‘Is it possible to love two women at the same time?’ – Facing Morality in Eric Rohmer

Written by Tom van der Meij

Conversation and daydreaming in Parisian bars, the peacefulness of the daily commute between suburb and city, the sun-struck elegance of French seaside resorts, long-dwelling conversations on love; jealousy, insecurity, searching and longing for happiness. These are some of the recurring themes in the movies of Eric Rohmer, one of the main French movie directors of the late 20th century. In recent years, Rohmer is going through somewhat of a revival, with the term Rohmerian often applied to movies that seem to be inspired by him. These references are, obviously, not made regarding blockbuster movies. On the contrary; in Rohmer, the charm is found in the lack of action, a lack of real plot. Instead, Rohmer is often telling stories of morality and romantic relationships. The best elements of these Rohmerian ingredients can be seen in his 1973 drama L’Amour l’après-midi.

The protagonist of this movie is Frédéric, a middle-aged, middle-class, ordinary office clerk. He is settled in a peaceful Parisian suburb. He has a wife, Helene, a kid, another kid coming, and a happy marriage. The first part of the movie sets the scene for the moral dilemma Rohmer slowly develops. We see Frédéric taking the train to Paris, we see him at work, at lunch, doing some shopping during his breaks, at dinner with his wife and some friends. All of it is almost painfully mundane – if it wasn’t so perfectly filmed. Rohmer has a talent for putting ordinary people in ordinary places and letting them have the most ordinary conversations or do the most ordinary things, and still make it look extraordinary. A prime example of this in L’Amour l’après-midi is set in the beginning. We see Frédéric having lunch, alone, in a Parisian bistro. Behind him is a wall of glass, through which we can see Parisian live on the go; cars, pedestrians, most of them hurried off to some place in the city. All men and women dressed to the nines. A whole world of others is visible behind the glass, something Frédéric has fallen in love with, as it serves as a contrast to the quiet life in the suburbs. When an old friend suddenly joins him at his table, he can’t help commenting on the hustle outside. ‘It’s the charm of Paris’, he says. ‘Nothing’s worse than afternoons in the suburbs’. Love in the afternoon is perhaps one of the most Parisian movies Rohmer has made. The nastiness of the exhaustion fumes, the seriousness and hurry of the people on the move, the stress that follows from the clash between responsibilities and the possibilities of the city: it is exactly these things that make the part of the day Frédéric spends there worthwhile. 

The movie moves away from serenity and gets some more substance with the introduction of Chloé. She is the embodiment of everything Parisian, perhaps the embodiment of everything that Frédéric is not. Whimsical, emotionally unstable, provocative. Her entrance in Frédéric’s life is exactly that, provocative. To the amusement of Frédéric’s office assistants, she awaits his return from lunch in his office, smoking, with an arrogant demeanor. Frédéric initially doesn’t seem to be bothered by Chloé’s presence. To him, she is just a former girlfriend of an old friend, someone who went away a long time ago, a reminder of the time before he settled down. In the scene, Chloé seems ill at ease, perhaps because the setting reminds her of her own lack of maturity compared to Frédéric. After finding out that Frédéric’s schedule doesn’t allow for surprises, she leaves, a bit embarrassed. Romance seems far away.

Chloé however keeps returning to Frédéric’s office and the conversations they have quickly draw Frédéric back into the world of his youthful days, when possibilities for love were widespread. Rohmer is keen on showing the discrepancy between the settled Frédéric and the supposedly easygoing Chloé. Frédéric is proud when talking about his family and confident in his marriage, whereas Chloé sleeps with a male friend just because she can’t find a place for herself. The tale of morality that Rohmer wants to tell slowly starts to build when Chloé starts to become an increasingly important person in Frédéric life, with gifts for the child to be born, flattering words for him and his wife, and her constant reappearing in Frédéric’s life, always waiting on the couch of his office. Gradually, friendliness turns into affection, and something of an affair starts to build; L’Amour l’après-midi, love in the afternoon. Frédéric starts questioning the certainties he took for granted, the ideas he has about marriage and monogamy and the feelings he has for both his wife and Chloé. It leads to the question Rohmer seeks an answer to: Is it possible to love two women at the same time?

In another Rohmer movie, La femme de l’aviateur, we have a similar Parisian setting and a relatively similar protagonist, François, who suspects that his girlfriend Anne is having an affair with her ex-boyfriend, a pilot. Just like in L’Amour l’après-midi, the entrance of a sudden intruder in a settled relationship presents the protagonist with doubts about the things he took for granted. In the movie, François secretly follows Anne throughout Paris, trying to walk in on her when she’s committing adultery. In its ordinariness, François who works at the post-office, the Parisian bars, parks and train stations, and its tender playing around with human emotions, it’s as delightful to look at as L’Amour l’après-midi. Rohmer takes a human vice, in the case of La femme de l’aviateur – jealousy, in L’Amour l’après-midi – unfaithfulness, and slowly lets the protagonist find out that these negative traits, although sometimes understandable, should be avoided.

Rohmer’s focus on ethics in love relationships also shows in his camerawork. In general, Rohmer favors shooting in public, often in locations with many passerbies, showing his love for city life and the importance of the social context for his characters. In a Rohmer movie, the viewer will not find many close-ups of the actors, which Rohmer considered to be an unrealistic manner of portraying how we experience our lives and the interactions we have with others. For Rohmer, the implications of our ethical behavior is always social, and filming an ethical movie can only be done by showing how our actions affect others. This is perfectly conveyed in one of the final scenes of La femme de l’aviator. When François finds out the unfoundedness of his worries about Anne’s adultery, and the stupidity of the escapade he undertook that day, we see him at his lowest. Anxious, somewhat ashamed, foolish. What works in the respective scene is that we never only see him, but also Anne, as it is her who tells him how things truly are. The anxiousness, shame and foolishness of François gets answered by Anne’s grimace, perhaps showcasing some pride of how far François’ love for her goes. Similar scenes can be found in L’Amour l’après-midi, in parks and bars, where we see Frédéric crushed in a state of doubt, and hopelessly in love, and Chloé often amused by the whole situation.

In L’Amour l’après-midi, things become painful when Chloé starts disappearing occasionally, making Frédéric feel desperate, and upon returning, takes her relationship with Frédéric more and more seriously. Frédéric’s position on this becomes increasingly difficult, as he realizes that he cannot continue both romances, because of the love for his wife and the increasing demands Chloé makes. We see the contrast in the relationships between Frédéric and Helene, when they pose with their newborn son, and Frédéric and Chloé, when she demands the impossible from him, namely a child.

The viewer knows that Frédéric will have to make a decision eventually. The movie reaches its climax in a beautiful scene at Chloé’s new house. He arrives as she is taking a shower, and eventually in bed, waiting for him, with a tempting look on her face. We see Frédéric in the bathroom mirror, slowly undressing. A bit too slowly. The look on his face first shows the doubt of earlier scenes, then the anger, and finally the determination. The realization has finally arrived that risking his steady marriage for the fickleness of his affair with Chloé is madness. His turtleneck goes back on, just like the shower, in order to mask the sound of his escape. Is it possible to love two women at the same time? No, definitely not for Frédéric. He goes back home, in the afternoon, to see and embrace his wife.

With this ending, Rohmer doesn’t show that the adulterer will always lose in the end, as the movie ends with Frédéric holding on to his marriage; what’s more, nothing really happens in the end between Chloé and Frédéric. Instead, he shows that it is best not to engage in adultery at all. The romantic way L’Amour l’après-midi ends might seem a bit cheesy or overly moralistic, but the opposite is the case. As with La femme de l’aviator, the viewer is constantly reminded of the beaty of normality, righteousness. When the movie ends with everything in its right place, one is pleased. The themes Rohmer addresses in his movies mostly remain lightweight, just like the amount of real eroticism Rohmer shows is very minimal. In the beauty of either the city, the countryside or the beach town and his focus on love, Rohmer’s movies can perhaps even be called feel-good movies. In the end, the characters mostly end up in a better place, realizing their wrongdoings just on time. Love, in the form of honest, meaningful relationships, wins in Rohmer movies, and with that, so does the viewer.

Edited by Uilson Jones, artwork by Teresa Valle