It’s a mistake to privilege any one of Eric Rohmer’s “Six Moral Tales” over another, though the temptation exists and is easily indulged, especially if one takes the disparate, yet complementary, viewpoints of this inimitable sextet as entirely representative of its creator’s own principles. Strange that auteurism should fail us so completely in the case of one of its founding practitioners, but Rohmer was always an odd man out among his contemporaries, if not in the remove of years (a decade older than most of his Nouvelle Vague brethren) then in the deceptive placidity of his art. His revolutions, in other words, were quiet ones, couched in a perpetual remove and observation.
My Night at Maud’s, Rohmer’s greatest popular success, is frequently misremembered as a nonstop talkfest, as it begins with extended passages (nearly 10 minutes’ worth) of silent pursuit by an unnamed Catholic protagonist (Jean-Louis Trintignant) trails a woman (Marie-Christine Barrault) who will, by film’s end, become his wife. The priest’s brief flirtation with the fetching divorcée Maud (Francoise Fabian) brings about his ultimate “moral” choice, a fascinating psychological mishmash of Catholic liturgy, Pascalian hypothesis, and Hitchcockian blonde/brunette dichotomy that’s all too often mistaken—at least in the West—for Rohmer’s own worldview.
At the heart of this misreading is the word “moral” itself, which is typically defined in collective terms, the conscientious needs of the society at large trumping the various bodies that make it up. These films are more concerned with individual moral codes and how they play off of each other within a given situation, and though the films share a basic narrative structure (a man in love with one woman is tempted by a second, only to return to the first), it’s the specific milieu and, resultantly, the characters who inhabit that space which determine the ultimate outcome. Rohmer puts his trust—his faith—in a sense of place: The bustling Parisian side streets of The Bakery Girl of Monceau and Suzanne’s Career beget the stark Catholic trappings of My Night at Maud’s, which lead to the dandified color palette of La Collectionneuse, the deceivingly nostalgic summertime glow of Claire’s Knee, and the Theremin-scored, post-1960s fatigue of Love in the Afternoon.
Even if Rohmer’s characters hew primarily to the middle class, the filmmaker’s gaze (complemented, in many of these works, by cinematographer extraordinaire Néstor Almendros) is all-inclusive. Witness Claire’s Knee, in which Rohmer relates a battle of generational wits with a complexity akin to Marcel Proust. The respective narrators of the “Moral Tales”—in this case Jean-Claude Brialy’s middle-aged writer Jérôme—always have their manipulations and powers called into question, though Rohmer, for a good stretch of this fifth film in the cycle, seems to privilege Jérôme’s intellectual lecherousness. His pursuit of both the headstrong Laura (Béatrice Romand) and the unwitting, vulnerable Claire (Laurence de Monaghan) extend from sublimated longings, specifically for his friend, fellow writer, and unconsummated love, Aurora (Aurora Cornu). That Aurora effectively masterminds the connections between Jérôme and his objects of desire shows that no one is completely innocent in Rohmer’s world, though such shades of character never come across as the finger-wagging judgments of a pseudo-aesthete.
The cruelty of Rohmer’s characters is casual: Jérôme gets what he wants by effectively destroying Claire’s youthful naïveté, using her cheating boyfriend, Gilles (Gérard Falconetti), against her to contrive a naked emotional moment in which he comforts her by caressing her knee. If this was all there was to Rohmer’s vision it would be limited and unenlightening; Claire would effectively remain a cautionary symbol and little more. But an epilogue shows Rohmer’s true intent. Jérôme is allowed his illusions (by revealing Gilles’s wandering lusts, he’s helped Claire to see the “true” way of things) and so leaves with his desires satiated. Aurora then spies an exchange between Claire and Gilles in which the former’s accusations of infidelity are quickly put aside, and not just because of Gilles’s charms. Jérôme, therefore, has failed, but he’ll never know. The intuitiveness of the image (revelatory, as so many of Rohmer’s films are, of the many mysteries of human nature) is balanced by a concomitant sense of hope, and the moral—if there’s indeed one to be had—is left for us to discover and then to, potentially, express for ourselves.
The Criterion Collection presents the "Six Moral Tales" in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratios, though there is some controversy surrounding these transfers. Criterion’s new policy (unstated on the packaging, which makes the practice all the more suspect) is to picturebox all their 1.33 acquisitions. As I’m to understand it, pictureboxing takes into account the overscan inherent to tube television sets where a good portion of the video-transferred image is lost, effectively destroying a movie’s intended framing. At this time, according to the numbers, most people own tube televisions, hence Criterion’s decision to picturebox. The problem comes with those who own widescreen and/or Hi-Definition televisions, as a pictureboxed image appears as a frame-within-a-frame, though, research tells me, the extent of this square black border surrounding the image varies between products. This is in no way a cut-and-dried issue and the debate rages on about the practice (see criterionforum.org and DVD Beaver for more discussion). Myself, I quickly acclimated to the framing of the films, though I find Criterion’s non-mention of this particular to be pretty shady, especially for a company that prides itself on offering the best available version of a movie in the highest possible quality. All that said, Rohmer’s "Moral Tales" have never looked better. Suzanne’s Career fares the worst, probably because it is a 16mm film mastered from a 35mm duplicate negative, but everything in this set, especially a newly vibrant La Collectionneuse, is infinitely preferable to the godawful Fox Lorber releases, which should now be rendered obsolete. Here’s hoping the "Comedies & Proverbs" and "The Tales of the Four Seasons" are on the horizon. All six features come with their original French mono soundtracks, suitably cleaned up to remove hiss and crackle. Optional English subtitles are provided on all features.
The Bakery Girl of Monceau features Rohmer’s 10-minute short film Presentation, or Charlotte and Her Steak from 1951, of primary interest in that the three characters of the piece are post-dubbed by Jean-Luc Godard, Stephan Audran, and Anna Karina. "Moral Tales, Filmic Issues" is an enlightening hour-and-a-half conversation between Eric Rohmer and producer-director Barbet Schroeder, the head of Rohmer’s production company Les Films du Losange. The interview was filmed in April 2006, just as Rohmer was about to embark on his latest feature project, The Loves of Astrée and Céladon. There are numerous insights of note herein, especially Rohmer’s admission that he now prefers watching films at home on video as opposed to at a theater (and he says this, tellingly, without a shade of regret for changing times).
Suzanne’s Career includes Rohmer’s 13-minute short film Nadja in Paris from 1964, a collaboration with the Serbian born activist Nadja Tesich that follows the young exchange student as she wanders through a dream-like vision of Paris (captured beautifully, once again, by Néstor Almendros). The final sequence, set on a highway overpass during an indeterminate dawn/dusk, has the feel of a small miracle.
My Night at Maud’s features a much-too-short 1974 episode of the French television program Télécinéma, on which actor Jean-Louis Trintignant, film critic Jean Douchet, and producer Pierre Cottrell (sporting pimp-daddy shades) talk about working with Rohmer on this most famous "Moral Tale." Rohmer’s 22-minute episode for the educational TV series En profil fans le texte, entitled "On Pascal" (from 1965), is a thought-provoking debate between the philosopher Brice Parain (an important figure to the New Wave, featured in Godard’s My Life to Live) and the Dominican thinker Dominique Dubark. Even within the relatively restrictive confines of television, Rohmer finds interesting ways to film this conversation, using subtle zooms and pans, and hard-cut edits to impose an insightful rhythm on the proceedings. Maud’s theatrical trailer rounds out the disc; its dull intercutting of select scenes from the film unfortunately lends credence, for those who place their faith in advertising, to Gene Hackman’s famed one-sentence critique of Rohmer’s oeuvre in Night Moves.
La Collectionneuse includes Rohmer’s 13-minute short film A Modern Coed from 1966, a strange hybrid of documentary and fiction that purports to explain the rising number of career-oriented women entering French universities. At times it has the feel of a horror film, especially when juxtaposing the protagonist’s dissection of a cat’s brain with her homemaker’s duties. The 1977 episode of the TVOntario program Parlons cinema (running about 51 minutes) features an extended interview with Rohmer in which he touches on numerous issues surrounding his films and the state of cinema. Most interesting is his observation that current events and movies are strange, perhaps incompatible bedfellows ("Don’t turn the present into fiction," he opines), and he also gets a chance to address, with no small measure of humble acquiescence, Hackman’s dismissive Night Moves remark. La Collectionneuse’s theatrical trailer is an unappealing, not to mention misframed curio.
Claire’s Knee features Rohmer’s 17-minute DV short The Curve from 1999, which has the distinction, according to several reports, of being the first ever commercially screened digital production (at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival). Rohmer directed the movie as preparation for his digital feature The Lady and the Duke, but it is more than just an exercise, its tale of an art student (François Rauscher) who measures beauty only by comparison with the paintings and sculptures that he loves achieving a well-earned measure of Jacques Demy-esque profundity. A nine-minute excerpt from the French television program Le journal du cinema features interviews with actors Jean-Claude Brialy, Béatrice Romand, and Laurence de Monaghan (the latter two of whom deliciously argue about what makes Rohmer tick). Like its companions the Claire’s Knee theatrical trailer makes a masterpiece seem like an exercise in tooth-extracting tedium.
Love in the Afternoon includes Rohmer’s 19-minute short film Véronique and her Dunce, a failed bit of whimsy about a delinquent boy and his tutor, too long by half if not by whole. A 12-minute video afterword by writer-director Neil LaBute is a respectful testimonial that only ever-like Paul Schrader’s video introduction to Bresson’s Pickpocket-scratches the surface of a great artist’s themes, ideas, and influence. Another theatrical trailer, another revelation that Rohmer’s films are nearly impossible to encapsulate within advertising’s reductive vernacular.
Also included in the Criterion package is a reprint of the English translation of Rohmer’s novelizations of the "Six Moral Tales." That’s an erroneous description, in part, as Rohmer wrote these stories before he filmed them. As he explains in several of the included interviews in this set, Rohmer was uncertain if he would ever be a film director and so set down the "Moral Tales" in text so that they would exist in some form. Yet they also acted as an eventual blueprint for the screen versions and Rohmer admits in the book’s preface that the stories are, to him, incomplete without a corresponding kino-eye. That said, the tales do hold up wonderfully in these versions and make for an interesting point of comparison between a writer’s and a filmmaker’s differing approaches to their craft.
The final extra is a booklet of new essays on each of the "Moral Tales," introduced by Geoff Andrew and written by Ginette Vincendeau (The Bakery Girl of Monceau and Suzanne’s Career), Kent Jones (My Night at Maud’s), Phillip Lopate (La Collectionneuse), Molly Haskell (Claire’s Knee), and Armond White (Love in the Afternoon). Also included in the booklet are Néstor Almendros’s essay "On La Collectionneuse," Eric Rohmer’s essay "For a Talking Cinema," and an extensive cast and credits listing for all the "Moral Tales."
Owning this set is your moral imperative.