That’s the beginning of Erich Rohmer’s introduction to his Six Moral Tales–the slim book that contains the stories he made as films which cemented his reputation as a master of world cinema.
That line is catnip for a film critic/literature scholar who enjoys thinking about few topics as much as adaptation across different media. In addition to being a writer, Rohmer was a film critic at the influential Cahiers du cinema before making his own films, a career arc so cool, one would have to be Pauline Kael not to love him.
Rohmer’s “Preface” and the tales themselves provide an invaluable resource for those approaching his films for the first time or those like me, seeking to appreciate them anew. Over the next few weeks I’m going to to try to post about each of the Six Moral Tales, highlighting how the printed text of the story, Rohmer’s introduction, or the critical essays in the Criterion companion booklet deepened my appreciation and understanding for the films I already loved.
The following paragraph contains plot spoilers.
The Bakery Girl of Monceau is an excellent place for those new to Rohmer to begin. At just twenty-three minutes, it is more than a short but not quite a feature. It is narrated by an unnamed law student (played by Barbet Schroeder, who would go on to direct many films of his own, including Reversal of Fortune). He is obsessed with a young woman, Sylvie, that he sees walking on the street. After finally bumping into her (literally) and gaining the courage to talk to her, he is frustrated that she subsequently disappears. As he is “prowling” the streets searching for her, he gradually begins a flirtation with Jacqueline, a helper at the local bakery. She is hesitant to respond to his advances but finally agrees to have dinner with him. But the moment the date is made, the narrator bumps into Sylvie again. She had been recovering from a sprained ankle. Ironically, Sylvie’s apartment is directly across from the bakery. She had watched the narrator pacing the streets, assuming he knew where she was and was love sick. The young law student blows off his date with the bakery girl, not even bothering to go back into the bakery to tell her. In fact, he expresses relief once he and Sylvie are far enough down the street that the bakery girl could not cause a scene if she were to see him. In both the film and the story, the narrator states that he eventually married Sylvie. In the film, the final scene is of the couple re-entering the bakery where only the owner is working. The bakery girl had told him she was only there temporarily as she awaited a new job opening.
One of Rohmer’s more opaque pronouncements touches on perhaps the most important word in the series title: “moral.” He says, “One of the reasons these tales are called ‘moral’ is that they are effectively stripped of physical action: everything takes place in the narrator’s mind.” A printed story can exist in the narrator’s mind, but a filmed story cannot. (Well, mostly cannot. One could, like Robert Bresson, shoot a man in a chair writing his story, but one would have to be Robert Bresson to make it work.) For example, immediately after bumping into Sylvie, the narrator (in the story) describes his intent during the conversation–to say anything to prevent her from leaving. In the text, because the narrator resides in the indeterminate future, it isn’t clear whether he is speaking to the reader from his vantage point as storyteller (presumably many years in the future) or sharing what thoughts he was conscious of at the time. In the film, the scene between him and Sylvie has already concluded and he is back in his room. A film is concrete. The voice-over can imply a temporal distance between the character as character and the character as narrator. It can also take the place of a semi-omniscient narrator who is simply describing what is happening on the screen. What a voice over can’t do is blur the line between both roles: the image on the screen is concrete even if the narrator is describing an abstract state of mind or compressing a series of actions into a single sentence.
Putting aside the narrator’s fractured moral logic, the phrase that jumps out to me in the text is “there could be no question.” In the screen grabs shown here, we see two examples of Jacqueline’s body language, and they hardly seem inviting. (She does appear somewhat friendly to the narrator in the bakery, but no more so than one would expect from a hired worker in a service industry.) Attentive readers could certainly catch that the narrator is unreliable. Semi-attentive viewers could hardly miss it.
What, then, are we to make of the narrator’s claim that his choice to stand up the bakery girl rather than to go out on the date once he had found Sylvie again is, “above all, a moral one”? And how does this relate to Rohmer’s explanation that (one reason why) the tales are called moral because they existed purely in the character’s minds?
Literature and film, like life, are replete with examples of actions that people justify on moral grounds but which neutral observers might judge more cynically. I don’t think, though, that in his preface Rohmer uses “moral” affirmatively. Oftentimes when we say someone (or something) is “moral” we mean that he (or she, or it) makes positive moral decisions. Perhaps Rohmer is meaning simply that the tales are about morality–and is asserting that this component of our lives is primarily negotiated internally. What we do is the subject of laws, of ethics, of external observation and evidence. Morals are primarily about our own negotiations and evaluations of our actions–what we think about what we do. The narrator claims that having rediscovered Sylvie “to have carried on with the baker’s girl would have been worse than a vice: it would have been purse nonsense.”
This hierarchy between “vice” and “nonsense” is strange. For most of us, I would think, a vice (immoral action, evil habit or practice) would be esteemed lower than a nonsensical action. Not all silliness or farce is injurious to self or others. But modern man, glorying in his rationality, abhors above all else having his silliness (whether essential or momentary) and senselessness laid bare. The narrator would rather be thought cruel or a cad than a fool, and he takes it so much for granted that his audience will agree with this preference that he can call it “moral” without blushing or fearing be called on it. (That he is aware, on some level, of his caddishness is evident in his fear that the bakery girl will “make a scene” if she discovers he has thrown her over.) To the extent Rohmer’s protagonists are sympathetic at all, it is often because we can relate to their fear of looking foolish even as their choices hold up an uncomfortable mirror to the creeping moral relativism that tempts us when afflicted by moments of conscience.