Every few months, Criterion releases box sets that serve as their own sort of home film classes. Whether it’s the massive collection for Ingmar Bergman, Godzilla, or the upcoming release of Agnes Varda’s work, these are not merely collections of films but volumes that include supplemental material designed to enhance one’s appreciation of the work being studied. They allow a deep dive into their subject matter in way that’s honestly better than I got at my small college when it came to film study classes.
The latest is an excellent set six Eric Rohmer movies, collected under the banner of “Six Moral Tales.” All six films were produced in the span of 1963 to 1972, an essential decade in filmmaking history. Watching them together in one set, as I have in the last few weeks, is fascinating on multiple levels. Not only are at least two of them widely considered masterpieces, but one can see Rohmer's development as a filmmaker, especially when compared to the first two, as well as the entire industry over that groundbreaking period of time. Each disc in this three-disc set contains two films along with a massive amount of archival material, including additional short films by Rohmer, interviews, and more.
Breaking it down by disc:
“The Bakery Girl of Monceau” & “Suzanne’s Career”
The first two films of the “Six Moral Tales” weren’t widely recognized until after Rohmer became an international success with films three and four (actually released in the opposite order, but we’ll get to that later). Rohmer himself was reportedly displeased with the production values of these short films, but they’re fascinating now to watch in the way one can see a masterful filmmaker developing his visual language. The connection from the 23-minute “The Bakery Girl of Monceau” to films like “My Night at Maud’s” is strikingly easy to make visually, and not just because all six films follow a similar story structure.
In “Bakery Girl,” a man becomes obsessed with a stranger he sees on the street, stalking the sidewalk in the hope of seeing her again. In doing so, he stumbles into a bakery, where he begins a flirtatious relationship with a worker there. He eventually ends up with his original object of obsession. It’s less refined than later Rohmer, but a great short film nonetheless.
The same could be said for “Suzanne’s Career,” which contains one of Rohmer’s most traditional love triangles in that it’s about a shy man falling for his outgoing friend’s girlfriend, Suzanne. It's clunkier narratively than later films, and also struggles technically. Even remastered for Criterion, it looks degraded.
Special features on this disc include early short films by Rohmer—“Presentation, or Charlotte and Her Steak” (1951) and “Nadja in Paris” (1964)—along with a conversation between Rohmer and filmmaker Barbet Schroeder, his regular producer and star of “Bakery Girl. “
“My Night at Maud’s” & “La Collectionneuse”
These are essentially the films that made Eric Rohmer an internationally renowned director, and you should go read the two reviews by Roger Ebert, published on their release, for incredible perspective on the impact they had when they came out. I particularly love how Roger dissects the centerpiece of “Maud’s,” a masterful scene of conversation between Jean-Louis Trintignant as Jean-Louis and Françoise Fabian as Maud. It’s a stunning piece of filmmaking, and Roger caught its power instantly:
“The choreography of the scene perfectly reflects its content. Occasionally, Jean-Louis sits on the edge of the bed. Once he even leans toward her, to share a confidence. But then he retreats. She asks for a cigarette at one time, a drink of water at another. These are ploys to lure him closer, and he has his own. But there are times, when she signals that he's violating her personal space, or territorial imperative, or whatever it's called. And he reads the signals and moves away, apparently by chance.”
Ebert goes on to rave about the way Rohmer changed the way simple conversation could be captured on film. He ends by writing, “It is so good to see a movie where the characters have beliefs, and articulate them, and talk to each other (instead of at each other). It is so good, in fact, that you realize how hungry you've been for this sort of thing.”
A half-century later, it’s easy to see the impact movies like “My Night at Maud’s” had on dozens of filmmakers around the world, but equally fascinating to try and picture seeing it for the first time through Roger’s eyes.
He was also a fan of “La Collectionneuse,” the story of two men so bored at their seaside home that they basically play games with the teen girl who happens to be in their sphere. It’s a funny film to watch in a pandemic, when stuck-at-home boredom is a part of more lives than usual, and an interesting one in terms of tone. It feels crueler and darker than the previous three movies, and likely inspired someone who contributed a video afterword to disc three, Neil LaBute. You can see Luca Guadagnino all over it, too. It’s probably my least favorite of the full-length “Moral Tales,” and yet it’s still pretty damn good.
The second disc also includes a short film called “A Modern Coed” (1966), an episode of French TV about “My Night at Maud’s,” an episode of educational TV about Blaise Pascal (a thematic focus of “Maud’s”), and an interview from Canadian TV from 1977 about “La Collectionneuse.”
“Claire’s Knee” & “Love in the Afternoon”
I think my favorite Rohmer is “Claire’s Knee,” a perfect distillation of themes explored in his previous films. Watching it in succession, one can so easily see how it grew from the themes in the previous four tales. It’s also Rohmer’s most visually striking film, using the natural world in ways he didn’t really before—even in “La Collectionneuse,” the beauty of the setting almost feels like a drawback.
Roger summed it up perfectly: “As with all the films of Eric Rohmer, 'Claire's Knee' exists at levels far removed from plot (as you might have guessed while I was describing the plot). What is really happening in this movie happens on the level of character, of thought, of the way people approach each other and then shy away. In some movies, people murder each other and the contact is casual; in a work by Eric Rohmer, small attitudes and gestures can summon up a university of humanity.”
It's a masterpiece of gestures and attitude but it’s also cleverly self-aware of its place within the construct of the Six Moral Tales. Aurora basically sums up Rohmer’s entire career when she says, “Insignificant characters can inspire good stories.”
Finally, there’s arguably Rohmer’s most famous film, even if Molly Haskell hated its ending, “Love in the Afternoon.” More traditional than the films that preceded it, it’s the story of a man tempted by another woman, and one can see its fingerprints over dozens of stories of tempted men and impossible love triangles for generations to follow.
The final disc includes the aforementioned LaBute afterword, a segment of French TV on “Claire’s Knee,” and two more shorts—“Veronique and Her Dunce” (1958) and “The Curve” (1999), which was directed by Edwige Shaki, with Rohmer as technical advisor.
The set also includes a booklet with essays by Geoff Andrew, Ginette Vincendeau, Philip Lopate, Kent Jones, Molly Haskell, and Armond White, along with an entire book of the translated versions of the stories by Rohmer on which his films were based.