Directed and written by Eric Rohmer

With Joelle Miquel, Jessica Forde, Philippe Laudenbach, and Fabrice Luchini.

Too much talk ruins a feature film, goes the standard wisdom. But how much dialogue is too much? is Eric Rohmer’s mocking question throughout his daringly garrulous “Moral Tales” and more recent “Comedies and Proverbs” series–a dozen films in all. In Rohmer’s cinematic arena people tend to fret out loud and at length over how to go about doing the right thing; and they strive mighty hard to justify whatever they eventually decide to do, which might be nothing at all–as in the excruciatingly amusing My Night at Maud’s (1969). You might say Rohmer’s protagonists choose to live the examined life and get failing grades, at least on the initial overly self-satisfied tries. It’s important, of course, to be earnest, because then it’s even easier to fool oneself, to confuse what is convenient with what is morally commendable. The tragicomic potential of such mental maneuvers is pretty obvious: recall the spectacle of Oliver North intrepidly explaining to Congress why he had to undermine American democracy in order to preserve it. That’s the sublime sort of self-deception Rohmer probes and prods in more ordinary settings–and with less than the fate of the republic at stake.

Rohmer’s players collide painfully with their own deluded or suppressed desires. In the “Moral Tales” (especially My Night at Maud’s, Claire’s Knee [1971], and Chloe in the Afternoon [1972]) sensitive, introspective chaps typically encounter and soon timidly turn away from temptresses, or more precisely from their ideas of perfect temptresses. The men retreat into doing the right thing by making a virtue of vacillation. But what matters for Rohmer is that they chatter more or less openly during their erotic ordeals so that we witness how the protagonists, in the words of west-coast philosopher Dirty Harry, get to know their limitations as well as how they express this jarring experience. For Rohmer, what characters say about what they do and how aware they are of their own motives and goals is a rough-and-ready measure of moral maturity. So the men slink off to sadder but slightly wiser lives.

The “Comedies and Proverbs” series, however, consists mainly of assertive heroines who, like the guys, must learn to distinguish what they need from what they want, the difference between the right thing and the glitter. Although Rohmer disclaims any intent to convey neat little morals, learning a lesson clearly brings rewards (Summer [1986], Boyfriends and Girlfriends [1987]), while clinging obstinately to old behaviors augurs more trouble (Le beau mariage [1982], Full Moon in Paris [1984]). Rohmer’s women are decidedly more resourceful and enterprising than men. Poor things.

Rohmer is neither a Bible-thumping nor a cute Aesopian moralizer; he’s what he dubs a moraliste, like Pascal or Stendhal, “concerned with states of mind and feelings” and how to illuminate them. What is “moral” is a slippery concept that Rohmer is not the least interested in pinning down. Sometimes, especially in his earlier work, he seems to support a conventional moral code; sometimes morals are treated as matters of personal taste and temperament (“if it feels good . . .”). The focus in every Rohmer film is how the characters try to pin down the right thing to do, and what that effort teaches them about themselves and the buzzing confusion of the world. No pontificating is possible. Again and again Rohmer teases viewers with reasons and explanations–and then snaps us back to square one. “When you find an explanation–and you always can–there is always another explanation behind the first one,” he observes. “I never really manage to finish my stories, since the endings I find all have multiple repercussions. Like an echo.” So it is with his latest product, Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle.

In the initial “adventure,” 19-year-old Mirabelle (Jessica Forde), who is bicycling on a sunny afternoon in rural France, gets a flat tire. Along comes Reinette (Joelle Miquel), a bubbly and girlish 18-year-old who invites the stranded student to spend the night at her farmhouse, which is cluttered with her surrealistic paintings of lingerie-clad ladies. For all the rustic splendors she has enjoyed in the country, Reinette is eager to sample Paris, especially art school, where she can blend technique with her untutored talent. Mirabelle invites her to Paris, and she accepts. Their friendship is consecrated when they rise before daybreak for Reinette’s cherished “blue hour,” a moment of transcendent silence that falls between the ending of natural nocturnal sounds and the beginning of the cacophony of morning tractor traffic.

Reinette radiates a vivaciously innocent and bumpkinish charm, but keeps us off balance with sophisticated surprises. Mirabelle is fashionably attired and urbane, yet she quickly proves to be a warm friend. These characters are not what they initially seem.

Cut to Paris (months later), where Reinette and Mirabelle, now roommates, plan a rendezvous at a Montparnasse cafe. Obviously flourishing in the city, Reinette glides happily along the streets until she inadvertently ignites an argument between two men who disagree over the exact coordinates of the cafe she is seeking. At the cafe a flabbergastingly rude waiter refuses to change a 200-franc note, haranguing the sweet and militantly honest Reinette. Mirabelle gallops to the rescue with a 100-franc note, but the waiter demands exact change. The ladies are forced to fulfill the waiter’s surly prophecy: they scram. The next morning Reinette returns, anticlimactically. It’s a funny yet vapid episode.

In the third adventure Reinette and Mirabelle debate the question of almsgiving–“Not OK if they’re playing music I don’t like,” Mirabelle says. Later she prevents a poshly dressed shoplifter’s arrest by snatching the ill-gotten items away a moment before the security police pounce. Mirabelle hauls the booty home, where Reinette angrily argues that the best course would have been to let the shoplifter be punished and thereby deterred. Mirabelle admits that she helped the stranger for the “thrill” of it, not out of sympathy. Reinette later encounters a beggar who is exposed as a fake. This disarmingly simple tale reverberates with exquisitely ironic frustrations and bewilderments.

The fourth adventure–a visit to an art dealer–exposes a horde of other ethical issues. Reinette also experiences what is perhaps a liberating, perhaps a corrupting urban version of the “blue hour.”

The film pulls provocative insights and ironies out of each adventure as artfully as an accomplished pickpocket works a crowd. Yet it’s a process that audiences may find much too annoyingly subtle. Perhaps only Rohmer really knows whether Reinette is growing up or merely shedding scruples. But, of course, he isn’t talking.