Saturday, July 7, 2012
#343: The Bakery Girl of Monceau
At just under 23 minutes, The Bakery Girl of Monceau might be the shortest film in the Criterion Collection with a spine number all to itself. This is a bit misleading, though, since the only reason it has its spine number is that it is the first of six films in the boxset collecting Eric Rohmer's Six Moral Tales. Rohmer, who died a few years ago after one of the more personal and idiosyncratic careers in the French New Wave, was most famous for the three series he made (along with Six Moral Tales, he made one based on proverbs and a final series based on the seasons, which he finished in 1999). This collection represents his only entries in the Collection, which is both a pleasure since it is unquestionably his most-praised work and a disappointment since he made far more films worthy of inclusion.
But this is all beside the point here, which is what to make of this short film. Rohmer's protagonist is played by Barbet Schroeder who would go on to direct a handful of Criterion films of his own. Here, he's almost unbearable as the self-absorbed and scheming center of the movie, passing the time flirting with a young woman at a bakery while planning his rendezvous with the true object of his affection. The film is narration heavy and often shot like a documentary on the streets of Paris, but the story itself is vintage New Wave, a shift away from the conventional heroes and structures of the old guard, merging a realistic and dynamic visual style with a personal and honest storytelling perspective.
Rohmer's six moral tales do not refer to specific and established concepts of morality, but are instead centered around the characters' unique choices and how they choose to rationalize them. Here, Schroeder's character makes clear that what might typically be viewed as a selfish and cruel decision is not just acceptable but his only moral option - choosing to stand up his momentary dalliance in order to reconnect with his mystery woman. It's not a cut and dry decision, but it's one we tend to judge as the audience not because we disagree with him but because we have been exposed to his inner-shithead for the last 20 minutes. This raises another moral question: should motives be taken into account when moral choices are made - is selflessness a prerequisite for morality or a mere potential byproduct?
I've seen a few of Rohmer's tales already (Claire's Knee was an early favorite New Wave film of mine), but I plan on watching them all again because it has been so long and it's nice to see them in context. The Bakery Girl of Monceau is a good primer for the journey, even if on its own it wouldn't amount to much more than a curiosity with some great potential behind it.