The American Society of Cinematographers

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Eric Rohmers Six Moral Tales (1962)

The Bakery Girl of Monceau,
Suzanne’s Career,
La Collectionneuse,
My Night at Maud’s,
Claire’s Knee and
Love in the Afternoon

Dolby Digital Monaural
The Criterion Collection, $99.95

Eric Rohmer once described his six “Moral Tales” as a group of films with one story: a man is interested in one woman, then distracted by another. This statement is true in the most general sense, but it falsely implies that the films are repetitive. On the contrary, each tale allows Rohmer to develop and build on his motifs, which culminate in the 1972 masterpiece Love in the Afternoon. Collectively, the films are one of cinema’s greatest explorations of the ways in which men and women choose to manipulate the truth.

Though a member of the French New Wave, Rohmer distances himself from colleagues Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut by eschewing references to other movies. As the “Moral Tales” label implies, he is obsessed with moral and philosophical issues, and the ways in which language can be used to expose as well as conceal. But Rohmer’s camera hides nothing; with his cinematographers, he has honed a detached style that exposes his characters’ emotions with honesty and clarity.

This recently released boxed set from The Criterion Collection allows viewers to chart the evolution of one of France’s greatest filmmakers. The first presentation is the 1962 short film The Bakery Girl of Monceau, a romance starring Barbet Schroeder as a young man who develops a pastry habit while pining for a woman he meets outside a bakery. The camerawork, by Bruno Barbey and Jean-Michel Meurice, follows the New Wave tradition of naturalistic location shooting, and many of the elements Rohmer developed in subsequent films are evident in the picture. Rohmer and Schroeder converse in the 83-minute supplement “Moral Tales, Filmic Issues,” and The Bakery Girl of Monceau is also accompanied by Rohmer’s 10-minute short Presentation, or Charlotte and Her Steak (1951).

The second film, Suzanne’s Career (1963), is a 55-minute meditation on friendship, sex and money that also serves as a sort of documentary on contemporary Paris. Daniel Lacambre’s 16mm black-and-white cinematography lovingly captures the details of the city in a manner that gives the locations weight and texture, which in turn add dimension to characters who are defined by their surroundings. (Interestingly, Lacambre went on to excel at a very different kind of low-budget independent filmmaking when he emigrated to the States and joined Roger Corman’s New World Pictures.) Suzanne’s Career is accompanied by the 1964 short Nadja in Paris, the first of Rohmer’s collaborations with Néstor Alméndros, ASC, who went on to shoot the remaining Moral Tales. Nadja is a modest work, but with their next collaboration, Rohmer and Alméndros created the first in a string of classics.

La Collectionneuse (1966) was conceived as the fourth tale, but it became the third when scheduling conflicts delayed My Night at Maud’s. The first Moral Tale shot in color and on 35mm, La Collectionneuse introduces Alméndros’ gift for using natural light. In addition to a theatrical trailer, a supplement also included with all subsequent films in the set, La Collectionneuse features a 1977 interview with Rohmer and his 1966 short film A Modern Coed, also photographed by Alméndros.

My Night at Maud’s (1969) is a perfect union of sound, image and narrative that is observationally astute and technically impeccable. The picture perfects what would become the defining visual approach for the subsequent films: formal, precise compositions that allow the audience a direct connection to the characters’ most deeply felt emotions. Supplements on My Night at Maud’s include Rohmer’s 1965 television program On Pascal and a 1974 episode of the French TV show Telecinema that was devoted to Maud’s.

In Claire’s Knee (1970), Rohmer and Alméndros further develop their technique of expressing meaning via delicate gestures. One such gesture — the hero touching the titular knee — serves as the movie’s climactic moment. Shooting on a beautiful lake between France and Switzerland, Alméndros used the lush setting to give Claire’s Knee a greater sense of romanticism than the previous films in the cycle. At the same time, through careful exposures, he never allowed the location to overwhelm the characters and drama. Included on the disc is a brief episode of the French TV show Le journal du cinema that features interviews with the stars of Claire’s Knee, along with a charming 1999 video short, The Curve.

The final film, Love in the Afternoon, which concerns a married man tempted to stray, is the most complex in the cycle and the most generous to its characters. The climactic scene, in which the man and his wife realize the depth of their feelings for one another, affects our perspective of not only the characters at hand, but also of the Moral Tales as a whole. After 10 years and six films, it appears as though Rohmer and his characters have finally achieved a balance between reason and passion. This disc includes another Rohmer short, Veronique and Her Dunce (1958), as well as an 11-minute interview with Rohmer fan Neil LaBute.

The transfers of all these films live up to Criterion’s usual high standards, though the source elements for The Bakery Girl of Monceau and some of the other shorts appear a bit worn. Fans of Rohmer’s work will be thrilled with the comprehensive extras and director-approved transfers, and those unfamiliar with his work will find this set to be an enlightening crash course.

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