May 19, 2020  (Web Review)

Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales

Criterion, 6 discs, in French w/English subtitles, not rated, Blu-ray: $99.95, May 5

Reviewer rating: 3.5/4

In Arthur Penn’s 1975 film Night Moves, Gene Hackman’s character makes a now famous remark regarding the work of French filmmaker Eric Rohmer. To wit: “I saw a Rohmer film once. It was like watching paint dry”—a sentiment that probably sums up how many non-hardcore-cinephiles will feel about this beautiful six-disc boxed set compiling Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales, adapted from the filmmaker’s short stories (collected in a quality paperback edition included in the set). But for Rohmer fans, this is cinematic manna indeed. Most of the tales are essentially “a guy and two girls” stories in which the male protagonist struggles between the spirit and the flesh, testing his inner moral compass on the issue of commitment, even if said “commitment” is no more than a mere passing infatuation. In the opener, for instance, 1962’s short filmThe Bakery Girl of Monceau,” a young law student (producer/filmmaker Barbet Schroeder) is drawn to a woman he sees on the street named Sylvia, but when Sylvia disappears, he begins a half-hearted dalliance with a girl in a bakery shop (side note: environmentally-conscious contemporary audiences will be driven nuts watching Schroeder’s character repeatedly toss his pastry wrappers in the street).

The still-compelling Suzanne’s Career (1963) and the tiresome misfire La Collectionneuse (1967) offer variations on the formula, with two guys vying for the attention of one girl (although, in both, the female character is ultimately unknowable, and the perspective remains one male’s point of view). The last three titles are also some of Rohmer’s best: My Night at Maud’s (1969), a trenchant, philosophical talkfest starring Jean-Louis Trintignant as a Catholic engineer torn between a beautiful blonde he hopes to marry and the titular sassy brunette divorcée with whom he spends one memorable night; Claire’s Knee (1970), a delicate tale about an adult male’s summer infatuation (mostly platonic) with a 16-year-old girl and her even younger sister; and the finale, 1972’s Love in the Afternoon (a.k.a. Chloe in the Afternoon), about a happily married bourgeois man whose fidelity is tested when an old girlfriend shows up needing help. This last installment is also an homage to the moral tales series in general, as several of the women from earlier films are seen in cameo appearances on the streets of Paris (and Paris itself is a constant luminous presence throughout the series).

Bowing on Blu-ray with vivid 2K digital transfers, extras include four short films (including 1951’s “Presentation, or Charlotte and Her Steak,” with a young Jean Luc-Godard), TV interviews with cast members, a rare in-depth interview with Rohmer himself (conducted by Schroeder), a video afterward by Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men, The Wicker Man), and a 66-page book with essays and photos. Sure to be welcomed by serious film fans, this handsome boxed set is highly recommended. (R. Pitman)