ERIC ROHMER'S WORLD is a precious one. In Chloe in the Afternoon even the streets of Paris have been cleansed of the ugly, the old, the poor. It is a bourgeois landscape, regular and unperturbed, all glass, gilded comfort and leisure.
Frederic (Bernard Verley) lives the routinized life of a commuting Paris lawyer. On the verge of middle age, he has settled in the suburbs with beautiful wife Helene (Francoise Verley) and child, and she guards his middle class stability unquestioningly. Although his paunch is beginning to bloom and puffiness wells the contours of his face, he considers himself a paragon of maleness. He is a girlwatching connoisseur, and escapes the anxiety prone hours of late afternoon by shopping in the city, where he visually exercises his bored and spoiled sexual appetite.
On one of those afternoons, Chloe (ZouZou), former girlfriend of a former friend, visits him in his office, first begging for a job, then mounting a seductive siege upon him. Chloe is a rootless Bohemian who hops from one night club job to another with sophisticated promiscuity. Though Frederic disapproves of her life style, her availability during his empty afternoons subdues his initial queasiness. The rest of the movie becomes a teased out elaboration of the question, will Frederic or will he not sleep with Chloe? He sees her daily, wines and dines her, lies to his wife when he arranges his rendez-vous, is agitated, sickened with desire for her, in short, has an affair in every way except sexually.
When consummation seems unavoidable, the nude Chloe stretches out on her bed in wait for him, but Frederic, in a fit of moral fervor, sneaks out the back door and rushes home to this wife like a sheepish criminal. Helene breaks out in a fit of weeping, suggesting that she too has been spending an illicit interlude. Frederic sweeps her off to bed a-quiver with righteous reaffirmation of his marriage vows.
CHLOE IN THE AFTERNOON is the last of Rohmer's six moral tales, and the fourth to be distributed in the U.S. (La Collectioneuse, 1967, Ma Nutt Chez Maud, 1969, Claire's Knee, 1970). In each case the skeleton of the story is the same: a narrator committed to one woman, is attracted to another, but despite her seductiveness returns to the first. In each tale the character resists the temptations of the flesh in the name of moral principle. Rohmer insists that his films are not moral lessons but reflections upon morality. His method depends on ambiguity: when asked, he denied knowing whether Helene had in fact had an affair. He claims that he only observes, never judges.
But he has loaded Chloe in the Afternoon with visual ironies. The film opens with Helene stepping out of a bath wrapped in a towel, and it is in the face of a similar situation with Chloe that prompts his return to his wife. Midway through the film, Frederic plays monster with his child by pulling his turtleneck over his head, and he leaves Chloe when he glimpses himself in the mirror in an identical pose while undressing to get in bed with her. Chloe in the Afternoon is above all a designed film. Rohmer's preoccupation with formal symmetry is reflected in his character's uncending concern with balance, the neatness of his daily existence. For all his pretensions to non-involvement, it is clear that Rohmer finds Chloe's availability contemptible, and parries her threat to monogamy.
ROHMER HAS STAKED OUT a very narrow artistic ground, and maintains meticulous control of his particular world. Formally Chloe in the Afternoon is a jewel of a film, impeccably cut and polished. It is a movie of manners, and dwells on obsessions fit for a Jamesian drawing room. By now the question to bed or not to bed simply lacks sufficient emotional heat for all the space he gives it. Frederic's prolonged indecision is belabored until it becomes merely academic. The camera does all the stripping Frederic would like to do, yet neither ventures out of the abstract realm of suggestion. Nothing ever happens: Rohmer registers only the private reverberations of Frederic's desire.
For Rohmer deals in sensuality as an aesthete. His camera watches events from afar. He takes all the passion out of sex and leaves the tingles in. Emotions are distilled and cooled--the stakes are never high enough, the risks never dangerous enough to justify Frederic's final melodramatic reconciliation. The moral dilemma is but a petty adulterous desire, just the germ of a story. And Rohmer strains it into artistic proportions it doesn't deserve. In the end, Frederic's irresolution makes him into less of a man. He hoards the familiar and circumscribed life he knows; and it is only a bourgeois convention that compells him to love his wife. Rohmer has made a movie out of boredom and girlwatching, and peopled it with expetts in self-deception.
CHLOE IN THE AFTERNOON is certainly an attractive film, delicately rhythmed and elegantly finished. If he has anything, Rohmer has taste, and cinematographer Nestor Almendros mutes, organizes, and understates his colors to fit the pace of the film. The camera plays over beautiful torsoes as if it were sculpting them, ironically, politely undressing them.
The streets of Paris are a gold mine for Frederic's greedy eyes. But he has no pressing moral problems. Plain bourgeois doldrums weigh down his pillowed existence. He paces his office like a lover distracted over his erratic Chloe, and fails to see that his abstemious attention is a species of marital disloyalty. He has confused the word and the deed, the moral letter and the moral spirit, and invented a crisis out of wineglass stuff. And for-all the difference it would have made, he might as well have slept with Chloe. It is a very Catholic confusion. Chloe in the afternoon can be patronized, but Chloe in the evening is a mortal sin. Frederic excruciates over a pedantic distinction.
Rohmer ignores what is potentially most interesting in the film, the source of Frederic's afternoon anxiety, and throws out only tentacles of suggestion. Rohmer plays subtle, adult games on the glossy surface of his story. They are bemused, cultured games, but the winner is a moral fraud, not a moral hero.