classic paintings. Their conversation is a wry psychological joust on the nature of love, very much like classic Rohmer. The video cinematography, though, is not very attractive and the camera style is more conventional than in Rohmer's own films.
Le Journal du Cinema (1970, 8 minutes): Rohmer doesn't appear in this discussion of Claire's Knee ("He refuses to be filmed; he's quite unsociable," says the host), but Jean-Claude Brialy, Beatrice Romand, and Laurence de Monaghan discuss the man and his methods. The highlight is Romand and de Monaghan's genial disagreement about their mentor's true character.
Telecinema (1974, 13 minutes): Jean-Louis Trintignant, critic Jean Douchet, and producer Pierre Cottrell talk about Rohmer and My Night at Maud's. Trintignant says that he had to be persuaded over the course of several years to play the part; he originally turned it down, he says, because he didn't think he understood the character's Catholicism.
Parlons Cinema (1977, 50 minutes): At last we have Rohmer himself, in a feisty and voluble mood, often talking over the show's hosts. Among other things, he discusses at length the production history of the Six Moral Tales, his view of his movies as "filmed conversations," and the contributions of his actors to the dialogue of La Collectionneuse.
Moral Tales, Filmic Issues (2006, 84 minutes): The is the motherlode of Rohmer-iana, a long conversation between the now 86-year-old Rohmer (who is still working, of course) and his producer Barbet Schroeder. Rohmer is expansive, discussing the history of the Moral Tales, his analysis of the films, his preference for the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, his camera style, and his way of working with actors.
Video Afterword by Neil LaBute (2006, 11 minutes): For some reason LaBute has become a favorite commentator for Criterion; he doesn't anything all that new or interesting to say about Rohmer, and spends most of the piece talking about Rohmer's influence on his own work.
The discs come in slim, attractive book-like cases, which are housed in a cardboard box. The set also comes with two books. "On the Six Moral Tales" is a 56-page booklet with essays on the films by Ginette Vincendeau (who writes about The Bakery Girl of Monceau and Suzanne's Career), Kent Jones (My Night at Maud's), Phillip Lopate (La Collectionneuse), Molly Haskell (Claire's Knee), and Armond White (Love in the Afternoon). It also contains Nestor Almendros's reflections on shooting La Collectionneuse and Rohmer's 1948 manifesto, "For a Talking Cinema."
The other book, Six Moral Tales, was published by Rohmer in 1974 and contains short-story versions of all six tales. These are short stories, not screenplays, but the events and dialogue are almost exactly the same as in the films (Rohmer originally wrote the stories in the 1950s, then revised the literary versions after he made the films). The book is an interesting lesson for anyone who considers Rohmer's work "uncinematic." For me, the stories seem a bit flat, highlighting the specifically cinematic virtues of the films: the effect of a lingering camera, a gesture, a precisely captured location.
This is an attractive set with excellent transfers, and generous, intelligent, and impeccably chosen extras, featuring six important films by a major filmmaker. What else is there to say? It's good stuff.
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Scales of Justice, The Bakery Girl Of Monceau
Perp Profile, The Bakery Girl Of Monceau
Distinguishing Marks, The Bakery Girl Of Monceau
• Short Film by Rohmer: Presentation, or Charlotte and Her Steak
Scales of Justice, Suzanne's Career
Perp Profile, Suzanne's Career
Distinguishing Marks, Suzanne's Career
• Short Film by Rohmer: Nadja in Paris
Scales of Justice, La Collectionneuse
Perp Profile, La Collectionneuse
Distinguishing Marks, La Collectionneuse
• Short Film by Rohmer: A Modern Coed
Scales of Justice, My Night At Maud's
Perp Profile, My Night At Maud's
Distinguishing Marks, My Night At Maud's
• A 1974 Episode of the French Television Program Telecinema, Featuring Interviews with Jean-Louis Trintignant, Jean Douchet, and Pierre Cottrell
Scales of Justice, Claire's Knee
Perp Profile, Claire's Knee
Distinguishing Marks, Claire's Knee
• Short film by Rohmer and Edwige Shakti: The Curve
Scales of Justice, Love In The Afternoon
Perp Profile, Love In The Afternoon
Distinguishing Marks, Love In The Afternoon
• Short Film by Rohmer: Veronique and Her Dunce
Review content copyright © 2006 Joe Armenio; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.