French Filmmaker Gives Insight Into Complexity of Relationships

I had never heard of the French filmmaker Eric Rohmer until his death at the age of 90 last year. I was surprised to find him mentioned in a positive light in the conservative journals I regularly peruse.

The best known works in his canon were his “Six Moral Tales” cycle, six films all related in theme made between 1963 and 1972. The first film, only 23 minutes long, was simply shot in grainy black and white and looked like it was shot on a student film budget. Each successive film contains a better script, better acting, and better production value. Rohmer, at the time, was considered a part of the French “New Wave” cinema crowd, although from what I have since read, his “Moral Tales” cycle made him an outcast to some, while others say he stayed truer to the ideals of the movement than his counterparts.

Each of these films explores the same theme: an attached man, married or otherwise, struggles with the moral dilemma created by desire. There’s hardly any sex shown in these films, but it permeates the minds of the characters, and therefore the viewer, at the deepest levels.

All of these films are sparse, with no music or score, with incessant philosophical and subtitled dialogue. (There’s a famous line in the 1975 movie “Night Moves”, where Gene Hackman’s character says: “I saw a Rohmer movie once. It was like watching paint dry.” Maybe if you’re not paying attention to the thoughts of the characters in his movies

Most scenes are shot from only one camera position with no cuts, giving a feeling of voyeurism into the most intimate thoughts and desires of the (mostly) male characters. It’s rare to see a filmmaker so perfectly capture the male mind and ego, and in a way that’s timeless, despite the setting of Paris in the go-go mid-60s to early 70s. His are moral characters, but ones who are deeply conflicted and torn between desire, jealousy, curiosity, and ego. In the last of the films, the lead male character imagines he wears a special pendant giving him the power to immediately seduce any woman he meets, including scaring off any potential male rivals.

The men at the center of these films sometimes share their innermost thoughts with other men, and sometimes with other women. There’s also a progressive maturity evident, as the men in the earlier films are more playboys merely looking to seduce and have a good time, their dilemmas arise when they’re chasing women who have attachments to their male friends. In the later films, the men are older and are struggling with being monogamous in the face of a physical, or simply emotional, dalliance; or in some cases, merely a flirtation.

My favorite of these films was the fifth in the cycle, called “Claire’s Knee”. The main character, Jerome, is soon to be married, but is alone visiting friends on holiday for several weeks. An old female friend entices him into a flirtation with a teenage girl named Laura, who he does indeed flirt with, but it never goes further. Instead, he becomes fascinated with her slightly-older sister, Claire, and her knee.

But if you think this is a fetish movie about Claire’s knee, you’re mistaken. His desire to touch Claire’s knee is a way for him to make a connection with her, like the first caress of the neck. The viewer, like the character, is left wondering what will happen when he actually does, and what decisions he will then make.

These films are foreign, not just because they’re French or for the way they’re made, but because they contain situations and dilemmas foreign to today’s audiences — especially in America. These are not romantic comedies, where the characters act in an expected way. They don’t jump into bed with each other, nor do they end up with the love of their life at the end. The men are thoughtful, mature, but conflicted. The women can be cunning, frivolous, wise, disposable, juvenile, mature, alluring and highly enticing. The action on screen may move at a snail’s pace, but the real action is in the mind. I have not seen such a realistic and deeply intimate examination of the male mind when it comes to issues of ego, desire and morality as these films portray, and it is for that reason I write about it now and why Rohmer garnered attention in conservative circles.

Each of these films holds unexpected surprises, as the characters are indeed moral beings exercising free will. The sparseness of the production only adds to the feeling of being there, especially as a man familiar with the impulses of male ego.

As in real life, there are choices to be made, no matter how subtle. The right thing isn’t always identifiable, nor is it always easy to do.

Few will probably want to watch all six of these films, but if interested, I would recommend the last four: “La Collectionneuse“; “My Night At Maud’s”; “Claire’s Knee”; and “Love In the Afternoon”. There is a reward to watching them all in order, as I did, as the final scene of “Love in the Afternoon” seems to make Rohmer’s final point amidst all of the game-playing and duplicity that exists in the complexity of the male and female minds, monogamy, and male-female relationships.

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