Graham Petrie: What exactly do you mean by the word “moral” in the title of this series of films?
Eric Rohmer: In French there is a word “moraliste” that I don’t think has any equivalent in English. It doesn’t really have much connection with the word “moral,” a moraliste is someone who is interested in the description of what goes on inside man. He’s concerned with states of mind and feelings. For example in the eighteenth century Pascal was a moraliste, and a moraliste is a particularly French kind of writer like La Bruyère or La Rochefoucauld, and you could also call Stendhal a moraliste because he describes what people feel and think. So “Contes Moraux” doesn’t really mean that there’s a moral contained in them, even though there might be one and all the characters in these films act according to certain moral ideas that are fairly clearly worked out. In Ma Nuit chez Maud these ideas are very precise; for all the characters in the other films they are rather more vague, and morality is a very personal matter. But they try to justify everything in their behavior and that fits the word “moral” in its narrowest sense. But “moral” can also mean that they are people who like to bring their motives, the reasons for their actions, into the open, they try to analyze, and they are not people who act without thinking about what they are doing. What matters is what they think about their behavior, rather than their behavior itself. They aren’t films of action, they aren’t films in which physical action takes place, they aren’t films in which there is anything very dramatic, they are films in which a particular feeling is analyzed and where even the characters themselves analyze their feelings and are very introspective. That’s what “Conte Morale” means.
Eric Rohmer in conversation with Graham Petrie1
“Rohmer’s characters are noted for their verbosity, but what sets these films apart from the rest of his oeuvre is their representation of long conversations on the different possible readings of literary texts (by Pascal, Forster and Shakespeare). This conflicts with the decisive nature of the judgements in much of Rohmer’s own film criticism in which he has admitted to defending some directors ‘par esprit de corps’ with his Cahiers du cinéma colleagues, citing Ophuls as an example. The logic behind Rohmer’s polemical opinions appears to stem from his belief that ‘the cinema is a privileged art form because it most faithfully transcribes the beauty of the real world’.”
“For [Jacques] Rancière, Godard represents the finest example of the contemporary artist who, using the phrase-image, expresses modern experience freely, densely and movingly. I want to argue that Eric Rohmer is another good example. Rohmer’s films exemplify the notion expressed by Epstein of an art that makes the sensory and the invisible visible. He achieves this by evoking the quotidian as the multi-layered experience of events - what Rohmer refers to as ambiance. In Rohmer, the act of speaking plays a significant role. But often at important moments in his films, speech is but one of many elements. Talking only appears to be the main attraction; so much happens in scenes where nothing but talking seems to be taking place. Many of his films are inhabited by a massive agitation and an instability positioned alongside the verbal sparring. It is only thanks to the rolling din of words that his films maintain an appearance of continuity and coherence.”
- 1. Graham Petrie, “Eric Rohmer: An Interview,” Film Quarterly 24, n° 4, Summer 1971.
- 2. Tom Ennis, “Textual interplay: the case of Rohmer’s Ma nuit chez Maud and Conte d’hiver,” French Cultural Studies, Volume: 7, issue: 21, October 1, 1996.
- 3. Aimee Israel-Pelletier, “Godard, Rohmer, and Rancière’s Phrase-Image,” SubStance #108, Vol. 34, no. 3, 2005.