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For Science: Six Moral Tales from Eric Rohmer, One Day

By  · Published on January 18th, 2010

Last week, we reported on the passing of legendary French New Wave director Eric Rohmer. And like many of you, I’m sure, my reaction was one of regret. I didn’t really know who Rohmer was, nor had I really seen any of his films. I’d heard the name, but could not for the life of me tell you anything about the man. Yet everyone else seems to know him, and his work. It led me to a fine experiment for the second edition of For Science: I would discover the work of Rohmer, in one afternoon, through his best-known works, a box set known as Six Moral Tales.

This experiment would not be an easy one, as Rohmer was French. Thus, his movies are in French. And I don’t speak French. I speak English (mostly). But thankfully, there were subtitles – and I was dedicated. At least, I thought so at the start.

Below you will find my account of these films, in the order that they were viewed. I’ve also linked all of the titles to IMDB, should you decide to seek these films out for yourself.

Love in the Afternoon (1972)

My introduction to Rohmer was one of wonder. Not knowing what to expect from him, we started with the tale of a happily married business man who is caught up in the multitude of beautiful Parisian women around him. And while he would never act on the temptation that surrounds him when he’s away from his wife during the day, he often fantasizes about it. That is, until he meets up with an old friend named Chloe, an audacious gal who ignites in him an old flame.

A casual story, to say the least. And one that doesn’t seem like it would be wrought with tension. But it is. Rohmer has an ability to slowly work you into the story – through poetic narration and quick, seemingly insignificant character moments that come back in the end to be tantamount to the film’s conclusion. In Love in the Afternoon, he shows a mastery of control over the audience’s emotional well-being that is rarely seen in the dramas of today. As the main character goes further toward being unfaithful to his wife, I became invested. At one point saying to myself, “If this guy cheats on his wife, I’m going to kick his ass myself.” Clearly that’s not possible. He’s a fictional character who exists in Paris in 1972. But you get my drift – I was invested in the main character’s plight. And ultimately his end result was satisfying. That Rohmer, he really did draw me in with a movie that I would have otherwise dismissed as “slow” or “French.” Well, it’s still French, I suppose.

My Night at Maud’s (1969)

I’m now realizing that there may have been some divine intervention at work in the order selection of this project. We didn’t watch the movies chronologically, myself and my group of fellow test subjects (Dr. Cole Abaius, Culture Warrior Landon Palmer and our good friend Adam Charles). We picked at random, and now we’re two-for-two. Something beyond us must be controlling this experiment. Or perhaps it is the Catholic-centric plot of Maud’s that has brought on this belief. It tells the story of a principle-heavy Catholic man who sees a woman he wants to be with in church, but is unable to go up to her and talk to her. Later, he joins an old friend for dinner at the home of a saucy divorcee named Maude (played by the alluring, even in black and white, Françoise Fabian). Maud is unlike the woman of his dreams: forward, strong-willed and most importantly, not Catholic. But she interests him, and for a few days he seems to take a keen interest in her. But as a man of principle, he quickly resumes his quest for his church-going love – only to find that she’s connected to him already, in the most unexpected ways.

With this second film, I’ve begun to realize that Rohmer is a very environmental filmmaker. Characters talk a lot about their surroundings, the neighborhood or town where they live. Then Rohmer shows us these surroundings, proving his keen eye. The environment around the characters – everything from the streets of Clermont to Maud’s spacious apartment – become as much as character as our protagonist. As well, even though the characters are droning on about the philosopher Pascal and whether or not they’re Jansenists, we follow them. Theirs is an elemental story – what comes first, principal or love? As someone who grew up Catholic, I can tell you that this is something with which I’m all too familiar. That said, I probably would’ve stuck with Maud. I’m not so much a man of principle.

Claire’s Knee (1970)

I get it now. There’s a reason French people from the 70s are all skinny and look stressed. All they do is sit around and smoke, drinking tea. They don’t even seem to eat. This bothers me. But not so much as the tale in Claire’s Knee, in which a vacationing man becomes the guinea pig for a long-time friend who is writing a book of love and intrigue. She wants him to play games of seduction with a teenage girl who resides at the home where she’s staying on vacation. And even though he’s engaged to be married, he plays along. This is going to spell trouble. I can feel it.

The story isn’t all that simple though. As Jerome (the adult male who is chasing down teenagers, for the purposes of literature, of course) forms a friendship with the young girl, he sees that he is right – he’s not interested in this little girl, and nor is she really interested in him (though who wouldn’t be? The guy has a killer beard and looks like Liev Schreiber). He concludes the “experiment” for his writer friend, leaving the young Laura to boys her own age. It all comes crashing down when Laura’s sister Claire arrives. She being slightly older (and absolutely gorgeous), entrances Jerome. Once again, Rohmer has made his protagonist the participant in life’s most dangerous game – the attraction of the unknowable woman, for a man who is already set on another. And once again, the environment (beautiful mountains, a gorgeous lake) play a big role in the film. And Rohmer captures them in sensational style. He has a way with scenery, and a way with creating quite the moral dilemma for his leading man. In this story, his protagonist Jerome faces not just the dilemma brought on by his growing infatuation with Claire, but it also makes him do things that are a bit creepy. Creepy or not, it’s a compelling tale, once again, about the moral dilemma of seeing something that you can’t have, and going after it (to an extent) despite having what you want waiting for you at home. And once again, Rohmer draws us in to these characters and forces us to be part of their experience. It is amazing, to see him tell stories that are so simple, yet so engaging.

Also, this movie makes me want to live on a lake so that I can drive around in a boat with a suit on. That’s just cool.

The Bakery Girl of Monceau (1962)

Backtracking to the first in the set of six moral tales, a 23-minute black and white short about a man who essentially stalks a girl he wants to meet on the street, and ends up frequenting a neighborhood bakery. There, he engages in a little flirtation with the girl who wraps his apple fritters (pun mostly intended). It’s a straight-forward tale, driven mostly by narration. We can see early hints of Rohmer’s addiction to making the environment a big part of the story. We also see early uses of conversations off-camera, something that pops up in all of his films. For example, we may see three characters having a conversation, and while the conversation shifts to two of them, the camera stays on the third person, who is merely reacting with expressions and body language. It’s a unique way to film a conversation, and oddly engaging. I want to say that I was more attentive when I couldn’t see the person that was talking. Once again, Eric Rohmer is controlling me. This happens a lot.

La Collectionneuse (1967)

Put simply, this is one of the sexiest goddamn movies I’ve ever seen. And likely my favorite thus far. Rohmer opens with three prologues, introducing each of the three main characters. The introduction of Haydeé is simply her petite frame walking along a beach in a bikini. It cuts quickly to close-ups of her various anatomic gifts. It’s a confused way to start the movie, but it is charged with a mysterious sensuality. We’re then introduced to a womanizing art dealer and his artist friend. These guys stick around, I suppose.

They all end up stuck together in a summer home on the Riviera, where each has come to find solitude. Save for Haydeé, she seems to be adding men to her “collection” by the night. As the summer progresses, both our art dealer and his artist friend become unwittingly caught in her web of seduction, leading to several awkward moments and plenty of tension. Once again, Rohmer is building tension between his main characters. And the art dealer – our protagonist – is filled with most of it has he tries to beat Haydeé at her own game. And like the protagonists in all of Rohmer’s films, he ultimately learns a powerful lesson about the dangers of the unknowable woman. And who wouldn’t be drawn to Haydeé – there’s just something about her.

If there’s one thing I’m learning about Rohmer, its that he doesn’t make tight movies. His scenes linger and often start well before the conversation is in any way interesting. But he makes meticulous films. Every moment is planned, and every conversation has its place in the manipulation of the audience. It’s not cheap manipulation though, which is what we’re used to seeing today. This is real dramatic tension driven by a connection to each character. The man knows how to work his audience. And with La Collectionneuse, he works us with sensuality and intrigue – all at the hands of a petite French girl who likes to live a little.

Suzanne’s Career (1963)

Not the best place to end my journey through Rohmer’s Moral Tales, but what the hell. At this point I’ve been moved and engrossed in his characters, and to go back to one of his flatter, earlier works seems like a task. But this is for science, so I’m sticking with it. Suzanne’s Career is about two college friends – Bertrand and Guillaume – who engage in a triangular relationship with a woman named Suzanne. Like two college guys are known to do, they play on Suzanne’s affection for Guillaume, using her to have a good time. And even though our protagonist Bertrand sits idly by, narrating his bitterness, he still sits idly by. This is where Rohmer has lost me. This guy is a damn tool, and only in the end does he show himself to be anything but an accomplice. Later in these Moral Tales (chronologically), Rohmer shows the ability to make his main character likable, even when he’s about to do something bad. In this film, we don’t see that at all. Then again, he was just getting started.

Final Thoughts

It’s impossible to ignore the fact that Eric Rohmer is a master storyteller, even when he’s telling the same story over and over again. That’s what the Moral Tales are – the same essential story told six times over. And yet, they all feel different. As well, Rohmer creates engaging environments, in which engaging characters are faced with moral quandaries. The guy also knew how to work his audience in a subtle way, which in every case amplifies the evocative nature of his stories – whether they be of youthful naiveté, a sensual battle-of-the-sexes or tales of temptation.

Also, I now have one singular life goal: to live on a lake, and drive a boat in a suit. I’m making it happen, thanks to Eric Rohmer, and thanks to science.

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Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)