Recently I saw the 1943 Ernst Lubitsch film, Heaven Can Wait . In it, a roué dies and winds up being interviewed by a very gentlemanly Satan to see if he qualifies for hell. The roué himself is also a gentleman:, well-mannered and with good taste. The film is a witty, light confection. And yet, at the end of the day, it maintains that adultery is a mere peccadillo, at worst, at least if the adulterer is a charming sophisticate with an amazingly forgiving wife. Reflecting afterwards upon this film, whose defense of vice is all the more dangerous because of the films stylistic virtues, I wondered if any film encouraging virtue matched Heaven Can Wait in sophistication, wit, and effectiveness; and so my thoughts turned to Eric Rohmers 1972 film, Lamour lapres-midi ( released in the U.S. under the title Chloe in the Afternoon ).
Chloe is the sixth and final film in his series Contes moreaux (Moral Tales). Each film is a separate tale but all have as a plot a man committed to one woman, meeting another, and having to choose. In this film Bernard, a youngish businessman, is married to a beautiful teacher, Helene, and has a baby girl and another child on the way. He loves his wife but is often at loose ends in the afternoons. Chloe, a former lover of a friend of his, makes an appearance at his office looking for work. They have never been friends and have not seen one another for years. Chloe is something of a bohemian and eventually makes it quite clear she wants a baby and has chosen Bernard to be the father. While Bernard does not offer her a job, they grow increasingly close.
This films wit equals that of Heaven Can Wait but without its artificiality. Rather its wit often flows from Rohmers examination of his characters with all their contradictions. The Rohmer film also has a real emotional depth almost totally absent from the other film. The excellent final scene of the film is both an affirmation (without the least bit of didacticism) of the beauty of marital love and a recognition of its fragility. The actors who play Bernard and Helene were in real life married to each other, and Rohmer once said that this added to the atmosphere of the final scene.
Chloe in the Afternoon , in my opinion, is Rohmer at his very best, and few other film directors are better than he. It would therefore be unrealistic to expect many films of the quality of Chloe in the Afternoon but I think it offers at least a couple of lessons to film-makes and other artists who wish their art to elevate and refine as well as to please, to be what Plutarch would called a humanizing pleasure. First, the film does not discuss virtue very much but shows, through the actions and characters of the people it follows, its attractiveness. Chloe herself is a despairing person and at least as pitiable as she is condemnable. I would not say that there is no role for fierce mockery in the arts, for in that case satire would be largely out the window; but scorn does not refine, it does not elevate. Secondly, while Heaven Can Wait sentimentalizes a lecher who loves his wife withal. Rohmer sentimentalizes nothing. There is a basic realism about his films, both in technique and in attitude, and because he was confident, I think, in the real value of virtue, he was able to navigate these matters with both acuity and serenity.
Shmuel Ben-Gad is a librarian at George Washington University.