Six tales that explore integrity; Six Moral Tales, by Eric Rohmer, translated from the French by Sabine d'Estree. New York: The Viking Press. $12.95.
"Why be a filmmaker if you can be a novelist?" Eric Rohmer asks in the preface to his "Six Moral Tales." A surprising question from one so internationally renowed for his contribution to the silver screen -- and a question that prompts an alternative query: why write a story when you are going to film it? Yet rohmer does both, and his writing and filmmaking are steps to a single goal.
Rohmer says he wrote these six tales -- they include his well-known films "Claire's Knee," "Love in the Afternoon," and "My Night at Maud's" -- knowing he wanted to film them; making the films, he explains, gave the stories their full meaning. Yet, he adds, "If eventually I did turn them into films, it was because I had not succeeded in writing them. . . . If they seem to resemble literature, they are rather a yearning for it."
Rohmer, is fascinated by the nuances and subtle changes that characterize relationships between men and women, and his tales are all variations on that theme. Somewhat like Don Quixote, Rohmer's heroes think of themselves as living in a novel, although perhaps there isn't any novel: it doesn't matter. All you need, as the novelist Aurora says in "Claire's Knee," is a subject.
The stories are short, witty, and served with large dollops of philosophy a la francaise.m Rohmer calls his tales "moral" not because they have a moral message, but because they are effectively stripped of physical action and are told largely through dialogue.
In the first tale, "The Baker's Girl," the hero, a student, falls in love with a girl he sees in the street. Hoping to see her again, he takes to wandering the streets each evening, munching on a dinner of sugar cookies bought at a baker's shop. But the girl seems to have disappeared, and he soon finds himself pursuing the baker's assistant; although he doesn't care for her, he convinces himself she is flirting with him. Just when he has finally persuaded the baker's girl to meet him for dinner, he runs into his beloved again -- and stands up his previous date without a word of apology. This, claims the narrator, was a moral decision: "Having found Sylvia again, to have carried on with the baker's girl would have been worse than a vice: it would have been pure nonsense."
To paraphrase more of Rohmer's tales would not do justice of their ironic, self- mocking tone and unexpected reversals. His characters determine their own , often self- deluded way, and they at times surprise themselves by their spontaneous reactions.
Rohmer is an acute observer of human nature. He explores with amusement the boundaries of instinct and intellect, and the meaning of integrity, and we recognize ourselves in his tales.