Monday, June 10, 2019

Classic Movie Review: The Bakery Girl of Monceau (1963)

The Bakery Girl of Monceau (1963)
Directed by: Eric Rohmer.
Written by: Eric Rohmer.
Starring: Barbet Schroeder (Young Man/Narrator), Claudine Soubrier (Jacqueline), Michele Giardon (Sylvie), Fred Junk (Schmidt).
The first of Eric Rohmer’s so called Six Moral Tales films – the most celebrated of his career – The Bakery Girl of Monceau is a 23 minute short, that is basically the perfect encapsulation of what Rohmer would go onto do with the other films – just in a much shorter period of time, and a much simpler narrative. Still, the ideas and themes here feel fully formed. Already, he is making us identify with a wealthy, privileged male character, who behaves somewhat cruelly towards others. The style is also fully formed – his use of amusing, ironic voiceovers, etc. As a dry run for what was to come next, The Bakery Girl of Monceau is wonderful. And it works on its own terms as well. While it isn’t Rohmer’s first film – it’s the one that showed just what he was capable of.
The film stars future director Barbet Schroeder as a Young Man – a law student – who becomes enchanted with Sylvie – a beautiful, sophisticated blonde woman he literally bumps into on the street. He arranges his usual walks to bump into her, and then eventually asks her out. She says she is busy that night, but another time – they’re sure to bump into each other again. So it’s clear that she’s noticed him as well.
But then, Sophie is seemingly gone. He walks around the neighborhood day after day looking for her, hoping to bump into her, but never does. He starts going to a local bakery and buying cookies for his walk. He starts flirting with the young baking assistant – Jacqueline – behind the counter there. She is everything that Sylvie is not – she is shorter, plumper, has short, dark hair. She is also younger, and clearly less sophisticated – especially to the young man, who tells usR in voiceover “What offended me is not that she liked me, but that she thought I may like her back”. He clearly sees himself as above her. And yet, he keeps going back to that bakery, keeps flirting with her. Even talks her into a date – even though she knows she’ll get in trouble for it. And then, of course, Sylvie reappears right before the date.
By the time Rohmer made The Bakery Girl of Monceau, he was already in his 40s – he was older than the other filmmakers in the French New Wave by a decade so perhaps that gave him slightly more insight into characters like the young man here. That he is cruel to the Bakery Girl is undeniable – he basically bats her around like a plaything, and then discards her. Rohmer explained his moral tales as films in which a man falls for one woman, gets obsessed with another until the first reappears, and that is this whole film in a nutshell. Rohmer is extremely interested in the young man here – we hear his thoughts throughout the film, and hence everything he is thinking. The two women in the film are, like most Rohmer women, unknowable because the characters narrating don’t understand them. We learn that Sylvie lived across the street from the bakery the whole time – and saw the Young Man on his daily rounds (she wasn’t around because a broken leg confined her to the apartment). We don’t know if she knows what he has been doing with the Bakery Girl – and if so, if she thought it was cruel, or funny, or something in between. Likewise, we have no idea what the Bakery Girl’s reaction to being left was. The Young Man leaves her behind without a thought (at least once he got off that street unseen).
In total, The Bakery Girl of Monceau is probably more lightweight than the other films in the series – a symptom of being just 23 minutes long more than anything. But it’s very much in line with what he would go onto do – a film about privileged young man, who tells us what he’s thinking in great detail as he’s thinking it, and still opting for the safer, blander choice. Rohmer doesn’t critique the Young Man the way he would his other heroes as the series progresses - he doesn’t have the time really, but that criticism is implied. This is a perfect little encapsulation of what made Rohmer a special filmmaker.

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