You could be forgiven for thinking Eric Rohmer’s first film cycle, the ‘Six Moral Tales’ included six different moral tales. It doesn’t. In each film of the series, a man makes a choice between two women. To be more precise, a man contemplates a liaison with the wrong sort of woman (too young, too working class, too simple, too smart, too short, too coarse, a divorcee, a brunette, an atheist) but ultimately chooses the right sort of woman (usually the girl who was there at the start). In each film a man is briefly challenged by an aberrant attraction but in the end he makes a decision to act in accordance with his own skewed perspective of the world. Morality is but a matter of taste.
Nowhere is that theme, the analogy of morality and aesthetic preferences, more evident than in the fourth of the moral tales, La Collectionneuse (The Collector-Girl, 1967). Keeping with the self-interested snobs of La Boulangère de Monceau (The Girl at the Monceau Bakery, 1962) and La Carrière de Suzanne (Suzanne’s Career, 1963), La Collectionneuse tells the story of two modern dandies – Adrien (Patrick Bauchau), an aspiring art dealer and Daniel (Daniel Pommereulle), a conceptual artist – whose quiet beachside holiday on the Côte d’Azur is spoiled by the unexpected presence of Haydée (Haydée Politoff).
Ill-mannered, wilfully unreflective and “rather simple”, the beautiful, sun-burnt, twig-legged young Haydée spends her nights in the company of a string of different men. “The collector” her new housemates dub her, before quickly moving on to less subtle slurs. “Tart”, they call her, “little idiot”, “immoral slut”; first behind her back and then to her face. Adrien and Daniel instantly agree that Haydée is awful and decide to teach her a lesson or two about the finer points of morality; Daniel by sleeping with her and then being cruel, Adrien by flirting with her, then ignoring her, in order to seduce her, in order to have the final satisfaction of rejecting her advances.
Haydée’s great flaw is not that she’s a “slut” but that she’s an indiscriminate slut. Unlike the two elegant aesthetes, especially Adrien who narrates much of the film and has ambitions of opening an art gallery, Haydée is an unsophisticated collector. She offends their refined sensibilities with her preference for functionality – of an antique vase or a quick fuck – over critical contemplation. Adrien, by comparison, is incapable of experiencing the world without seeing it through a lens of connoisseurship. His attempt at a holiday (a holiday from nothing in particular, since he abhors work) immediately becomes an acutely self-aware performance of relaxation. One that, for all his pleas for peace and quiet, is meaningless without an audience.
Fourth in the cycle but filmed third, La Collectionneuse was a quick and dirty shoot organised while Rohmer and his producer scrounged the funds and talent together for the film they wanted to make, Ma Nuit Chez Maud (My Night At Maud’s, 1969). Filmed in the summer of 1966 the unpaid actors and crew lived together in the house near Saint Tropez where much of the film is set.1
As with many of his other films, Rohmer didn’t cast professional actors. Instead he selected pretty faces from among his young social milieu and had them play approximations of themselves, appropriating their style and manner of speaking as material for the script. Rohmer taped conversations with the three main actors, recording them “for hours” as they talked about their passions and interests, which often escalated into a tense exchange of “macho sarcasms” between the two men.2 Those conversations were the direct inspiration for much of the dialogue, hence although the script was penned by Rohmer (based on his short story), the three leads are all given credit as co-contributors.
Along with their paraphrased conversations, much of the cast keep their first names. And, at least in the case of the two men, they played characters not so dissimilar from their real-life personas. Patrick Bauchau was by all accounts a “modern dandy”, “the handsome son of a good family, who flaunted his elegant looks at the Café de Flore and at Cahiers du Cinéma” and who was the real-life boyfriend (later husband) of Bridget Bardot’s younger sister Mijanou Bardot, who appears briefly at the very beginning of the film (as the on-screen girlfriend who leaves for a fashion shoot in London).3 Bauchau in turn introduced Rohmer to Daniel Pommereulle, a conceptual artist who made violent looking assemblages and, like his on-screen equivalent, was partial to anti-bourgeois outbursts and enthusiastic self-reflexivity.
With its sharp dialogue lifted wholesale from its young cast, swinging Saint Tropez setting, miniskirts and kaftans, post-canvas painting, dope smoking and breezy promiscuity, La Collectionneuse seems entirely a product of its late ‘60s setting. According to Rohmer, Daniel and Adrien’s cynical dandyism was representative of a “deliberately anti-conformist” attitude that he felt was a cliché of the time.4
It’s easy to imagine Rohmer – a good deal older than his cast, Royalist, Catholic, idealistic, a classicist whose stubborn conservatism had seen him booted from Cahiers – as offering an outsider’s perspective of the period that envelopes La Collectionneuse, giving its protagonists just enough rope to condemn themselves.5 But of course it’s more complex than that. For one, the origins of La Collectionneuse are much older, dating back to a short story – “Chantal, ou l’epreuve” – written in 1949. And as a recent biography discusses in some detail, Rohmer led an extraordinary double life, one that makes the men of the Six Moral Tales seem less like semi-fictional re-imaginings of his young acquaintances than Rohmer’s alter-egos.6
La Collectionneuse is sometimes described as a prophetic film which foreshadowed the events of May 1968. Certainly there are moments of anti-bourgeois cynicism that sometimes erupt into violence, in particular Daniel’s angry anti-consumerist outburst and Haydée’s deliberate destruction of a priceless antique vase, both of which are directed at a rich, old art collector. And as Sally Schafto points out, many of the young cast and crew of La Collectionneuse, most notably Daniel Pommereulle, were associated with the avant-garde radicalism of the Zanzibar group.7 But Rohmer’s greatest strength is that his lens is much longer, taking in the entire run of postwar permissiveness and disillusion. The real charms and pleasures of La Collectionneuse lie in more essential observations about taste and desire. Elegance can be a weapon. Better to search than collect. Without a greater purpose, intellectual contemplation is a form of nihilism.
Images used in this article are gratefully taken from Film-Grab.com https://film-grab.com/2013/08/
- Antoine de Baecque and Noël Herpe, Éric Rohmer: A Biography, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016) p.22 ↩
- Baecque and Herpe, Éric Rohmer, p.218; 220. For more detailed information about Rohmer’s technique see also Jacob Leigh, “La Collectionneuse: Dandies on the Côte d’Azur,” Senses of Cinema 54 (April 2010), http://sensesofcinema.com/2010/feature-articles/la-collectionneuse-dandies-on-the-cote-dazur/ ↩
- Baecque and Herpe, Éric Rohmer, p.218; 220. ↩
- Eric Rohmer (in conversation with Barbet Schroeder), “Moral Tales, Filmic Issues,” Six Moral Tales (United States: Criterial Collection, 2006), DVD. ↩
- Born in 1920, Eric Rohmer was slower to develop an interest in film and slower to take up the camera than his fellow cinephiles and critics at Cahiers, most of whom were ten or so years younger. As the editor-in-chief of Cahiers du Cinéma from 1957 to 1963, Rohmer came under increasing fire for the magazine’s insufficient and belated coverage of the New Wave. Rohmer didn’t think he had sufficient critical or historical distance from the films or their directors to judge them appropriately and was worried if the magazine was too vocal in its support, they would all end up looking like “a clan of cronies”. For the New Wave filmmakers, particularly Rohmer’s long-time friend Truffaut, Rohmer’s retreat into classicalism and his lack of solidarity for the directors who had emerged from the ranks of the magazine was infuriating. A collection of the New Wave filmmakers still close to the magazine conspired to have Rohmer’s editorial approach managed, and when that failed, to have him fired. For a detailed account of this period see Baecque and Herpe, Éric Rohmer, 129; 131; 165. ↩
- Born Maurice Schérer, and later penning fiction under the pseudonym Gilbert Cordier, it was not until after he started writing about film at Cahiers du Cinéma that he adopted the name Eric Rohmer, keeping his private life and film career entirely segregated (so much so his own mother died in 1975 having no idea her son was anything other a classics teacher). According to Baecque and Herpe, “Maurice Schérer, a former professor of French, led an orderly life as a good son, good husband, and good father, a life into which Eric Rohmer never penetrated, preferring a more Bohemian and less respectable one spent in the company of starlets and dandies…” Baecque and Herpe, Éric Rohmer, p.2 ↩
- Sally Schafto, The Zanzibar Films and the Dandies of May 1968, (Paris: Editions Paris Expérimental, 2007), p.178 ↩