For viewers who only care about plot, here's a quick summary that applies to most of the films in Eric Rohmer's "Six Moral Tales" series, now collected in a box set: Boy meets girl. Boy flirts with girl. Boy leaves girl for another girl whom he already loves. The story basically stays the same from the 1962 short "The Bakery Girl Of Monceau" through the 1972 feature Love In The Afternoon, although the second entry, Suzanne's Career, veers from it slightly.
But a Rohmer film isn't about the big picture. It's about the details that form the big picture. My Night At Maud's (the third in the cycle, but the fourth filmed and released) is essentially about two people who spend the night talking about having sex, then never having it, but it's really about who these people are, the divide between what they say and what they do, and how life conspires to make them live up to their principles.
Take the "moral" part of the title seriously. The oldest member of the French New Wave, Rohmer's films share none of his colleagues' love of American genre films or stylistic acrobatics, although they're just as visually striking, particularly those made in collaboration with cinematographer Néstor Almendros. Instead, Rohmer took as his first topic the question of what morality means in an age when sexual liberation has begun to blossom and Karl Marx does battle with the church for the souls of the young. Rohmer lets viewers watch the struggles from a careful distance. In Claire's Knee, a 35-year-old man played by Jean-Claude Brialy contemplates seemingly inappropriate relationships with two teenage sisters while separated from his fiancée. Brialy plays the quintessential Moral Tales hero: He's thoughtful about his choices, even though he can't quite shape his thoughts to account for his feelings, and he ends up doing the right thing almost by accident.
Or is it the right thing after all? Rohmer-haters—and Rohmer tends to divide viewers into love-him or hate-him camps—accuse him of being a political conservative, but these films do little to confirm that. The stories have morals, but they're surrounded by hints of doubt. His protagonists seldom have road-to-Damascus moments, and the facts don't always bear out their epiphanies. Yet except in the often-nasty La Collectionneuse, Rohmer regards them with a sense of affectionate irony. Their stumbles bring them closer to grace.
Key features: The tales in short-story form, shorts made during the "Moral Tales" era, and a feature-length conversation between Rohmer's older producing partner Barbet Schroeder and the semi-reclusive Rohmer, who's still active at 86.