The French New Wave represents a rejection of the old way of making film. This resembled a great series of pictures shot on location, of their own time, all putting forward something like an argument for authorial intent or auteur theory. They would seem so present and representative as to feel like Documentaries, capturing exactly the zeitgeist of their times. Éric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales are a brilliant example of the French New Wave and the way we encounter men and women in those films.
His Moral Tales bridge the gap freely between literature and cinema, often as pure and freeform expressions of both. Rohmer directs like the writer writes, pouring consciousness and intimate perspective into every frame. These are stories about our personal relationships reflecting the underlying morality of those relationships. Rarely are they driven by action—we must adapt to a different pace—these are films concerned more with the individual experience of thought and playing that story through. Let’s join Rohmer, the master of the form, from beginning to end, and explore the great morality of the French New Wave.
The Bakery Girl of Monceau (La Boulangère de Monceau, 1963)
This stunning short film presents the foundation for the moral tales to follow: a man occupied with a relationship with one woman meets another woman who questions what he believes. It also establishes the specific narrative device used as a throughline across the six films—a literary first-person narration is added to provide the benefit generally exclusive to literature of always being in the character’s head and having their thoughts. An interesting note about the first person narration: it’s not provided by the central lead, Barbet Schroeder, but another actor, Bertrand Tavernier, exemplifying the voice running inside our head is often so different from our personal voice.
The story entangles an idle man on a conquest, as these things tend to go. Schroeder’s character relentlessly seeks a relationship with the alluring Sylvie (Michèle Girardon). This becomes a test of patience as he waits café-side every day, squandering his potentials for advances, as she walks briskly past. She walks with such a defined ignorance of his existence, she is all but sure to have recognized he’s there, his friend muses. Eventually he’ll work up the courage to approach and fumbling through a flirtation, make his move. This does not immediately work, and she subsequently disappears from her usual routes, causing our narrator to instead go in pursuit of a nubile café worker instead. If he could not have what he wants, could he position his obvious attention from other women toward eventually capturing the object of his desire?
This is the moral quandary of The Bakery Girl of Moceau. As his relationship with Jacqueline (Claudine Soubrier) expands with his ever-increasing appetite for baked goods, our character wrestles with his own imagination. It’s clear that Sylvie has superior positioning mentally and this new girl’s not-so-easy-going nature is not inherently appealing, while her youth, only aged eighteen, makes her an easy target. This short explores the predatory nature of men and the existence of free will within the forming of relationships. It’s cued by interpersonal dialogues (we’ll not call them monologues, as there are two voices), warring over the option of two women. When the inevitable comes to fruition and both women enter the fold for a date in the final moments, what kind of moral decision is left to make? These decisions have already been made from the beginning.
Suzanne’s Career (La Carrière de Suzanne, 1963)
Suzanne’s Career is the story of an independent woman entangled in a love triangle with two sporting young men. Suzanne, played by a deliciously deceptive Catherine Sée, becomes the object of affection between two men, the serious Bertrand (Philippe Beuzen) and the coy, womanizing Guillaume (Christian Charrière). They decide to exploit her vulnerabilities for a tryst and expend all her money and career opportunities. The cruel twist of fate is that by the end, Suzanne may get the better of them.
Moral and ethical issues abound. Our boys have a not entirely hetero-normative feeling for each other, the way men can be when egging on one another’s conquests. This leaves Bertrand the outsider, as Guillaume quickly beds Suzanne and becomes bored of her character. This sparks a friendly animosity and competition within Bertrand, as he slowly shifts to being the opportunistic character, and finding blame around every turn. While they exploit her for all she’s worth, the story doubles back around when Bertrand later meets Suzanne and her new boyfriend for a swim. Yes, it does not matter if she had been their idea of a “plump” exploitable woman, she’s come out ahead of everyone, with a handsome boyfriend and evidently full life. The film offers a suggestion that this is the ultimate revenge.
Lensed in 16mm, it’s stylistically outside the calling card of the French New Wave, awash in the feeling of a completely different kind of cinema. If the obvious framing and shooting style falls out of pattern, the rest of the film does not. Running at a short clip, Suzanne’s Career continues the trend of internalized feeling: sparsely featured with diegetic sound and the character’s own inner-turmoil peppering the story. Amusing enough, here the narration contrasts distinctly with the on-screen action, a wonderful example of the unreliable narrator.
My Night at Maud’s (Ma nuit chez Maud, 1969)
My Night at Maud’s is startling in its complexity and the complete maturation of Rohmer’s form. It’s about probability and chance, free will and Pascal’s religious theory of choice, and yet remains a variation of the same stories told in the last two movies. The story involves a man with no name (played by Jean-Louise Trintignant) who finds a beautiful woman in church and decides to marry her outright but not before playing with ideas of infidelity and having heated arguments about Pascalian theory with a few close friends.
The man is a mathematician and is given to studious analysis. We find him trying to lead the life of asceticism put forward in Pascal’s wager: that given the choice to embrace religion, it only offers a greater potential and relatively no downsides. Here we find the message of marital faith entwined with his Catholicism. Throughout, he is calculating the probability of his situations and using his outcomes, making the best informed decision. He did not have to have the blond and when he stays overnight with the provocative socialite Maud, she offers herself, testing his conviction and will in his belief that some girl he’s seen at church must be the best possible choice in all options. This creates for him the illusion of sanctity in a faithful relationship—as he puts it, “Religion adds to love, but love adds to religion, also.”
My Night at Maud’s is deeply entrenched in its moment of France. It’s worthy of note that it is based in the hometown of Pascal, a frosty Clermont-Ferrand set during the dawn of Christmastime. This film simmers and provokes deep-seated conflicts of belief, contrasting Christian theology with principles of the Marxists, creating a capsule of its time that stands as quintessentially French Catholic. Intended to be the third of the Morals set, it does not align chronologically only because it was released out of order with the next film.
La Collectionneuse (1967)
La Collectionneuse is an ironic statement on idleness. In some way, it is a document of Rohmer’s own idleness, a holding pattern, while he awaited Jean-Louise Trintignant’s availability to shoot My Night at Maud’s. It’s his first color picture and first partnership with cinematographer Néstor Almendros. La Collectionneuse is a cinematographer’s film, as languid and out-for-vacation as its shooting feels. It’s filled with a great irony where Rohmer finds an inspired shooting location and then enlists the help of first-time actors to roam about the landscape improvising on the idea of doing nothing, listless and free of form like summer break. What emerges is the absolute truth framed as simply and perfectly as a camera lens can capture it.
Young Haydée is a collector of men. Here, we have an art collector and a painter as our male leads, who wish to impart some meaning on her new sexuality. The pair debate the esoteric beauty of the desired woman, debating whether she is beautiful at all, or if promiscuity has ruined their pure vision of love. Here is a realistic triangle where the sides cannot get what they want, if their idle self-reflection ever arrives at a desired objective.
La Collectionneuse is the ideal expression of Rohmer’s caméra-stylo concept, where the camera is the director’s pen, and he writes his novel using an audiovisual language. Once again, we’re given only one perspective of narration, from lead Adrien (Patrick Bauchau), and it’s our most self-reflective of the Moral Tales. His speech is filled with bon mots and idle yearning for love and understanding. This is the most realistic of the series, and its morals project through with the stunning clarity of its cinematography.
Claire’s Knee (Le genou de Claire, 1970)
Now outside the 1960s, the French New Wave is beginning to feel like the French Old Wave, while a mature Rohmer makes his most literary contribution yet. Claire’s Knee is a special film about temptation. The moral problem of the day is one of lust. In this one, a man, Jerome (Jean-Claude Brialy), committed to a diplomat’s daughter goes on vacation at his friend’s writer’s retreat as she bets him to explore his feelings for two young girls who are both preoccupied with boyfriends. In this way, it has meta-literary commentary and allows the authorial intent to shift between characters, the first time outside Suzanne that a woman seems to determine the narrative, although we know women always decide the fate of the man anyway. Here is a film that has read more French literature than you have and is itself an important piece of that canon.
Claire’s Knee then is about the perversity of attraction. Jerome plays both young women: Laura who is wise beyond her years and her half-sister, Claire, whose body is beyond her years. Our Jerome takes up his challenge, with Laura quickly feeling for him while Claire holds up her resistance. She just wants her bad boy boyfriend who treats her badly and cheats. The matter of the story is he’s playing at romance only as a moral condition, fodder for his friend’s story, or as his last experiment before entering into a life of one-size-fits-all commitment.
The staggering beauty of the piece is that it’s both the most literary and cinematic of Rohmer’s oeuvre. This is the defining masterwork that has all of the parts in one place. Here we can connect each of the stories before and the one after, as Jerome exudes the morals of each of this long novel’s chapters. It is something like the climax of the book where everything promised has now been delivered, at the pinnacle of its director’s career, the journey is now complete, and all that’s left is for Rohmer to bring us home.
Love in the Afternoon (L’amour l’après-midi, 1972)
There is no other ending for the romantic than Marriage. That is the end of our line. Rohmer knew how to go about it, spinning his final tale with the maturity of the artist who has told this story five times before, and has become expert in his own field. That leaves Love in the Afternoon a final triumph of the romantic spirit. Not to break from tradition, a ring on the finger, it turns out, does not keep our decently married man from wandering astray, his eye following every passerby. In Rohmer’s finest moment of literary license, the soliloquy here expresses everything his Moral Tales have been about:
“What makes the streets of Paris so fascinating, is the constant yet fleeting presence of women whom I’m almost certain I’ll never see again. It’s enough that they’re there, indifferent, conscious of their charm, happy to test its effect on me, as I test mine on them, by tacit agreement, without even the subtlest smile or glance. I feel their seductive power without giving in to it. This doesn’t estrange me from Helen. Far from it. I tell myself those passing beauties are simply an extension of my wife’s beauty. They enrich her beauty and receive some of hers in return. She’s the guarantee of the world’s beauty, and vice versa. When I embrace Helen, I embrace all women. But I also feel my life passing by as other lives unfold along paths parallel to mine, and it frustrates me not to be part of them, not to have stopped these women for a moment in their hurried rush to some unknown job or unknown pleasure. And I dream. I dream that actually I possess them all. Lately in my spare moments, I delight in a daydream that grows clearer and more detailed by the day. A childish daydream, probably inspired by something I read at the age of ten. I imagine I possess a device worn around the neck that gives off a magnetic fluid capable of annihilating others’ free will. I dream I use its powers on the women who pass by the café… indifferent… hurried… hesitant… busy… accompanied… alone.”
These six traits listed are assigned to the women of the Six Moral Tales, as they pass by, and the film is connected and emboldened by its past. These Tales were shot a time of absolute sexual revolution in Paris, where women and gays became empowered, and then there was the chaotic fugue state of the average male’s mind in post sex, present empowerment Paris. Rohmer operates on two significant guiding principles of chance and free will, with the man’s conscious thought leading decisions. What he does with them is not the end goal but exploring the inner turmoil and psychology, specifically only available to the novelist; this is where Rohmer has broken down all the walls of cinema. As the afternoon sun pours into the room, this time, and for the end of time, the man makes the Catholic choice of commitment.