Classic Corner: Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales

Early in Claire’s Knee, Eric Rohmer’s 1970 comedy/drama, our protagonist Jérôme engages in an idle, maybe-hypothetical-maybe-not with his old friend Aurora, a novelist. Struck for ideas, she wonders what would happen if she based her new work on Jérôme – noting, as she does, the little crush that a teenage neighbor girl seems to have developed on him. An older man, about to be married, embarking on a summer fling with an innocent; that could make for a good story. “And if I didn’t sleep with her?” he asks.

“Ah, that would make a better story,” she replies. “Nothing actually has to happen.” By this, the fifth of Rohmer’s “Six Moral Tales” – new on Blu-ray this week from the Criterion Collection, and all streaming on the Criterion Channel – this conversation plays like a winking verbalization of the French master’s artistic manifesto. Later, the novelist (and, thus, the filmmaker) puts it even more bluntly: “Something’s always happening, even if it’s just your refusal to admit that it is.” And therein lies the brilliance of these works, two shorts and four features shot and released over roughly a decade from the early 1960s to the early 1970s. The plots are slight, based less on narrative twists and turns than on the establishment and observation of character. These are films about how we act – and what we can learn about ourselves from those actions.

Coming early in Rohmer’s distinguished career, they also offer the distinct pleasure of watching a filmmaker stretching his legs, learning his craft and finding his style. The first two pictures, The Bakery Girl of Monceau and Suzanne’s Career, are modest in ambition and length (the first runs less than a half hour, the second under an hour), and are covered in the watermarks of the French New Wave: brooding/pining male protagonists, confessional voice-over, black-and-white cinematography, shot on the streets (apparently without permits), culminating in abrupt endings (these guys love to hit the point and bounce, FIN). It’s not so much that Rohmer rises above these devices as he refuses to be defined by them; he will both shed and reuse them in later films, not swearing them off exactly, but deploying them as tools rather than crutches. The later films are sleeker (no doubt thanks to the addition of Néstor Almendros as cinematographer), and the locations move from metropolitan to pastoral.

But the central preoccupations remain, and watching the films in close proximity to each other underscores the degree to which Rohmer was using his expanding resources and profile to revisit and rework similar themes. Several of his protagonists are hung up on conventional notions of beauty, and become obsessed with the pursuit of its personification, usually in the form of a blonde “good girl.” But as they bide their time, they’ll dally with a less obvious pick – and when their dream girl finally comes around, they typically find themselves regretting the one they cast aside.

Rohmer’s sympathies lie with his protagonists – as we’d expect, since they’re presumably his stand-ins – but he doesn’t let them off the hook, either. From Bakery Girl on, the backward-glancing voice-overs are filled with reflection and guilt, and the relationships between these men and women are dizzyingly complex. This is perhaps most true of My Night at Maud’s (intended as the third film, but shot and released fourth), which betrays its 1969 origins in the headier topics of discourse – politics, philosophy, religion, and of course, morality – many of which are explored during the title event, a threesome that becomes a twosome of probing, searching, and sometimes cruel conversation, culminating in a missed opportunity that will strike a pang of familiar regret into anyone who’s taken a few trips around the sun.

Similarly fraught dynamics abound in La Collectionneuse, in which our hero goes into isolation at a friend’s country estate, nursing a broken heart and vowing to “take inactivity to a level I’d never before reached” (this all hits differently these days), only to discover he’ll be sharing the digs with an attractive young woman, and so a begrudging, peculiar camaraderie and cohabitation develops. This was the era in which Godard’s work was explicitly political, but Rohmer’s politics are sexual and interpersonal; he’s dealing with pursuit, rebuttal, desire, and cruelty, not only in how these two treat each other, but the other men who come into her sphere. “We all played our parts with great care,” our protagonist explains of one combination, but that explanation doesn’t just hold to that scene. 

Though they cover a shorter period, the Moral Tales aren’t dissimilar to Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel films; we see his avatars growing older, and dealing with the frustrations of their advancing age. Claire’s Knee is the trickiest of these films today, dealing as it does with not one but two age-inappropriate relationships, but this isn’t some romanticized snapshot either; Jérôme ultimately gets what he deserves, which is to be stymied and blocked by a bunch of teenage boys. More importantly, Rohmer’s probing style doesn’t softball the emotional wreckage of the character’s actions – in the penultimate scene, watch how the camera holds on Claire crying and crying about what Jérôme has told her, and how the character chooses, in that moment, to manipulate her vulnerability.

As that film concerns a man on the verge of matrimony, Love in the Afternoon is grounded in the very real experience of being very married and very horny. “Ever since I got married, I find all women attractive,” Frédéric explains, in exasperated voice-over; chief among them is Chloé, the ex of an old friend who, in her way, represents a path he didn’t take. “She’s completely impulsive, unstable,” Frédéric insists to his wife, and Rohmer, brilliantly, keeps his camera on a close-up of her listening to these descriptions. It’s a brilliant choice – she knows (and Rohmer knows she knows) – the attractiveness of a sexy/chaotic personality, and much of the push-pull of the picture is in his agonizing negotiation of this indulgence, how he talks himself in and out of this affair, as he pushes and prods and plays the devil on his shoulder.

All of which brings us to its miraculous last scene – the last scene of the film, and of this cycle of films – in which two people, once close to each other but since drifting apart, finally allow themselves to be open and vulnerable. It sounds like the tiniest thing, but within the context it’s shattering, a forceful realization of the power of Rohmer’s filmmaking. (When Chris Rock and Louis CK remade the film a few years back as I Think I Love My Wife, this was jettisoned in favor of some Viagra jokes.) Because what he’s doing, throughout all of these films, goes back to those ideas early in Claire’s Knee: that the kind of storytelling that can reach us most, that can speak most clearly to the human condition, is that in which “nothing happens” – or, at the very least, the version of that phrase bandied about in screenwriting textbooks and notes sessions.

Rohmer’s characters don’t act like people in other movies – they act like actual people, and throughout these films, it’s informative to envision how conventional movies would play out these scenarios. And then, it’s thrilling to watch Rohmer not only run counter to those expectations, but ground his outcomes in recognizable human behavior; that’s what reaches an audience, because that’s the kind of thing we all do, all the time. We fumble passes and blow opportunities; we act as if moments of devastation haven’t affected us; we say and do the wrong things, and desperately try to take them back. We swallow all those defeats, and digest them, and carry on, because our lives are an accumulation of those events. And at the end of Claire’s Knee, when Jérôme reports what has happened (and more importantly, what hasn’t) to Aurora, she issues her judgment: “A charming story, but highly banal.” Indeed it is. And all filmmakers should aspire to such banality.

“Six Moral Tales” is now available on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection, and (along with several other Rohmer films) is streaming on the Criterion Channel.

Jason Bailey is a film critic and historian, and the author of five books. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Playlist, Vanity Fair, Vulture, Rolling Stone, Slate, and more. He is the co-host of the podcast "A Very Good Year."

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