Audiences love or hate the films of Eric Rohmer. The magnificent Criterion set of the French director's Six Moral Tales
, his first film cycle, contains the films that first brought Rohmer to international attention - particularly My Night at Maud's
, Claire's Knee
, and Love in the Afternoon
- in gorgeous film-to-dvd transfers, accompanied by a bounty of short films and other extras. Watching any of these films, even the short features that begin the series (The Bakery Girl of Monceau
and Suzanne's Career
), you will discover if Rohmer is for you. To some, his examinations of social mores and the psychology of love are absorbing, subtle, and sublime; to others, they're meandering, talky, and flat. But even his detractors must acknowledge that Rohmer draws out the twists of joy and anguish, brief and ephemeral, that haunt lovers as they grope towards security and happiness; and though his visual approach is rigorously simple, his images - thanks to cinematographer Nestor Almendros - are luminous.
The Bakery Girl..., only 23 minutes long, has all the basic elements: A man, infatuated with one woman, flirts with another, all the while comforting himself with self-serving rationalizations and a comic lack of self-knowledge. This film's simplicity makes it more charming and satisfying than the more awkward efforts of Rohmer's next two films, Suzanne's Career (about a student who idolizes a callous older boy and only too late realizes that the girl they've been mocking may have a better grasp on life) and La collectioneusse (about a love triangle at a countryside estate; oddly, though released two years before the next film, it's presented as the fourth in the series), though each has moments of insight and delight. The remaining three movies are masterpieces: In My Night at Maud's, a Catholic engineer (the superb Jean-Louis Trintignant, Three Colors: Red) wrestles with his morals and his desires while spending the night with the enigmatic and alluring Maud (Francoise Fabian, 5 x 2). Claire's Knee gently mocks Les Liaisons Dangereuse as a man about to be married is goaded by a female friend into pursuing an infatuation with a young nubile nymph. And the last of the series, Love in the Afternoon (also known as Chloe in the Afternoon) follows a husband whose unconsummated affair with an old friend almost capsizes his happy marriage. What's most remarkable about this series is that, though each has virtually the same plot, watching all of these films in close succession only highlights their intricate differences and the complex shadings of delusion and yearning.
Rohmer's work grows more fascinating the more familiar his methods become.
Some filmgoers consider "nuance" code for "boring," but anyone who finds the collision of hearts and minds more exciting than car crashes will find Six Moral Tales revelatory and rewarding. --Bret Fetzer
The Criterion Collection has, as ever, put together a fantastic bunch of essays, interviews and ephemera to expand the viewer's understanding. A handful of short films shows Rohmer dabbling with techniques and ideas (one, The Curve
, is from 1999 and shot on video). Excerpts from French talk shows of the 1970s feature interviews with Rohmer and his actors (including the impossibly charming and precocious Beatrice Romand from Claire's Knee
, who went on to appear in other Rohmer films).
A thoughtful commentary by director Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men) praises Rohmer's nonjudgemental eye toward his characters and his respect for the audience's intelligence. Also included are two booklets, one with a series of critical essays on the films (which provide a wealth of intriguing perspectives, and includes Rohmer's own seminal essay For a Talking Cinema) and book-of-the-story versions of all the films, which reveal Rohmer's clean and vigorous prose style. But the most valuable and engrossing extra is an hour-long conversation between the elderly Rohmer and Barbet Schroeder, who produced all of the Moral Tales; these old friends, both mentally sharp and witty, ruminate on everything from accusations of being "filmed theatre" to scheduling scenes around the ripening of cherries. Rohmer sprinkles this warm, inviting conversation with philosophy and film theory without an ounce of pretension or snobbery; he's everything you want a French intellectual auteur to be. --Bret Fetzer