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Eric Rohmer is the kind of French filmmaker feared by mainstream America. His pictures have a lot of subtitled speech and tend to be about the inner states of men who consider themselves intellectuals. Complainers object that "nothing happens" in his movies, and there is even a joke in Arthur Penn's Night Moves that watching a Rohmer picture is like watching paint dry. When led to expect boredom and/or intimidating intellectual discussions -- in French -- only hardcore cinema fans give Eric Rohmer a try.
That's a shame, as Rohmer's films are more accessible now than ever. It's true that they don't deliver action climaxes or resolve their issues in neat ribbons. But these six films from 1962 to 1972, dubbed "Moral Tales", offer a fascinating point of view regarding human relationships. Faced with desire, temptation and diverging philosophies of life, almost all of Rohmer's male heroes fall victim to what he proposes is a common trait: Self-deception.
Criterion's massive box set includes fine extras, an interesting selection of other Rohmer short subjects and a printed collection of his Moral Tales in short story form.
The Bakery Girl of Monceau
1962 / 23 min. / La boulangère de Monceau
Starring Barbet Schroeder, Claudine Soubrier, Michèle Girardon
Cinematography Bruno Barbey, Jean-Michel Meurice
Produced by G. Derocles, Barbet Schroeder
Scarcely longer than a short subject, The Bakery Girl of Monceau expresses a fundamental situation common to most of Rohmer's six films. His male hero, played by producer Barbet Schroeder, is a thoughtful student in search of a girlfriend. He follows the beautiful Sylvie (Michèle Giradon), whom he sees frequently on the street. He misses his chance to ask Sylvie out, although they do exchange pleasant words. Expecting to run into Sylvie as easily as before, the young man haunts the neighborhood, buying cookies at a small bakery from an interesting dark-haired girl, Jacqueline (Claudine Soubrier). As days pass and Sylvie doesn't appear, the young man slowly begins a flirtation with Jacqueline, and then asks her out, assuming he'll never see his dream girl Sylvie again.
Bertrand Tavernier narrates this B&W film, expressing the young man's thoughts. Neither thoughtless nor a cad, the young man is definitely selfish in his desires, as indicated by his daily purchases of sweets. He expresses a somewhat elitist contempt for the bakery girl, who is available when the object of his dreams has disappeared. Then he finally lets down his defenses to admit he's attracted to her, and shows enough charm to ask her out.(spoiler)
Then suddenly, the dream girl Sylvie is available again. The young man thoughtlessly abandons Jacqueline without giving her the courtesy of a personal farewell. He tells himself that he's being 'morally honest.' End of tale.
The Bakery Girl of Monceau shows the essential treachery in even the most simple affair of the heart. The young man is a decent guy with a high opinion of himself and a desire to do the right thing, but interprets the right thing as rationalizing his own selfishness. In contrast, Jacqueline is careful but friendly, open and honest. Sylvie is intelligent and apparently flattered; we wonder what kind of couple they'll make, as they're really strangers.
The Bakery Girl of Monceau is accompanied by a clever little short Rohmer subject from 1951 (!) that is entirely consistent with his later Moral Tales. It's called Presentation, or Charlotte and her Steak and it is simply a scene involving a young man who accompanies his friend Charlotte to her home in the snow, where they have a contentious discussion. It really plays like something from the 1960s. (full list of extras below)
1963 / 55 min. / La carrière de Suzanne
Starring Catherine Sée, Philippe Beuzen, Christian Charrière
Cinematography Daniel Lacambre
Rohmer's immediate follow-up is this more complicated tale that probes the dynamic of a friendship between two young men and an attractive young woman. Guillaume and Bertrand (Christian Charrière and Philippe Beuzen) are buddies, with Guillaume being the more dominant. He's outgoing, pushy and more than a bit manipulative. The quiet and inoffensive Bertrand shrinks from Guillaume's suggestion that they work as a team to seduce young women, but is attracted by Guillaume's audaciousness - if it weren't for his friend, Bertrand might not have any interaction with women at all. Guillaume makes a conquest of Suzanne (Catherine Sée), who also befriends Bertrand. Bertrand is a witness to Guillaume's purposeful cruelties and deceptions toward Suzanne, who Guillaume thinks is an fool good only for a fun time. Suzanne confides her honest feelings to Bertand, who doesn't let on that his friend is an outright cad.
Bertrand mistakenly thinks he can remain the innocent bystander and yet benefit from Guillaume's deceit. They both end up partying on Suzanne's money. Bertrand is the passive partner in Guillaume's attempts to humiliate her.
The twist comes when someone steals Bertrand's money from home. He allows himself to believe it is Suzanne, when common sense and knowledge of character points the suspicion elsewhere. In an ironic finish, Bertrand finds himself without friends, or his money, and failing in his classes. He was having a good time feeling superior to "poor Suzanne," but as it turns out, the honest Suzanne is the only winner in the triangle of false friends.
Suzanne's Career is again filmed on the streets of Paris and documents the lives of students in the early 1960s. It's perhaps the only moral tale in which the 'hero' realizes what a fool he's been, and how he's deceived only himself by cheating at games of the heart. Although Bertrand is defeated, he may have what several of Rohmer's other males don't -- the ability to see his error and change his ways.
Rohmer's short subject this time out is Najda in Paris, a writing collaboration with Nadja Tesich, which appears to be the director's first collaboration with the phenomenal cameraman Néstor Almendros. Again we enjoy more beautiful camerawork in Rohmer's Paris.
My Night at Maud's
1969 / 111 min. / Ma nuit chez Maud
Starring Jean-Louis Trintignant, Françoise Fabian, Marie-Christine Barrault, Antoine Videz
Cinematography Néstor Almendros
Production Design Nicole Rachline
Film Editor Célcile Decugis
Produced by Pierre Cottrell, Barbet Schroeder
Series continuity slips out of synch with My Night at Maud's, Rohmer's most famous title. It was filmed after La Collectionneuse but was always meant to precede it, so it takes the number 3 slot in the six Moral Tales. A big college film in 1969, My Night at Maud's recreates the perfect college seduction situation: A cold night spent discussing philosophy in a small apartment. Two relative strangers are left alone. One of them suggests that they stay the night together, platonically, of course. Anything can happen.
My Night at Maud's offers hope to college students deluded that their late night, substance-fueled philosophical discussions have merit. Eric Rohmer brings explicit pro-Catholic philosophy into the mix through a discussion of "Pascal's Wager": Even if the probability of the existence of God is tiny, it still makes sense to have faith because the alternative offers no hope at all. Even in subtitles, the three-way discussion in Maud's rooms is profound and affecting. The film supports Jean-Louis' determination to stick to his code of Churchly conduct, even when Maud's no-fault offer of open love is set before him. Temptation is an interior problem of conscience.
This Moral Tale differs from the earlier entries (skipping La Collectionneuse for the moment) on several counts. It's in 35mm B&W, which allows Rohmer's new cameraman Néstor Almendros to add new levels of sensitivity to the snowy city and country vistas. The more precise and varied interior shooting relies on fewer close-ups and creates a better feeling of 'being there', especially in Maud's inviting apartment with its fur-covered bed. Finally, Rohmer's dialogue is incredibly natural. We can feel the clock sliding into the wee hours of the morning, with Maud warmly conniving to keep Jean-Louis from leaving.
That's actually only part of the story. Jean-Louis successfully connects with his Church girl Françoise (Marie-Christine Barrault) and initiates the beginning of his wedded life. In a pointed contrast to his experience with Maud, Jean-Louis returns to Françoise's room for a forgotten article and earns a forbidding look from his hostess. The ending five years later has a muted surprise. Jean-Louis is set to 'confess' his technically innocent night with Maud, but Françoise beats him to the punch. He chose the Catholic way, which seems to come with a guarantee of guilt for all parties.
My Night at Maud's may be the most satisfying of the six Moral Tales, as the decent Jean-Louis makes certain that his personal self-deceptions, even if only theoretical, don't tread on the hearts of those around him. For all his caring concern, Vidal is an alcoholic and a liar and forfeits the full respect of his friends. Maud is a true free spirit and for all we can see means no harm. Some critics of My Night at Maud's conclude that because Jean-Louis does not accept Maud's invitation to adventurous romance, he is a dullard. To tell the truth, one charming night with Maud is not enough to go by. She has already lost one husband, and she tells Jean-Louis that she's sought but not found a lasting partnership. Jean-Louis may not be perfect but he's nurtured a happy life for himself.
The extra here is a 1965 TV show by Rohmer about Pascal (the consistency of Rohmer's themes is amazing), featuring a lively debate with a learned Church scholar.
1967 / 87 min.
Starring Patrick Bachau, Haydée Politoff, Daniel Pommereulle, Mijanout Bardot, Eugène Archer
Cinematography Néstor Almendros
Film Editor Jacquie Raynal
Written by Patrick Bachau, Haydée Politoff, Daniel Pommereulle and Eric Rohmer
Produced by Georges de Beauregard, Barbet Schroeder
La Collectionneuse is Rohmer's nod to the unconventional and unstructured non-relationships of the wealthy class, privileged young people who either don't have to work or don't have to work very hard. A conceptual artist and his art-dealer friend spend a summer at a seaside villa in the company of a comely drifter that they immediately peg as a liability. Perhaps an extension of the male malice represented in Suzanne's Career, La Collectionneuse shows two egotistical males at their most abusive.
This is by far the most ugly of the six tales, as the cocksure and preening young men live in a fabricated world dedicated to their self-importance. Daniel soaks up the praise of a writer (Alain Jouffroy) for his pitiful artworks, fully aware that the man is making a play for him. Adrien offers an elaborate but hollow defense for his lifestyle of 'working without working' while playing the bully at every opportunity. Yet the bluff-calling directness of the promiscuous but honest Haydée defeats them every time.
Rohmer bookends the film with Adrien's relationship to his girlfriend Carole, a model (Mijanou Bardot, sister to Brigitte). He resists being manipulated by Carole and prefers to go alone to the south of France where he can presumably 'be his own man.' When his petty plans fail to work out, his resolve lasts about five minutes before he's booking a flight to be with Carole again. So much for Adrien's strength of character.
Many critics see Haydée as a 1960's version of the lead character in Bonjour Tristesse, a spoiled Parisian girl with a father complex who explores her sexuality on summer vacation. Haydée is both every parent's fear and a mystery, a vagabond teen who would seem a cultural fantasy if there weren't so many footloose wanderers like her. Haydée is mysterious because we don't know if she's an adventuress looking for experience, as she claims, or a true vagrant. Will Haydée eventually find something permanent, or will she slide into a more sordid lifestyle? The film is only concerned with Adrien and Daniel's lack of interest in her as anything but an object to be possessed and then tossed away. Just as Daniel opts for the escape/denial of an invitation to the Seychelles, Haydée can accept an invitation from scurrilous acquaintances and take off for another country without even pausing to pick up her clothing.
Perhaps the reason La Collectionneuse seems a bit forced is because it alone of the six Tales uses a predictable narrative gimmick. We're introduced to a priceless antique vase, and the experience of every movie we ever saw tells us it is destined to be broken. Haydée is maneuvered into breaking it, something we don't buy, as its owner has decided to place the unstable piece on a wobbly table. The sacred object of the 'big boys' is broken, and all she can do is giggle. After treating Haydée as a disposable object, they expect her to be serious about a piece of ceramic?
The extra short film on La Collectionneuse is A Modern Co-ed, a brief but telling piece about the rise of the female student in France. The docu eventually centers on a woman in the sciences, who while studying also holds together her part of a marriage.
1970 / 106 min. / Le genou de Claire
Starring Jean-Claude Brialy, Aurora Cornu, Béatrice Romand, Laurence de Monaghan
Cinematography Néstor Almendos
Film Editor Cécile Decugis
Produced by Pierre Cottrell
Savant has reviewed this title separately at this URL.
Love in the Afteroon
1972 / 98 min. / Chloe in the Afternoon, L'amour, l'aprés-midi
Starring Bernard Verley, Zouzou, Francoise Verley
Cinematography Néstor Almendros
Production Design Cécile Rachline
Film Editor Cécile Decugis
Produced by Pierre Cottrell, Barbet Schroeder
Rohmer's final Moral Tale is the only one that tackles a problem immediately familiar to filmgoers, Fidelity in marriage. This story of temptation is as basic as The Seven Year Itch, yet it's neither a comedy nor a soap opera. It sticks closely to the fantasy life of a man married three years, a successful professional given to daydreams of women other than his wife. And for once temptation isn't just a male problem. For the film's American release Columbia changed the title to Chloe in the Afternoon, clearly to distinguish it from Billy Wilder's 1957 Gary Cooper/Audrey Hepburn film Love in the Afternoon.
Eric Rohmer's relaxed drama only pretends to be non-committal about Frédéric's moral wavering, and after the five previous films we become nervous wondering if disaster will hit. Frédéric is willing to toss a successful marriage away over boredom and a strong-willed woman who clearly wants to make a claim on him; perhaps it's unfair but we wonder about Chloé's essential honesty. Did she really earn her money tending bar, and did she perhaps shoplift the expensive clothes for Frédéric's baby?
Love in the Afternoon has a casual title, and Rohmer lets down his guard somewhat to indulge some pleasingly nostalgic moments. In an outright fantasy sequence, Frédéric imagines that he has a magic amulet that can bend perfect strangers to his will. In a series of blackouts, he meets a series of dream women played by the stars of his previous Moral Tales -- Maude, Aurora, Claire, Haydée, etc. The amulet finally malfunctions, and the fiery young Béatrice Romand of Claire's Knee gives him a piece of her mind. The rest of Frédéric's hallucinations are more conventional. He watches the short skirt of his office assistant, just as does his client, and he yearns for the excitement and anticipation of romance he sees in lovers on the street.
As is typical, Frédéric keeps this interior life separate from his wife, just as he does business matters. Hélène is neither suspicious nor cloying and at one point expresses the fact that she doesn't want a man who intrudes on her private thoughts, either. But Hélène feels that something is wrong ...
It's difficult to come to any but the conclusion that the calculating Chloé is conducting a careful seduction. Frédéric likes her flattery, the attention and the fun, unaware that he's digging a deep hole for himself. Will Chloé make the misstep that will alert Frédéric's better nature?
Unlike Jean-Louis of My Night at Mauds, Frédéric doesn't have a Catholic code to provide a safe path to walk. But he's not abusive, unduly selfish or cruel, and we hope desperately that he comes to his senses.
Love in the Afternoon is paired with a delightful 1958 Rohmer short comedy called Véronique and Her Dunce, about a tutor confounded by a mischievous young pupil. No matter what the subject, the boy soon has her buffalo-ed with double-talk questioning the relevance or logic behind his lessons.
Eric Rohmer's world is one of personalities that seem as real as people we know. The films are far more accessible and less oppressive than, say, the philosophical puzzles of Robert Bresson. The extras include many television documentaries and other interview material with amusing insights into Rohmer's world.
The transfers are all exemplary, with the sometimes-crude 16mm shorts deriving the most benefit. The color films highlight Néstor Almendros' glowing, soft colors; Only Love in the Afternoon has brief sequences in which dupe materials seem to have been substituted. Following Rohmer's instructions, all the transfers are flat full frame even though many of the films were exhibited in wider formats.
The disc comes with a book of the short-story versions of all six tales, and a second booklet of essays by Rohmer, Almendros, Molly Haskell, Geoff Andrew, Ginette Vincendeau, Kent Jones and Armand White. The handsome package puts each disc in a card and plastic folder. An image of the seductive Zouzou from Love in the Afternoon is cleverly hidden in the inside of the package box. The disc producer for Criterion is Kate Elmore.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Reviewed: August 15, 2006
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