Dir. Eric Rohmer. Starring Barbet Schroeder, Michele Girardon, Claudine Soubrier
Almost eight months to the day after I watched My Night at Maud’s, I finally finished Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales. By a weird set of circumstances, The Bakery Girl of Monceau is the last one I’ve added to my tally, and I’m not sure if I wish I’d seen this first entry first. It’s worth it to watch this one first because of its ending, I’d say, which foreshadows Rohmer’s knack for ending these movies with gut punches which are primarily visual, which is to say they are cinematic first and foremost. There’s no verbal explanation required for what happens at the end. Emboldened by the distance of six months and the knowledge that Jacqueline (Soubrier) has moved on to another place, the protagonist (Schroeder) can walk calmly into the bakery with his wife (Girardon) and order from une femme and not une demoiselle. It’s totally clear, and it’s breathtakingly potent: the sheer arrogance of his comfort is indecent. But then I think to myself that the moral choice is laid out a little too clearly in Bakery Girl, in the moment where he rationalizes choosing Sylvie over Jacqueline:
My choice had been, above all, a moral one. Having found Sylvie again, seeing the bakery girl would be a vice, an aberration. One represented truth and the other a mistake, or so I told myself at the time.
The moral choices are in boldfaced type in the other five, to say nothing of the audacity of linking six basically unrelated movies released over nine years by dropping “moral tales” on ’em. The choice between Helene and Chloe in Love in the Afternoon is loud, the symbolism of the smashed vase in La collectionneuse louder still, Claire’s eponymous knee deafening. But the moments in those films are, again, visual first and auditory second. The law student makes his decision in his mind while he stands in front of a building and tries to stay out of the rain. It’s not that this waiting doesn’t make sense as a visual clue; aside from the fact that he tells us it’s a fifteen-minute wait, we see him hanging around during the moments when he has promised Jacqueline he’ll take her out. But the shot itself is not as powerful, and so the speaking takes first place, and in this regard, at least, it makes sense not to run to Bakery Girl right off the bat.
One of the great accomplishments of Bakery Girl is that it manages to squeeze so many shots of the back of Barbet Schroeder’s head into less than half an hour. Practically, it makes sense. Much of the first half of the movie is spent walking up and down the same few crowded streets in Paris as he waits for Sylvie or looks for Sylvie or tries to run into Sylvie or legitimately runs into Sylvie, and I’m sure that even if Rohmer had wanted to shoot from in front of his leading man he would have needed a snowplow to make room. What it does for us as viewers is distances us from the protagonist from the word go. Unable to take a look at Schroeder’s face, we find ourselves thrown in with a stranger whose steady, stoic voiceover doesn’t bring us any closer to him. The shots of his careless seduction of Jacqueline are overwhelmingly shots of cookies, not of him. When he begins to execute his plan to take her out for an evening, the danger signs proliferate rapidly. Rohmer looks at the two of them from below, keeping her face visible and making his shadowy. In one long shot, we see the man’s hands running all over Jacqueline’s neck and shoulders as he tells her to lie to her parents about where she is, ditch her friends. She’s a teenager. It is an awfully uncomfortable shot, one that Soubrier leans into fully. There is no shy smile or coy invitation. Her face says no while her words say “Probably not,” and still this awkward attachment which means more and more to the student grows.
His world is terrifically small. He eats at the same cafeteria every day, grants himself the same amount of time for meals, studies constantly (though Rohmer is wise enough not to make us watch him do it), promenades in the same little corner. The film begins with the place, not the people, and it shows the boundaries this student’s territory bounces up against, which are mental as much as physical. Like Jean-Louis Trintignant in My Night at Maud’s or Patrick Bauchau in La collectionneuse, Schroeder in Bakery Girl has convinced himself that obsession is a sign of urbanity or superiority. What it is, really, is a lack of perspective, and so we are a little amazed at the fact that he’s so wound up about the thought of Sylvie that he passes up mealtime in order to look for her on the busy sidewalks. Rohmer is masterful in this sequence; on the occasion he shows us, our protagonist tires of looking and wanders into the market. With his face visible to us, he buys cherries, is swept up in the heat and life of the other people, the ripeness of summer fruit. Then he takes his bag and continues walking away from the camera, tossing stones into the street, as much on the prowl as ever.
According to him, this flirtation with the bakery girl is an “aberration,” an event so out of character that he reads it as a “vice.” Since it’s a short film, his motivations are harder to read for lack of evidence. I’m inclined to think that the simplest answer is best: a lonely man needs the attention of some woman, reads the possibility for affection into offhand comments or typical actions, and throws himself into action in the hopes of having her. Even in the moment, he knows that there couldn’t have been a future with Jacqueline. There’s the age difference, but more importantly there’s a class difference as well. Will a law student presumably from a family of means hitch his wagon to a girl whose career prospects are not much brighter than salesgirl at a bakery? What he seems incapable of working out for himself is that sex and love are rather different things, and no matter how genteel a fellow he presents himself to be, the feelings he’s got on his mind for Sylvie and Jacqueline are more the former than the latter. The protagonist would never have scolded himself for falling for Sylvie had he met her after Jacqueline, and the happy ending he writes for himself is as bourgeois as an apricot tart.