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.