This weekend, I finished watching Éric Rohmer’s “Six Moral Tales.” They are strangely fascinating films — very slow-paced, even verging on tedious, yet at the same time absorbing. All six follow the same basic pattern: a very cerebral man faces the dilemma of wanting to sleep with a woman and yet feeling he shouldn’t for moral reasons; he eventually sets up a situation such that he can feel good about the fact that he went with morality over desire. They lend themselves to multi-layered analysis, but I’d like to focus on what they are implicitly saying about morality as such.
The first thing to note is that the stakes are so incredibly small. French bourgeois culture is of course much more permissive than that of other countries with which I’m familiar — for instance, adultery isn’t so much tolerated as expected, on both sides. Literally no one would look down on these men if they gave in on their desires; they would suffer absolutely no consequences whatsoever, aside perhaps from a dramatic scene once they broke the relationship off. The only thing that would suffer is their self-concept — a self-concept that is itself in constant flux and arguably only arises in the face of their self-imposed dilemma. The use of first-person narration is extremely artful here; instead of giving us access to the candid thoughts of the character (as in The Peep Show), we get lengthy monologues of self-definition and self-justification, with hints of the true dynamics at best slipping out through the cracks of the narration and more often showing themselves only in the actions for which the character doesn’t even really try to give account.
The narration also highlights the monomaniacally male perspective of all these films, the claustrophobic enclosure within the head of an overeducated man who has no outlet other than turning women into mental dolls to play with. These men are continually declaring, to themselves and others, their preemptive “refusal” of women who may or may not be interested in the first place — or else projecting strangely exaggerated desires or agendas on the ones who do show an interest. The most terrifying women are of course those — like the title character of My Night at Maud’s — whose desires are straightforward and straightforwardly pursued and who are impatient with the protagonist’s endless dithering and empty scruples. Often the protagonist will stage a kind of triumph over the assertive woman, where he “rejects” her in favor of the simpler or more respectable woman he’s chosen.
All this is to say that these tales are moral only if morality is an excuse for inaction and self-congratulation. This brand of morality creates a world where the only true achievements are negative, where desires are kept entirely within the internal realm and repurposed as occasions to make yet another attempt at a consistent self-identity. Even the seemingly positive desire for the respectable woman is the embodiment of the negative gesture of rejecting the stronger and riskier — but also more interesting and alluring — woman. The real-world stakes are virtually null, but the internal stakes for the man are immeasurable, because they allow him the illusion of total control and self-transparency, an illusion that an open encounter with the woman who is truly his equal would shatter. Even the maintenance of the illusion isn’t a positive desire, though, but a kind of “second best” position to console himself for the loss of an opportunity that, though deeply appealing, is simply too risky.