The six “Moral Tales” that Eric Rohmer made between 1963 and 1972 cast a long shadow over the filmmaker’s career. Based on a collection of short stories that Rohmer had written two decades earlier, in his twenties, the films both recapitulate his younger self ’s nascent artistic ambitions and provide a Rosetta Stone to decipher his later work, none of which would be so carefully codified. The commercial success of the series, which vaulted Rohmer to international fame in middle age, surprised everyone but the filmmaker himself, whose films turned a consistent profit well into the next millennium without significant change to his unfashionable style.
Rohmer drew little attention with the first two Moral Tales, The Bakery Girl of Monceau (1963) and Susanne’s Career (1963), which were rejected by the reputation-making Tours short film festival as being “without interest.” But 1967’s La Collectioneuse, the series’ first feature, was a sensation in France, no doubt partly due to its St. Tropez setting and the indolent beauty of Haydée Politoff. My Night at Maud’s (1969) was as wintry and austere as La Collectioneuse was sensual, but it starred Jean-Louis Trintignant, fresh off his success in Z, and became Rohmer’s international breakthrough. Arthouse devotees debated Rohmer’s liberal use of lengthy dialogue scenes, unprecedented in a commercial context. And generations of filmmakers would use Maud as a handbook for its simple yet innovative approaches to lighting (thanks to the brilliant cinematographer Néstor Almendros) and editing. The final Tales, Claire’s Knee (1970) and Love in the Afternoon (1972), consolidated Rohmer’s status as France’s most reliable purveyor of international art-film hits.
Each of the Tales concerns a man’s fascination with a woman across boundaries of class, age, or lifestyle. This fascination is always a digression in the man’s life before he returns, with little or no regret, to a more natural path, one usually associated with another woman, the man’s true partner. In Maud and The Bakery Girl of Monceau, the man meets and wins the woman of his life even while being diverted by another; in Claire’s Knee and Love in the Afternoon, the man’s love relationship is established well before the diversion begins. Regardless of plot variations, the Tales each employ a subtle identification trick that inverts the narrative: The protagonist’s version of the story is different from the audience’s version, with supporting players in one version the leads in the other. The audience’s interest is therefore naturally drawn to the women who do not occupy the privileged fictional role of the True Love.
This ploy creates a gap between viewers and Rohmer’s men. One of the identifying marks of Rohmer’s Tales is that each central character is an intellectual who creates a schema of the film’s moral terrain and maintains a running commentary on his place in that schema. This commentary is not always deluded or egotistical…and yet the viewer is positioned to see the defects of the protagonist’s reasoning in stark relief. Even beyond this sometimes unflattering perspective, Rohmer surrounds his characters with an entropic vision of a world too multifarious and unpredictable to submit to such schema. Rohmer’s stories unfold with countless small twists and observations that suggest familiar developments that never materialize: The young man in Monceau unknowingly conducts his flirtation under his beloved’s apartment window; the interlocking pasts of the two women in Maud are exposed, then gracefully concealed forever; Jérôme’s fiancée in Claire is ominously described as “beautiful but a little hard.”
And all this this unruly fiction plays out against the backdrop of painstakingly documented environments, with attention to weather and natural light and sound; the documentary impulse is as close to Rohmer’s heart as his free-range dialogue scenes or his play with story conventions. The oppressive summery stillness of St. Tropez in La Collectioneuse, the play of water, mist, and sunlight in Annecy in Claire — these vivid locations harmonize with Rohmer’s narrative discontinuities, creating a sympathetic but distanced perspective on the pleasures of fiction.
Written and directed by Eric Rohmer
Opens September 16, Film Society of Lincoln Center