“My intent was to film not raw, unvarnished events but rather the account of them as given by one of the characters,” Éric Rohmer wrote in the companion book to his Six Moral Tales series. “The story, the selection and arrangement of the facts, as well as the way they were learned, happened to relate very clearly and specifically to the person relating them, independently of any pressures I might exert on that person. One of the reasons these tales are called ‘moral’ is that they are effectively stripped of physical action: everything takes place in the narrator’s mind. The same story, told by someone else, would be quite different, or might well not have been told at all.” His 1963 film The Bakery Girl of Monceau, the first entry in the series, exemplifies this approach in a compact twenty-three minutes.
The narrator in this case is an unnamed young man (Barbet Schroeder) reflecting on his days as a law student in Paris, telling a story from his past in voiceover while the action plays out onscreen. During his law school days, he explains, he made a habit of dining at a student residence called the City Club, and it was in its neighborhood that he first took notice of a young woman named Sylvie (Michèle Girardon), whom he frequently passed on the street. Although he sensed a possible mutual attraction (“We’d exchange furtive looks, but nothing more”), he was reluctant to make a move. “It wasn’t her style to get picked up on the street, and it was even less my style to try,” he says. At last, he literally (and not quite accidentally) bumped into her, giving himself an excuse to talk to her. She turned down his suggestion that they get coffee together that same day, but didn’t rule out the possibility of a date in the future: “Another time. We often cross paths.” That was reasonable, as far as the narrator was concerned — except that they suddenly stopped crossing paths after this conversation.
Day after day went by without any sign of Sylvie. Perturbed by her absence, the narrator took to pacing the streets during his dinner hour, hoping to catch a glimpse of her somewhere. In the course of his wanderings, he began making regular visits to a particular bakery for cookies and pastries. The place was nothing special in and of itself — in fact, as he notes, the cookies were factory-made, available all over the city — but over time he struck up a kind of flirtation with Jacqueline (Claudine Soubrier), the girl working behind the counter. “It didn’t take long to see the pretty bakery girl liked me,” he says. “Call it vanity if you will, but the fact that a girl liked me seemed natural. And since she wasn’t really my type, and Sylvie alone, so superior, held my thoughts — Yes, it was because I was thinking of Sylvie that I accepted the advances, which is what they were, of the bakery girl, in a much better spirit than if I had not loved another.”
As this self-justifying quote indicates, it’s around this point in the film that the narrator’s true colors really start to emerge. What had appeared to be a generally straightforward retelling of an event in his life becomes something more complicated, a mixture of confession, analysis, doubt, defensiveness and self-deception. He’s not proud of his behavior, his increasingly aggressive pursuit of Jacqueline as a mere distraction from the Sylvie situation — as a form of revenge on Sylvie, he admits — but he always has an explanation for it: he didn’t believe it would go very far, didn’t think Jacqueline would take it so seriously. At the end, he manages to pat himself on the back for standing her up once Sylvie unexpectedly reentered his life, though even that is tinged with uncertainty. “My choice had been, above all, a moral one. Having found Sylvie again, seeing the bakery girl would be a vice, an aberration. One represented truth and the other a mistake, or so I told myself at the time.”
For all of this self-awareness, however, the images and dialogue suggest that the young man isn’t the most reliable of narrators. He talks about Jacqueline’s “advances,” but these appear to have consisted of little more than smiles and simple friendliness. Certainly, when he became more forward, she evaded or rebuffed his invitations for a date again and again, and even when she finally relented, she didn’t exactly seem thrilled by the prospect. Her evident discomfort is understandable. Not only was he several years her senior (“I’m only eighteen,” she pointed out, while he must have been well into his twenties), but he got downright pushy and intrusive: ignoring her request that he leave her alone, encouraging her to lie to her parents, caressing her neck — all before he bothered to find out her name.
This unsettling behavior is a far cry from his deference toward Sylvie. In his mind, Jacqueline was Sylvie’s inferior and his own (whether in looks, class or some other area isn’t stated), and consequently not above such obnoxious treatment. “What upset me was not that she liked me, but that she’d think there was any way I would like her,” he says, an attitude that he now appears to regret. (“As if to justify myself in my own eyes, I told myself it was her fault, that she must be punished for playing with fire.”) Still, he takes her interest in him for granted, never questioning it, at least not openly. (It isn’t impossible, of course, that he has private thoughts on this episode that he doesn’t care to share, things that don’t fit into the narrative as he wishes to present it.) He feels guilty about toying with her affections without realizing that his failure to show up for their date may have been a great relief to her. Significantly, when he entered the bakery for the first time, another man was harassing Jacqueline. “What an idiot! He gets on my nerves,” she said when he left, blowing her a kiss as he closed the door. The narrator makes no comment, either in the moment or in his voiceover. Maybe, looking back, he sees more of himself in this man than he wants to admit; then again, maybe he was just oblivious.
“My heroes, somewhat like Don Quixote, think of themselves as characters in a novel, but perhaps there isn’t any novel,” Rohmer wrote. The young man’s near-constant narration throughout The Bakery Girl of Monceau gives him control over his tale, at least for the most part; no doubt the bakery girl herself — and Sylvie, for that matter — would tell quite a different story.
Rohmer, Éric. Six Moral Tales. Trans. Sabine d’Estrée. New York: Viking, 2006.
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