Saturday, April 4, 2020

Éric Rohmer | La Boulangère de Monceau (The Bakery Girl of Monceau)

a moral dilemma
by Douglas Messerli

Éric Rohmer (writer and director) La Boulangère de Monceau (The Bakery Girl of Monceau) / 1963

The first of Éric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales, The Bakery Girl of Monceau is a work which simply recounts the story of a suddenly love-stricken young man (Barbet Schoeder) who falls in love with a slightly mysterious woman (Michèle Girardon), an assistant gallery employee, whom he discovers on the street. He vaguely knows where she might live and, basically, stalks her in an attempt to get to know who she is. If there is anything “moral,” meaning a cultural norm, about this tale, it is that he, a kind of true innocent, which even his friend guiding him through the process insists he is, the central figure is challenged to encounter the beautiful woman with whom he has suddenly fallen in love.  

    She, the woman he is seeking, is not entirely innocent. She has noticed his subtle eye-contact, and returns the view, just as discretely, until the two accidentally bump to one another, perhaps not unintentionally. In Rohmer’s handling of the situation, we can never be certain whether these strangers have or have not been waiting for that magic encounter, like pre-Pokémon figures, simply waiting to crash into one another.
     But like today’s distancing beings, the woman suddenly disappears, and her desperate young would-be lover, a bit desolate, endlessly checks out the neighborhood for the object of his desire.
     This search is at heart of Rohmer’s tale, as the “hero” also daily visits a patisserie, buying a cookie from the serving girl (Claudine Soubrier) during which she gradually falls in love with him as well.
      So are we presented with a kind of love triangle that more truly represents the “moral dilemma” than the director suggests. Will our weak hero fall in love with the loving shop girl or the woman of his dreams, although the latter has disappeared into the dark magic of the Paris streets?
      This is, after all, a stalking movie, and as the two leads eventually do reconnoiter, she having been suffering a foot injury which has kept her inside for so many of our cookie-munching hero’s days, we quickly realize that that the young law-clerk will surely abandon his equally secret love around the corner.
      The issue here is not a socially “moral” issue, but a very private one, the kind that you have to perceive all by yourself. He has betrayed an innocent simply by seeking another sort of love.

      When I was a very young man, in Waukesha, Wisconsin, I met a young woman, living on a farm, who one day invited me to her home where we had a very pleasant afternoon—believe or not—riding horses. I never might have imagined that I might be able to carelessly ride a horse; but I was a natural, and I am sure, right there-and-then, my innocent farm-girl friend fell in love with me.
      A few years later, after I moved away to the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Holly showed up, probably in the same year this movie was made, desperately attempting to regain the experience of that one day. I took her out for lunch but didn’t have the guts to tell her I was gay.
      I too had other loves, just as in Rohmer’s movie. It was a true moral dilemma.
      Rohmer himself writes about his moral concept:

My intention was not to film raw events, but the narrative that someone makes of them. The story, the choice of facts, their organization... not the treatment that I could have made them submit to. One of the reasons that these Tales are called "Moral" is that physical actions are almost completely absent: everything happens in the head of the narrator.

    Yes, the subtle transformation of one woman to another is not a true tragedy in Rohmer’ film, but on an individual level I am certain it means everything.

Los Angeles, April 4, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (April 2020).

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