Blu-ray Review: Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales | Under The Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Thursday, September 23rd, 2021  

Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales

Studio: The Criterion Collection

Jun 30, 2020 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Eric Rohmer is a titan of French cinema and, until very recently, a total blind spot in my film education. Outside of name recognition (“oh yeah, I’ve heard of him”), I had no clear understanding or expectation of what his films would be a) about or b) like.

His Six Moral Tales series seemed like the perfect place to start: a crash course in a filmmaker’s oeuvre. And while his work thereafter may differ, diving into the Criterion Collection’s box set (recently re-released on Blu-Ray) was a grand opportunity.

These movies (The Bakery Girl of Monceau; Suzanne’s Career; My Night at Maud’s; La Collectionneuse; Claire’s Knee; Love in the Afternoon) are not, as perhaps the collection’s title may suggest, fables with a clean-cut moral or message. As film critic Kent Jones points out in his accompanying essay on My Night at Maud’s, these films are more concerned with the exploration of a particular dilemma or decision that has moral implications for the protagonist at its center.

Each entry, while neither narratively connected nor sharing characters (with perhaps one notable exception), follows a familiar formula. We’re introduced to a male character who encounters a woman and enters a push-pull battle with the concept of desire. In all but one of the films (Claire’s Knee) the man’s interiority is explored through narration. It’s not a crutch so much as it serves the purpose of hearing their every thought. We get to know these individuals and their perspectives – warts and all – intimately.

The best of the bunch – in the least controversial take imaginable – is 1969’s My Night at Maud’s. Rohmer apparently pushed back filming – instead putting the fourth chapter, La Collectionneuse, into production first – so he could cast Jean-Louis Trintignant (shoutout to The Great Silence among many others) as the introspective Catholic engineer who spends a night with a divorcee named Maud (Francoise Fabian) discussing religion, philosophy, and moral imperatives. He winds up at Maud’s apartment in accompaniment of his friend Vidal. But when Vidal leaves, and he stays, there is a hint that Jean-Louis may betray his moral compass despite his stance that purity (of mind and body) is of the utmost importance. Besides, he’s already decided who his ideal target for a partner truly is: a blonde woman he’s only seen in church.

The Bakery Girl of Monceau (1963) feels like a bit of a dry run with fewer complexities boiled down to the bare minimum and scraped of the existential and philosophical bent. A man falls for a woman based on sight alone who walks a similar route every day and he decides to pursue her. She acquiesces but then disappears for a time. Without giving up hope, the man walks her route daily in hopes that she reappears, stopping into a bakery for some pastries each time. There he encounters another young woman with whom he develops a bond. But, should he give up on the ideal his mind has created for him to pursue the young woman in the bakery or continue waiting for something that may never materialize? Jean-Louis’ dilemma is similar in that there is a definitive connection between him and Maud, but he’s idealized another woman, Francoise we find out, and – whether he wishes to or not – looks down upon Maud despite he himself having had various affairs in his past. He’s simultaneously judgmental while also intrigued and beguiled by Maud.

The common thread between all six men at the heart of these films is a collective inability to escape their own heads. They’re each selfish and self-involved, and none are given a free pass in the telling of their stories. At the same time, they’re not exactly taken to task for their more destructive tendencies. Adrien (Patrick Bachau) in La Collectionneuse and Jerome (Jean-Claude Brialy) in Claire’s Knee are perhaps the least redeemable based on their behavior. Adrien for his targeted meanness and self-aggrandizement toward the bohemian Haydee (Haydee Politoff), and Jerome for his pursuit of 16-year-olds Laura (Beatrice Romand) and Claire (Laurence de Monaghan). Adrien is on vacation and proclaims he wants nothing more than to be left alone to do absolutely nothing, which Haydee threatens with her mere presence. There is a connection, but he constantly pours cold water on it and when he tries to stoke the flame it comes suddenly and she rejects him, causing him to pout. In the end, he gets what he wants, but was it worth it?

Jerome, meanwhile, is a troubling character. Where Adrien is outwardly hostile, Jerome is a pleasant and affable sort. He’s also the one who doesn’t narrate his own tale, so we’re left with a surface-level individual. Through conversations with his author friend Aurora (Aurora Cornu) he learns young Laura is smitten with him and for the sake of Aurora’s next novel decides to see how far that can be pushed. Taken at face value, this is a cruel experiment. Looked at side by side with his sudden infatuation with Claire (and her knee, of course) when she appears, his true impulses are more apparent. Jerome uses his impending marriage as a shield at times – an excuse for not acting further. It’s a deeply uncomfortable movie with a playful tone about it, which underlines another one of the series’ greatest themes: Men are dangerous.

Claire’s Knee could easily be dismissed as an overwhelming example of male-gaze cinema, but that would miss the point. All six of these movies are purposely exploring the male gaze and its inherent problems. Male desire is depicted as selfish whether the man at the heart of the story is decent, a scoundrel, or otherwise. None of the protagonists go so far as to commit rape, but each crosses a line to various degrees.

In Love in the Afternoon – another high point in the set - Frederic (Bernard Verley) explains how, despite being married with a child, he’s attracted to literally every woman he sees. He often fantasizes about what his life may have looked like had he met a random stranger he sees on a train instead of his wife, Helene (Francoise Verley, the actor’s real-life partner). It also includes a dynamite dream sequence at the end of the prologue where he encounters a number of women – each played by an actor from the other moral tales – with whom he flirts and seduces until the last one rejects him. For Frederic, breaking his marital vows never goes beyond his flights of fancy. That is, until Chloe (Zouzou) shows up. Frederic and Chloe – a former partner of a friend of his – become close as she navigates the service industry and tries to find greater independence. Their friendship is constantly teetering on the edge of infidelity. Outwardly, Chloe doesn’t care and even expresses a desire to be Frederic’s mistress. Love in the Afternoon, in spite of its dream sequence from earlier, is perhaps the most straightforward in its depiction of a moral dilemma. Frederic is married, presumably loves his wife, and yet is tempted to break his vows to sleep with Chloe, who in lesser hands would have come off as what’s been coined as the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” in recent years. She’s a troubled and complex person, and may simply be giving Frederic an out from feeling responsibility. Without spoiling, Frederic makes his decision in the film’s final moments, which winds up being the most emotional and heart-wrenching sequences because it’s one of the few times where the narrative is no longer at arm’s length. Watching the series in order, it almost feels like it’s been building to this as a breaking point – and, perhaps based on the dream sequence, it could be argued that the prior moral dilemmas were merely examples of Frederic’s daydreams.

All six films cover familiar ground in different circumstances and settings with each central figure sharing personal elements while also being different enough to see the shades of personality within. More than anything, Rohmer seems occupied with the grey area of morality and the decisions made when faced in scenarios dealing with desire.

The Criterion set is an outstanding collection. It includes essays on each film and a bounty of extra features from several Rohmer shorts. There is a novelization of all six tales with a preface written by Rohmer himself. As for other bonuses, there is a documentary called On Pascal dealing with philosopher Blaise Pascal who is a central figure in the debates at the heart of My Night at Maud’s. Additionally, there are archival interviews with Rohmer and his actors.

The movies are a must for anyone expanding their horizons as a cinephile, especially if Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard are your sole representations of French cinema. Rohmer is much less bombastic than Godard, and more patient and soaked in everyday realism than Truffaut. His approach to these films, acting as a fly on the wall provides an opportunity to look at the subjects from an almost dispassionate angle. We may like or dislike his protagonists from word one, but the reluctance to condemn or celebrate them opens up the dialog for the viewer to come to their own conclusions on the matter. Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales aren’t meant to be watched and stuffed away. He’s inviting analysis and discussion, and it’s a joy to have finally experienced them.



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