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  • Ravi Swami

A Duo of Rohmer Shorts, 1962, 1964

Currently curated on Criterion Channel is a series of early formative Éric Rohmer shorts and I find myself irresistibly drawn to his films for their simplicity, possibly as a refuge from a lot of contemporary cinema, and they have the effect of a "reset", focussed as they are on basic human relationships and being devoid of the cinematic frills and image fetishization that characterize so many films.

The first of Rohmer's "Six Moral Tales", "The Bakery Girl of Monceau" stars long-time Rohmer collaborator Barbet Shroeder as a young man who can't quite summon the courage to chat up an attractive woman that he and his friend spot on a regular basis in various Parisian locations that they frequent, in spite of his friend's urging. This sets off a series of attempts to "accidentally' cross paths which eventually bear fruit of sorts when he manages to actually talk to her after following her through the streets to her apartment.

However, things don't go to plan and one of his regular haunts is a local bakery where he catches the eye of the young woman behind the counter, or rather the reverse, we are never sure since their interactions involve a lot a game-playing and furtive eye-contact as he spends longer each time he visits, mulling over the choice of patisserie to buy.

Having by now given up all hope of meeting the young woman he had seen in the streets earlier, he rather callously decides to pursue the shop assistant in the bakery and after cornering her when her manager is elsewhere he persuades her to meet him on a date, to which she reluctantly agrees.

Things take a turn however when he stops her in the street one morning during her delivery of baguettes and makes physical overtures, which she rejects saying that she is too young for a relationship with him.

Now discouraged, he then meets the woman he saw before who is now on crutches due to a sprained ankle and finally manages to find an excuse to talk to her, which leads to an invitation to lunch and then marriage, and it is on this note that the film ends.

To say that the plot is banal would be an understatement but then it's also a marked contrast to the very contrived narrative of many films and of course, given the theme, it's really about moral ambiguity.

In addition to this, viewed retrospectively and in the context of the "Me Too" movement, Schroeder's character's behavior - while indicative of men's attitudes to women at the time and perhaps still - of following a woman down the street and "hitting" on a less experienced younger woman, seems like very dubious behaviour, something noted in an earlier review of the Italian Commedia Al'Italiana, "Alfredo, Alfredo", made some years later and suggesting that attitudes had changed little since Rohmer's film.

As a total contrast, "Nadja in Paris" follows the titular character as she navigates her life as a student in an international "Lycée" in Paris - like the earlier film, it uses the device of an overlaid first-person narrative, something that evolved into a recurring element in Rohmer's later films.

Nadja is young, free and independent and is not in a relationship that we are aware of - she frequents bars and chats freely to men and engages in conversation with older arty types, finally reflecting on her sense of freedom and of embracing opportunities like education that were unavailable to an earlier generation of women.

Although the film feels like a contrived narrative - it is filmed like a documentary following the life of a young 20th Century Parisian woman so we are never really sure if "Nadja" is a real person or if we are watching an actress playing her - in fact it was the result of a chance meeting by Rohmer,with Nadia Tesich - who plays herself in the film - a Yugoslavian student in 60's Paris and later, an author of a series of novels and the director of a film.

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