Of all the male protagonists in Eric Rohmer's Six Moral Tales, Frédéric (Bernard Verley) of Love in the Afternoon is the most tied down by obligation. As a result, the guiding conceit of the series - a man devoted to one women but tempted by a second - gains a charge of practical emotional intensity, a sense of dramatic stakes not as explicitly felt by the drifting, often vacationing souls of the previous five films. Frédéric is married. He has a child and is expecting another. He also works as an office manager in Paris. There's a tangible divide between private and public spaces, between duty and leisure, that Rohmer builds into the film only to gradually disrupt as his character, mentally adrift due to his unchallenging occupation, allows himself to be drawn into the various beauties he sees on a daily basis walking the city streets. "Their beauty is an extension of my wife's beauty," he claims in articulate voice-over, but the comment is so clearly a left-field justification, the kind of thought process Rohmer continuously and delicately explores throughout the series.
Love in the Afternoon's first thirty-odd minutes constitute a prologue, but it's so long that one quickly forgets there's any structural device at play at all. When that prologue segues into a "Part Two" with a sudden, unexpected cut, it has the force of a psychological rupture. It's fitting, because Part Two begins with the birth of Frédéric's child, which brings with it an additional jolt of familial responsibility and a greater weight on Frédéric's psyche. Halfway through the prologue, the film introduces Chloé (Zouzou), an old friend of Frédéric who begins to pose a threat to his marital fidelity towards the end of the section. She represents the antithesis of Frédéric's self-contained bourgeois reality: proto-grunge in her faded blue jeans and moppish hair, so slouchy with her posture that it registers as an affront to the casual professionalism of the office environment that she habitually visits, and unassumingly direct in her language and lifestyle beliefs, she's a clear product of the sexual revolution. This type of self-assured personality often characterizes the secondary love interest in the Moral Tales, but even among this batch Chloé is especially forward and original, more of an earthy presence than many of the ethereal women of previous works. As if to acknowledge this difference, Rohmer has each temptress from the previous films materialize as potential romantic objects in an atypical dream sequence of Frédéric imagining flirtatious success at lunch break, the suggestion being that such presences are too angelically removed to actually crack Frédéric's repressive shell in reality.
The precise history behind Chloé and Frédéric's relationship is kept oblique by Rohmer - we know that Chloé once dated one of Frédéric's best friends, and there are only fleeting hints of a brief romance between the two. This only serves to make the impact of their casual courtship even stronger. Frédéric's flirtation arises from convenience but is treated as fresh territory to explore. The film portrays a sense of how quickly and easily his narrow idea of fidelity can be tested when presented with an attractive and charismatic option. Chloé shows up at Frédéric's office on a nearly day-to-day basis without warning, and her presence in the work space serves to slowly leak the professionalism from the setting until Frédéric seems no longer capable of carrying on his office responsibilities. Private thoughts bleed into professional life, and soon there is no division of Frédéric's consciousness; everything is Chloé. Verley's performance exudes this idea completely. Every interior impulse sneaks out in his body language, from his blank stares when not in her presence to his seeming inability to refrain from affectionate gestures around her (hand holding, hugging, exuberant kisses on the cheek, arm around shoulder, etc.).
There are several outbursts of overt eroticism in the film, but even without them Love in the Afternoon possesses a sneaking sensuality evident in every line and gesture. When Frédéric tells Chloé how much he loves his wife Hélène (Bernard's actual wife Françoise Verley, supplying added resonance to the themes), he's usually avoiding directly communicating how passionately he longs for Chloé. When he makes a comment to Chloé about how great their friendship is, more often than not the unspoken addendum seems to be "so we should express those feelings." Rohmer's image patterns - his reliance upon medium close-ups, his occasional change of rhythm to a two-shot or a tighter close-up - are carefully choreographed so that every cut underlines a minor gradation in the emotions occurring beneath the surface of language, and every shot held longer than usual offers an opportunity to glean the internal monologue happening behind the speech. Punctuation also arrives in the form of the occasional slow dolly in, and in one instance Rohmer uses a zoom to gradually fill the frame with Frédéric's face. By the French director's unassuming standards, Love in the Afternoon sometimes feels downright expressive, especially when a strange theremin score plays behind the dream sequence and the opening credits, but it's balanced by some of the most ascetic interior sequences in the entire series (no picturesque backdrops here, just blank walls and the infrequent splash of color).
All the partial come-ons, incomplete caresses, and erotic not-quite-jokes culminate in Chloé's wordless sex proposal late in the film, which reveals all the previous moves to have been not just casual goofs of good friends but advances of barely contained sexual energy. Frédéric's consuming desire nearly gets the best of him, until an innocuous glance in the mirror reminds him of a previous scene of playfulness with his newborn son (the full realization of the film's shift to a Part Two). The moment is loaded with subtext, as the gravity of Frédéric's emotional infidelity finally subsumes his physical urges. It's sublime. Up until this point Frédéric has harbored a contradictory notion of fidelity that allowed for emotional dishonesty but drew the line at physical contact; his refusal of Chloé's offer both adheres to that moral code and revises it. Realizing that his emotional interest was merely an extension of physical interest, he returns home to Hélène (who at this point has all but disappeared from the film) in a newly sincere mode. Love in the Afternoon quietly asks if this insistence upon monogamy was inherent in Frédéric from the beginning of the film or if real psychological discipline was required to make it anything more than a vague theoretical stance.