Le boulangère de Monceau / The Bakery Girl of Monceau
20 mai. Day five. I decided to watch La boulangère de Monceau, the first of the Six Moral Tales. I was going to hold off and spend the evening reading essays and criticism of Rohmer's work and I did read for about two hours, but in the end I couldn't resist putting in the DVD and watching the 24 minute short. And I didn't stop there. Another short, Présentation ou Charlotte et son steak, is on the same disk, as is a dialog between Barbet Schroeder and Éric Rohmer. Where to begin?
I mentioned to Alice yesterday morning (this was before my angry outburst at my two dillydallying girls) that I needed to move on to the Six Moral Tales otherwise I would write five thousand more words on Le signe du lion and thereby throw my book out of proportion: Ma nuit chez Maude should get more pages than Rohmer's first feature. But La boulangère de Monceau, being a short, might not stand up as it's own chapter in my book. Should I pair it with "steak"? Or perhaps, I could begin with an introduction to the Six Contes Moraux. Alice listened politely. She was trying to get out the door, on her way to work. What could she say? I'm am used to the writer's solitary life.
I reread the preface to Six Moral Tales (the book) and then the first story, The Bakery Girl of Monceau. My copy has been translated into English by Sabine d'Estrée. Last week, I ordered an untranslated copy from a bookseller in France and they informed me that it was shipped yesterday and would arrive sometime in June(!). By that time I will likely be finished with Six Contes Moraux (the films) and my account of them here. We'll see how that develops.
The literary version of The Bakery Girl of Monceau is almost the same as the filmed version. The differences are meaningful, but perhaps not significant. When I started reading the opening description of Villiers, I thought I could have been reading a story influenced by the nouveau roman, Alain Robbe-Grillet's "new school" which characteristically had a filmic approach to storytelling, very much preoccupied with the world as the camera might see it. But then the first person narration kicks in and we read (now) the unnamed narrator's account of his pursuit of Sylvia (Sylvie's name being Anglicized in the translation). The story is simple. The narrator keeps running into Sylvie, by chance, on the street. He's attracted to her. Thinks she might be attracted to him, but he lacks the courage to take the direct approach. Chance intervenes and the narrator literally bumps into Sylvia and they have their first exchange of words resulting in the narrator's suggestion that Sylvia meet him (and his friend Schmidt) for coffee in an hour. Sylvia declines and then promptly disappears. The narrator circulates in the neighborhood for the next three weeks hoping to bump into Sylvia again, but Sylvia isn't circulating in the streets, or if she is, their paths never cross. It's during this period of wandering, looking for Sylvia that the narrator evolves a relationship with a young lady in the bakery on the corner of the rue Lebouteux. The narrator eventually arranges to go on a date with the bakery girl, but as soon as he does Sylvia emerges from her flat in search of the narrator who has (unknown to him) been playing out the spectacle of flirting with the bakery girl (Jacqueline in the film) in plain sight of Sylvia whose apartment faces the bakery. Once Sylvia resurfaces, the narrator stands up Jacqueline. And in six months he and Sylvia are married living on the rue Lebouteux and Jacqueline absent from the bakery.
There is a purpose for recounting the story. It will provide me with a working example, a demonstration of how stories are constructed. But first I'll echo something that I read in Dennis Grunes' review of the short film. Grunes points out something that has bothered me ever since my first viewing: the title of the film is The Bakery Girl of Monceau yet the narrator only toys with Jacqueline. The true object of the narrator's affection is Sylvie. (I'll go back to using my preferred spelling and pronunciation of the beautiful Sylvie's name. Sylvia is somehow heavier and more tedious in my mind that the light, bright-eyed Sylvie, shining goddess of the rue Lebouteux.) But the story isn't called Sylvie or (as Grunes quips) How I Met My Wife. The title is most definitely The Bakery Girl of Monceau, so it is Jacqueline that is somehow the viewer's / reader's focus, if not the smug narrator's. I won't quote extensively from Grunes' review, but I do find his question worth considering: "...might not the title suggest that throughout his marriage, however much he chooses to deny it, Jacqueline will loom as 'the one that got away' --- the soul who might have redeemed him from his self-absorption?"
The narrator (Barbet Schroeder) and Jacqueline (Claudine Soubrier) flirt in the bakery.
Now I'd like to examine how the story is constructed. Like a good short (story) the narrative is tightly focused, anything that isn't directly concerned with the problem of finding Sylvie is left out. The narrator refers to his studies and his other friends in passing, but the bulk of his daily routine has no bearing on the story whatsoever. Thus we don't see the narrator at school, out with his friends (other than Schmidt who is involved with the Sylvie business from the outset), or taking his exams. The only action relevant to the story is the action that has to do with the narrator's quest, his essential problem.
Being simple and focused doesn't mean the resulting story will be engaging, or entertaining, or worth the time of the reader / viewer (let alone the time expended in the creation, but artists often have other, more pressing concerns driving their choice of how to spend their free time). I could decide that writing this book is a waste of time, time better spent reading Faulkner's Light in August (which I just picked up again this morning after ten or fifteen years). You, oh Reader, can choose to read Light in August while I am compelled by my own demons to spill ink on the page, or encode binary strings on magneto-optical media for transmission across fiber-optic cables that connect my house with yours even more completely than the roads that carried Lena from Alabama to Doane's Mill in Mississippi.
I have ignored principles of economy in the construction of this narrative, preferring instead the gratuitous inclusion of everything under the sun that I see fit to connect with the center of gravity of this accretion of words. Perhaps economy is only essential in the short form. A novel (and a feature film, perhaps) are not bound by economy and can expand to include whatever the writer / director sees fit to include.
Near the end of Le boulangère de Monceau the narrator claims that his choice to stand-up Jacqueline is a moral choice. He insists that he was only free to pursue Jacqueline while Sylvie was out of the picture. Now that Sylvie has returned to his life, to have "carried on" with Jacqueline would have been (by implication) immoral. The narrator doesn't have to be right, of course. He could be wrong.
Perhaps I am a lot like Rohmer was. I have no way of knowing. I never knew the man. I know his work and I find that I identify with most of his male protagonists: Jean-Louis in Ma Nuit Chez Maude, Gaspard in Conte d'été, and (especially) Frédéric in L'amour l'après midi. I confess that I also identify with the nameless narrator of La boulangère de Monceau. I too am smug and self-absorbed, imaging myself the central character of a grand novel with all the women in the world admiring me and secretly desiring me for their own. I too show contempt for those who I view as beneath me in station and must struggle against my nature to be gracious and humble. Did Rohmer model his male protagonists after himself? Was he the I of the first person narrator? Do I identify with his narrators because he and I are alike? Questions like this are unanswerable. But in my years of reading and of watching films I have learned much about myself that is true that I was not aware of until I used the polished glass of fiction as a mirror to reflect on my own nature.
21 mai, day six. The reason to watch (and watch again) films by great directors (auteurs) is that they teach us how to be more human. Lessons in humanity. What I found in Rohmer's films was a challenge, something that went beyond escapism and mere entertainment. (There's nothing wrong with mere entertainment, good entertain is as essential to the human condition, or surviving it, as substantive fiction.) Rohmer's films are studies in humanity. We meet real people, men and women, in his films, and I don't mean just the actors, but the characters themselves are real. What I mean by real is that in the same way that ideas are real and they matter and have real consequences for our life actions, the characters of a substantive film are real. This should not be confused with existing which refers to a physical state. The actor occupies the existing and as the character embodies the real. Many times in Rohmer's films we encounter characters with the same names as their en-actors: Haydée and Daniel in La collectioneuse, Jean-Louis in Ma nuit chez Maud, and Aurora in Le genou de Claire. The narrator of Le boulangère de Monceau is unnamed, but he could be called Barbet after Barbet Schroeder, the person (actor or model?) who plays the narrator. Barbet Schroeder was Rohmer's business partner. Together Schroeder and Rohmer started Les Films du Losange to produce the Six Moral Tales and eventually all of Rohmer's films. Schroeder was Rohmer's producer and indefatigable assistant.
The correspondence between actor and character in specific films I'll leave for future chapters. For now, I'll say that one marked different between the novel and the film is that the viewer of the film is tempted to seek out information about the actor who plays the role. Often, choices about whether or not to watch a particular film are made on the basis of who the actor is. A person might go to a movie to see Tom Cruise or Robin Williams or Eddie Murphy regardless of what the movie is about or what character the actor is playing. There is no corresponding phenomenon in the novel. Characters in novels are always played by themselves and must be addressed as a character qua character. In a film, there is the actor and then there is the character, potentially separable entities. We can say that we like or dislike an actor in a particular role. We can even say that a role would be better suited to another actor. If a movie's purpose is to entertain, then casting decisions can be made on the basis of star appeal or looks or the mannerisms expected from a certain actor. Rohmer's films transcend entertainment. His casting decisions, while they might have been made practically at the time based on who was available, had a bearing on the reality of the film. The actor in a Rohmer film inhabits the character in a way that is subtly different from a star actor in a film made as a vehicle for the exhibition of the star. Rohmer's purpose was a moral one. The actor / characters in Rohmer films are not manipulated, they inhabit the role and act within that role as naturally as they would if they were living through the same scenario in existing life. Thus, a character in one of Rohmer's films will not be forced to change for the sake of anything other than it is the real response of that character to that real situation. This can lead to the viewer's expectations being frustrated, or the view being frustrated by the character precisely because the character / actor is being treated with the respect of a real and existing person. Rohmer's characters can infuriate a viewer as much as existing people do. We are frustrated by others' free will because we cannot control them or they do not behave the way we want them to or think they will.
In March I flew to Dallas to meet up with an old friend and to do some research for another book I'm working on. One night in the hotel room I watched a film by Stéphane Brizé, Mademoiselle Chambon. I had been waiting to watch the film for almost a year; it's theatrical release was last summer (2010). A friend of mine emailed me to alert me that the film was finally available to watch on demand (on my portable electronic device). I couldn't resist. The film had been compared to the work of Rohmer. The story of Mademoiselle Chambon comes from a novel by Eric Holder published in 1996. (I don't think that the book has been translated into English. Perhaps it won't be.) The film does have some Rohmer-esque qualities, primarily in the visual style and the subtly of the performances by Sandrine Kiberlaine (Véronique Chambon) and Vincent Lindon (Jean). Jean, a married man, and Mlle. Chambon, Jean's son's school teacher, are mutually attracted and for most of the film resist the temptation to leap into the sack. Most of the action is psychological. I recall my anticipation of the ending. As the final scenes played out I was elated by the possibility that Jean and Mlle. Chambon would quietly acknowledge their love and make the moral choice: a refusal. Brizé toys with the viewer, allowing me to believe for a moment that Jean can refuse. But Jean does not refuse. And then perhaps he does, when he decides not to leave his family. In the end Jean makes the ultimate moral choice, but the penultimate choice to hop into the sack with Mlle. Chambon was not morally his finest hour. That one failure on Jean's part blemished the film, not because it wasn't realistic for Jean and Mlle. Chambon to fuck, but because neither Jean, nor Mlle. Chambon as characters would have (if not manipulated from the outside) chosen to fuck one another. How do I know this?
Obviously, I don't know Jean and Mlle. Chambon so well as to speak for what is realistic about their actions. Perhaps I was annoyed with Brizé's sex scene because it seemed the obvious thing for Jean and Mlle. Chambon to do and I wanted to be surprised. But because I was hoping that Jean and Mlle. Chambon would not fuck each other, how could I have been surprised if they had refused? What would have been the unexpected in their story?
I haven't read Holder's novel, but I'll assume that Brizé didn't fabricate the sex scene. It's possible that Holder's novel might have made the sex act between Jean and Mlle. Chambon more natural. Did Brizé fail to provide sufficient motivation for the sex scene or is my refusal to accept the sex scene as real a prejudice or defect on my part as the viewer? Is it my prudishness that wanted Jean and Mlle. Chambon to resist temptation? Are there any circumstances under which the choice to commit adultery is the moral choice and where the refusal would be immoral? Or does morality always dictate that a married man should not have sex with any woman other than his wife? These questions are explored in Rohmer's Six Moral Tales. Maud accuses Jean-Louis of immoral prudishness by ignoring the fact that there is a divorcée in the same room with him who just might benefit from a little Christian tenderness; instead Jean-Louis is so wrapped up in the restrictions of his moral code that he can't respond humanly to Maud. Frédéric refuses to have sex with Chloe, not for reasons of prudishness, but because of the morality of the situation. I'll definitely explore that in more detail when I get to that film.
Perhaps this is the last thing I can say about La boulangère de Monceau. The narrator's refusal to go on the date with Jacqueline once Sylvie re-enters his life is not obviously a refusal of sex. The date with Jacqueline was explicitly for a dinner and a movie, but the narrator circumvents the situation for a reason which he didn't reveal. It's possible that he planned to have sex with Jacqueline, assuming she would have been willing. And knowing that having sex with Jacqueline after establishing that there was a possible future with Sylvie would have been an offense to his relationship with Sylvie. His refusal of Jacqueline was an expression of his disinterest in her as anything but a potential sex partner. He didn't want to cheat on Sylvie, but he was certainly willing to cheat on Jacqueline because it's clear from the story that the date with Jacqueline didn't negate the hoped for future with Sylvie (a point which returns in Ma Nuit Chez Maud). The story is about the bakery girl, Jacqueline, precisely because she would have been the victim of the narrator's choice, not Sylvie.