Rohmerathon: Love in the Afternoon, by Scott Nye
In Claire’s Knee, Rohmer expanded the general “a committed man is tempted to stray” template that guides the Moral Tales from a single woman catching a man’s eye to three women, recognizing that, once shaken, a man will look just about anywhere for an opportunity to satisfy himself. Right off the bat, Love in the Afternoon takes that even further, arguably to its natural conclusion. Frédéric (Bernard Verley), a young lawyer in a small firm, is living the contented dream, with a wife, Hélène (Françoise Verley, Bernard’s wife), a daughter, and a son on the way. But he’s restless, desperate for something to break the routine and reinvigorate his sense of self. In voiceover, he asks of his wife, “Why, among all possible beauties, was it her beauty that struck me?” While gazing uncomfortably at a woman on the train, he notes, “Since my marriage, I find all women attractive.” He sits in a cafe, watching women pass by, imagining a supernatural power that would compel them – any of them, all of them – to have sex with him. The Moral Tales protagonists get creepier as the series goes on (with the understanding that My Night at Maud’s, produced fourth, is the third), and Frédéric is as skeezy as they come.
That his fantasies specifically involve past stars of the Moral Tales series (Françoise Fabian and Marie-Christine Barrault from My Night at Maud’s; Haydee Politoff from La Collectionneuse; and Aurora Cornu, Laurence de Monaghan, and Béatrice Romand from Claire’s Knee) lends this film a referential vibe that permeated much of the French New Wave, but which Rohmer has, to this point, largely avoided. Oh, we got cameos by Godard and other New Wave luminaries in the early, now-forgotten stuff, but this is canonic Rohmer, made when he was already enjoying a titanic reputation. I mentioned earlier that the very gambit of introducing The Bakery Girl of Monceau as the first in a series of six seems disproportionately ambitious for someone who barely scraped by the resources for a 20-minute film at age in his early forties after already seeing a feature completely fail; despite (or perhaps, because of) that boldness, there’s a slight sense of trepidation in the execution of the Moral Tales through Claire’s Knee. Love in the Afternoon isn’t exactly a free-form discursive exercise in the manner of the New Wave directors who preceded him (even Truffaut was wilder), but it does show a wilier side to Rohmer than might otherwise be expected.
The object of Frédéric’s infatuation feels at once earthier and more ethereal than those who have obsessed our past protagonists. Chloé (the mononymous Zouzou) is an old friend’s former flame whom Frédéric claims he could never stand. But sometimes a hint of familiarity is enough to override a bit of resentment. She comes to him looking to reconnect, by which she means find a job, by which she comes to mean sleep with him. Her sexuality is more dangerous than the past Moral Tales women – Maud is a divorcee who’s not really seeing anyone; Claire is in a committed relationship; Haydée is having numerous flings, but in the carefree way people do in their youth. Chloé is constantly trying to get away from men who have wronged her, or whom she has wronged. The friend of Frédéric’s she once went with was left in emotional ruins when they broke up. Zouzou herself bears a somewhat more caustic expression than we’re used to seeing, one that almost dares Frédéric to take her seriously, or dares him more to toss her aside.
Like Jerôme in Claire’s Knee, Frédéric takes a bit of a clinical approach to his growing relationship with Chloé. Sure, he’s glad to have someone to pass the afternoons with (unusually, the American release opted for the less sexual – but more accurate – title Chloé in the Afternoon, probably to distinguish it from Billy Wilder’s 1957 film), but she makes very plain her interest in and desire for him, and he does nothing to dissuade her. Unlike Jerôme, his curiosity isn’t centered around how she will react, but how he will. He wants an affair, and temptations seem to keep cropping up around him, including a new nanny who isn’t always aware of his presence as she dashes out from the shower naked. Nothing Chloé does, up to and including requesting he impregnate her, completely turns him away. Sometimes weeks will go by without seeing one another, but they still wind up back together, bound by loneliness, curiosity, and their past ties. Frédéric doesn’t notice, or much care, that his afternoon rendezvous cause snickers amongst his coworkers (Rohmer remains resolutely within his protagonists’ perspectives, but always builds a living, breathing, thinking world around them). There’s a sense that his lust is reaching a boiling point and will cause something – his marriage, his fidelity, his temper, his employment – to explode. Perhaps it has already, somewhere, without his knowledge; Chloé swears she saw Frédéric’s wife with another man one afternoon.
I’ve shied away so far from discussing the endings of these films too specifically, but it seems to me unavoidable with Love in the Afternoon, as it has twice now left me breathless and bewildered, and – given how often it is brought up in interviews with Rohmer from the time of its release – seems to touch a chord with others as well. Frédéric, finally allowing himself to have sex with Chloé, surprises himself – and even us, familiar with the Moral Tales structure – by running from the scene of the potential crime. He darts home, proudly, to Hélène, only to find her despondent and a little depressed. No doubt a good deal wound up by the close encounter he’d just come from, he begins to make motions towards sex, all the while hinting around a confession to her, and she to him. She breaks down in tears, but he continues with her sexual advances, and she, still sobbing and half-undressed, suggests they go to the bedroom.
This moment registers to me as the most emotionally complex Rohmer has yet attempted. Reflecting on it in an interview in 1974, Rohmer said:
When we shot that scene, I was almost embarrassed to sit through it, even though I knew they were ‘acting out’. It was a scene we did only one take of, and it would have been absolutely impossible to have done it over. I like it when in my films something happens that I am not forcing – it happens and I just have to film. My film is not a documentary, not a piece of cinéma vérité. It was written and well prepared. It was acted by actors. But there are certain moments, despite everything, when the actors forget they are actors, and I forget that they are actors, too. And that’s what interests me most in the films: to find these moments. But in general, I find them without looking for them. In Chloë in the Afternoon it happened at the very end, and it was only then that I felt happy with my film. Until then I was not satisfied.
I would hardly match Rohmer’s prior dissatisfaction, but Love in the Afternoon’s conclusion is significant evidence for the argument that a movie is defined by how it ends. As I noted above, Rohmer is brilliant at filling out his worlds beyond his protagonists’ narrow, narcissistic ways of seeing it, and in the Moral Tales this way of seeing is typically exploded in some fashion at the very end. Suzanne’s Career sees Suzanne in a happy, fulfilling relationship, My Night at Maud’s severely complicates Jean-Louis’ idealistic conception of his wife, and Claire’s Knee suggests broader ramifications to Jerôme’s carefree meddling. Rohmer has carefully focused the story away from Hélène to this point. Despite the suggestion she may too be having an affair, Frédéric seems to take her for granted, and we take our cues from him, if for no other reason than the central drama with Chloé is plenty compelling to hold our interest. Besides, whenever we see Hélène, she is the very image of the happy, supportive wife. She has her pursuits and interests, but they are beside, and take a back seat to, Frédéric’s.
That she, too, has an inner life and secrets to hide is perhaps not the most progressive aspect to treat as a revelation, especially in now, when we rightfully ask more of female roles than “happy, supportive wife,” but 1972 was a different time. Though I have argued repeatedly that the era, and especially pre-1968, gave us more, and much better, roles for women, defaulting to a simplistic version of matrimony would not raise eyebrows. If we are given a version of Hélène who seems relatively worry-free, there’s little cause for us to question such a presentation, dramatically or necessarily morally. Agnès Varda played with this dynamic much more pointedly with her 1965 masterpiece La bonheur – a happily married man has an affair to expand his happiness, without quite realizing his wife might see things differently – and her indictment is much more precise and piercing. Rohmer isn’t out to indict. In the aforementioned interview, he also noted, “I didn’t want to ridicule anyone… If my film were a criticism of the French bourgeoisie, it would be a very superficial and totally powerless criticism of it.” Love in the Afternoon raises questions of fidelity, love, sex, and the impossibility of assuming anything of anyone, but it also leaves room for viewers to ask questions neither the film or Rohmer would venture to imagine, for they are personal to each member of each audience in each cinema in each city. That the film is now so widely available – on DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming – is an especially fine thing, for multiplied now are the number of imagined possibilities.
This makes it not only quite a striking film in its own right, but an ideal way to conclude the Moral Tales, which, for the simplicity their English heading may suggest, only grow more complex and unwieldy as the series progresses. Even with Claire’s Knee being perhaps my least favorite of the bunch, it is in part because it is more opaque. Rohmer will again embark on a similarly-ambitious series with his Comedies and Proverbs, beginning with 1981’s The Aviator’s Wife. Before we get to that, we will first be greeted with a pair of adaptations, a rarity for the filmmaker. The Marquise of O… (1976) is among his most acclaimed films, while Perceval le Gallois (1978) does not enjoy a particularly renowned reputation. Nevertheless, I am excited to start seeing again some Rohmer features for the first time, an experience I’ve not enjoyed since I started this series with The Sign of Leo back in September. The series will grow somewhat harder to follow along with, as we wave goodbye to Hulu, where all the Moral Tales films are available, but the determined viewer will always find a way. Challenge accepted?