There is a general consensus between serious cinema buffs that the films of French director Eric Rohmer demand as much from those who see them as they actually give back. Layers of suggestive narrative, intentionally slow pacing, complex characters, heavy emphasis on human relationships-this is the creative world of Eric Rohmer, both elegant and exigent.
Eric Rohmer's Six Moral Tales, a lavish set produced by Criterion containing six films created from 1962 to 1972, represent the core of the French director's character-work.
La boulangère de Monceau a.k.a The Bakery Girl of Monceau (1962).
A young law student (Barbet Schroeder) is desperate for the attention of a girl (Michèle Giradon) who barely even knows him. Each day the man would go to a small bakery where not too long ago he encountered Sylvie. As days turn into weeks however and Sylvie is nowhere to be seen the young man becomes interested in the brunette who works behind the counter. Jacqueline (Claudine Soubrier) responds to the man's initiations and the two decide to go out on a date. Unexpectedly Sylvie appears…
Shot in glorious B&W The Bakery Girl of Moceau is a brilliant exploration of one man's struggle to rationalize desire-led by his emotions Barbet Schroeder's character must decide what is morally right when surprisingly fate provides him with more than what he could handle. But when his ego becomes the driving force behind what he interprets as right and wrong the man makes a strange decision.
Narrated by French director Bertrand Tavernier The Bakery Girl of Monceau feels very much like a documentary feature complimented by an uncharacteristically elegant camera work. The sense of realism which will become a marquee element for Eric Rohmer's work is prevalent throughout the film.
Presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 the print for this film provided by Criterion looks exceptionally good. Contrast is excellent, there is some healthy dose of film-grain, and it clearly shows that plenty of restoration work has been done. This being said, occasionally there are some minor dots and specs here and there which I assume are part of the actual film negative and were not susceptible to digital manipulation/removal. The print also shows some minor wear (tiny black lines split the image here and there). Overall, however, this presentation is leaps and bounds ahead of some other well-known early R1 prints.
Presented with its original French mono track and optional white English subtitles the audio is as impressive as the video treatment. Very easy to follow dialog and excellent English translation is what we get here. There is hardly anything to complain about.
Moral Tales, Filmic Issues: A conversation between Eric Rohmer and Barbet Schroeder which was specifically recorded for the Criterion Collection in April of 2006. The two discuss the history of the film, how the French critics did not receive it well in the beginning, the genre the film became associated with (noveau roman), its literally foundation. Next, Rohmer's short film Presentation, or Charlotte and Her Steak (1951). An interesting little film which very much follows the same thematic direction as the one utilized in The Bakery Girl of Monceau.
La carrière de Suzanne a.k.a Suzanne's Career (1963).
Friendship, jealously, naiveté, and romance are the main themes in Eric Rhomer's second moral tale: Suzanne's Career. Two young friends Bertrand (Philippe Beuzen) and Guillaume (Christian Charriere) embark on a pleasurable journey seeking the love of the beautiful Suzanne (Catherine Sée). Playing with the feelings of both Guillaume and Bertrand however the young woman turns the two friends against each other. The dominating Guillaume is soon faced with a disappointing reality-he is losing to the shy and visibly reserved Bertrand who has captured Suzanne's attention. Yet, when everything seems to be going Bertrand's way he makes a silly move which will cost him dearly.
An interesting take on the notion of winners vs. losers Suzanne's Career is the only film in Eric Rohmer's Six Moral Tales where the main protagonist who appears to have "won" the object of his desire realizes how much he has actually lost. The irony at the end of this film is so overpowering-it provides the story with a much needed reevaluation which truthfully imitates real life.
The plot, once again concerning a beautiful woman, involves a classic trio of characters who all lose something while attempting to win what they believe is precious-love, friendship, trust. Similar to The Bakery Girl of Monceau narration is once again a factor here as it is the film's running time- 55 minutes. Shot in B&W Eric Rohmer's camera is as absorbing as it was in his first moral-installment thus providing Suzanne's Career with a light documentary feel.
Presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 the print for this film is as expected in very good condition. There are some occasional marks and dots but overall this is a substantially better presentation of the film (than what I expected to see). The French audio, a pleasurable mono mix, is clear, easy to follow and of very good quality. Criterion also provide optional English subtitles.
The only piece of supplemental material provided on this disc is Eric Rhomer's Nadja in Paris (1964), an early 13 min. film shot in B&W that shows the beautiful streets of Paris.
Ma nuit chez Maud a.k.a My Night at Maud's (1969).
Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is a passionate Catholic who is in love with Françoise (Marie-Christine Barrault) and plans to marry her. When old schoolmate Vidal (Antoine Vitez) however introduces Jean-Louis to Maud (Francoise Fabian) something unexpected happens- Jean-Louis ends up spending the night with Maud.
Nominated for Oscar (Best Foreign Language Film) in 1970 My Night at Maud's is arguably Eric Rhomer's finest film about character transformation. Within the span of a single night Jean-Louis must remain true to the moral credo according to which he lives his life. But when his religious beliefs face a temptation he can not resist something deep inside him snaps.
With a marvelous script and dialog(s) that beg to be seen and heard over and over again Eric Rhomer's My Night at Maud's became an enormous hit in the United States upon its release in the early 70s- ever since the picture has been a subject of endless debates pertaining to Jean-Louis character transformation (or lack there of according to some), the controversy surrounding God's existence (the notion that it is better to accept God's existence than to simply deny it), and the ironic theme about the man who always fails to express his feelings in a rational manner.
Finally, even though My Night at Maud's is considered to be Eric Rhomer's masterpiece this film will undoubtedly challenge the stoic power of those who have never been exposed to the French director's other works. Slow, dialog-driven, and utterly complex film My Night at Maud's should probably be seen with some previous Rhomer-esque experience in hand.
Presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 the film looks gorgeous. Excellent B&W contrast (deep blacks and convincing whites), progressive image, and an overall print quality that surpasses ALL other previous releases of this film I have seen transform this Criterion disc into a "collector's item". The clarity of the image, as Rohmer intended it, is astonishing. Indeed, there is very little, if anything, here that one could be unhappy with. In addition, the audio is just as flawless as the video presentation-once again the French mono track is crystal clear, suggesting great restoration work, and dialog is very easy to follow. Criterion also provide exceptionally well-done English, optional, subtitles.
There are two bits of supplemental material on this disc-"On Pascal" (1965) directed by Eric Rhomer fragment from the educational TV series En profil dans le texte and a 1974 episode of the French television program Telecinema with guests Jean-Louis Trintignant, film critic Jean Douchet, and producer Pierre Cottrell in which the trio discusses the film and its merits. Lastly, there is the original theatrical trailer for My Night at Maud's.
La Collectionneuse (1967)
Eric Rhomer's first color film La Collectionneuse is also arguably his least successful installment in the Moral Tales series. The plot evolves around the young and promiscuous Haydee (Haydee Politoff) and her two male acquaintances Adrien (Patrick Bauchau) and Daniel (Daniel Pommereulle) enjoying each other's company within the confines of a luxurious seventeenth century villa on the French Riviera. The two older men engage in a never-ending intellectual discussion about Haydee's platonic involvement with other men and the idea of "collecting boyfriends" as a form of entertainment. In the process of dismissing Haydee's unmoral behavior the two men are drawn in an inquisitive game of self-denial.
Eric Rhomer's first feature-length film in the Six Moral Tales as suggested-above is also his most questionable one. Elegant and pleasing to the eye (Nestor Almendros's cinematography is stunning) La Collectionneuse is a predictable tale about what could bluntly be described as the "moral imperfections of the two sexes". The story juggles between being critical of French upper class (here Haydee and her sexual exploits are obviously symbolic) and tackling the mostly clichéd differences between the two sexes. In addition, the emphasis which Eric Rhomer places on the notorious antique Chinese vase meant to symbolize the brittleness of human spirit eventually ends up being one of La Collectionneuse's most pretentious scenes.
With a heavy voiceover and long, protracted dialogs La Collectionneuse is also quite predictable in terms of character development-the area where the rest of the Moral Tales excel. Finally the build-up to the "confrontation" between Haydee, Adrien and Daniel climaxes long before expected (Haydee and her "immorality" are prematurely dismissed by the two men although they seem to be treating the young woman the same way she treats her lovers). Was it intentional, I am unsure! If it was then it certainly did not work for me!!
Presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 the film looks as impressive as the rest of the DVDs in this lovely set. Colors are truthfully recreated, contrast is at the preferred by Rohmer slightly soft level, and the print certainly reveals a meticulous restoration work. More importantly the fact that this film (all of the films in the boxset, to be precise) has been progressively mastered will provide owners of high-end set ups with a whole new cinematic experience-a treatment the Rohmer films have been lacking in R1. To sum it all up this is one beautifully looking image. Audio quality, as it is the case with the earlier installments in this set, is of the usual high-quality. Criterion have provided the original (restored) French mono track with excellent English subtitles.
In addition to the theatrical trailer what you will find here is Rohmer's short film A Modern Coed (1966) which follows the professional and personal life of a French female student. Next, there is a short interview taken from the 1977 episode of TVOntario's program Parlons Cinema where the French director speaks about his film and the themes explored in it.
Le Genou de Claire a.k.a Claire's Knee (1970)
The fifth installment in the Moral Tales collection is also my favorite Rohmer film. Claire's Knee follows the story of Jerome Montcharvin (Jean-Claude Brialy), a notable diplomat, who is visiting an old friend of his in a beautiful villa somewhere in the French Alps. Jerome and Aurora (Aurora Cornu) are visibly excited to be together, recalling past romantic sparks, even though these days there is very little between the two friends (Jerome is engaged to another woman). As time goes by Jerome becomes fascinated by sixteen-year old Laura (Beatrice Romand), also residing in the villa, and consequently her step-sister Claire (Laurence de Monaghan).
Through intellectual conversations and suggestive behavior Jerome quickly manages to impress Laura and the girl responds to his interest. Yet, what Jerome truly desires is the attention of the beautiful blondie Claire. But as the girl remains indifferent to his initiations Jerome wrongfully concludes that Claire is playing a sophisticated game meant to test his seductive skills.
Sexual innuendo, deceit, moral-justification, and delusion are some of the key theme-ingredients in Claire's Knee. Through the use of superbly-scripted dialogs (each line here is carefully thought of) where the main protagonists reveal their feelings and intentions Calire's Knee offers everything that made Eric Rhomer a legend. Furthermore, the layers upon layers of suggestive material grant the film with the rare opportunity to immerse its audience into a sea of endless speculations about the main characters and their actions-the duality of Jerome's character, the role of Aurora as the older woman motivating Jerome's actions towards the young girls, Jerome's true intentions for Laura, the possible romantic scenarios involving both Laura and Claire, etc.
The film is presented with a sparkling new transfer that puts to shame all previous R1 releases of Claire's Knee. With the original aspect ratio of 1.33 the image quality is simply stunning-excellent color reproduction, impressive clarity and contrast, clean and progressive print! I could not wait to see this film blown through a digital projector and difference between the original R1 release and this new Criterion disc is simply mind-boggling. You have to see how stable the picture remains to fully appreciate the work Criterion have put into this set. Marvelous!! Audio quality is at the expected extremely-high level: crystal clear dialog, very easy to follow speech, and immaculately done English translation (the subtitles as always are optional).
On this disc you will find Eric Rhomer's short film The Curve (1999), collaboration between Edwige Shakti and the French director, the original theatrical trailer, and an excerpt from the French television program Le Journal du Cinema, featuring interviews with actors Jean-Claude Brialy, Beatrice Romand, and Laurence de Monaghan (the segment originally aired in December of 1907). Much of the discussions here pertain to the main protagonists, their interaction, the script, and the Rohmer's approach to the story (camera work, dialog, etc).
L'amour, l'aprés-midi a.k.a Chloe in the Afternoon (1972)
The last film in Eric Rhomer's Six Moral Tales is the much admired Chloe in the Afternoon (also known as Love in the Afternoon). The story concerns the happily married lawyer Frederic (Bernard Verley) who encounters the beautiful and intelligent Chloe (Zouzou). As the two become involved in what at first appears to be a benevolent affair Frederic surprisingly becomes upset at Chloe's unexpected vacation in Greece with another man. Upon returning to Paris Chloe attempts to justify her actions (and stress her innocence) by placing herself before Frederic's wife Helene (Francois Verley).
An interesting take on infidelity as a "necessary evil" in the life of modern couples Chloe in the Afternoon is a film that further proves Eric Rhomer's fascination with women. In fact, even though it is Frederic that binds all of the scattered pieces in this film actually it is the presence of women (Frederic's affair with Chloe, Frederic's fantasizing about a magical amulet that could seduce the women of Paris, etc) that drives the story.
The synopsis for this film may not sound that original and fascinating and frankly I tend to agree there isn't much here that would keep your attention aroused. What does make Chloe in the Afternoon a fascinating piece of cinema is what the rest of Eric Rhomer's Moral Tales reveal: great characters. In fact, as far as I am concerned there is very little between Chloe and Frederic that kept me intrigued: a married man encounters a woman who is daring, beautiful, and seductive. He is interested, she…maybe! What ensues isn't mind-boggling at all.
The social baggage however that each of the two protagonists brings into the inevitable relationship however is: we learn that Chloe is a very insecure person relying on her looks to be successful; Frederic is tormented by a moral dilemma which is slowly fading away; we are intrigued by Frederic's attempts to justify love outside marriage, his take on infidelity-acceptable or not in the larger scheme of things; etc.
Different people will most certainly find different aspects from Eric Rhomer's films fascinating. I suppose that is one of the French director's greatest strengths- spurring a multitude of feelings and reactions, some positive, some not so, long after the film has ended. What I find fascinating is Eric Rhomer's ability to quietly observe his characters when they are most vulnerable-loving, playing, pretending.
Criterion's final disc in the Eric Rhomer collection is as expected on par with the rest in this boxset. Presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 the print provided is stunning: excellent color gradation, very good contrast, a lack of damage (specs/scratches). Quite frankly there is a sea of difference between this disc and the one released by Fox Lorber. That is all that I have to say!! Audio is again of excellent quality-very easy to follow dialog and absolutely no issues with the French mono mix whatsoever. Excellent (optional) English subtitles have been provided as well.
In addition to the original theatrical trailer what you will find here is the short Rhomer film Veronique and Her Dunce (1958) about a private teacher and a smarter-than-usual boy with some very interesting questions. Next, there is the "Afterword with writer Neil Labute" which was shot specifically for the Criterion collection in 2006 in which he talks about Rhomer's vision, creativity, approach to the characters of his films, etc.
Boxset Supplemental Materials:
In addition to the six DVDs in this lavish boxset Criterion have also provided the actual book with the six moral stories and second smaller book with essays by Eric Rohmer, Nestor Almendros, Molly Haskell, Geoff Andrew, Ginette Vincendeau, Kent Jones and Armond White.
One more of these lavish Criterion sets and I will never be able to catch up with my writing schedule at DVDTALK. I completely lost myself in this beautiful collection!!
It took me almost 3 ½ weeks to go through each disc with the extras and read the two books provided here (this is the first time I've looked at the actual stories the films used as an inspiration). Quite frankly this has got to be this year's most impressive DVD release by a North American company. A must-have!! DVDTALK Collector Series.