By Mike Dub
Eric Rohmer’s first moral tale, the brisk short film The Bakery Girl of Monceau, sets up the dynamic that will exist throughout the rest: an intellectual man falls in love, in one way or another, with one woman and is tempted by another. Here, the love of his life has no volition, or even knowledge, of the depths to which he has already committed himself to their relationship. Yet, inured with a fervent, even severe faith in his desire, his commitment is no less than sacrament.
With an engaging sense of autobiography, Rohmer disaffectionately captures the frustration, insecurity, and contradictory hopefulness of falling in love. The unnamed narrator of The Bakery Girl of Monceau and Sylvie, the beautiful, blonde object of his affection, pass by each other every afternoon without exchanging anything more than “furtive” glances. Despite their lack of interaction, the narrator muses, “I could see how strongly I felt for her.”
Finally, they bump into each other and make tentative plans to meet again, but she disappears. Feeling stood up and in need of an ego boost, the narrator turns his attention toward the 19-year old girl who works in a bakery he often visits. Like Sylvie, the narrator sees her every day and they barely speak. She is young, naïve, and brunette, a fitting second choice, and he charms his way into a date with her rather easily. In the world of Rohmer’s Moral Tales, she is the temptress, but, also like Sylvie, she has very little agency over her role.
The narrator eventually makes what is for him an easy decision, though he lightly ignores the consequences by claiming, “My choice, above all, was a moral one… or so I told myself at the time.” The narrator is conscripted by his love for a stranger to commit a hurtful act, but goes unpunished for it. Rather, the divine intervention that seems constantly at work in this story appears to commend him for his decision to choose “love” over a “mistake.” And in an abrupt, Hemingway-esque epilogue, Rohmer even implies the justification for such a decision. In the end, the narrator’s immoral act was not choosing one girl in favor of another, but rather having created the choice in the first place.