A Guardian of Morality

Every Friday Madame Menez visited a house at the end of a long straight country lane which stopped there. She performed a three-point turn before doing business with the married couple who came out to greet her. They were retired schoolteachers. Madame Moreau had been born in Plouzalver. Her husband was from the south of France, near Béziers. Most of their careers had been spent in schools in the Paris suburbs. Now they had settled (resettled, in her case) in a secluded house not far from where she had begun.

Because this visit was usually the last in her round, Mme Menez felt more relaxed about allowing conversations to flow without the need for a polite but firm, ‘Well, I must be getting on.’ One day the talk turned to an aspect of Plouzalver’s cultural past about which she and Mme Moreau shared memories. Given their ages, these were mainly indirect memories of practices described to them by people of a generation which had now passed away.

The women remembered being told how, in rural Brittany before the Second World War, groups of neighbours moved in agreed rotation from house to house, farm to farm, on winter nights, maintaining conviviality with stories, songs and up-to-date gossip while economising on fuel. Arrangements of that kind were possible in the towns as well, of course, but they were less common there, perhaps because towns could offer an alternative opportunity for people to gather: the weekly film.

Plouzalver, recalled Mme Moreau, who was nearly a decade older than Mme Menez, was too small to have a purpose-built cinema. But it had a salle des fêtes, which was used for a multitude of purposes, especially wedding parties after the ceremonies in the church and the mairie. It could seat about two hundred people in moderate comfort. From soon after the invention of talking pictures, a film was supplied to the town every week by Pathé or one of the other big distributors. It was shown in the salle des fêtes three times: on Saturday evening, Sunday afternoon and Sunday evening. On Monday morning the great heavy reels were posted back to the distributor. Viewings were well attended, regardless of the content of the film. Charabancs, whose routes and timetables were co-ordinated with the timings of the screenings, brought people in from remote districts and took them back home a few hours later.

(Narrator’s parenthesis: a great Italian writer, describing the cultural changes overtaking his country in the early part of the twentieth century, noted that ‘the first experiments in the cinematograph were opening vast possibilities for the corruption of youth’. Throughout France too, those responsible for public morals, whether appointed or self-appointed, took their responsibility seriously. And in the small towns the guardian in question was the parish priest.)

Plouzalver’s parish priest, Mme Moreau continued, claimed the right to a solitary viewing of each film as soon as it arrived in the town. The projectionist, who was a communicating member of his congregation, of course obliged, and so — usually on a Saturday morning — the reverend gentleman took his seat in the salle des fêtes, equipped with a notebook and pencil. By the flickering light of the projector’s beam, he noted any scenes in the film which he judged unsuitable for public consumption later in the weekend (‘Trop hot,’ said Mme Moreau, using the English word with relish). After the viewing he gave instructions to the projectionist as to where he should fast-forward the reel until the danger had passed.

It’s hard to know why a certain moment, and not some other moment, signals a change in practices which until that moment have been accepted, however grudgingly. Before the war, and especially during the war, when an externally imposed form of puritanism or prudery rendered the priest’s watching brief largely redundant, the people of Plouzalver and the surrounding hamlets and villages tolerated the censorship imposed on them — paying customers as they were — with nothing more than a groan. Reels were often breaking down anyway, and having to be repaired for merely technical reasons. But something happened during the 1950s which meant that, slowly and subtly, a priest’s right to decide on what could or could not be shown to the public came to be challenged. Meanwhile, much to the regret of reverend gentlemen across France, films containing material requiring the projectionist’s fast-forward arrived more and more frequently from the distributor. No one film signalled the point when priests threw in the towel, but Mme Moreau hazarded the guess that And God Created Woman, in which Brigitte Bardot had sizzled in 1956, had as strong a claim as any to that honour.

Suffice it to say that, without the need for formal protest or popular defiance, at about this time Plouzalver’s parish priest quietly abandoned his Saturday morning séances, and confined himself thereafter to regretful passages in his sermons about the rise of libidinous secularism. And within a year or two, another change, unconnected with morality, brought about the speedy decline and death of the weekly visits to the salle des fêtes which had been such a feature of communal life for so long: television sets began to be purchased in increasing numbers. Even priests bought one when they could afford it. A few years later, Mme Moreau remembered, the priest in a neighbouring parish placed the following modest appeal in his parish magazine: ‘Père [Mme Moreau mentioned his name], finding himself in need of a television set in order to remain abreast of current events, would be grateful if any parishioner felt called to such an act of generosity, especially if the equipment were in colour.’

M. Moreau then broke in with his own story from the south. He had been brought up in a village, not a town, and funds in that village did not allow it to meet the whole cost of renting a film each week. So the mayors of that commune and of two adjacent communes came to an agreement. They decided, in advance, on the programme for the coming winter season. They shared the cost of the rentals in equal proportions. Each week one of the three communes had the privilege of the first screening of that week’s film. Because all the films came as several separate reels, it was possible, by advertising the timings of screenings in the second and third villages at two and four hours respectively after that in the first, for the inhabitants of all three villages and their outlying districts to enjoy that week’s offering. But this possibility only existed courtesy of a small team of motor cyclists, the first one of whom would transport the first reel, once it had been shown in the first village and removed from the projector, to the second village, where it would be rapidly rewound to its beginning in time for the start of the second showing. This courier would wait in the second village until the time came to perform the same service for the third. Meanwhile, his comrade was waiting in the first village for the end of the second reel. And so on. M. Moreau couldn’t exactly remember how many couriers were needed to complete this complex operation. He thought it might have depended on the length of the film. But he did remember the inevitable occasions when, a reel having broken in one place and needing to be repaired, the audience in the next place had finished watching a previous reel and were made to wait for the next instalment. There were always jeers and whistles then, he said, and sometimes people gave up and went to the café. But the arrangement was maintained more or less successfully until, once again, television spelt its doom.

Looking lovingly at his wife, M. Moreau said, ‘The one thing we didn’t have to worry about was the priest. He wouldn’t have dared. The mayors were all reds down there, and so were we. Brittany’s always been religious. You even call your fêtes pardons.’

Mme Moreau smiled. ‘Go to hell if you like, darling. I’ll stick to Pascal’s wager.’

Mme Menez couldn’t quite remember what was Pascal’s wager. At home that evening, she looked it up in the encyclopaedia that she had inherited from her parents. The great philosopher had thought it worth taking a bet that God exists, because if He doesn’t, our losses in terms of pleasures foregone are only slight, and if He does, our gains in terms of an eternal life in heaven are great. If we bet the other way, that God doesn’t exist, our gains in this life are transitory, however delightful, and our losses in terms of an eternal life in hell are unspeakable.

‘But then,’ thought Mme Menez as she lay down in bed, ‘you have to believe in hell for the bet on God’s existence to be worth making.’ With this thought in her mind, she fell quickly asleep, as befits a person who had been up since five o’clock that morning, and would be again the next day.