By Mike Dub
In each of his Six Moral Tales, Eric Rohmer presents a character at a different stage in his life, in various evolving stages of a relationship. Though basically unrelated, his films follow the evolution of a single love life amid the moral quandaries of maturing. The film series begins with a boy’s first meeting with a woman he loves in The Bakery Girl of Monceau, and ends with Love in the Afternoon, where a married family man contemplates an affair with an old friend.
The married man is Frederic (Bernard Verley), a good looking lawyer who is a partner in a small office, mainly because it affords him certain freedoms that don’t exist in larger, better-paying firms: he can leave the office whenever he wants to, he takes late lunches in the afternoon to avoid crowds, he shops for clothes in the middle of the day. Similarly, his wife, Helene (real-life wife Françoise Verley), enjoys the freedom of academia, choosing to finish her thesis during maternity leave for their second child. They both enjoy a rather hip, pseudo-alternative lifestyle, and though Frederic repeatedly proclaims his love for her in voiceover, he eventually confesses that their marriage is founded on the roles they play for each other, rather than on a deeply connected and honest intimacy.
Enter Chloe (model and pop culture figure Zouzou), an old friend who shows up at Frederic’s office one day. In a winking nod back to the second Moral Tale, Suzanne’s Career, Chloe and Frederic met years ago while she was dating his friend, Bruno, who has since suffered a breakdown. We get the feeling that there were sparks back then, and Frederic handles their renewed relationship with trepidation, fearful that she will become too much a nuisance in his new life.
Frederic, though, is all too susceptible to forming a connection with Chloe. From the beginning of the film, he tells us that, despite his love for Helene, marriage has fostered a romantic listlessness. “I find myself missing that time, not too long ago, when I could experience the pangs of anticipation,” he tells us in voiceover. “I dream of a life made of first loves, lasting loves.” In a particularly charming sequence, Frederic fantasizes about wearing a pendant that could control the free will of anyone (particularly beautiful women) that he meets on the street. Though he fantasizes about nearly every woman he sees, when Chloe appears, it is the first tangible prospect of an affair.
Love in the Afternoon unfolds in the familiar fashion of Rohmer’s Moral Tales, heavy with witty and intelligent dialogue, but it moves easier than his earlier tales. Just as his characters have matured to some degree, Rohmer has become more at ease as a cinematic storyteller throughout the series. Here, he is as focused as ever, delivering punchy scenes that don’t suffer the languor of earlier films. He employs subtle camera movements and bright, vivid colors to avoid the monastic atmosphere his films can sometimes slip into. Though he’ll never be confused for David Lean, Love in the Afternoon is more pleasurable than taxing to watch.
That does not mean, though, that the content of the film loses any of its weight. Rohmer’s treatments of relationships are so consistently entertaining and fascinating because they avoid making grand statements on the minds of all men. There is simply this man, and what he thinks and how he behaves. For a series referred to as Moral Tales, Rohmer approaches his characters with a remarkably personal and sensitive touch. Even if Love in the Afternoon is the most digestible of the series, its final scene provides a beautiful cap to the Moral Tales. Rohmer seems to have finally concluded that underlying all the sophisticated moralizing and philosophical arguing is the very simple human desire to connect, to love. That it took six films and ten years to come to that conclusion, though, shows just how difficult that simple desire is to fulfill.