Six Moral Tales
The multifaceted, deeply personal work of Eric Rohmer has had an effect on cinema unlike any other. One of the founding critics of the history-making Cahiers du cinéma, Rohmer began translating his written manifestos to film in the 1960s, standing apart from his New Wave contemporaries with his patented brand of gently existential, hyperarticulate character studies set against vivid seasonal landscapes. This near genre unto itself was established with the audacious and wildly influential series Six Moral Tales. A succession of encounters between fragile men and the women who tempt them, Six Moral Tales unleashed on the film world a new voice, one that was at once sexy, philosophical, modern, daring, nonjudgmental, and liberating.
The Criterion Collection upgrades their DVD box set presenting Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales to Blu-ray, presenting all six films across three dual-layer discs in their original aspect ratio of 1.37:1. Each film is presented in 1080p/24hz high-definition and all have been sourced from new restorations. Disc one presents The Bakery Girl of Monceau and Suzanne’s Career; disc two, My Night at Maud’s and La collectionneuse; and disc three, Claire’s Knee and Love in the Afternoon. My Night at Maud’s was restored in 3K resolution from a 35mm interpositive while the other films were all restored in 2K from the original negatives.
All six presentations offer noticeable upgrades over their DVD counterparts, whether it be in terms of restoration or digital presentation. The weakest digital (and overall) presentation comes down to Suzanne’s Career, which is significantly grainier in comparison to the DVD. While this is both expected (it’s sourced from 16mm) and welcome (processing grain will kill detail and texture), the encode can have some trouble with the heavy grain and it can look blockier and more pixilated here and there. The other 16mm sourced film, The Bakery Girl of Monceau, is a bit better in this regard, but probably only because the grain isn’t as chunky. The digital presentations for the rest of the film are pretty solid, rendering detail, grain, and textures wonderfully, with only a few spotty moments interspersed throughout, and this leads to the other films have a cleaner photographic texture to them.
The three black and white films all deliver decent contrast and grayscale. Suzanne’s Career is the darker looking one of the three, and shadow detail is hit and miss there, but that appears to come down more to the photography. The colour films, though they generally look good, do tend to lean yellow/teal, with the results being mixed in comparison to the DVD versions. The unfortunate thing, in all cases, is that the warm look can tilt blues more towards a cyan, where the sky in many shots takes on that colour, or even going full-on yellow. Black levels can also be impacted, crushing out shadow detail.
While I still question whether the colours are correct, in the case of these films a couple of the presentations offer improvements over the DVDs. While La colletionneuse has a better balance on the DVD version, the colours found on the DVD for Claire’s Knee are washed out and lifeless, with pulsing and fading popping up in some places. Love in the Afternoon’s DVD presentation actually delivers colours that are far warmer and yellower, with the Blu-ray definitely leaning more towards a teal, and this ends up improving things considerably on its own, though the sky can still look more of a yellow in comparison to the bluer one on the DVD. It’s ultimately a mixed bag, with the Blu-ray presentations still looking better in some areas, but there is probably a happy medium between the two.
The restorations have also been far more thorough in comparison to the restorations used for the DVDs. Suzanne’s Career offers the biggest improvement in this area: the master used for the DVD showed splice marks between every cut in the film, so every edit presented a large splice and a jump in the frame. That’s all gone from this presentation. Bakery Girl still has some large tram lines that were present on the DVD, but a lot of the other marks have been removed. Same goes for the other films, which actually all looked good on their respective DVDs, but there has been further clean-up here. Somewhat amusingly, though, there are some very faint tram lines that pop up in the colour films that are missing on the DVD, and I suspect they’re only there now because of the increased resolution, the compression in the DVD’s presentation hiding them. This isn’t a real issue, though, as they’re so faint they will barely register.
While there are definitely some pros and cons to be found, overall I would say the Blu-ray presentations offer significant improvements over the DVDs. Despite any of the flaws that remain the presentations for all six films are far sharper, cleaner, and more film-like in the end. It’s an impressive and noteworthy upgrade.
All six films receive upgrades for their French audio tracks, each receiving a lossless PCM 1.0 monaural soundtrack. The first two films, The Bakery Girl of Monceau and Suzanne’s Career were both dubbed during post-production, while the other films all used live audio. Because of this the first two sound weakest, with dialogue sounding detached from the action, though Suzanne’s Career ends up having a more hollow, muffled sound. Still, neither film presents any significant damage.
The other films sound better, with stronger fidelity, but their audio tracks don’t aim to stand out. Love in the Afternoon ends up being the stronger of the four remaining films, showing more range in its dialogue and sound effects in the streets (traffic sounds stick out). But the others are just there, doing a nice job in delivering the film’s dialogue and the rare bouts of music. They don’t come off edgy or distorted and damage is not an issue.
Criterion ports everything over from their impressive DVD box set, though sadly this set doesn’t look as impressive. Since Criterion is compressing all six films down to three Blu-rays from six DVDs, there is no need for the individual digipaks for each title and the three discs all share one fold-out, with each title’s description on the liner (in a misprint, the description for The Bakery Girl of Monceau is incomplete). Because of this, the individual titles lose their spine numbers (which went from 343 through 348) and all of the films share the spine number of 342, which was the DVD set’s number. Though the book and booklet are still here, adding to the bulk and weight, I do miss the look of the DVD set, which just had a nicer “collector” feel to it.
At any rate, Criterion spreads the features over the three discs, further separating them by title. After the main menu comes up, you select one of the film titles, which then leads to their menu. All of them outside Suzanne’s Career have a “Supplements” sub-menu (that film only comes with one supplement, which is available from the main menu).
Disc one presents The Bakery Girl of Monceau and Suzanne’s Career. Bakery Girl’s supplements start things off with the 9-minute short Presentation, or Charlotte and Her Steak, which “stars” a super young Jean-Luc Godard. It’s similar to the Moral films in the set in that it features a man (Godard) and issues that arise involving two women. The young man in this case is attempting to make the woman he is currently with, Charlotte, jealous over another woman they meet earlier, all while she eats a steak because, you know, what’s a better snack than a full-on steak? It’s narrative is simple and it’s not the most visually arresting film, with it composed primarily of the two in a room while Charlotte cooks a steak. But there’s something about it that makes it arresting in its own way. I’m not sure what makes it arresting exactly, and it could be just the playful nature between the two characters, but the film feels more like Rohmer just messing around, making a film, using themes that interest him.
Unfortunately Criterion is reusing the same master used for the DVD edition and looks to be an upscale, but it looks fine.
Criterion also includes a new interview between Barbet Schroeder and Eric Rohmer, recorded by Criterion for this edition. This proves to be one of the most invaluable and lengthy features found in the set, running a staggering 84-minutes! It opens with Schroeder, speaking in English, giving a history of his company Les films du losange, and then cuts to him and Rohmer talking about their work together, which is conducted in French. Though there are no spoilers per se, I would recommend maybe watching it after you’ve seen all six films only because they do go over some structural choices in some of the films. At any rate, the two discuss in detail how each film came to be, explain why they were technically filmed out of order (the third film, My Night at Maud’s, was filmed after the fourth), talk about the original written stories (which were modified and adjusted) and the book, Six Moral Tales, the common themes that link the stories (which Rohmer claims he never really noticed while originally writing the stories), and what Rohmer means when he calls them moral tales. They also talk about the visual language, the cinematic techniques employed, the use of sound, the voice-over narration (where Schroeder asks Rohmer why he had Bertrand Tavernier do the voice-over for his character in the film), and more. The one drawback here is that it’s not the most dynamic interview to sit through for 84-minutes: it’s comprised primarily of long shots of the two at a table edited in with back and forth shots of the two. But the two seem excited to be talking about the films, leading to, at the very least, an engaging conversation that thoroughly covers the production of the films and the shared themes between them.
Suzanne’s Career only features one supplement: Rohmer’s Nadja in Paris. The 13-minute film features an American/Yugoslav student in Paris, who talks about the city through voice-over while she ventures through it, visiting locations like the Sorbonne. She talks about the architecture, shops, and the diversity of its population. Though it appears to be a travelogue on the surface, it is more of a character study, the city having helped her find herself and figure out the person that she is.
Criterion is also reusing the same digital master that was presented on the DVD, and it does not upscale well here, looking heavily processed and playing with a jerky, choppy motion, almost as if there were issues with the framerate.
Disc two features My Night at Maud’s and La collectionneuse. Each film comes with their respective theatrical trailer. Outside of that Maud’s’ features begin with a 1965 television episode of the French educational series En profil dans le texte, directed by Eric Rohmer and entitled ”On Pascal.” It features philosophers Dominique Dubarle (a priest) and Brice Parain (not a priest) and I figure it has been paired with this title because of the discussion around Pascal that occurs in the film. The program starts off with the two explaining how they discovered Blaise Pascal (both around the 11th grade) and the impact he had on them more in terms of his thoughts on Catholic theology rather than mathematics, though the latter is touched on to an extent. The two have rather different interpretations (Parain has a harsher reading) but the two talk about their interpretations of his writings and explain their sides patiently with one another. In this day it’s almost refreshing to see really.
Following that is a 14-minute episode 1974 of Télécinéma, hosted by Olivier Lopsac and My Night at Maud’s’ co-producer Pierre Cottrell, actor Jean-Louis Trintignant, and critic Jean Douchet (who is apparently acting as a sort of fill-in for Rohmer since he actively refused to appear on the program according to Lopsac, though he gives a reason). Douchet is there to talk about the themes of the film and the ideas of moral codes in Rohmer’s series of Moral Tales, while the other participants talk about the production and how Rohmer is to work with. Trintignant talks about the film’s dialogue and his discomfort with it at first (he just had to learn to have faith in Rohmer) and, rather interestingly, the last scene of the film was shot first, prior to any casting contracts being signed, so that Rohmer could should what he was intending to do. It’s a short segment (that sounds to have shown after a television showing of) but surprisingly insightful.
La collectionneuse comes with a couple of strong supplements. Rohmer’s short documentary, A Modern Coed, starts things off. The 13-minute film looks at the 1963-1964 French school year and how the number of women attending university has increased. It should go without saying it is a product of its time (it almost seems as though the documentary is trying to be reassuring in that the women attending university still want to have a family) but an interesting observational film.
This is then followed by a 50-minute interview with Rohmer from 1977 for the TVOntario program Parlons cinema. Though the topic of the Six Moral Tales comes up, the discussion is far broader, covering the New Wave, other filmmakers and their work (particularly Godard and Chabrol), shooting on 16mm, and American films, which Rohmer is a bit iffy about, at least in the respect of the current-at-the-time trend of political films: he’s not fond of the idea of making a fiction film around current events. Amusingly the interviewers ask him about a line from Night Moves, where Gene Hackman’s character says a Rohmer film is akin to “watching paint dry.” Rohmer hasn’t seen that film, but doesn’t disagree with the quote. I guess I was expecting there to be more about his work, but since that topic is covered ad-nauseum in the interview on the first disc I rather enjoyed this general discussion about cinema.
Disc three then presents the final two films, Claire’s Knee and Love in the Afternoon. Like the previous disc, each film comes with their respective theatrical trailer. Claire’s Knee then offers a 1999 short film called The Curve. Interestingly Rohmer only served as a technical advisor on the film, which was directed by Edwige Shaki. I was thrown off by its inclusion at first, but it becomes clear that it has been included here because it shares some thematic similarities to Claire’s Knee. An art student becomes intrigued by a sculpted figure (sans head and arms), his attention drawn to the curve of the back. He then comes across a woman who he assumes served as the model and starts a relationship with her, eventually the two getting into a conversation about how he compares the physical assets of women to works of art, which is what attracts him. The short seems to be ultimately how art can objectify women, with the film even bordering on objectifying the woman in the film (played by Shaki). It’s interesting, though I think its point is made early in its 17-minute runtime, and it does have a student-film vibe to it. It was shot digitally (standard-definition) but does look pretty good, and the upscale here isn’t too bad.
Following this is then a 9-minute excerpt from a 1970 French television program called Le journal du cinema, and features interviews with some of Claire’s Knee’s cast: Jean-Claude Brialy, Beatrice Romand, and Laurence de Monaghan. Brialy knew Rohmer before the film and talks a little about that while the two young woman recount working with him and what he was like, which leads the two in a bit of a conversation about his personality. It’s not terribly insightful but still interesting, and it’s one of the few supplements in the set specific to the respective film it has been grouped with.
Love in the Afternoon ends up closing things off on a weak note, unfortunately. The included 18-minute short film directed by Rohmer, Véronique and Her Dunce (upscaled standard-definition), is, at the very least, an amusing inclusion. The film focuses on a tutor who has (much to her misfortune) been hired by a disinterested mother to help bring up the grades of her son in both math and French, to little avail. It’s very different from every other Rohmer film in this set, and funny in its execution (the editing is a bit more frantic), particularly when the two characters clash, like when she’s trying to explain how to divide fractions. This is followed by a less than thrilling appreciation featuring Neil LaBute, where the director talks about what he admires most about the filmmaker. It’s fine but not terribly enlightening.
This last interview then leads to one of the more disappointing aspects of this set: the lack of academic features. Though there are great interviews with Rohmer (especially the lengthy one on the first disc) there isn’t anything from an outside party that covers each film to a great extent, which probably caused me to have more hope for the LaBute inclusion, which obviously didn’t live up to any expectations I may have had. Also, outside of a couple of features, there isn’t much for each film that is specific to that film. The interview with Rohmer that accompanies La collectionneuse does actually feature Rohmer discussing details specific to that film, but it becomes one about the Moral Tales as a whole, as well as one about film, filmmaking, and filmmakers overall (though it’s certainly no less interesting!) This leaves the archival interviews found on My Night at Maud’s and Claire’s Knee, which are decent, but too short.
Both of those gaps are remedied a bit with the 64-page booklet, which appears to be an exact copy of the booklet that came with the DVD set. Ginette Vincendeau writes an essay for the first two films followed by one by Kent Jones for My Night at Maud’s. La colletionneuse also gets an essay, this one written by Philip Lopate, and its followed by an excerpt from cinematographer Nestor Almendros’ autobiography, where he writes about his experience working with Rohmer (it was also his first film). Molly Haskell then writes up an essay around the women in Rohmer’s films with Claire’s Knee as the focus, and Armond White then closes the films off with an essay for Love in the Afternoon. Each essay ends up doing a good job filling in the lack of academic features on the disc. The booklet also features an introduction about Rohmer’s stories and the films, written by Geoff Andrew, and it is then closed off with a reprint of an essay by Rohmer on how the visual medium of film can still have a focus on sound and dialogue.
The biggest inclusion, though, are Rohmer’s original stories that were the basis for the six films, included here in the 262-page book, courtesy of Viking Books. Outside of the changed dimensions of the book to fit the Blu-ray set’s smaller size, it looks to be exactly the same as what was included in the DVD set. Rohmer had written them all over time, and he adjusted them to fit into the same theme. I’ve admittedly only read a couple of them (and I’ve had the DVD set for a long while, so I don’t have much of an excuse) but they’re very close to the films.
Though I enjoyed the films and the Rohmer interviews found on the discs, the supplements were still a bit underwhelming as a whole, but the inclusion of the booklet and book are significant inclusions on their own, and manage to nicely round out things in the set.
Though this new Blu-ray set doesn’t have the same look and heft of the gorgeous looking DVD set, it does carry over all of the bonus material, including Rohmer’s book of Six Moral Tales, and offer definite technical improvements over that set, delivering a sharper looking image, even if some aspects are still questionable. I would say it’s worth the upgrade.