Rohmer #1: La Boulangère de Monceau

16Jan10

“My heroes, somewhat like Don Quixote, think of themselves as characters in a novel, but perhaps there isn’t any novel.” – Eric Rohmer

Barbet Schroeder and Claudine Soubrier in La Boulangère de Monceau

Not sure how far this will go, but since Eric Rohmer’s death I’ve started rewatching his films, and I will try to post something about all or many of them here, as I watch them. Initially I was just going in random order, because I have most of the films on variously assorted video tapes that I’ve dubbed from library videos, and often I might have a single tape containing both a ‘conte moral’ from the sixties and a ‘comédie ou proverbe’ from the eighties. But right now I’m going through the Criterion set of the six Contes moraux, and so effectively am going in chronological order, for the time being anyway. So, I’ll begin these posts with the first of them, La Boulangère de Monceau.

Of course, chronology is a funny thing when dealing with the Contes moraux, and with Rohmer’s work in general. When lack of studio interest prevented him from making the film of the third of the moral tales he had written, Ma nuit chez Maud, in 1966, he went ahead and made number four, La Collectioneuse; when he was finally able to make Maud in 1969, he continued to regard it as the third film in the series, listing it as Number 3 in the opening credits, despite the order in which the films were actually made and released. The return to black-and-white photography for Maud further linked it to the first two films in the series, establishing a distinction between them and numbers four, five and six – La Collectioneuse, Le Genou de Claire and L’Amour l’après-midi – all of which were filmed in colour. Many would no doubt identify this single-mindedness and allegiance to a pre-ordained order as indicative of Rohmer’s “conservatism” (“conservative” is one of those descriptors of Rohmer – whose personal identity and artistic vision are presumed to be one and the same, this despite the intensity with which Rohmer kept his personal and professional lives separate throughout his filmmaking career – that have popped up incessantly in the obituaries and other ‘tributes’ to Rohmer following his death, along with “realist,” “moralist,” “Catholic,” “humanist”: descriptors that sit alongside other, equally predictable if somewhat less useless adjectives used to illustrate the particular qualities of his films, such as “talky,” “sophisticated,” “subtle”), but I think that, as always with Rohmer, there’s something more interesting going on in the odd dynamic between ‘real time’ (the dates when each text was written and each film was made; the material realities of money and resources that affected when each film could be made, how much time was taken between them and what was done with that time) and time as it exists for and in the films – for the overall series shaped by Rohmer, moving from one through six; for his male heroes, occupying as they do an odd, transitional yet (for them) frustratingly prolonged time, caught between the clarity of a past romantic moment (of falling in love with the ‘true’ object of their desire, a moment that in some of the films – La Boulangère, Maud – occurs in the early scenes, while in others – Le genou de Claire, L’Amour l’après-midi – it has happened some time before the beginning of the story) and the security of the future, when he will marry that original woman; and also time as it is experienced by those objects of temporary fascination, those women and girls (let us name them: Jacqueline, Suzanne, Maud, Haydée, Claire, Chloe) who find themselves occupying this transitional, apparently fleeting and frivolous moment in the lives of Rohmer’s heroes.

Which brings us to La Boulangère de Monceau, the film that is perhaps the most curiously placed in terms of chronology in the whole series. Rohmer has commented that the original text of La Boulangère was one of the last to be written, and was conceived only after he consciously noticed the thematic and narrative commonality between the different ‘tales’ in his series: namely, the transfer of the male narrator’s affections from one, ‘suitable’ woman, to another, ‘unsuitable’ one, and then finally back to the original woman. La Boulangère, Rohmer suggests, was written with the intention of cementing this consistency between the six tales, even as a kind of distillation of the Rohmer-ian structure. If this is true, it is unclear why exactly Rohmer decided to make it the first tale in the series – perhaps it was to establish this thematic consistency from the outset; perhaps because he knew at this time that he was going to make the moral tales into films, and he wanted the first one to be something short, quick to shoot and with few characters; probably it was for some combination of these and other reasons. In any case, the film’s odd position at both the beginning and the end of the series is intriguing, because it makes it hard for us to naively utilize the usual clichés about an auteur’s early work prefiguring or anticipating the ‘style’ he will later develop. It would be easy to make such a claim about La Boulangère de Monceau, but knowing what we do about the history of its composition, one is tempted to suggest that what looks like anticipation could just as easily be distillation – the distillation of a ‘style’ (though I am suspicious of this term as it is commonly used in regard to Rohmer, and am inclined to agree with Ignatiy Vishnevetskey’s proposition that ”the Rohmer style, supposedly unwavering in its consistency, never existed. What existed was the Rohmer scrutiny and the Rohmer intelligence, which could be applied to any approach”) before it had ever been elaborated, before there was yet any evidence of its existence.

Furthermore, it should be noted that the story of La Boulangère is linked to that of the final film in the series, L’Amour l’après-midi, in two crucial aspects. Firstly, in these two films far more than any of the others, the separation between the suitability of one woman and the unsuitability of the other for our hero is figured largely in terms of class – while the suitable women are both solidly haute-bourgeoises, Jacqueline is a lowly, naïve shop assistant, while Chloe is a once-successful but currently struggling bohemian of sorts; the adventure that each of them represents for the narrator/protagonist of each film is not so definitively erotic as in the other films, but has more to do with ‘slumming it’ (particularly in La Boulangère) and the idea of entering an unknown, largely prohibited social world through romantic entanglement with one of its members. Secondly, and relatedly, the two films are united by the blunt cruelty with which the men drop their ‘unsuitable’ women in the end, rushing back to the right woman and the bourgeois propriety inscribed by their union. In La Boulangère, our hero bumps into Sylvie in the street, moments after leaving Jacqueline’s boulangerie, where they have arranged a date for that evening by means of a “romanesque” wordless game involving the cakes at Jacqueline’s shop. Immediately upon seeing her, he asks Sylvie out to dinner with him, and they walk off together, as he tries to avoid being seen by Jacqueline from inside the shop. In L’Amour l’après-midi, Chloe is naked in bed, waiting for Frédéric to join her, when he has his revelation and rushes back to his wife and child, without a word to Chloe. This unity between the first and last films in the series does suggest that a kind of distillation of the essential structure of the series is occurring in each, and that these two elements – the blunt disregard for the feelings and identity of the second woman, as soon as she loses her allure; and the figuration of that second woman’s (fleeting) erotic appeal in terms of her social ‘otherness’ – are crucial to Rohmer’s form across the moral tales, even in the films where these elements are not so explicit.

But let’s return to those climactic scenes in La Boulangère de Monceau. The Romanesque game – the first case of what will become a recurrent motif in Rohmer’s films, the creation by his characters of a kind of game of communication according to a set of mutually agreed-upon rules – is quite simple: our hero (let’s call him Schroeder, after Barbet Schroeder, who plays him) tells Jacqueline that he will come into the shop later and ask for a biscuit; if she gives him two, this means their date is set for that evening. The elaboration of these rules take up considerably more screen-time than the performance of the game, which happens very quickly: in an exquisitely brief, one-shot scene, Schroeder’s character is heard off-screen asking for a biscuit in the voice of feigned disinterest that he uses in all the boulangerie scenes; Jacqueline takes one, then turns to look off-camera, effectively at Schroeder, and with a slight flourish quickly picks up another, looking back at him at some length before turning away (this will be her final appearance in the film). There’s enough in this tiny scene, this repeated gesture of picking up the biscuits, to suggest Jacqueline’s unstated excitement at the prospect of a rendez-vous with this young man from a different world to her own; but one also has the feeling that her excitement stems more from the illicit performance of the game itself, the sense that she is embarking on a Romanesque (a word she doesn’t recognise when Schroeder first uses it, requiring him to repeat it slowly) adventure, and that the world of romance consists of these mutually enacted secret codes, that that is what it’s all really about (and, indeed, who’s to say she’s wrong?).

Schroeder walks out of the boulangerie, and within moments bumps into Sylvie. After some initial conversation, his narration tells us that, upon seeing her, he made his “decision” “in an instant”. We then see this decision in action, as he asks her to dinner with him. Rather than putting off Sylvie for another night and keeping his date with Jacqueline, he makes what he calls a moral choice (“mon choix était, avant tout, moral” – a clear example of a line Rohmer included for the purpose of clarifying the overall structure of the moral tales, even as it is a line perfectly suited to this particular moment in this particular film). What Schroeder means by “moral” (which is not, of course, entirely the same as what moral action will be for the men of the other films) is definitive, principled, and, most importantly, in league with ‘truth’ – “L’une était ma vérité, l’autre l’erreur,” he remarks in voiceover. The error must be effaced by the blinding light of truth, not merely hidden away in a dark corner, and so Schroeder makes a total, an absolute decision, replacing one dinner date with another at the exact same time, replacing Jacqueline with Sylvie, the error with the truth (or “my truth,” as he calls her with perhaps less affection than solipsism).

Decision made, truth reclaimed, Schroeder waits for Sylvie to fetch her things and come downstairs (he and the viewer have just discovered that Sylvie lives directly across the street from Jacqueline’s boulangerie). Then, rather irritatingly, “to complicate the situation,” it starts to rain. “Yet,” he adds, “that is what saved me” (C’est cela pourtant qui me sauva). What does he mean by this? It seems, though it is never explicitly stated in the film (it is in the written text), that Jacqueline is staying inside the boulangerie because of the rain, and so won’t spot him with Sylvie, won’t be able to make a scene – this is what he means by being “saved” by the rain. The rain prolongs his torment, prolongs his position both physically and romantically between these two women – Sylvie takes even longer to get ready for dinner because now she has to get a raincoat as well – and yet it saves him, saves him from their confrontation with each other, from their mutual acknowledgement of his cowardice. And this rainfall alters time as it exists for the film and for its three characters – for Schroeder, who must stand there, trying not to get wet, prolonging his awkward position between the two women, but at the same time prolonging the moment of decision, and thus prolonging the smug feeling that he has performed a moral act; for Sylvie, as she slowly gets ready for dinner, paying little heed to Schroeder’s pathetic waiting; and for the unseen Jacqueline, who may be standing at the door of the boulangerie, waiting for the rain to let up, witnessing everything that is happening across the street – or who may after all have gone home unnoticed, deciding that the Romanesque game of communication was the only thrill to be had between her and Schroeder, and that anything more would have been only a disappointment.

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2 Responses to “Rohmer #1: La Boulangère de Monceau”

  1. Sorry, Conall, off topic here, but wanted to thank you for the comment on “The Cinephiliac Moment” that took forever to post because of a tech snag at the blog. Thanks again!

  2. 2 catabloguing

    Sure, no worries! Thanks Girish


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