Eric Rohmer: Blueprints for a Brilliant Oeuvre

On Film / Essays — Aug 14, 2006

The Bakery Girl of Monceau and Suzanne's Career are not Eric Rohmer's first films. By 1963, he had made several shorts and one feature, Le signe du Lion, in 1959. Yet these two short works are an important blueprint for Rohmer's fantastically prolific and brilliant oeuvre, which now spans six decades: for their meticulously charted Parisian locations; their semidocumentary techniques and thrifty production values; their plots based on games of love, deception, and mistaken identity; their "literary" voice-over narration and dialogue. Not incidentally, they also inaugurate the first of Rohmer's trademark series, Six Moral Tales—cerebral yet humorous variations on the theme of love and deception in which male narrators are faced with the ethical dilemma of having to choose between women.

Formerly a literature teacher and a novelist, Rohmer (born Jean-Marie Maurice Schérer to a well-off provincial family, in 1920) began his career as a film critic at Cahiers du cinéma, which he also edited. And Bakery Girl and Suzanne's Career testify to his central position within the French new wave. His realist aesthetics are heir to André Bazin’s influential theories, as well as to the cinema vérité of the anthropological filmmaker Jean Rouch; thus Bakery Girl and Suzanne's Career are shot in black and white, in the streets, shops, and cramped hotel rooms of Paris, with a mobile 16mm camera and several nonprofessional actors, including friends. At the same time, Rohmer, like his younger Cahiers colleagues Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and Claude Chabrol, admired the films of Alfred Hitchcock, about whom he co-wrote a book with Chabrol, in 1957, the first to take the "master of suspense" seriously. Rohmer’s Hitchcockian heritage informs his delight in plots—both in the sense of narrative and of intrigue—that are often based on a complex architecture of looks, and, as Pascal Bonitzer argues, he plays on the skillful exploitation of the gap between the point of view of the protagonist/narrator and that of the camera. Rohmer, like Godard and Truffaut, combined this double cinematic heritage with a passion for classical literature, which accounts for the decorous manners and language in his films. And his independence from the mainstream, concretized in his company Les Films du Losange (founded in 1963), clearly places him within the new-wave ethos. He would retain this independence for virtually his entire career.

Back in 1963, Rohmer was smarting from the failure of Le signe du Lion (which, although made in 1959, wasn’t released until 1962). Hence his decision to make these two short films. As with all the other Moral Tales, they were based on short stories written by Rohmer and produced by Les Films du Losange, with director of production Barbet Schroeder (who also plays the protagonist in Bakery Girl).

The twenty-three-minute-long Bakery Girl of Monceau is set near le parc Monceau and the Villiers metro station, in a well-to-do area of northwestern Paris (which also happens to be where the offices of Les Films du Losange were located). As the film carefully shows, the area combines the familiar Parisian iconography of wide, leafy boulevards lined with prosperous buildings and café terraces—the classic new-wave decor of amorous encounters—with more populous, narrower streets housing markets and food shops, including the bakery, around which the action revolves. This class dichotomy is mirrored in the two female characters: the tall, blonde, and artistic Sylvie (Michèle Girardon) and the short, dark baker’s assistant Jacqueline (Claudine Soubrier). The plot involves an unnamed law student (Schroeder) falling for Sylvie after glimpsing her in the street. Just as he literally bumps into her, she disappears. While looking for her through the quartier, he notices the pretty Jacqueline in the local bakery. Although he considers Sylvie “so superior,” he begins an elaborate erotic ritual with Jacqueline, buying an increasing number of cakes and finally asking her out. He unceremoniously dumps her, however, as soon as Sylvie reappears. Bakery Girl thus perfectly illustrates Rohmer’s “master plan” for the Moral Tales, as he recounted in a 1986 Positif interview: "While the narrator is looking for a woman, he meets another one, who occupies his affection until he finds the first woman again."

Sylvie, it turns out, lives opposite the baker. Immobilized by a broken leg, she saw the student’s goings-on from her window—a neat example of the importance of the gaze in Rohmer’s films but also a mark of a certain level of opacity. The director refrains from revealing whether she understood his sadistic game with Jacqueline, or whether she thought he was simply looking for her. This ambiguity also characterizes the treatment of the protagonist, the perfect bourgeois cad seducing a working-class girl for his amusement, in the tradition of nineteenth-century literature. Rohmer here adopts the modernist posture of the new-wave filmmaker as "entomologist," observing his wicked human specimen from an ironic, quasi-scientific distance—exposing him as conceited and arrogant with pronouncements such as, "What upset me was not that she liked me, but that she’d think there was any way I’d like her." Yet Rohmer also narrates the tale through his hero’s visual point of view and oral narration. Jacqueline has our moral sympathy against the cad’s machinations, but our filmic identification is with him, the women never more than the objects of his desire. And yet, the charm and humor of the film mean that Rohmer never comes near the cynicism of Chabrol's similar seduction games in Les cousins (1959). (Also typical of the new wave is Rohmer’s use of friends from the film world as bit players. The student protagonist’s narrator voice is dubbed by the future filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier; his friend/confidant Schmidt is played by Fred Junck, who would become curator of the Luxembourg cinematheque; and the film critic Michel Mardore plays a customer in the bakery.)

Closer to Les cousins thematically, Suzanne's Career, at fifty-five minutes, is an elaboration on the themes of The Bakery Girl of Monceau, as well as its ambiguities. Located in the cafés and hotels of the Latin Quarter, Suzanne's Career deals with two bourgeois students, the cynical Guillaume (Christian Charrière) and his shy friend Bertrand (Philippe Beuzen, the narrator), and their relationship to Suzanne (Catherine Sée), a young woman who works during the day to pay for her evening classes. Guillaume outrageously exploits Suzanne financially and sexually, while Bertrand—a more developed version of Schroeder in Bakery Girl—watches with a mixture of awe and disgust meant to duplicate that of the spectator. Though less marked, the class and physical dichotomy operating here is similar to that of Bakery Girl, with the down-home Suzanne being contrasted with the beautiful and exotic Sophie (Diane Wilkinson), whom both Guillaume and Bertrand desire. Suzanne is given more screen time and dialogue than Jacqueline in the other film, but her behavior and language seem designed to reinforce the misogyny of the men: she repeatedly lets herself be humiliated and exploited and hardly reacts to Guillaume’s barbs (such as, “If I had good taste, I would not like you”), and she forgives both men for walking out on her in a nightclub to which she had paid the admission. She does have her moment of triumph at the end, however. Broke and dismissed by Guillaume, she disappears, to return radiantly happy, married to the rich and dashing Frank (Patrick Bauchau). Yet here, too, ambiguities prevail. As the envious Bertrand watches, Frank complacently caresses her body poolside, and we finally understand the irony of the title: having earlier abandoned her job, her “career” is, basically, sexual. Besides, will Frank be another version of Guillaume? Suzanne's Career, like Bakery Girl, cleverly plays hide-and-seek with the spectator, keeping crucial scenes offscreen—we never know for sure, for example, if it was Suzanne or Guillaume who stole money Bertrand had hidden in a book (though we suspect Guillaume).

In both films, Rohmer subtly oscillates between a celebration and a critique of his protagonists. As he put it in a 1965 Cahiers article, “I am a man [. . .] and my tales are stories told in the first person.” He does, however, increase the agency of his female characters as he advances through the Moral Tales, and even more so in the later Comedies and Proverbs and Tales of the Four Seasons. With such films as Full Moon in Paris (1984) and The Green Ray (1986), Rohmer indeed can be said to develop into a major author of "women's films." But even in the Moral Tales, he becomes increasingly critical of the weakness of his heroes, especially their tendency to opt for the blander, “safe” women over the more lively and sexually active “darker” women. In this respect, The Bakery Girl of Monceau (Sylvie over Jacqueline) and Suzanne’s Career (Sophie over Suzanne) prefigure most clearly the choices made by the heroes of My Night at Maud's and Love in the Afternoon.

The Bakery Girl of Monceau and Suzanne's Career anticipate Rohmer’s later work in other ways, too: the “involuntary” realism of the location shooting offers an invaluable archive of early 1960s Paris and of the behavior of social sets that have vanished or significantly changed (students wearing suits and ties!), in the same way that his later series obliquely, yet tellingly, document the decors and mores of 1980s and 1990s France. The two films also herald Rohmer's unparalleled ability to construct complex and absorbing stories out of seemingly banal characters and undramatic situations. Although he said, "We must show what is beyond behavior, while knowing that we can only show behavior," his is a "cinema of behavior" that also delves into psychological complexity. For Rohmer, the “moral tale” was “not a moralistic tale but a story that describes not just what people do but what goes through people’s minds while they do it.” In this respect as in others, The Bakery Girl of Monceau and Suzanne's Career are the fascinating first manifestations of a glorious series of films with which Rohmer carved out a unique place in world cinema.