Document Type


Date of Degree

Spring 2017

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In

Film Studies

First Advisor

Steven Ungar


This dissertation engages French-language films in the 'moraliste' tradition. The French word 'moraliste' has no exact English equivalent. It does not evoke the didactic sense of “moralist;” rather a 'moraliste' is someone who explores the inner workings of the mind, rather than the outer actions of a character. Beginning with the publication of Montaigne’s Essays in 1580, 'moralistes' including Descartes, La Rochefoucauld, Pascal, and La Bruyère created moral literature – literature concerned with personal reflections and the feelings of an individual over the dogma of good society. The emergence of film in the late nineteenth century provided a new medium for raising questions in the 'moraliste' tradition. Éric Rohmer, for example, described his Six Moral Tales as “films in which a particular feeling is analyzed and where even the characters themselves analyze their feelings and are very introspective. That’s what 'conte moral' (moral tale) means.”

I argue that the films of Bresson, Rohmer, and the Dardennes are narratively, thematically, and stylistically interrelated in their connection to the specifically French 'moraliste' tradition. I contend that these films surfaced in post-World War II France – growing out of the deep ambiguities that existed in French society in the aftermath of occupation and liberation – and continue to appear in the increasingly transnational landscape of contemporary European cinema. This new approach to film history offers a counterweight to the narrative of French New Wave cinema, which privileges the work of more explicitly political and experimental filmmakers such as François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard.


French Cinema, French Literature, Montaigne, Moralism and Ethics, Postwar France


xv, 329 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 323-329).


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Copyright © 2017 Leah Vonderheide