Monday, February 1, 2010

Following Up On Eric Rohmer

A few weeks ago, I said I was going to watch some Eric Rohmer films. I've made it through his Six Moral Tales and am very glad I did. I liked them so much, in fact, I bought another boxset of his films, this one featuring his next six film series, Comedies and Proverbs. But here's what I thought of the Moral Tales:

The Bakery Girl of Monceau - The first of Eric Rohmer's Six Moral Tales is a short film about a law student (future director Barbet Schroeder, with voiceover narration by future director Bertrand Tavernier) who sees a pretty woman walk by every day, over-thinks a plan to ask her out, and ends up buying cookies every day waiting to run into the girl again. He flirts with the bakery girl (for various potential reasons) and drops her when the first girl returns. It definitely feels like there's more of a movie in this story, something that could have run for 90 instead of 23 minutes. On the other hand, it's pretty much perfect as it is. Schroeder's attention to habit, his circular, obsessive logic and ultimate callousness feels very true to life.

Suzanne's Career - Much darker in tone than the first Moral Tale, it feels kind of like what would happen if the guys from Metropolitan tried to act like the jerks from In the Company of Men. A caddy young man dates a girl he doesn't really like. His friend (who seems to be a bit in love with the guy) really doesn't like the girl either, but considers dating her as well. The girl, seen exclusively from the boys' perspective, is a bit of a cipher. In the end, though, we see that Rohmer was totally on her side all along. The black and white cinematography has a really cool shadowyness to it during the many party sequences.

My Night at Maud's - The first feature length Moral Tale features some great acting from Jean-Louis Trintignant (Three Colors: Red) and cinematography by Nestor Almendros (Days of Heaven). Trinignant plays an engineer in his early 30s (this is the first of the Moral Tales not about students) who's trying to be Catholic and has some issues with Pascal. He's in love with (but has never talked to) a pretty blonde he's seen at Mass. He meets an old school buddy who drags him along to meet his girlfriend, the titular Maud, who interrogates him about his life and philosophy and kind of flirts with him. The bulk of the film is their conversation. All the Moral Tales have essentially the same plot, but differ in the kinds of characters they present the dilemma of fidelity to. The is the first one wherein every character is truly lovable (the guys in the first two are pretty much jerks, Trintignant here isn't perfect (he's actually kind clueless) but adorably so).

La Collectionneuse - A step backward in the likability department for the Moral Tales. The Almendros photography is in color this time, and he really captures the beauty of the film's Riviera location. Two guys stay at their friend's vacation house for a month, along with a girl neither of them knows but who seems kind of slutty. They make a kind of game out of competing for her without acknowledging they actually like her. Their behavior is, for the most part, detestable, but at least seems to know that and enjoys playing along for her own entertainment. The ending, which is pretty much perfect, makes me love the film a lot more than I did while watching it. I too want to spend my time at an awesome house on the ocean trying my best to do absolutely nothing.

Claire's Knee - A kind of mellow version of Dangerous Liaisons. Jean-Claude Brialy (from A Woman Is A Woman, though now with an awesome beard) is on vacation at Lake Annecy (which is, like the beach house in La Collectionneuse, a stunning location and definitely a place I'd rather be). He's about to move to Sweden to get married, when he meets an old friend who eggs him into a flirtatious relationship with a local teenaged girl. He than falls more seriously for the girl's older sister, or more specifically, certain parts of her. Like the protagonists of most of the Moral Tales, Brialy isn't a particularly admirable character, but he nonetheless remains both likable and sympathetic. This seems to be something special Rohmer brings to the films, maybe it's in the leisurely pace, the dialogue and narration-heavy scripts, the visual relations between the characters and their environments, or just something basically decent and humanistic about the way he sees the world. He's ever curious about behavior, and the lengths people go to to justify that behavior, but he never condemns and encourages that magnanimity in his audience. I can't ever imagine feeling bad after watching a Rohmer movie.

Love in the Afternoon - This is, apparently, a lot of people's favorite of the Moral Tales, but I think I liked it the least. Part of my problem with it, though, is pretty silly: it has, by far, the worst clothing I've seen in a film in a very long time. I know 1972 was an awful time for fashion, but still, this is ridiculous. Sure, it's kind of cute that the main character, a businessman (Bernard Verley) who has a platonic affair with an old friend (Chloe as played by Zouzou in some really horrifying outfits) while his wife is pregnant, wears nothing but turtlenecks (blue, red, lime green), except when he buys a tight flannel shirt right before meeting Chloe (symbolism!). The best part of the film happens early on, when Verley fantasizes about being able to control the minds of everywoman he meets, and all the ones he meets are the women from the other Moral Tales. A nice little touch tying them all together. This is the only of the Moral Tales wherein the protagonist is already married, in each of the others he's only in love with or engaged to another woman when faced with temptation. That makes him a bit more reprehensible and also makes the film more conventional: from a relaxed exploration of the male psyche as it tries (and usually fails) to relate to and understand women, it becomes a critique of the banality of bourgeois life. After the other five films in the series, I expect more from Rohmer.

Final Ranking:

1. My Night at Maud's
2. Claire's Knee
3. La Collectionneuse
4. The Bakery Girl of Monceau
5. Suzanne's Career
6. Love in the Afternoon

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