Mike Dub: Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales comes at an interesting time. Over the course of the 1960s and the sexual revolution, Rohmer made deeply introspective films that seem somewhat out of touch with the free love spirit of their time. His conservative aesthetic provides a nearly ironic, visual stability to films about characters who face deeply turbulent dilemmas – as though providing a peaceful, introspective oasis during a time ruled by brash, anarchic aesthetics. Rohmer was a proud anachronist (as the litany of named-dropped, centuries-old philosophers – not to mention a Catholic preoccupation – would suggest), and his Moral tales series, as Armond White puts it, is a “consideration of the basic, existential elements of life: emotion, time, and space.” His films do not simply consider sex, but consider the choices people make, and why, and, most importantly, he leaves us to ponder the ramifications of both the choices his protagonists make, and the ones they don’t.
DB: I think you made a good point in your Love in the Afternoon review about how the films in the Moral Tales series, for all of their formal and thematic sameness, actually chart the stages of romantic maturity. The Bakery Girl of Monceau is structured around a schoolboy-style crush; in Suzanne’s Career, the moral crisis is more focused on our hero’s unwillingness to betray a friend who has no such qualms in return, and the protagonist in My Night at Maud’s contemplates “cheating” on the unblemished blonde he barely knows. The stakes keep rising from there, as the protagonists’ romantic identities become more clearly defined, and the intellectualized lust that defines them more complex and potentially harmful. In La Collectionneuse, the hero has a girlfriend staying overseas; in Claire’s Knee, he has an absentee fiancee; and in Love in the Afternoon, he is a legitimate family man. But despite Rohmer’s relative conservatism and Catholic obsessions, he is never evangelical or judgmental – he does not offer up these moral quandaries in order to make clean separations between right and wrong behaviors, but rather to consider the effects of moral choices, even the ones that we have no control over.
MD: The constant reiteration of themes definitely makes for compelling cinema. However, one thing I couldn’t help think while watching the series is that these films perhaps should not be watched in such quick succession – at least for the first time. They are films that slowly sink in, films to chew on, and the development of the themes and technique suggest a maturing filmmaker with each new release. In other words, the films grow faster than you do. That is not to say that my enjoyment of the films has been reduced in some way, but rather that I look forward to revisiting at least a couple of these films some time in the future. The beauty of cinema, after all, is that it has the power to change along with you.
DB: It is true that for the most part, Rohmer’s Moral Tales trace the same patterns over and over again, to the point that the individual films can feel like variables in a mathematical equation. There is a wonderful sequence in Love in the Afternoon where the male protagonist, yearning to steal an afternoon with the sexually available Chloe, realizes he will have to lie to his pregnant wife in order to make it happen. As it turns out, circumstances allow him an end-around, and he is bequeathed an open afternoon for fornication while only being compelled into a marginal bastardization of the truth, a course that he claims “appeased my scruples”. Despite his characters’ constant compulsion to define themselves and their world, a moral philosophy in the Rohmer universe is often conceived as the self-defensive child of fate, rather than as weapon to be used against it. That is a fascinating, soul-scouring worldview, and if I had seen Love in the Afternoon first, or separate from the rest of the Moral Tales, I imagine its impact would have been immense. But as the sixth film in a festival full of striking similarities and vague differences, the moment felt slightly more programmed and inevitable than it would have otherwise.
Slow pan to a static shot of a desk with flowers on it, and…FIN! Let’s put a bow on this sucker by ranking and grading all six of the films we watched for our Rohmer’s Moral Tales festival:
1) The Bakery Girl of Monceau (A-)
2) Claire’s Knee (B+)
3) La Collectionneuse (B+)
4) My Night at Maud’s (B+)
5) Love in the Afternoon (B+)
6) Suzanne’s Career (B)
1) La Collectionneuse (B+)
2) Claire’s Knee (B+)
3) The Bakery Girl of Monceau (B+)
4) Love in the Afternoon (B)
5) My Night at Maud’s (B)
6) Suzanne’s Career (B-)