The appearance of Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales in the midst of the Sixties’ sexual revolution brought unexpected sobriety to the european sexual drama and the comedy of erotic manners. Their stateside popularity successfully challenged the sauciness and candor audiences were accustomed to enjoying in other foreign-language romances. The Moral Tales advanced a new model by mixing flirtation with intellectual tension. Rohmer was following the spiritual neorealism of Roberto Rossellini’s marital drama Voyage in Italy (1954), a cornerstone of the French new wave’s developing aesthetic. Like Rossellini, that is, Rohmer was interested in exploring sexual virtue in stories that at the same time did not put off the allures that drew viewers to movies. It’s fitting that the series completed its circle with Love in the Afternoon (1972)—originally released in the United States as Chloé in the Afternoon—which, like Voyage in Italy, uses marriage as the fundamental social construction for sanctifying and containing men’s and women’s erotic drives. Rohmer observes his characters’ conduct—particularly the men’s—with a Catholic emphasis on choice and free will. Their behavior affects the social balance of their somewhat privileged middle class while also reflecting it. More than an argument for marriage, Love in the Afternoon tests the individual principles that form our moral universe. Marriage, then, is a metaphor for social union—its strength and its fragility. This belief in social institutions, and desire to explore their philosophical foundations, relates Rohmer’s film to another great work of an earlier generation: David Lean’s bourgeois melodrama Brief Encounter (1946).
When Rohmer’s series became an art-house hit, during the early seventies, much was made of his almost literary dialogue and his affinities to such French rationalist dramatists as Racine and Molière, Beaumarchais and Marivaux; but the Moral Tales do not offer epigrammatic thesis-counterthesis-synthesis progressions. His new-wave bona fides are exhibited in the Bazinian respect for real-time conversation, shown in naturalistic, real-world settings. Morally weighted reality wins out over theatrical hypothesis. So, like Lean’s postwar classic, with its emphasis on location and states of weather that serve to verify and underscore its characters’ emotional turmoil, Love in the Afternoon is a movie about temptation that also documents a specific moment in human history. Love in the Afternoon is set during the gender wars following the gay and feminist movements. But, as opposed to the tandem psychological difficulties featured by Lean and Rossellini, Rohmer focuses on a male protagonist’s agony. This concentration on masculine ego prevails throughout the Moral Tales and gets at the crux of patriarchal ideology. Beyond that critique, however, lies an overall consideration of the basic, existential elements of life: emotion, time, and space.
Frédéric (Bernard Verley) is a middle-class lawyer, proud of his home life and in love with the idea of loving his pregnant wife and their first child, both safely ensconced in the suburbs. Frédéric also loves traveling to the city to work; it connects him to the bustle of modernity. He is invigorated by the freedom of city life, the proximity of chance, and, especially, the nearness of young, attractive, available women.
Nearly the first half hour of the film is a prologue to the story of Frédéric’s temptation, in which Rohmer exercises his most kinetic filmmaking ever, seeking to reveal the random, itchy/horny thoughts in Frédéric’s mind. Candid yet lyrical, it is a roundelay of girl watching and adult-male heterosexual daydreaming, its quick cutting and fleet rhythms attesting to Rohmer’s newfound filmmaking sophistication. It is one elongated montage, flowing and cresting along with Frédéric’s bookish, infatuated thoughts. Almost a self-contained new-wave short in itself, this opening suggests Rohmer’s version of the life-caught-on-the-wing caprices of François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard (Stolen Kisses, Masculin féminin), and even Agnès Varda (Cleo from 5 to 7), made during the sixties as essays on the revolutionary decade’s courtship manners. Rohmer’s prologue hums with the seventies’ sense of sexual possibilities everywhere; Frédéric’s idle afternoon shopping sprees become opportunities to cruise with a shopgirl and even pass off a come-on by an avid, possibly gay salesman. The sequence—perhaps the textural, sensual high point of the cycle—holds together through deliberately fleet editing and cinematographer Nestor Almendros’s soft light and chalky palette. The imagery suggests a tumescent Rossellini—a sexualized realism—as demonstrated in the extraordinary, self-referential episode where Frédéric dreams of meeting random women in the streets.
These women, whose appearances resemble a series of theatrical curtain calls, turn out to be the previous stars of the Moral Tales, each signifying one of the female idiosyncrasies that taunts and mystifies Rohmer’s errant males. Frédéric describes them: Indifferent (Françoise Fabian), Hurried (Béatrice Romand), Hesitant (Marie-Christine Barrault), Busy (Haydée Politoff), Accompanied (Laurence de Monaghan), Alone (Aurora Cornu). They are not necessarily the same Moral Tales characters we already know; the star-crossed coincidence of their shared Paris habitat renders them autonomous and anonymous. (“These passing beauties are simply an extension of my wife’s beauty,” Frédéric muses.) They are manifestations of Woman, sprung from Rohmer’s consciousness rather like the interchanging of female roles among Ingmar Bergman’s repertory of actresses. The women are introduced when Frédéric fancies that he possesses a talisman with a magic potion that should make women conquerable. It’s an idea he got from a book read in childhood—perhaps a Jules Verne idea, anticipating the source of Rohmer’s The Green Ray (1986). But here, the prologue concludes with a whimsical bump: the sci-fi, fateful/faithful proposition doesn’t work as Frédéric imagines.
This sets the stage for Chloé. Embodied by the actress Zouzou, Chloé is the most domineering of all the Moral Tales’ women. A dark-eyed, dark-haired, aggressive bohemian, she immediately unsettles Frédéric’s bourgeois complacency. Chloé has a rapacious, man-eater jaw, a coarse, blunt, imposing manner. She’s socially unmoored, floats between jobs, and speaks with the free-love attitude of the era’s liberated woman. Chloé is not the idealized jeune fille of Frédéric’s prologue reverie but a gate-crasher to his high-minded, self-protective suburban pretenses. (She even wears pants!)
Chloé could be a Fatal Attraction–type threat, exacerbating Frédéric’s afternoon anxieties of lassitude and temptation. But the Moral Tales don’t countenance id monsters. Consistent with Rohmer’s straitened, realistic style (and the film’s next two dramatic segments are more in this vein), Chloé is able to articulate her challenge with personal logic, arguing against fidelity and defending polygamy. (“That’s barbarian!” Frédéric objects. “It turns women into slaves.” “Not if women do it as well,” Chloé shoots back.) Yet her final gambit is sexual: when Frédéric traces the contours of Chloé’s leotard-clad body (the iconographic moment of the film’s American ad campaign), her erotic allure is made almost palpable. This film presents Rohmer’s most consistently provocative use of female sensuality, always through camera kinetics: Frédéric’s wife, Hélène (Françoise Verley), is first glimpsed in the shower, when the bathroom door swings open; the English nanny unexpectedly appears nude in the midst of duty; and Chloé presents herself to Frédéric in a jolt, with the physical frankness of a Manet odalisque.
The sudden reality of sex challenges Rohmer’s men, confronting their weaknesses and compulsions with moral dilemmas. The Moral Tales are structured to explore each man’s individual system of right and wrong conduct, eventually turning their private ethical battles into psychological farce. Love in the Afternoon closes Rohmer’s circle with what at the time must have seemed a shockingly conservative thesis. Frédéric’s reconciliation with Hélène harks back to those moments of guilt common to both Brief Encounter and My Night at Maud’s (1969). But there’s an element of salvation, too, that is in keeping with the Moral Tales in their entirety and with the ethical observations of Rohmer’s later films. The discreet ellipsis that occurs during Love in the Afternoon’s climactic portrayal of Frédéric and Hélène’s marriage resembles the pact at the end of My Night at Maud’s, but with a stronger, almost idealized, sense of stability. As if proving the thesis tested throughout Six Moral Tales, Rohmer closes the series with an optimistic view of the ways in which women and men eternally negotiate their trust and companionship, seeking a resolution to their spiritual foundering on their quest toward the divine.
Rohmer’s clear-eyed, naturalistic manner is rarely recognized as an expressive style, because of the subtlety with which he and Almendros meld his intellectual concerns with the visual representation—appreciation—of the passing miracles of quotidian life. The vibrant final sequence of Love in the Afternoon, capturing the afternoon sunlight that blesses a husband and wife’s fidelity, is one of his most sublime, and cinematic, moments. Study it. This scene is the consistent key to all the Moral Tales. It moves us from Frédéric’s imagination to his conscious choice. Rohmer depicts a tryst beyond the petty intrigues of typical movie lust—as a spiritual/rational phenomenon. It is the summation of the Moral Tales’ purpose.
Armond White’s film criticism has been published internationally. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and Heroic Conscience: Steven Spielberg’s True-Life Fables.