The cycle of films that Eric Rohmer created between 1962 and 1972, his ‘Six contes moraux’ (‘Six Moral Tales’), was an integral part of a body of work which continues to challenge theories of spectatorship and auteur cinema. Rohmer belonged to a generation of critics and writers whose postwar polemic against the ‘tradition of quality’ in French cinema embraced a rebellious ideology of filmmaking. However, as a writer and critic, Rohmer was more conservative and Catholic than most of his peers, referring to himself as “certainly not a man of the left”, Armand White, ‘Marriage, Rohmer Style’ in On The Six Moral Tales, The Criterion Collection booklet, USA, 2006. and fashioned a unique version of radical conservatism in the ‘Six Moral Tales’. (1)

These films are historically inscribed in a moment of profound turmoil and social change in France, and yet Rohmer’s work has frequently been described as apolitical, in that he avoided the contemporary issues that informed the narratives of other New Wave filmmakers. There is no mention of the politically charged climate surrounding the events of 1968, nor of post-colonial or racial issues; Rohmer’s notable ‘otherness’ is assigned specifically to identifications of class, gender, and sexual politics. These stories of denied gratification and unrealised promises of pleasure reflect Rohmer’s view on sexual and social codes, and how they were informed by his Catholic conservatism.

In her discussion of gender and mass culture in the New Wave, feminist film theorist Genevieve Sellier explains that these films issued a central place to a male protagonist, usually a young man, a ”kind of alter-ego of the New Wave auteur with whom the spectator empathises and identifies,” whose perspective is dominant in the film. (2) She asserts that the focus on the most abstract aspects of Rohmer’s mise-en-scène gave impetus to the “modernist, distanced gaze” of the New Wave. This incorporated masculinist, sexist representations in narratives that embraced women’s newly awakened sexual freedom, but only from within the phallocentric socio-cultural context of 50s France. Sellier criticises the paradoxical approach of Rohmer and his fellow Cahiers film critics: their ‘masculinity’ was in fact invisible to them as a universal part of French culture. These critics were not interested in the social dimensions of cinema, but in its aesthetic and formal dimensions, giving rise to a ubiquitous male subjectivity that looked at women with “sociological distance”. (3) However, a binary gender divide does not account for Rohmer’s complex relationship with the spectator. These films adopt Rohmer’s particular brand of irony and distance, and resituate spectatorship between the narrator’s subjectivity and the filmmaker’s intention.

The social configurations that inform the original literary volume Six Moral Tales, which was written well before the production of the films, are reflected in sophisticated, humorous, and highly ‘literate’ tales of love, betrayal, and seduction. The narratives suggest pre-modernist values and aesthetics, and romantic literary traditions, while simultaneously re-envisioning the realism and personal freedom that celebrated youth culture and sexual adventure during the New Wave. Rohmer’s six tales are constructed as variations on a theme, all featuring young male protagonists in pursuit of unfulfilled desires with distracting temptresses, while in the background looms the impossible and often arbitrary object of love that these men are convinced must embody their true path. Rohmer explains in a 1977 interview: “Of course, the audience isn’t interested in the girl he chooses but in the girl the film is about and who gets abandoned at the end. So right away the spectator will be at odds with the narrator…and it is this tension that I find interesting.” (4) The gap between the narrator and the viewer underscores Rohmer’s radical positioning to the spectator, enabling us to consider what is not explicitly drawn, to infer and see contradictions on multiple levels. The lack of coherent subjectivity within these films, then, emphasises the unreliability of the narrator’s reflections and his questionable self-awareness.

Rohmer’s cinema is one of contrasts between thematic and structural paradigms, between visual and verbal registers, and between discourse and behaviour in his “theater of ideas.” The narrative structures of these six tales are organised in a sustained dialectic that foregrounds desire and digression in conflict with a ‘moral’ order, one that places the protagonist between intellectualised reflection and the reality of immediate experience. Rohmer clarified the connotations of the term ‘moral’ in French as it applied to his stories in an interview given in 1974:

“In France we give the name ‘moralist’ to anyone who studies the ways of the heart—that is, of the personality, of social behavior, of the feelings…. A moralist is nearer to a psychologist than to a moralizer. But, that said, there is all the same in my Moral Tales a little morality in the traditional sense of the word; there is always a moment when the character has to make a decision of a moral nature, however high or low that ‘morality’ may be.” (5)

The ethical dilemma faced by the male protagonists in these tales is the choice between two women, which plays out through inconsequential but engaging plots involving banal situations and ordinary characters; dialogue substitutes for action, talk for eros. In his meditation on art and cinema in the 1989 publication The Taste For Beauty, Rohmer describes his approach to the selection of his subjects, and explains that rather than draw from his own experience, he locates them in his imagination as purely invented, having “no special competence in the subjects I treat”, and contends that “I see cinema as a means, if not to reproduce, at least to represent, to recreate life.” (6) A critical distinction in his discussion about the literary genesis of his works is that “My characters’ discourse is not necessarily my film’s discourse…neither the text of these commentaries, nor that of my dialogues, is my film…after all, I do not say, I show.” (7)

What Rohmer ‘shows’ is a filmmaking process devoid of mystification, and a cinematic language that stresses his clear concern for authenticity and realistic detail. This signature language is informed by the economy of the production techniques associated with Bazinian influences: his unconventional use of editing, long uninterrupted takes, the infrequency of close-ups and cross-cutting during dialogue, and most notably the absence of non-diegetic music. The unexpected, direct simplicity of a dialogue without cross-cutting is notable in Le genou de Claire (Claire’s Knee, 1970) when Jérôme (Jean-Claude Brialy and Aurora (Aurora Cornu) speak about his dispassionate relationship with his fiancée, and in Ma nuit chez Maud (My Night at Maud’s, 1969) during the dinner scene in Maud’s (Françoise Fabian) apartment, which highlights Maud’s seductive attentiveness and underscores the ambivalent power relations between the characters around the table.

Rohmer’s camera plays with the ‘realism’ of the protagonist’s situations, revealing his conflicting temptations that he struggles to disavow, which in La boulangère de Monceau (The Bakery Girl of Monceau, 1962) take the form of both a sensual woman and an entire window full of pastries. Rohmer uses sumptuous, provocative images, intended as evidence of the protagonist’s turmoil, to seduce the spectator in turn, inviting complicity in the protagonist’s sexualised, fetishistic voyeurism. In the opening montage of La collectioneuse (1966), the close-up images of Haydée (Haydée Politoff) as she strolls the beach are both a celebration and warning of her untamed sensuality. Rohmer locates the power behind Haydée’s sexuality and seductive complicity, the substance of Adrian’s (Patrick Bauchau) dangerous obsession, behind the gendered ‘male’ gaze.

The narrative of Claire’s Knee hinges on Rohmer’s ironic portrayal of Jérôme’s fetishistic obsession, which is ultimately depleted of its sexuality. Though the camera effectively caresses the isolated body part, the image of the knee becomes one of both unfulfilled erotic promise, and humiliating, confused desire. Molly Haskell describes Claire’s Knee as ”the fulcrum of an exquisite dissertation on the perversity of desire. The idea and the image are one.” (8) Rohmer carefully structures this sexual tension around the pervasive emotional ambivalence of the men in contrast to the women’s unambiguous and unafraid pursuit of desire and intimacy. The male protagonists’ intellectual, abstract concerns – about philosophy, religion, or the nature of art and beauty – leave them remote and emotionally impoverished. The women, in contrast, seem to be linked to the natural realm; often associated with untamed locations and weather conditions, they are foreboding, mysterious, sensual, or even animalistic.

Rohmer predominantly favours realist aesthetics, emphasising the ‘invisible camera’ and the use of naturalistic sound, which reinforce the distinct sense of place in his expositions. The rural sounds of nature, for example, underscore the sensuality of the natural environments in La collectioneuse and Claire’s Knee: the insistent bird chirping and animal sounds punctuate the natural order of the country, as well as the unbridled place of women within them. In his autobiography A Man with a Camera, cinematographer Nestor Almendros described Rohmer’s technical emphasis on discretion, humility, and ‘invisibility’ through his use of direct images and natural lighting, explaining that “the image [in La collectioneuse] is very functional…as close to real life as possible…as a result things seem just as they are; the characters are believable, barely fictional.” (9) He explains that they had no tracking equipment, and often used a 50mm lens, which most closely resembles human vision, de-emphasising the subjective personalisation of the filmmaking process.

In addition to André Bazin, Alfred Hitchcock was central to Rohmer’s cinematic universe, informing his appreciation for the play of narrative, the sense of intrigue and moral perspective in otherwise tame stories, and the ambiguous nature of the protagonists. The dramas of interpersonal relationships are the ‘non-events’, framed by a moral order that positions fidelity to enigmatic ideals – the choice of the ‘first’ woman – against betrayal to these ideals – the ‘second’ woman, who embodies the dangerous prospect of erotic temptation. Though the seduction never plays out fully, the hero’s dilemma is resolved by an unaccountable intervention of chance, divine grace, or irresponsible (and sometimes cruel) behaviour couched in high ‘moral principles’, which Rohmer codes as blind self-interest – the abstract ‘morality’ that guides his choices.

Speaking to Rohmer’s literary intertextuality, The Bakery Girl of Monceau features a hero, reminiscent of a 19th century bourgeois cad, who seduces the bakery girl for his own amusement, underscoring a class dichotomy that plays out through the two women and their respective Parisian neighborhoods. In the subsequent short La carrière de Suzanne (Suzanne’s Career, 1963), Rohmer again situates the vulnerable working girl as the object of the self-righteous protagonists’ seduction and betrayal. Gillaume (Christian Charrière) defends his vindictive Don Juanism: “Her total lack of dignity justified the scorn I’d shown all along for her looks and behaviour.” The ambiguous amorality of Bertrand (Philippe Beuzen), evidenced by his simultaneous disgust and admiration for his friend, and the indecisive ending, which suggests that Suzanne’s career aspirations are realised by a successful seduction, offer no certain conclusions about the film’s moral stance, but allow the spectator to experience the story’s misogyny through the men’s assumption that Suzanne’s behavior justified her humiliation and abuse. Although Rohmer’s position is unclear, the implicit critique of his protagonists is neither simplistic nor gendered.

In her essay ‘From Libertinage to Eric Rohmer’, Maria Tortajada postulates that the protagonist is ultimately “caught up in the web of his own ambiguity,” and that this ‘refusal of action’ in his escape from seduction via ‘moral’ rationalisations constitutes the necessary renunciation that is required to gain his freedom. She maintains that “this renunciation brings with it the deliberate erasure of the erotic scene.” (10) Tortajada analyses the multitextual allusions within Rohmer’s narratives, which “work through the absorption and transformation of a system of value and behavior borrowed from libertinage,” as it informs the “diary of seduction” that is played out in Claire’s Knee, recalling Laclos’ Liaisons Dangereuses. (11) The interlocutor, too, is a complicit partner in the seduction. Jerome and Aurora engage in a form of erotic interlude that parallels the game they devise; the “materiality of words” is essential to this narrative mechanism. Their collusion in this game echoes the double registers throughout the ‘Six Moral Tales’ series, in which the libertine project is inverted by women such as Haydée, Maud, Chloe (Zouzou), who ellipse men as powerful seductresses.

Claire’s Knee is the only one of the ‘Six Moral Tales’ that substitutes the protagonist’s narration with a diary, which allows Rohmer’s voice to be projected through Aurora, who intends to manipulate and novelise Jérôme’s actions. While examining the mural of Don Quixote, Aurora suggests that everyone is blindfolded – Jérôme may be deluded, as well – and in doing so reveals part of the film’s message. Rohmer’s reference to the Cervantic theme of disenchantment echoes his motif of discussing life through references to literature or art, as he does through Pascal in Maud. In her essay on Rohmer’s women, Molly Haskell posits that Claire’s Knee is really about the females in the film – irrespective of the lustful, rationalising male – and suggests that Rohmer neither idealises nor stereotypes women, but examines them with “a fine mixture of dispassion and empathy” (12) Jérôme is typical of Rohmer’s deluded protagonists, and the women in Rohmer’s ‘Six Moral Tales’, like Aurora, can foil men and unmask their prejudices.

In the dialectic of feminist criticism about Rohmer’s musings on female subjectivity is a disparity between the absence and oversubscription of romanticism, and between heterosexist imagery and the fabrications of gender in his narratives. In her commentary about Bakery Girl and Suzanne’s Career, the first of the ‘Six Moral Tales’, Ginette Vincendeau discusses Rohmer’s subtle oscillations between criticism and celebration of his protagonists, explaining that he “adopts the modernist posture of the new-wave filmmaker as an ’entomologist,’ observing his wicked human specimen from an ironic, quasi-scientific distance.” (13) Rohmer himself refers to the evolution of the character as the point of the drama in these tales, and not in the external events: “Everything is in the mind. Only the hero’s thoughts lend meaning to their acts.” (14) Although the viewer’s aesthetic identification is with the narrator, Rohmer systematically reveals the arrogance and self-deception that evoke sympathy for the ‘other’ – the mistreated woman. Although gendered assumptions in Rohmer’s narratives tend to position all women as desired objects, he also indexes multiple readings in order to underline the inadequacy of the protagonist’s hypocritical morality.

Vincendeau observes that Rohmer enhances the agency of his female characters, while highlighting his hero’s fallibility and weakness, reflected in “their tendency to opt for the blander, ’safe‘ women over the lively and sexually ‘active‘ women.” (15) The women in My Night at Maud’s are more sympathetic representations than the narcissistic, nameless protagonist. The characters are engaged in a discursive struggle, their power plays foregrounding Rohmer’s distance and suggesting his critique of his protagonist’s delusions. The complexities of interpretation are situated in the gap between the protagonist’s psychology, as elucidated by his self-narration, and the spectator’s reading of the character as it is formulated by his lies and omissions. The explicit binarism of Rohmer’s female characters underscores the protagonist’s misguided prejudices, contrasting Maud as a free-spirited, seductive libertarian with Françoise (Marie-Christine Barrault) as the illusive, abstract ideal of young, pious virtue. The end of the film undermines this binarism, and the viewer is left to reconsider Rohmer’s inconclusive message, which is staged indirectly by the illusion of a happy ending.

Rohmer describes the enduring “opposition of two registers” that informs the tension between his men and women: “one natural, the other human; one material, the other spiritual; one mechanistic, the other free; one of desire and appetite, the other heroism and grace.” (16) The progression of the ‘Six Moral Tales’ tracks an evolution of adolescent self-interest and preoccupation with pleasure in the first three films through La collectioneuse, to the adult concerns of moral life that shape the desires of the older protagonists in My Night at Maud’s, Claire’s Knee, and L’amour l’après- midi (Love in the Afternoon, 1972). This trajectory mirrors Rohmer’s own shifting perspectives about fidelity, the social conditioning of marriage, and the sexual and social identities of his female subjects.

Genevieve Sellier maintains that Rohmer views women as objects of desire, and with detached curiosity, even respect and admiration, but ultimately relegates his subjectivity to a male-dominated narrative that positions females as “infinitely interesting and provocative ‘others’”. (17) She centres her critique of Rohmer as a “sophisticated” filmmaker around his “fantasy of mastery over the female character”, and describes his approach as a “destructive and perverted project”: He fails to take the female project “seriously,” conjuring images of the modern women subjected to the same masculinist narrative. Sellier notes the unconscious class scorn of “bourgeois filmmakers” like Rohmer who do not take women from lower classes seriously, calling into question the gap between the filmmaker’s conscious intention and the spectator’s recognition of the women as victims of ‘class scorn’ in the first two films of ‘Six Moral Tales’. In her discussion about Love in the Afternoon, Sellier asserts that a conservative Rohmer takes these moral issues seriously, although he is far more sympathetic to the male protagonist in the film. (18) Conversely, Haskell finds his treatment of women to be more complex, “mocking those very processes, the unconscious strategies by which men use women for their own practical, moral and artistic purposes.“ (19)

This last film in the series is situated during the feminist movement, a backdrop comically echoed within Frédéric’s (Bernard Verley) self-referential, Felliniesque daydream, which features a parade of attractive, available women who have all appeared in the previous films of ‘Six Moral Tales’ cycle. The dangers of temptation are realised in a shift from the narrator’s euphoric fantasies about “passing beauties [who] are simply an extension of my wife’s beauty” to the real possibility of infidelity in Chloe, an aggressive bohemian whose liberated ideologies undermine Frédéric’s security. Author Armand White suggests that this film tests the principles of Rohmer’s ‘moral universe’, and that he uses marriage as a metonym for social union – a “fundamental social construction for sanctifying and containing men’s and women’s erotic drives.” (20)

The film, and thus the cycle, ends with a passionate affirmation of marriage and traditional ideals of social stability. It would be reductive to imagine, however, that Rohmer’s observations do not include an element of irony, considering that Frédéric’s wife grapples with her own uncertainties about her position in their idyllic union. Norman King’s discourse of irony in Rohmer’s work articulates the process of conversion in his cinema as a tradition construction that nevertheless “from the inside [gnaws] away at the structures it apparently supports.” He identifies this irony within the viewer’s state of uncertainty in trying to resolve the narrative enigma, which in turn requires that she/he revisit the beginning in order to try again, ultimately providing the “ambivalent pleasure of the unresolved challenge.” (21) The distance between the protagonist’s voice and the viewer’s eye destabilises the assumptions of subjective coherence and the spectator’s agency, illuminating one of the most compelling features of Rohmer’s oeuvre.

Endnotes

  1. Norman King, ‘Eye for Irony: Ma nuit chez Maud’ in French Film: Texts and Contexts, (eds.) Susan Hayward and Ginette Vincendeau, London: Routledge, 2000. p. 203
  2. Genevieve Sellier, ‘Gender, Modernism and Mass Culture in the New Wave’ in Gender and French Cinema, (eds.) Alex Hughes and James Williams, Oxford: Berg, 2001. p. 126
  3. Genevieve Sellier, Lecture at New York University Cinema Studies, March 28, 2007.
  4. André Labarthe, ‘Interview with Eric Rohmer’ in Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales DVD, The Criterion Collection, USA, 2006.
  5. C. G. Crisp, Eric Rohmer: Realist and Moralist, Bloomington: Indiana Uni. Press, 1988. p. 32
  6. Eric Rohmer, The Taste For Beauty, Cambridge: Cambridge Uni. Press, 1989. p. 81
  7. Rohmer, 80
  8. Molly Haskell, ‘Rohmer’s Women’ in On The Six Moral Tales, The Criterion Collection booklet, USA, 2006. p. 33
  9. Crisp, 112
  10. Maria Tortajada, ‘From Libertinage to Eric Rohmer: Transcending ‘Adaptation’, in A Companion to Literature and Film, (eds.) Robert Stam and Alessandra Raengo, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. p. 349
  11. Tortajada, 344
  12. Haskell, 34
  13. Ginette Vincendeau, ‘Blueprints For a Brilliant Oeuvre’ in On The Six Moral Tales, The Criterion Collection booklet, USA, 2006. p. 9
  14. Crisp, 32
  15. Vincendeau, 10
  16. Crisp, 30
  17. Sellier, 136
  18. Sellier, Lecture New York University
  19. Haskell, 34
  20. Armand White, ‘Marriage, Rohmer Style’ in On The Six Moral Tales, The Criterion Collection booklet, USA, 2006. p. 39
  21. King, 204