Six Moral Tales
The multifaceted, deeply personal dramatic universe of Eric Rohmer has had an effect on cinema unlike any other. One of the founding critics of the history-making Cahiers du cinema, Rohmer began translating his written manifestos to film in the sixties, standing apart from his New Wave contemporaries, like François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, with his patented brand of gently existential, hyperarticulate character studies set against vivid seasonal landscapes. This near genre unto itself was established with his audacious and wildly influential series “Six Moral Tales.” A succession of jousts between fragile men and the women who tempt them, the “Six Moral Tales” unleashed onto the film world a new voice, one that was at once sexy, philosophical, modern, daring, nonjudgmental, and liberating.
The Criterion Collection’s original DVD box set for Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales presents the films over six discs, each film getting its own disc. The set includes The Bakery Girl of Monceau, Suzanne’s Career, My Night at Maud’s, La collectionneuse, Claire’s Knee, and Love in the Afternoon. Outside of Suzanne’s Career, which is presented on a single-layer disc, the films appear on dual-layer discs. Each film receives a window-boxed, standard-definition presentation in the aspect ratio of 1.33:1, and each film comes from a high-definition restoration. Only La collectionneuse has been sourced from the negative. The other films were sourced from 35mm duplicate negatives (for the first two films, which were originally filmed in 16mm), a 35mm master positive (My Night at Maud’s) and 35mm interpositives (the last two films).
Though overall the presentations are fine, they are surprisingly inconsistent and can vary drastically in quality and general look. I was expecting The Bakery Girl of Monceau to come off looking the worst but this is, rather pleasantly, not the case. It still has its fair share of issues, including damage ranging from tram lines to frame shifts and fading at the bottom of the picture, but the issues are rather minimal. Suzanne’s Career ends up looking the worst, though, thanks to heavy damage along with large splice marks that also cause the frame to jump. Thankfully the digital encode is strong as to not aggravate the problems at all.
The remaining films come off a bit better. Sharpness and detail are strong for the films, though, outside of maybe Love in the Afternoon, there can be a faint haze over things. Marks and damage also remain in the other films, but they’re infrequent and small for the most part.
Contrast is fine for the black and white films, though Suzanne’s Career just seems to have a darker look, with more sequences in shadows. The colours films all vary wildy, though. La collectionneuse probably has the stronger colour presentation, while Claire’s Knee has weaker colours that can also pulsate at times. Love in the Afternoon has a very warm, very yellow look to it, where skin tones can come off jaundiced.
The digital encodes are all strong, though, at least for standard-definition, and upscaled they look pretty good. Suzanne’s Career even renders what grain remains fairly well, all things considered. I was expecting all six to be of the same general quality, but they do all vary wildly from one another in quality and looks, each with their own share of pros and cons.
Dolby Digital 1.0 mono soundtracks accompany each film. The first two were dubbed over during post-production, which leads to a very flat, detached sound, Suzanne’s Career sounding especially spotty. The rest, which used live sound, are fine, delivering decent sounding dialogue and clear music and effects, when either appear. There can be some background noise found in all of them, but I don’t recall any severe issues like drops or cracks.
Criterion’s box set presents each film on its own disc inside its own disc holder, complete with cover art and spine number. Each disc then holds a selection of supplements.
Disc one presents The Bakery Girl of Monceau and 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.
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.
Disc two (the sole single-layer disc in the set) presents Suzanne’s Career and 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.
Disc three features My Night at Maud’s. Supplements for this title start off 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.
The disc’s supplements then close with the film’s theatrical trailer.
La collectionneuse, on disc four, 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.
This disc also closes off with the film’s theatrical trailer.
Disc five then presents Claire’s Knee, and its supplements start off with 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 but does look pretty good.
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.
And like the previous couple of discs, this one also closes with the film’s theatrical trailer.
Love in the Afternoon, on disc six, also closes with the film’s theatrical trailer, but it’s the other supplements on the disc that end up closing things off on a weaker note. The included 18-minute short film directed by Rohmer, Véronique and Her Dunce, 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 (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 56-page booklet. 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. 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.
It’s a lovely looking set, and I love that Criterion went out of their way to include Rohmer’s book of Six Moral Tales. The supplements and presentations are a bit of mixed bag otherwise, but it’s still a well put together set overall.