Is it possible to love two women at once? In essence, that’s one of the main conceits of this moral tale from director Eric Rohmer’s series. Sometimes Rohmer feels like the Woody Allen of France although Allen’s films are slightly more geared towards comedy and the former’s films have an inclination towards love stories. But both fill their storylines with characters engrossed in thought — men and women who are well versed in the ideas of the ages they come out of. They are well off, well-educated, and have problems relevant to the bourgeoisie. At times it can get a bit stuffy and yet in this case Rohmer examines the issues of one man’s lifestyle with immense clarity. Although it should be noted that this a very patriarchal world and the ideas brought to the forefront emerge from that perspective.
Our main character Frederic has a degree of autonomy working at his own law firm. He has a beautiful and intelligent wife who is a professor of literature. Together they have one cute little girl and another on the way soon enough. His office is full of pretty Parisian girls and he often finds himself swimming in a sea of attractive women, But he can return home to his wife, read, think, and sit in the relative lap of luxury. Except there is something else inside him. Some desire that leads him in a small way to lust after other women. He tries to categorize and passively analyze all the women around him. His dream life is comprised of first loves and lasting loves — nothing that will dissipate with age. But he is addicted to a city where people come and go — vanishing never to be seen again. There is the innumerable but fleeting presence of women. He lives in a daydream, an innocent enough fantasy (so it seems), watching girls from a cafe and imagining chance encounters with them. A lot of the faces look strangely familiar if you know a bit about the Moral Tales.
Then all of a sudden Chloe comes back into his life quite by accident. She used to be his former flame and now he’s happily married and she recently broke up with her boyfriend and picked up some dead-end job. But being a good husband and a respectable citizen Frederic never seems to cross the line, although he seems to spend more and more time with Chloe. In this way, Rohmer’s characters never seem inherently corrupt and they fit nicely into the mold of bourgeois sensibilities. But that does not mean they don’t dance around some rather sensuous lines. Even when thoughts do not give way to physical or even animalistic desires there is still a volatility in dwelling there. When reality gives way to any sort of fantasy things can get dicey because expectations are distorted — even our perspective on the opposite sex begins to teeter dangerously.
And it’s not simply that this is set in the sultry city of Paris. There is an obvious desire of Frederic to be with this woman and they spend afternoons together. She becomes his confidante as he is so often reserved and taciturn in his marriage. But the complexities get even greater as Chloe says she wants a child by Frederic, but not marriage. He still goes home to his wife and seems to deeply care about her.
It’s the dichotomy that so easily could tear his life apart or make his resolve even stronger. In this case, it’s the latter. He acknowledges his aloofness to his wife, his communication skills or lack thereof. And it is in this moment that husband and wife truly show their vulnerability. It’s in this instance of intimacy that they once more discover love in the afternoon. This film can easily be called Chloe in the Afternoon and it was called that in the U.S. to avoid confusion with Billy Wilder’s romantic comedy, but Love in the Afternoon is more universal. Furthermore, it becomes more fitting as Frederic takes one last crucial turn in his love life.