Alongside his more famous contemporaries Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut (not to mention still-active auteurs Jacques Rivette and Claude Chabrol), Rohmer wrote for the famous French film journal Cahiers du Cinéma in the 1950s before making his first films. The writers and would-be filmmakers at Cahiers shared an affinity for the American filmmakers of the era, including Anthony Mann, Robert Aldrich, and Nicholas Ray—the visionary helmer of Rebel Without a Cause. Rohmer became a particularly fervent evangelist for Ray, calling him in a 1959 Cahiers piece “perhaps the only poet of love,” and praising Ray for his understanding of “that special intoxication into which we are plunged by a violent physical act, situation, or passion … that mysterious affinity that locks two human beings together.”
In thinking back on Rohmer’s best and most notable work, it seems that those words about Ray became a sort of thesis for the director’s own films, as Éric Rohmer is nothing if not a “poet of love” in his own right. His much heralded “Six Moral Tales” series, which would bring Rohmer to international prominence, includes three films—My Night at Maud’s (1969), Claire’s Knee (1970), and Chloe in the Afternoon (1972)—that are as dizzying, rapturous, and intoxicating as any to ever grace the screen. Each of these three films takes the same basic premise, that of a committed, principled man confronting sexual and emotional temptation. In each, Rohmer parades in front of his hero a string of women so alluring, so sexy, so sumptuously coquettish, that it almost strains credulity to believe any man could be so morally sound as to resist their advances.
Consider the opening sequence of My Night At Maud’s, where Jean-Louis, during of all things a Catholic mass, spies Françoise, a lovely, doe-eyed blonde, innocently reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Smitten, Jean-Louis follows Françoise from the church as she weaves through Clermont on her bicycle, clad in a tailored overcoat and knee-high black boots. As Françoise darts through the streets, shooting an occasional come-hither glance over her shoulder (and at the camera), the audience may find themselves as undone as Jean-Louis, and fully sympathetic when, after finally losing her trail, he asserts, “At that moment, I knew that Françoise would be my wife.”
Jean-Louis is then, of course, subjected to the titular night at Maud’s, the sultry sometime lover of his friend Vidal. Seemingly as soon as he and Maud have exchanged pleasantries over dinner, she explodes into the frame wearing only a nightshirt and exclaims to Jean-Louis, “I’m a terrible exhibitionist, it just comes over me.” Suffice it to say, his ultimate decision between the two women comes after no small amount of handwringing.
In Claire’s Knee, Rohmer’s protagonist is Jerôme, a bearded, bohemian counterpoint to Jean-Louis’ flannel-suited Catholic. Jerôme is a reformed lothario set to marry when, on vacation in Sweden, he finds temptation in the form of nubile stepsisters Claire and Laura. Despite his unrelenting, and increasingly unconvincing, protestations that he’s through chasing women, Jerôme is hard-pressed to resist the schoolgirl crush Laura quickly develops for him. And though Laura is decidedly girlish, all ill-fitting dresses and earth tone turtlenecks, she’s precocious, witty, and wise to a degree that disarms Jerôme.
As if Laura’s maturing feminine wiles weren’t enough, Jerôme still must contend with the visceral physicality of Claire, whom we meet having just arrived from Paris and sunbathing in a microscopic blue bikini. Claire is the id to Laura’s ego, speaking nary a word to Jerôme but exuding a pure, lithe, blonde sexuality. It is, of course, her perfectly formed knee that becomes Jerôme’s most fierce temptation, first peeking from beneath the hem of a sundress as she ascends a ladder to pluck fruit from a tree (how’s that for metaphor?). Jerôme is so fixated as to call Claire’s knee “the magnetic pole of my desire,” and obsesses over the body part ad nauseum as it slips forth from a glowing white tennis skirt, any number of bathing suit cover-ups, and finally, overwhelmingly, from a perfectly fitted black mini dress in the film’s climactic moment.
Rohmer’s most lasting distillation of desire, though, comes in his masterpiece Chloe in the Afternoon (alternately called Love in the Afternoon). In it, Frédéric is a devoted, but wanting, husband to the beautiful Hélène. A connoisseur of the female form, Frédéric is surrounded by lusty visions, as the streets, cafés, shops, offices, and trains of Paris positively teem with women so gorgeous they could’ve alighted straight from the runway. One famous sequence finds Frédéric daydreaming of encounters with various women, not coincidentally to include the aforementioned Maud, Françoise, Laura, and Claire, representing each of Rohmer’s permutations of temptation.
It is, however, the surprise appearance of Chloé, a brash, forward, and mysterious fling from Frédéric’s past, that causes him to seriously question his polite, bourgeois existence with Hélène. The film’s climax, which finds Frédéric faced with a strikingly nude and willing Chloé, throws into simultaneous relief the persistence of love and the agony of desire.
As Laura puts it, surrounded by snow-covered mountains in Claire’s Knee, “All this beauty can be exhausting.” And that, a blissful exhaustion, is the main feeling one takes away from the films of Éric Rohmer, a director who was able to mine the depths of human emotion with a fury and skill too rarely seen.