- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 17, 2006

“There are not enough lies in cinema,” French filmmaker Eric Rohmer wrote in 1948, “except perhaps in comedies.”

Throughout his five-decade career, which continues to this day, Mr. Rohmer has worked to rectify this. He was perhaps most successful in exploring the lies we tell ourselves and the games we play with others in his “Six Moral Tales,” the thematically linked films made between 1962 and 1972 which established his reputation.

While the American film-going public may not give Mr. Rohmer the respect he deserves, an American film company finally has. The Criterion Collection has just released these audacious films in an elegant box set, with restored high-definition digital transfers supervised by Mr. Rohmer far superior to those previously available on DVD. The six-disc set includes an impressive array of extras, including interviews, some of Mr. Rohmer’s short films and a book of the director’s original “Moral Tales” short stories.

Mr. Rohmer was the last French new wave director to achieve success, but he’s proven one of the most influential. He has left his mark on a diverse group of films, from the psychology-over-plot trilogy of Whit Stillman to the philosophical conversations in the work of Quentin Tarantino.

The “Six Moral Tales” all have the same basic plot: A man in love with one woman is tempted by another. That simple summary does nothing to get at the heart of Mr. Rohmer’s singular cinema, however. Perhaps no director in the history of the genre has taken one seemingly small idea and done so much with it over the course of a career.

The first two films were shorts. “Le Boulangere de Monceau” (“The Baker’s Girl of Monceau”) is 23 minutes, “La Carriere de Suzanne” (“Suzanne’s Career”) is 54. These early films already bear the hallmarks of Mr. Rohmer’s distinctive style.

His movies aren’t full of things; the focus is on the people. His visual style is realist, with an emphasis on the enclosed spaces of Paris apartments and cafes. Even his outdoor shots seem oddly claustrophobic.

There is very little music. From the first slightly primitive black and white pictures to the more technically adroit trio in color, Mr. Rohmer doesn’t want a score to tell his audience what to feel; these films are deeply concerned with morals but are not in the least polemics.

The third film in the series, “Ma nuit chez Maud” (“My Night at Maud’s”), was the most successful in America, nominated for best screenplay and best foreign film Oscars. It was quite a feat for a talky film in which the main characters debate Pascal’s Wager. The narrator, Jean-Louis Trintignant, has decided to marry the devout Francoise. But his commitment to both her and his Catholic religion is tested when he spends a night with the beautiful divorcee, Maud.

Jean-Louis is typical of Mr. Rohmer’s characters in being in love with a sense of possibility. The idea of settling down to domestic happiness can be frightening. “The prospect of happiness opening indefinitely before me sobers me. I find myself missing that time, not too long ago, when I could experience the pangs of anticipation,” says “L’amour l’apres-midi’s” (“Chloe in the Afternoon”) Frederic, while Haydee, “La Collectionneuse” (“The Collector”), declares, “Unmitigated happiness bores me.”

Mr. Rohmer’s self-centered men are thus indecisive, like Frederic, who is unsure if he’ll cheat on his wife with the compelling Chloe (played by Zouzou) until the last possible moment.

They often fall in love with a woman simply by sight, spending the rest of the movie deciding what to do about it. These intellectual dramas about the inner lives of men with conflicted moral views all hinge on a single choice. Mr. Rohmer’s genius is in the way he cleverly shows how people lie not only to the opposite sex, but even to themselves, in their quest for sexual satisfaction.

Gene Hackman’s character in “Night Moves” famously declares, “I saw a Rohmer film once. It was kind of like watching paint dry.” If he was talking about one of the “Six Moral Tales,” it was probably “Le Genou de Claire” (“Claire’s Knee”), the weakest of the set. Still, it has the series’ best laugh-out-loud moment, as Jerome surprises us when he finally touches his erotic fixation of the title.

Filmmaker Neil LaBute offers an insightful DVD afterword on the director he extols as a “truly wise soul” who “asks the big questions.” Criterion made a wise choice: Of working American directors, Mr. LaBute is, with the possible exception of Woody Allen, the most concerned with our moral lives. “Suzanne’s Career” seems very much a precursor of Mr. LaBute’s debut, “In the Company of Men,” a daring exploration of the cruelties of men.

“His work is filled to overflowing with ideas and dialogue,” he says in a good summary of Mr. Rohmer’s work. “If you are interested in the human race at all, in the way people actually interact, you can’t help but be taken with his cinema.”

Perhaps one of Mr. Rohmer’s creations should have the last word. In “Claire’s Knee,” the almost-married Jerome discusses how his escapades with a young girl might inspire his novelist friend Aurora. “And if I didn’t sleep with her?” He asks. “Ah,” the writer responds, “that would make a better story.”

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