Eric Rohmer Joan Mellen

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Joan Mellen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Eric Rohmer's Contes Moraux examine the withering away of feeling and genuine sentiment in the life of contemporary man. People for Rohmer subvert their intellects, using ideas as substitutes for feelings, and often to deny them. Thus the intellect works against man's deepest interests and desires, hiding from him his true self as well as the means by which he could satisfy the needs of that self. (p. 147)

Rohmer's heroes are all of a distinct moral type. Although Jean-Louis of My Night At Maud's, an ascetic Catholic, seems very different from the ebullient Jerome of Claire's Knee and the self-centered pleasure-loving Adrien of Collectionneuse, the three are very similar. Each represses spontaneous emotion preferring to live by calculation. Each is incapable of a relationship with a woman who is his equal because he is too self-centered to respond freely to the differentness of another. Moreover, the three have in common the fear of emotional risk and of having their true feelings "found out," as much by themselves as by others. In each film the hero feels a great need for a permanent love relationship….

Jean-Louis of My Night at Maud's … sets out to find a woman who will complement his Catholic beliefs as well as his mundane, socially approved aesthetic standards…. His character emerges only in the course of the debate he has with his old Marxist friend, Vidal, over the meaning of Pascal. Having always subordinated body to mind, Jean-Louis expresses himself best in the world of abstractions. These conversations are the perfect objective correlative for a character whose life is so little oriented toward the satisfaction of primary, physical needs.

The cold Jean-Louis and the warm Vidal each find their own Pascal. (p. 148)

Rohmer is much more sympathetic to Vidal, although he is destined to be the loser, because Vidal sees in Pascal the notion that man is not man unless he is willing to take risks, for example, to commit himself to an uncertain if great end (Marxism or the love of Maud), even if he has only small chance of success. (p. 149)

Pascal's sense that "we do not possess true goodness" caused him to argue for ambiguity in the meaning man gives to his acts in the world. But Jean-Louis is too insensitive to recognize the essential ambivalence of human experience. Instead, fearing it, he imposes a rigid code upon himself by which he will live at all costs: that "love is eternal," that "self-respect" would make him love his wife forever, and that divorce for him would be impossible. He justifies his fear of risks with abstract principles which have nothing to do with his true desires. Hiding behind these ideas, he loses contact with what he feels. (pp. 149-50)

[Jerome of Claire's Knee] is, like Jean-Louis, totally self-absorbed, imperceptive of the feelings of others. Revealingly, at the end of the film he cannot remember the man whom his friend Aurora brought to visit him and whom she is now marrying. Jerome sees life only in terms of his image of himself. The frescoes of Don Quixote seated blindfolded on a wooden horse, believing he is flying, adorn Jerome's house and are his visual equivalent. Like Don Quixote and like Jean-Louis, Jerome believes he is actively choosing his destiny. In reality, these are timid men who become infatuated with the least intellectually threatening women—those incapable of offering them challenge. (pp. 150-51)

Rohmer's settings are visual manifestations of his heroes' personalities: the carefree life at St. Tropez defines the emptiness of Adrien whose sole object in life as we see him is "to do nothing well." (p. 151)

In Claire's Knee the setting too provides a judgment on the empty, idle existence of the haute-bourgeoisie personified by Jerome…. They reflect Jerome's boredom, and as in the case of Adrien, the superficiality of his emotions. (pp. 151-52)

The icy winter in the dreary French province of Clermont is a perfect analogue to the strained, closemouthed Jean-Louis [of My Night at Maud's ]. The...

(The entire section is 3,116 words.)