Eric Rohmer’s films are a subtitle-lover’s dream. While Cahiers du Cinema colleagues Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut searched for ways to strip their films of all unnecessary dialogue, Rohmer did just the opposite, embracing conversation and narration as a window into the interior lives of his characters. In “Six Moral Tales,” Rohmer’s first and best known cycle of films, the helmer invites auds to judge a man’s character according to how his actions measure against his words. Happily, Criterion has provided plenty of material to help auds develop a thorough appreciation of Rohmer’s illuminating sextet.
In addition to handsome prints of each of the tales — six variations on a single theme, written first as short novellas, then committed to film over the course of a decade — the package also contains extensive interviews with Rohmer then and now, five early shorts, useful essays and a complete republishing of the six stories that inspired the pics.
“I think I’ve managed — and this is what I’m happiest about with my films as a whole — to show people discussing morality … in a completely natural way,” Rohmer says in an 83-minute conversation with Barbet Schroeder, who produced the series.
In keeping with Rohmer’s exacting specifications (a non-widescreen 1:1.33 aspect ratio, with considerable attention paid to his meticulous audio mixes), Criterion has delivered a polish so impressive it underscores the irony of Rohmer’s artistic accomplishment: By the third film, he had the happy accident of pairing with cinematographer Nestor Almendros, resulting in a visual style richer than any of his New Wave contemporaries, despite the fact that Rohmer himself was least fussy about finding an exact visual expression of his ideas.
For Rohmer, the priority lay in being able to convey the inherently non-filmic qualities of his emotional dramas. On the surface, the theme remained the same, allowing him to explore the deceptively simple premise at different stages of maturity among different men.
So, as Rohmer describes it, “while pursuing one girl, a boy meets another girl and spends the film with her, and at the end, he returns to the first girl, realizing she’s the one he really wants.”
In “The Bakery Girl of Monceau,” a law student teases a young shopgirl, while saving his affections for a beautiful blonde. By the final installment, “Love in the Afternoon,” the leading man is married and veering dangerously close to cheating with an old flame. But for beginners, the place to start is “Claire’s Knee,” the most beautiful and seductive of the tales — and, as it happens, the least talky.
Each outing finds someone new trying to convince himself that he has the willpower to resist temptation, alternating whether it is the flawed hero who “wins” or the unknown object of feminine desire that gets the upper hand. Within such fixed patterns, Rohmer finds enormous unpredictability, allowing dialogue, rather than action, to dictate each film’s direction.
As he wrote in 1948, “The director’s art is not to make us forget what characters say but, rather, to help us not to miss a word.”