Monday, August 26, 2013

Criteritron #5

The Criteritron is an occasional series in which I take a look at The Criterion Collection's vast offerings on HuluPlus and recommend a title (or, in this case, titles) to watch.

The Criteritron #5: Six Moral Tales
The Bakery Girl of Monceau (short, 1963)
Suzanne's Career (short, 1963)

My Night at Maud's (1969)
The Collector (1967)
Claire's Knee (1970)
Love in the Afternoon (1972)
Directed and written/co-written by Éric Rohmer

What is it?: A set of films united by a common theme. In each, a male protagonist makes a choice between two (or more) women: the one he's chasing or currently in a relationship with, and the one(s) who might tempt him to go astray. While that could seem like a recipe for patriarchal nonsense, it's fairly clear that Rohmer is never fully on-board with the self-justifying morality of his protagonists. He's simply interested in the process by which they convince (or delude) themselves of the righteousness of their actions, regardless of self-contradiction and hypocrisy. Some of the heroes (like Barbet Schroeder's lead in The Bakery Girl of Monceau) seem less tolerable than others, though they're all at least a little douchey, which gives Rohmer a lot of room to play with shading and nuance. Though each of the films takes a different approach—morally, philosophically, and ethically—they all share a methodical pace, literary dialogue and narration, and an obsession with inner lives.

Why Watch It?: Because, apart from anything else, the films have had a huge influence on filmmakers to this day. Rohmer may have been the least flashy member of the French New Wave, but his hallmarks can be seen nearly as often as those of Godard or Truffaut. While Bergman and Fellini are usually seen as Woody Allen's main points of reference, it's hard not to see something of Rohmer in his intellectual preoccupations and frequent love triangles (particularly in Manhattan and Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which feels more like a Moral Tale than any other). Even Chris Rock (and co-writer Louis CK) remade Love in the Afternoon as I Think I Love My Wife in 2007. But leaving aside influence, the films are worthwhile in and of themselves. The four feature-length pictures were shot by legendary cinematographer Néstor Almendros (an Oscar winner for Days of Heaven), and his eye adds a beautiful visual complement to Rohmer's wordiness and inward focus. Furthermore, the Moral Tales possess an intelligence and rigor that is rare in modern films, though they are self-aware enough to mock their characters' pretensions— which might be the only way some audiences could get past the sort of privileged academic wankery in which these characters indulge.

If I had to recommend a single one of the six to watch, I'd go with My Night at Maud's, which stars Amour's Jean-Louis Trintignant as a Catholic man who spends a long evening philosophizing with an old friend and her liberated divorcée pal Maud (Françoise Fabian). The tenor of the debate, the (comparative) decency of Trintignant's character, and his easy chemistry with the seductive Maud make this the most accessible of the Moral Tales—and the only one nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars. It's fun to watch Jean-Louis tie himself up in knots to make room in his worldview for a woman like Maud, but at the same time, the film itself clearly sympathizes with Maud and not how the world sees her.

If you prefer to start at the beginning of the series, that's fine, although there's no serialization and no thematic reason to do so. The two shorts, however, are by far the weakest entries in the series, so you don't miss too much by beginning with Maud as I suggest.

The Six Moral Tales are available for purchase on DVD in a Criterion box set, and each can be rented individually from Netflix. You can also stream all six via HuluPlus on any compatible device. My Night at Maud's can also be streamed through the embedded player below the cut.

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