Eric Rohmer: Six Moral Tales Review

The series of films that made Eric Rohmer’s reputation, released by Artificial Eye in a DVD box set.

Some of the reviews of the individual films, and some of the extras, are adapted from previous reviews on this site.

Born in 1920, Eric Rohmer made his first short in 1950, and his first feature, The Sign of Leo, in 1959. Between that and his second feature, which I’ll come to shortly, he returned to making shorts and documentary work for television, some of which features in this DVD boxset. During this period he began the first of his three film series, the Moral Tales, which made his reputation.

The first Moral Tale, La boulangère de Monceau (translated as either The Baker Girl of Monceau or The Girl at the Monceau Bakery) was made in 1962. The protagonist is a young man (Barbet Schroeder, Rohmer’s producer at the time and soon to be a director in his own right). The young man is infatuated by Sylvie (Michèle Girardon), whom he sees walking past every day. When he doesn’t see her for some time, he asks the girl at the bakery, Jacqueline (Claudine Soubrier), to go out with him. Then he is faced with a dilemma when he arranges a date with Sylvie for the same time.

This film is under half an hour long, but many of Rohmer’s stylistic traits and themes are already in place. The use of voiceover is one, but what the young man tells us is not necessarily to be taken at face value. Rohmer always views his characters with an ironic distance, men especially, and what the voiceover says does not always tally with what we see on screen. The young man overstates the two women’s reactions to him, and ultimately he is not very likeable. Another future director, Bertrand Tavernier, provides the young man’s voiceover.

La carrière de Suzanne (Suzanne’s Career), made the same year, comes in at just under an hour and is much more complex and ambitious. Bertrand (Philippe Beuzen) narrates this time. He and his friend Guillaume (Christian Charrière) meet a young woman, Suzanne (Catherine Sée). At first Bertrand, who is going out with Sophie (Diane Wilkinson), thinks little of Suzanne but changes his mind when Guillaume shows an interest. Again, Suzanne’s Career is evidence that Rohmer is a man who likes women more than he does men: at the end of the film, Bertrand has learned something from his own behaviour. Suzanne, ultimately out of reach of both men, could be seen as a prototype for Rohmer’s later “unknowable” women, like Haydée in La collectionneuse and Chloe in Love in the Afternoon, although she’s more vulnerable than they are.

Both films were shot in black and white 16mm with Rohmer’s trademark unobtrusive naturalism. The visuals are no more than functional, but do give a strong documentary-like sense of early 60s Paris. The visual qualities of Rohmer’s work took a leap forward with La collectionneuse, his second full-length feature, shot in colour and 35mm by Nestor Almendros. Almendros had first worked with Rohmer on the portmanteau film Paris vu par, and had gone on to shoot Rohmer’s short films Nadja å Paris (1965, see below) and Une étudiante d’aujourd’hui (1965). Patrick Bauchau, one of the leads of La collectionneuse, has a small, uncredited role in Suzanne’s Career.

La collectionneuse (The Collector as the subtitle has it, inevitably missing the gender of the French title, probably one reason why the film is usually known by its French title) is labelled the fourth Moral Tale, but it was made before the third, Ma nuit chez Maud. Adrien, an artist (Patrick Bauchau), and Martin (Daniel Pommereulle), an antique dealer, are spending the summer in a house just outside St Tropez. Also staying there is Haydée, a young woman who seems to sleep with a different boy every night. She is a “collectionneuse”, collecting men as other people collect artworks. In their different ways, both older men try to resist becoming part of her collection.

Winning the Special Jury Prize at Berlin, La Collectionneuse made Rohmer’s reputation and set the template for much of his later work. At least one critic (Derek Malcolm of The Guardian) named La Collectionneuse as one of his films of the twentieth century. In each of the Moral Tales, a man is faced with a moral dilemma, but the film is, according to Rohmer, “less concerned with what people do than with what is going on in their minds while they are doing it.” In short, with character rather than action. Much of this is revealed in dialogue that is often witty and analytical. Haydée is one of Rohmer’s “unknowable” women, but still a rounded character in her own right.

She’s introduced in a wordless prologue (one of three the film has), walking down a beach in a bikini, while Rohmer’s camera in a series of semi-abstract shots, takes in separate parts of her body at a time: a slow tilt down her front, then a shot of the back of her knees, and so on. Adrien’s prologue sees him in conversation with two young women, asking if there is such a thing as beauty or do people become beautiful when you are attracted to them? Adrien narrates the rest of the film (which relies more on narration than Rohmer’s later films), but its direction is clear from the start: he may analyse his feelings as much as he likes, but Haydée is forever out of his reach.

After the sunny St Tropez setting of La collectionneuse, Ma nuit chez Maud (My Night at Maud’s, often less accurately translated as My Night With Maud) takes place in wintry Clermont-Ferrand. Maud was Rohmer’s second and last feature film in black and white. Rohmer and Almendros made a point to avoid any reference to colour: if someone has a drink, for example, it will be vodka or water rather than, say, crème de menthe.

Jean-Louis (Trintignant) is an engineer who lives a very orderly life, but has become interested in ideas about chance and probability. He’s a faithful Catholic who thinks he has found his ideal woman in Françoise (Marie-Christine Barrault) whom he has met in Church. But a chance meeting with an old friend, Vidal (Antoine Vitez), leads to him spending a night with the free-spirited – and very tempting – divorcee Maud (Françoise Fabian).

My Night at Maud’s received two Oscar nominations, for Best Foreign-Language Film and Best Original Screenplay, and was the first of Rohmer’s films to receive wide distribution. It is indeed one of his very best films, but newcomers to his work may wish to start elsewhere, perhaps with La Collectionneuse or Love in the Afternoon. Jean-Louis, Maud and Vidal are given to long, intellectual discussions on chance and fate, taking in Blaise Pascal’s wager on the existence of God along the way. (The wager suggests that it is better to believe in God than not to believe: if you don’t believe and are proved right, you have gained nothing, but if you do believe and are right you gain everything.) The characters are serious to a fault, but the film isn’t. Rohmer uses dialogue to reveal character (and to a large extent character is plot in his films) and always views his characters, men especially, with considerable irony. Look how he shows up their pretensions by interrupting a particularly high-flown conversation by bringing on a young girl who simply wants to see the lights on the Christmas tree. Rohmer shows that people like these, who can discuss philosophical issues without difficulty, are just as clumsy as everyone else with matters of the heart. Trintignant, who spends much of the film in a jacket and tie, gives an excellent study in buttoned-down physicality. Fabian’s performance as Maud – less “unknowable” than Haydée or the later Chloe, but like many Rohmer women more together than the men around her – is very alluring.

In Le genou de Claire (Claire’s Knee), Jérôme (Jean-Claude Brialy), a diplomat, is about to get married. He takes a short holiday near the Lake of Annecy and bumps into his old friend Aurora (Aurora Cornu), a novelist. Aurora is on holiday with her daughter Laura (a very young Béatrice Romand, who went on to be a Rohmer regular with lead roles in A Good Marriage and Autumn Tale) and stepdaughter Claire (Laurence de Monaghan). Jérôme insists that, due to his forthcoming marriage, all thoughts of romance are behind him. But the charms of the two sisters are difficult to ignore…

Rohmer’s films are more tightly structured than they appear: apart from a scene between Jean-Claude Brialy and Fabrice Luchini under a tree, nothing was improvised. Needless to say, if you’re after fast-moving action you should look elsewhere. It’s fair to say that this is one of Rohmer’s less eventful films, but given a receptive mood it has considerable charm. Attractive locations (photographed again by Almendros) are certainly easy on the eye, but they aren’t allowed to overwhelm the dialogue and the uniformly excellent cast. Rohmer treats Jérôme with less overt irony than he does many of his protagonists. It’s a mark of Rohmer’s growing confidence as a filmmaker that this is the only one of the Moral Tales entirely to dispense with a voiceover. (Love in the Afternoon uses one only in its prologue.)

In L’amour, l’après-midi (Love in the Afternoon in the UK, known as Chloe in the Afternoon in the USA), Frédéric (Bernard Verley) has a good life: he’s a well-paid executive, happily married to Hélène (Françoise Verley), with a young child and another on the way. But somehow he can’t help himself from fantasising about every woman he sees. Then one day, an old friend, the free-spirited Chloe (Zouzou), re-enters his life. When she openly tries to seduce him, he is put to the test. Love in the Afternoon features a man faced with a moral dilemma who ultimately has to make a choice. Will he sleep with Chloe, or will he retreat into the safety of his wife and family?

Eric Rohmer once again shows himself the master of the “miniplot”: his narratives, though tightly plotted, are character-led, with much of that characterisation revealed through dialogue. On the surface, not much might seem to happen, but within his protagonists plenty does. Love in the Afternoon is one of his best, most perfectly structured stories, and would be a good introduction to his work for newcomers. Importantly, Frédéric’s dilemma is a real one: if there’s undeniable chemistry between him and his wife, that’s because the actors were married in real life – Rohmer cast the Verleys after seeing their wedding photos. On the other hand, Chloe represents freedom from his safe existence: as played by Zouzou, she’s fascinating, ultimately unknowable, and the temptation she represents is palpable. Rohmer fans should note the dream sequence featuring the leading ladies of the previous Moral Tales, and a nod to Vertigo (Rohmer cowrote a book on Hitchcock with Claude Chabrol) in the final sequence. Chris Rock remade the film in 2007, by all accounts less than successfully, as I Think I Love My Wife.

The DVDs

Eric Rohmer: Six Moral Tales is a five-disc boxset released by Artificial Eye. The discs are encoded for all regions. The Ma nuit chez Maud and Le genou de Claire discs are dual-layered, while the others are single-layered. Disc One, containing La boulangère de Monceau and La carrière de Suzanne, is the same disc that was released as part of the two-disc set Eric Rohmer: The Early Works in 200x, including the same extras as before (see below).

All six films were intended to be shown in Academy Ratio, so are transferred to DVD in 4:3, so anamorphic enhancement is unnecessary. The Girl at the Monceau Bakery and Suzanne’s Career were shot in 16mm and the results are certainly grainy and soft. On the other hand, they’ve always looked that way every time I’ve seen these films – on VHS, and the Fox Lorber DVD as well as this one. Examples of print damage have been present on all editions. The other four features were shot in 35mm. La collectionneuse is soft – which may well be intentional, as I’ve only seen this film on DVD, not in 35mm – but generally pleasing. It displays some negative damage in the form of coloured scratches, visible to the left of frame as Haydée walks along the beach in the opening shot. This was also present in the Fox Lorber edition I reviewed previously and presumably cannot be removed short of a full-scale digital restoration. My Night at Maud’s again looks a little soft but is certainly acceptable. Claire’s Knee, given the sunny setting, is brighter and sharper. Love in the Afternoon is fine in brighter-lit scenes, somewhat weaker in darker ones. I suspect these transfers are existing ones reused, which would have been fine earlier in the decade and is certainly not unacceptable now, but they fall short of modern transfers from HD masters. (Caveat: I haven’t seen the Criterion Moral Tales boxset so can’t compare Artificial Eye’s set, and DVD transfers, with that.)

The soundtracks are all in the original mono, and are functional, clear but certainly nothing spectacular. English subtitles are optional, but unless you are very fluent in French you will certainly need them.

The extras on Disc One are two early short films. Presentation ou Charlotte et son steak (9:29) is a curiosity. Charlotte is about to leave. While she waits she cooks and eats a steak, a short period of time in which Walter has to persuade her to stay. This is an odd piece, presented as a mysterious film without any details of cast or crew, made circa 1951, now rediscovered and presented in 1961 with a new soundtrack, voiced by Jean-Luc Godard, Stéphane Audran and Anna Karina.

Nadja à Paris (12:40) is a short study of Nadja Tesich, a Yugoslav-American studying in Paris. Something of a Valentine to the city, this film is a charming look at a young woman’s life which – in the early Sixties – seems full of possibilities. It’s also an early example of Rohmer putting a young woman as the subject of the film, something he would later make a speciality, particularly in the six Comedies and Proverbs and the first two of the Tales of the Four Seasons. (Haydée, Maud, Claire and Chloe are certainly powerful presences, but we see them through male characters’ eyes.) A brief scene takes place at the Buttes-Chaumont park, the location for the central section of the later The Aviator’s Wife. There’s a more obscure film connection: Nadja is the sister or the late Steve Tesich, who won an Oscar for Breaking Away and who also wrote Four Friends (Georgia’s Friends in the UK), on which Nadja served as an assistant. She is now an academic and writer.

The disc for La collectionneuse has no extras, but the remaining three discs have one short film each. On My Night at Maud’s it’s Entretien sur Pascal (A Discussion on Pascal, 22:03). Made for French television in 1965, this is exactly as it sounds. Brice Parain, a philosopher (who appeared as “A Philosopher” in Godard’s Vivre sa vie) and Dominique Dubarle, a priest, discuss Pascal, his meaning and significance. This is appropriate to the feature it accompanies, given that Pascal’s Wager (see above) features in it, but most people will find it very dry. Rohmer’s direction is self-effacing, merely cutting or panning from one man to the other.

On the Claire’s Knee disc there is La cambrure (The Curve, 16:06). This was made 1999 for Rohmer’s production company, with Rohmer acting as technical advisor and many of his regular crewmembers working on the film. But the film was actually written and directed by Edwige Schaki, who also played the leading role of Eva. Roman (François Rauscher) and his sculptor father (André del Debbio) discuss “la cambrure”, the curve of a woman’s back which they say is the most perfect and alluring part of a woman’s body….but Eva wants to find out how much Roman sees her as an art object. This is a pleasant if rather inconsequential short, very Rohmeresque in style. I’m not sure how many times a director (of either sex) has filmed themselves semi-clad, topless or nude to this extent, let alone discussed their own body as an art object, which does give this film an uncomfortable air of narcissism. Given how recent it is, this is inevitably the short film in this set in the best condition.

The disc for Love in the Afternoon features a short film Rohmer made in 1958, Véronique et son cancre (Veronica and Her Dunce, 17:43). This is an occasionally twee but generally amusing comedy about a tutor and her recalcitrant young pupil. Shot in black and white, it’s presented full-frame. The picture is generally quite acceptable though a little soft, probably due to the film’s 16mm origins. Some scratches and tramlines are noticeable but aren’t too distracting.

Finally, there are the trailers for My Night at Maud’s, Claire’s Knee and Love in the Afternoon on the appropriate discs. They run respectvely 2:40, 2:33 and 3:58. Unlike the features, they are presented in non-anamorphic 1.85:1.


Updated: Aug 28, 2010

Get involved
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum
Eric Rohmer: Six Moral Tales Review | The Digital Fix