Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Bakery Girl of Monceau (dir. Eric Rohmer, 1962)

"One represented truth, and the other a mistake, or so I told myself at the time"

- From "The Bakery Girl of Monceau"

Eric Rohmer began his famed Six Moral Tales anthology with The Bakery Girl of Monceau, by far the shortest of the six films at only 23 minutes. Each of the six tales in the collection stand on their own as individual achievements, but collectively they make up one of the richest of all cinematic works dealing with the ineffable attributes of the language of love. Indeed a common thread running through each of the works involve a man inevitably drawn to a woman who is either just out of his grasp or a little too easy. They are often contemplative and dialogue heavy with self reflexive voice-over narrators, but they are never boring, and despite The Bakery Girl of Monceau's brief running time, it remains one of the most biting, potent entries into Rohmer's ambitious and important series.

The story itself is simple enough. An unnamed law student (Barbet Schroeder) hangs out with his buddy at a cafe day after day and admires Sylvia, a beautiful young woman whom he crosses paths with frequently. He desires the courage to speak to her and one day fakes bumping into her to get things rolling. They like each other and make implied plans to arrange a date the next day when they cross paths, however she never shows and sends the student into a state of mental turmoil and obsession. To quell his longing, he begins to frequent a local bakery and indulge in their pastries, and the sweet, doe-eyed, frumpy-yet-still attractive bakery girl begins to make subtle flirtations. He acquiesces to her overtures as something of a game, he admittedly has no interest in her, and is even offended that she would think he might be interested in her, but he nevertheless leads her on out of boredom and as part of some self satisfying revenge on Sylvia, who still weighs heavily on his mind. One day, after making dinner plans with the bakery girl, the student runs into Sylvia in the street and hits it off with her once again, ditching his plans with the bakery girl, forever wondering if she was watching him through the bakery window as he walked down the street with his future wife.

It ranks, to me, as one of the greatest short films of all time. Watching it again today, the thing that stuck out most to me was the gentle jazzy minimalist rhythm that flows throughout, the same style that would be a template for Rohmer's future work, and that here gives the film the reflective poignancy and impact that allows it to stack up against the best stuff of his career. The reason it works so perfectly is that Rohmer, unlike the vast majority of synthetic "romantic" dreck that Hollywood processes these days, has a genuine insight into and fascination with the nuances of relationships and the nature of the sexes. He is wise to the fact that words can sometimes be more effective aphrodisiacs than anything on a physical level, and the verbal cat-and-mouse games that usually develop in his movies are by and large more satisfyingly realistic, complex and unpredictable than any of the American by-the-books romantic procedurals churned out by the dozen. Influencing the likes of Mamet, LaBute and on down the line, The Bakery Girl of Monceau remains a microcosm of the importance Rohmer brought to film, and is a premium example of one not needing a feature length to make a lasting impression.


Ed Howard said...

Nice writeup of one of Rohmer's earliest works, an indication that his singular talent was intact virtually from the very beginning. I've never understood the contention that Rohmer was boring -- like the famous "watching paint dry" criticism -- since I find the dialogue in his films positively enthralling. He really does have a real feel for the games people play with one another, the role language plays in developing relationships and romances. He's also a much more visually acute director than he's often given credit for: he has a way of capturing a person's milieu with a few well-placed details, letting the surroundings inform character and vice versa.

Drew said...

I couldn't agree with you more Ed. Rohmer is one of my very favorites, his dialogue is so masterful and nuanced, his characters are so ripe with personality and unpredictable behavior that I rarely feel less than completely fascinated while watching any one of his films.