January 22, 2011

La Boulangere de Monceau


You don't need much time to say something important. A short film or a short book is often more powerful than a long one. (Sometimes this blogger needs to learn that with respect to blogposts!) Eric Rohmer's La Boulangere de Monceau fits into that pattern. The film is only 22 minutes long but it has interesting things to say about the ways that we view morality. Its a story about a lad who meets two girls, one an unnamed bakery assistant and the second Sylvie, a slim blonde on the street. The man meets Sylvie on the street. She walks through his route to university every day and he admires her from afar. Prompted by a friend, he engineers a meeting with the girl- and after a discussion, she agrees to go for a coffee with him the next time they meet. Then she vanishes. He searches for her round the district, in the markets and the streets. Eventually he ends up going regularly to a bakery where he flirts with the assistant and agrees to meet her in a cafe. However just before he does, he sees Sylvie again who broke her leg and therefore had vanished, he jilts the bakery girl and goes to dinner with Sylvie- he describes this as a moral decision.

There isn't much suspense in the film and therefore I feel no guilt about telling you the whole story. I think though what's really interesting about this is the way that our protagonist describes the whole story as a moral tale. His decision to go with Sylvie to dinner and not the bakery assistant is moral: why? There are two reasons for the decision to be moral: the first is that he is committed to Sylvie. We know however that they have only just met, there is no reason for him to be committed to her. Sure he may desire her more but that desire is not a moral judgement, its a preference. There is a second reason for the decision to be moral: the reason is retrospective. At the end of the short film, the man marries Sylvie. In retrospect, had he jilted her he would have jilted his wife. In retrospect therefore the decision is about morality when looked at from the point of view of the future. Two things are crucial in this perspective: the first being that Sylvie as opposed to the girl from the bakery is given a name by the narrator- she is an individual- the other is not. The second is that the film is narrated: the entire film is seen from the point of view of the future.

This spinning round of the moral order is important. We often see the moral moment as the moment of choice, whereas the film presents the moment which defines the morality of an action as the moment afterwards. Obviously morality is useful as a guide to how to behave. Rohmer's reminder is that morality is also a useful concept applied to the past: it is our way of understanding our history. The man here needs to rule out the alternative possibility- that he married the girl from the bakery- and he does so by creating an obligation to Sylvie. The road not taken could not be taken because it would have been immoral to have taken it. Psychologically Rohmer argues that we need to classify, to judge our pasts in order to explain and justify our presents and he only needs 22 minutes to say that.

4 comments:

James Higham said...

On the shortness of films - there were some Czech animated shorts in Super8 and they said, in 12 minutes, what might take a documentary to say otherwise.

Twenty minutes to make a statement is long enough. All the rest is padding or setting.

Gracchi said...

James do you have the titles of any of those Czech films they sound interesting.

I agree that the rest can be padding or setting: that's not always true though, there are some films that are ninety minutes or two hours long that feel as though they couldn't miss a single frame- Wild Strawberries or Winter Light for example.

That Rohmer can say some important and interesting things in 20 minutes does make you wonder though about film makers who fail to do so in two to three hours though!

goodbanker said...

Maybe I'm immoral (and I guess these days, any banker - even a 'good' one - is automatically immoral in many people's eyes!), but... isn't Rohmer's man at best in a moral Catch-22? I'd even argue it the other way: having accidentally jilted Sylvie, the man then deliberately jilts la boulangere, with chronology as his main moral compass at the time of the decision, and his marriage to Sylvie more as ex post justification? Put more damningly: surely deliberately jilting the (less attractive) bakery girl is the morally less defensible position, as the man can't point to the accident of fate in the way that he can with Sylvie's broken leg?

On the more general point raised by James, I very much agree - as was fed back to me in a performance appraisal at work, "less is often more".

Gracchi said...

Goodbanker yes I agree entirely with your point of view on this. I think in the sense you discuss it it is an immoral judgement. I suppose that the perspective I'm arguing for the morality of his act is the perspective of having been married to Sylvie: that's the perspective that makes the earlier act an act of infidelity. What I'm interested in is that he describes it as a moral act and thinks of it as one- its that description and thought which interests me more than the actual morality of the act which I agree with you is doubtful.