Love in the Afternoon: Rohmer and the end of Six moral tales.

I’ve had reason to pop back and watch some Eric Rohmer lately, a joy and a pleasure I hardly have the words for. The first time I saw this film it sparked a wonderful conversation I remember very well that I will draw on when writing this review. I love this film so much. The six moral tales (if you keep good company) are an excellent way to get wonderful conversation going, as Rohmer is a director who paints the human psyche’s he intends to dissect with a fine brush.

The Six Moral Tales (I have already reviewed My night at Maud’s) were made in the 1960’s amidst the sexual revolution. In a way, they are Rohmer’s subtle critique on the hypocrisy of that revolution by implying it is morality in choice that holds the fabric of society together or rather a strict external force (in My Night At Maud’s it was Catholicism, in this film it is marriage) of some kind, artificially imposed on the human condition. To say that another way, as the sexual revolution was promoting free love, the opposition to free love was seen to be morality, and yet in bourgeois circles this same morality was seen as part of the fabric of society. “Free love” is nothing but the opposite of “morality” – that is two sides of the same coin.  “Free Love” intends to obliterate desire through indulgence.  “Morality” intends to obliterate desire through abstinence. Both are equally reprehensible, equally foolish and equally ineffective.

Rohmer explains aspects of this through his extremely complex films that appear deceptively simple. One of the most beautiful things about Rohmer – something I admire greatly, is the compassion he shows for his characters. Rohmer (particularly in the Six Moral tales) is dealing with people who are making the most banal, dull mistakes and yet it is in his compassion that we are able to tap into the universal.

In this film Frédéric (Bernard Verley), a young, successful lawyer, is happily married to Hélène (Françoise Verley), an English teacher, and father to one child, with another on the way. Frédéric is not so much in love as in love with being in love. Rohmer paints a misogynistic male in Frédéric who can’t see his wife (or any of the women around him) as beings in their own right, but rather as objects of love. He chose his wife, and he loves her (she has fathered him after all) but he could have chosen any woman, and been just as happy.  Desire is not a part of his marriage. In short – there is no ‘mess’. He has ‘chosen’ as an existential right to choose and it is all part of his life as a lawyer and his grand vision for his own future. He, his pregnant wife and his child, live safely in the suburbs. Frédéric also loves traveling to the city to work; it connects him to the bustle of modernity. He is invigorated by the freedom of city life, the proximity of chance, and, especially, the nearness of young, attractive, ‘available’ women.

Almost all of the first hour of the film is the story of Frédéric’s temptation via his intense ego satisfaction. Rohmer is a master here, setting Frédéric up to look down up on the women around him, while still exhibiting a gentle compassion.  He doesn’t even judge the women as individuals but rather as extensions of his own wife. He imagines that, in loving his wife, that he really loves all women, and (of course) that all women love him. HIs ego extension sees himself as a king who commands all that he sees. He fantasies that every woman is within his reach, that every smile means he could take whatever he wanted.  Frédéric repeatedly admires himself for his ‘fidelity’ that he imagines he is displaying by ‘choosing’ not to go with women in the street.

In a breathtakingly beautiful montage Rohmer takes us into Frédéric’s mind without judgement. In a way, Frédéric has immersed himself in a world of heterosexual-male daydreaming – brought on by his desire-less lifestyle. The daydreams are immature and bookish, always using a pretense at distance at an attempt to validate and pretend feelings are not involved. Because of the sexual revolution sexual possibilities are everywhere;   Frédéric’s idle afternoon shopping sprees become opportunities to cruise with a shopgirl and even pass off a come-on by an avid, possibly gay salesman. The sequence—perhaps the textural, sensual high point of the cycle—holds together through deliberately fleet editing and cinematographer Nestor Almendros’s soft light and chalky palette. The imagery suggests a tumescent Rossellini—a sexualized realism—as demonstrated in the extraordinary, self-referential episode where Frédéric dreams of meeting random women in the streets.

I”m going to take from Armond Whites incredible criterion essay for a look at the montage section:

These women, whose appearances resemble a series of theatrical curtain calls, turn out to be the previous stars of the Moral Tales, each signifying one of the female idiosyncrasies that taunts and mystifies Rohmer’s errant males. Frédéric describes them: Indifferent (Françoise Fabian), Hurried (Béatrice Romand), Hesitant (Marie-Christine Barrault), Busy (Haydée Politoff), Accompanied (Laurence de Monaghan), Alone (Aurora Cornu). They are not necessarily the same Moral Tales characters we already know; the star-crossed coincidence of their shared Paris habitat renders them autonomous and anonymous. (“These passing beauties are simply an extension of my wife’s beauty,” Frédéric muses.) They are manifestations of Woman, sprung from Rohmer’s consciousness rather like the interchanging of female roles among Ingmar Bergman’s repertory of actresses. The women are introduced when Frédéric fancies that he possesses a talisman with a magic potion that should make women conquerable. It’s an idea he got from a book read in childhood—perhaps a Jules Verne idea, anticipating the source of Rohmer’s The Green Ray (1986). But here, the prologue concludes with a whimsical bump: the sci-fi, fateful/faithful proposition doesn’t work as Frédéric imagines. 

The talisman is the Eric Rohmer masterpiece in the film. It is the phallus, Freud’s magical penis that women are so envious of. It is the mythological drive, that force that gifts a man a feeling nothing can stop him. Rohmer identifies this for us when he connects it with Childhood and Jules Verne (explorer). BY gathering the trappings of wealth and success around him, Frederic has told himself through his ego drive that he is in total command of his world and that he controls what is around him. He holds the key.  the magic is in his hands. All power lies with him.

This sets the stage for Chloé to enter.  Embodied by the actress Zouzou, Chloé is the most domineering of all the Moral Tales’ women.  She is an aggressive bohemian who scoffs at marriage (all the while using it as much as Frédéric does) and immediately unsettles Frédéric’s bourgeois complacency. Chloé is socially unmoored, floats between jobs and acts very much like a liberated woman. She is even a little crass at times.  Chloé is not one of the idealized women of the earlier fantasies, and this is an important Rohmer point. She is a big dose of real life.  She is the manifestation of all that Frédéric fears (lack of control) and therefore immediately sparks his desire.

I’ll turn again to Armond White’s excellent essay:

Chloé could be a Fatal Attraction–type threat, exacerbating Frédéric’s afternoon anxieties of lassitude and temptation. But the Moral Tales don’t countenance id monsters. Consistent with Rohmer’s straitened, realistic style (and the film’s next two dramatic segments are more in this vein), Chloé is able to articulate her challenge with personal logic, arguing against fidelity and defending polygamy. (“That’s barbarian!” Frédéric objects. “It turns women into slaves.” “Not if women do it as well,” Chloé shoots back.) Yet her final gambit is sexual: when Frédéric traces the contours of Chloé’s leotard-clad body (the iconographic moment of the film’s American ad campaign), her erotic allure is made almost palpable. This film presents Rohmer’s most consistently provocative use of female sensuality, always through camera kinetics: Frédéric’s wife, Hélène (Françoise Verley), is first glimpsed in the shower, when the bathroom door swings open; the English nanny unexpectedly appears nude in the midst of duty; and Chloé presents herself to Frédéric in a jolt, with the physical frankness of a Manet odalisque. 

An important and wonderful point was made to me in the wonderful conversation I had after I watched this film for the first time. Rohmer posits the moments Frédéric has with his family against the moments he is flirting with women or with Chloé. At home he plays the clown, he makes himself into a fool to amuse his child and to convince his wife he is interacting in a family way.  It is an act, just as the desire to see himself with all the women is an act, but both are acts he manages to lose himself in, refusing to examine himself. At the point when Chloé presents herself naked on the bed, completely available for him, Frédéric goes to the bathroom to undress. As he lifts his shirt, he catches himself in the mirror in the same clown pose he was playing with his child in earlier. At this moment, two worlds collide. He sees himself as a fool now, rather than at home, in this room with this woman in this way.  He is ultimate fool, playing games everywhere he turns, never connecting within himself. This is a man who does not know what he wants or who he is. (a wonderful, typically potent understated Rohmer moment revealed to me in a wonderful conversation)

Without a word Frédéric leaves the house and goes directly home.  He connects with his wife immediately, however she is crying.  There is sunlight pouring in through the windows to cast a holy sanctifying light over the marriage, but we know now, as Frédéric finally does, and as it is implied his wife does by her tears; Something has changed and it will never be the same again.

But isn’t this how it is?  We don’t know the fools we are being till lightning strikes us and we have a horrible moment of realisation through reflection.  It is at that moment we see the us we’ve been, and at that moment, completely simultaneously, we cease to be the us we now see. We may have lost everything in that moment, not ever recognizing the danger we were in till it is too late.  No one reproduces these moments like Rohmer.

And no one has as much compassion to forgive and reveal.

So much beauty.