Éric Rohmer, Claire's Knee
Éric Rohmer, Claire's Knee

The Conception of Morality in Éric Rohmer’s ‘Six Moral Tales’

Éric Rohmer isn’t interested in a pure critique of misogyny; his moral tales are mere observations on how we use other people to serve our interests.

Six Moral Tales
Éric Rohmer
5 May 2020

There’s no drama in a perfectly healthy relationship, but then, no romance is perfect. Cinema as an art form might be accused of relishing the more harmful or abusive relationships because stories, we’re told—even those about people in love—are motivated by conflict. There’s no doubt that mainstream filmmaking is generally inclined toward exaggeration and embellishment, not in the least because big-screen melodrama tends to sell better than the imitation of life in all its languid ambiguity. But cinema also has the capacity to perform a kind of panoramic realism, to find truth in human characters and complex situations that feel real as much as it can amplify and fictionalize them. Cinema need not hyperbolize the theater of romance to achieve engaging and emotional drama.

French director Éric Rohmer made beautiful, extraordinary films about the everyday ugliness of human relationships. No filmmaker has been so dedicated to exploring the astonishing normality of ill-fated romance as Rohmer, whose cinematic hexalogy Six Moral Tales, systematically dissects the complicated impulses and motivations through which people operate in games of romantic negotiation.

The most literary and introspective of the French New Wave auteurs, Éric Rohmer began his career, like many of his contemporaries, as a writer and film critic before becoming a director, and before he adapted them to film, his Six Moral Tales were originally drafted as short stories. Even in movie form, they bear the marks of prose translated into film language. Through intimate investigations of character and profound meditations on friendship, dating, lust, infidelity, and marriage, his films confront the personal choices and social attitudes that continue to shape our real-world love stories.

The Bakery Girl of Monceau (1963)

The first of ÉricRohmer’s Six Moral Tales, The Bakery Girl of Monceau (1963), is a short film centered on a male student (Barbet Schroeder) who becomes helplessly enamored with Sylvie (Michèle Girardon), a girl he passes every day on the streets of Paris. When he suddenly stops seeing Sylvie around, he becomes involved with Jacqueline (Claudine Soubrier), the young clerk at a bakery on his route, as a twisted sort of punishment for Sylvie, whose disappearance he can’t accept.

Then one day Sylvie reappears and accepts his romantic advances, and the boy drops Jacqueline without a word of regret, saying it was above all a moral choice because the ostensibly classier, more attractive Sylvie was a better fit for his position in life.

Suzanne’s Career (1963)

Éric Rohmer expands on the toxic relationships of The Bakery Girl of Monceau with the second of the moral tales, Suzanne’s Career (1963). In the film, two students, Bertrand (Philippe Beuzen) and his boorish, womanizing friend Guillaume (Christian Charrière), toy with the affections of a girl they meet in a cafe, Suzanne (Catherine Sée).

Guillaume starts dating her and treats her horribly, but Bertrand, rather than get angry with Guillaume, becomes more and more hateful of Suzanne for allowing herself to be disrespected. When someone steals money from Bertrand’s room, he blames Suzanne rather than Guillaume, the far more likely culprit, which further spirals their relationships out of control.

These two films—made early in Rohmer’s filmmaking career and shot on location with low budgets on 16mm film and with mostly untrained actors—exemplify the raw and detached character of many of the French New Wave films that shaped the culture at the time. But under their gritty exterior, Rohmer’s first films were unique in that they found expression in the detailed psychological study of characters more than the formal deconstruction of the cinematic medium.

In the following years, he would rely less on his protagonists’ narration to tell his stories, but The Bakery Girl of Monceau and Suzanne’s Career are both built on it, living in the twisted thoughts of bourgeois young men who view the women in their lives with a casual hostility and a sense of entitlement.

Éric Rohmer’s films unfold with a matter-of-fact distance, neither condemning nor endorsing the misogyny on display and, consequently, illustrating how utterly commonplace it is. His young male characters objectify and categorize women based on cursory examinations of appearance and behavior, throw them away when convenient, and rarely give a moment’s thought to their feelings.

Concerning the theft of his money in Suzanne’s Career, Bertrand admits, “I preferred to think Suzanne was guilty than to suspect Guillaume, whose dirty tricks had never been aimed at me before.” The student in The Bakery Girl of Monceau likewise thinks Jacqueline—defined with barely veiled disdain as a “bakery girl”—too lowly to be worthy of any real consideration. Of course, in both cases the protagonists are happy to receive sexual and romantic gratification from the young women they nonetheless see as beneath them, at least until something better comes along.

These are certainly ugly characters—advantaged men who view all aspects of life through a lens of greed, ownership, and self-profit. But the beauty of Rohmer’s films is that they aren’t judgmental or sanctimonious. They are slice-of-life portraits of an everyday reality that, like it or not, reflect real social patterns.

La collectionneuse (1967)

La collectionneuse (made in 1967 but conceived as the fourth film in the series) acts as a bridge between the first two stories of youthful frivolity and the more mature final episodes. In the film, Adrien (Patrick Bauchau) seeks a quiet holiday in solitude at a friend’s vacation home, but his plans are quickly interrupted by two other lodgers: his friend Daniel (Daniel Pommereulle) and a seductive woman named Haydée (Haydée Politoff).

Haydée, who goes out with a different man every night, begins sleeping with Daniel, which prompts Adrien to cycle between feelings of jealousy, friendly affection, and disdain. He soon dedicates himself to the mission of not being added to Haydée’s collection of conquests, thinking himself better than her easily preyed-upon lovers, but his objective is complicated by a burgeoning fondness for and attraction to her.

My Night at Maud’s (1969)

My Night at Maud’s (1969), the planned third film in the series, delves into the conflict of a man named Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Trintignant) between his existing principles and a blossoming romantic attraction to a woman, Maud (Françoise Fabian), whom he believes exists outside those standards. As in The Bakery Girl of Monceau, Jean-Louis sees an attractive woman named Françoise (Marie-Christine Barrault) in passing and immediately marks her as his future wife, given that she embodies all the characteristics he decides are necessary to the role: blonde, Catholic, etc.

But when Jean-Louis’s professor friend Vidal (Antoine Vitez) invites him to meet Maud, an intelligent and vibrant pediatrician, they discuss faith, the theological theories of Blaise Pascal, and romance until Maud begins to make playful advances toward him. Jean-Louis treats it as a test, because as taken as he is with Maud, she doesn’t fit his ideal profile of femininity (dark haired, atheist, etc.), and he wants to remain faithful to his attraction to Françoise.

My Night at Maud’s is among the most sophisticated of the Six Moral Tales, not only for its rich philosophical influence but also for its filmic quality, particularly in the casting of stars Trintignant and Fabian, whose verbal clashes feel all the more engaging due to the actors’ experience and palpable chemistry.

La collectionneuse feels similarly advanced in relation to the director’s previous films; it’s the first color film of the series, exhibiting the lush seasonal scenery that would become a classic motif of his. As strong as Suzanne’s Career and especially The Bakery Girl of Monceau are, the third and fourth of Éric Rohmer’s moral tales are clearly the product of a far more developed filmmaker.

At the same time, La collectionneuse and My Night at Maud’s both highlight a primary theme of the series: the unnecessary and unfortunate intellectualization of love. In both films, the main characters overanalyze the women they meet, convince themselves of imagined moral precepts, and craft staunch codes of conduct to their own detriment. Like the students in the earlier films, they won’t allow themselves to love the women they are attracted to because they see them as inferior beings—one because the woman sleeps with many men, and the other because the woman doesn’t conform to his impractical ideals.

Adrien even admits in La collectionneuse, “My greatest defect is trying to confirm my first impressions.” Their egos won’t allow them to live happily, and they effectively philosophize themselves into misery or, at least, dissatisfaction. Éric Rohmer’s films illustrate how relationships are so much simpler—and more gratifying—when approached and nurtured with an open mind and just a touch of humility.

Claire’s Knee (1970)

The penultimate film of Éric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales is Claire’s Knee (1970), another summery color film set on the picturesque Lake Annecy among expensive vacation homes and harbor villages. It follows Jérôme (Jean-Claude Brialy) who, after running into his old friend Aurora (Aurora Cornu), begins to play with the adolescent affections of the two teenage daughters—Laura (Béatrice Romand) and Claire (Laurence de Monaghan)—of Aurora’s landlady (Michèle Montel).

Because he’s engaged to a woman in Sweden, Jérôme is convinced that other women no longer have an effect on him; Aurora, an author, doesn’t believe him, and encourages his flirtations with Laura, who has feelings for him, as inspiration for a story. He soon takes a more deliberate interest in Claire, despite her having no affection toward him.

Love in the Afternoon (1972)

Love in the Afternoon (1972, a.k.a. Chloe in the Afternoon), the final film in the series, is about Frédéric (Bernard Verley), a successful businessman happily married to a schoolteacher named Hélène (Françoise Verley), whose life is casually upended by the sudden appearance of an old friend, Chloé (Zouzou). Though he claims to love his wife, his renewed friendship with Chloé, who starts to visit his office nearly every day, sparks a romantic magnetism he finds hard to avoid.

In some sense, each of Éric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales is about fidelity, but Claire’s Knee and Love in the Afternoon strike out at traditional marital fidelity with a deeper philosophical lens. In one scene in Love in the Afternoon, Frédéric asks Chloé if it’s possible for him to love two women; his dilemma is one more frequently explored in cinema (evidenced by the fact Love in the Afternoon was remade in 2007 as the Chris Rock comedy I Think I Love My Wife), but it’s a question of personal principle in Éric Rohmer’s hands, explored as a way of understanding how both faithfulness and desire can define aspects of one’s personhood. It’s a more sophisticated understanding of the problem of infidelity as an evolution of how the terms of passion and attraction intersect with belief systems and identity formation in the midst of one’s adulthood—a time when people generally believe themselves to have life totally figured out.

This just emphasizes the way the transformation from adolescence to adulthood is depicted in Six Moral Tales, from the trivial narcissism and boyish insensitivity of the students in The Bakery Girl of Monceau and Suzanne’s Career to the more developed egotism of the characters in My Night at Maud’s and La collectionneuse to meditations on principled self-indulgence in Claire’s Knee and Love in the Afternoon. Rohmer shows us how romance is practiced differently with age, how notions of what we want and need become more concrete, and how life becomes less hurried and indifferent with time.

In some senses, though, very little changes for the type of men Rohmer’s moral tales observe between young adulthood and maturity. After all, is there much difference between the student’s manipulation of Jacqueline in The Bakery Girl of Monceau and Jérôme’s perverse abuse of power in Claire’s Knee? He says of Claire, “Even though I don’t want her, I feel I have some sort of claim on her. A claim born from the very strength of my desire… The turmoil she arouses in me gives me a sort of right over her.”

La collectionneuse‘s Adrien and Jean-Louis of My Night at Maud’s deal with comparable compulsions to alter and edit women to their whims, as though they hold positions of moral authority or divine knowledge that women, by their nature, are locked out from. This, it seems, is a persistent preoccupation of heterosexual manhood: power over women or, failing that, the perception of it. But Rohmer isn’t interested in a pure critique of misogyny; his moral tales are mere observations on how we use other people to serve and promote our own interests, as well as the ways in which we invent narratives out of our relationships through which we define ourselves. They’re about how easy it is for us to complicate a good thing through the irrational impulse to overthink.

Of course, the “moral” aspect of Rohmer’s moral tales is not true moralism, but a conception of morality that is completely internal, centered around the satisfaction or dissatisfaction of one’s own desires. Rohmer’s characters act through morality in the sense that they conduct their relationships through a series of philosophical calculations and deliberations aimed at the ultimate goal of placating their conscience in the event of misdeeds. Each of his protagonists believes themselves to act through firm principle; if they do evil in such a way that conforms to their self-serving ethical guidelines, then they’ve actually done a moral good.

It’s all pomp and posture, of course, as La collectionneuse‘s Haydée observes when she snaps, “I’m fed up with these phony nonconformists.” For Rohmer’s characters, romance is a game to win without guilt, and morality is a device retrofitted to those ends.

Each of the protagonists of the Six Moral Tales seem to share in the hubris of believing they can plan for the uncertainties of love and life. They are students and academics, artists and writers, businesspeople and intellectuals, men and women with successful lives or on their way to them; they believe they have an enlightened perspective, and that enlightenment gives them a sense of control over their lives. But at every turn their ideas about the world and themselves are upended, and whatever special knowledge they claim to have evaporates in time.

Still, they justify and rationalize it all within a constantly shifting framework of morality, illustrating the unwillingness to be surprised, to change, or to keep an open mind. Incidentally, these are all reasons relationships fail: stubbornness, an unwillingness to adapt, etc. As people grow old, they garrison themselves in entrenched beliefs, in traditions and conventions established by lives nestled in routines developed through experience, until there’s nothing left to learn.

This is especially true of the type of characters Rohmer excels at constructing: bourgeois intellectuals comfortable with their social and economic circumstances, men who enjoy the patriarchal privileges society affords them, people who generally live in exceptional security. What value could change or self-reflection possibly bring to them? Transformation requires a level of vulnerability and humility that most people simply don’t have.

Nonetheless, Éric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales advise us to be more receptive to life and all its disorder and to lead more open and empathetic lives. They show us the kind of people we too often are—stuck-up, insecure, spiteful, callous—and demonstrate the beauty in the alternative. They reflect our insignificance back at us, but tell us to fall in love anyway.

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The Criterion Collection’s long-awaited Blu-ray upgrade of it landmark Éric Rohmer boxset comes complete with the 2006 DVD edition’s special features, including its exciting showpiece: a book of Rohmer’s original Six Moral Tales stories translated to English. The adaptations are remarkably straightforward; Éric Rohmer’s prose is appropriately stark, stoic, and pleasantly aloof, but as with his filmmaking, it’s equally emotionally incisive. Whether read as an addendum to his films or as a deeper look into his characters, stories, and artistry, the book adds far more to the set than you could ask for from any other special feature.

Almost as compelling is the inclusion of five more short films within the boxset— Presentation, or Charlotte and Her Steak (1961), Véronique and Her Dunce (1958), Nadja in Paris (1964), A Modern Coed (1966), and The Curve (1999)—as well as an episode of an educational French TV program on Blaise Pascal from 1965 directed by Éric Rohmer. Also included is a large slate of interviews with Rohmer and his actors, as well as critic Jean Douchet, producer Pierre Cottrell, and a video afterword by playwright Neil LaBute. The booklet includes an introduction and essays on each film featuring Geoff Andrew, Ginette Vincendeau, Kent Jones, Nestor Almendros, Molly Haskell, and Armond White, as well as Rohmer’s critical essay, “For a Talking Cinema”.