My Night at Maud’s – Eric Rohmer and the spirit of the Nouvelle Vague

In  François Truffaut’s famously scathing essay about the state of the French Film in 1954 entitled “A certain tendency of French Cinema”  published in Cahiers du Cinéma, Truffaut writes about the unoriginality of the high prestige  “tradition of quality” films produced in France. He points out they are usually plodding adaptations with formulaic, anti-clerical and anti-bourgeois messages, hypocritically written by extremely bourgeois screenwriters. Truffaut argues for a more nuanced cinema, written by directors or with a more original approach to adaptation, where middle class life and faith are more honestly dealt with and depicted. Another important essay of the time is  Alexandre Astruc’s “Birth of a New Avant-Garde: La Camera-Stylo” written in 1948. Astruc argues for the cinema to become a more essayistic and personal form where the camera literally acts as the director’s pen, la camera-stylo.

Each of thee men felt that the cinema should be personal and able to touch the intangible, mysterious aspects of human existence. Although it appears well after the movement’s most influential years, My Night at Maud’s is a film bursting with these ideas and this sensibility, very much a film of the New Wave.

Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a devout, unmarried engineer, has a very specific profile in mind for his ideal wife: attractive, blonde, intelligent, and above all, a practicing Catholic. He believes that he has found his soul mate when he spots a young student named Françoise (Marie-Christine Barrault) in a crowded church during Sunday mass, and resolves to make her his wife. He attempts to catch up to Françoise, but loses sight of her behind a slow-moving vehicle.

One evening, he encounters a childhood friend at a restaurant, a philosophy professor named Vidal (Antoine Vitez), and the two begin to discuss the nature of religion and politics as a logical consequence of Pascal’s wager: If a man bets on God’s existence, and God does not exist, then a man loses nothing; but if a man bets on God’s existence, and God does exist, then his reward is infinite. Vidal is fascinated by the modernism of Pascal’s theories – a fusion of religion and mathematics – and believes that the philosophy applies to all aspects of life, even the rise of communism. In contrast, Jean-Louis takes exception to the “severity” of Pascal’s theories, but ironically accepts the strict moral code of the Catholic church.

Vidal invites Jean-Louis to meet the beautiful, sophisticated Maud (Francoise Fabian), and soon the conversation, once again, turns into a philosophical discussion. Jean-Louis insists that despite youthful indiscretions, he is ready for marriage, and cannot be tempted into having a meaningless affair. He wants to control love, very much symbolised by the Catholic Church who want to control love everywhere too – even in the bedroom. Anything outside an ideal is considered frivolous and foolish – even if he hasn’t even met the woman he has decided to marry as yet.

It is years later, when Jean-Louis is married and has children, that he sees Maud in a chance encounter on a beach. Jean-Louis is instantly attracted to her again, but again makes  a big deal of resisting her, because she is not the ‘proper’ image of what he wants from a woman.

There are several ways of reading the role Maud plays in this film. She is obviously the temptation meant to veer Jean-Louis from his course. But is Jean-Louis in good faith?  He knows what he wants – sure – but he has completely objectified the woman he wants to marry (marry not desires) without ever having met her. And what of his disinterestedness in Maud?  Is it in good faith, or does he simply fear a woman who would fill his life with a chaotic passion?

For me this was not a film about the ‘little temptations” that arise on the “pathway to love”. It was a film about   masculine fear of the free feminine (jouissance) and the control of the Catholic Church over  – even – the bourgeoisie.

However, maybe this is not strictly in line with Rohmer’s ideas on what the film is about.

The film is one of Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales series (#3), and the pascal theory does give us a heads up into what Rohmer was trying to say here.  Pascal was a Jansenist, a sect of French Catholicism that believed that salvation can only be achieved through God’s grace, that is predestined, regardless of our actions. In opposition to the Jansenists, the Jesuits advocated actively pursuing a virtuous life to enable entry into heaven. Jean-Louis likes to think of himself as following the Jesuit path, but Rohmer’s scenario at Maud’s is designed to see if this is true.

The truth of this beautiful beautiful film, lies a little somewhere in between.

The film is not merely about Jean-Louis’s self-deception or a sophomoric test of male self-control. Maud is not simply a screenwriter’s device; she is a fully-drawn character who is completely aware of the situation and is watching Jean-Louis carefully and has no expectations of him. It is Maud’s honesty and ability to see what is happening clearly that draws attention to the ways in which Jean-Louis hypocritically couches his subjective feelings in abstract, rational, and culturally sanctioned terms.

Rohmer’s precise and natural dialogue reveals the characters’ philosophical positions as well as their vulnerabilities, contradictions and hopes. The film’s power comes from the looming spectre of the hope for happiness that underlies all of the characters’ actions, but remains out of reach. Rohmer captures the excitement and anticipation, along with the wariness and fear that accompany our decisions about romance, giving the film an unexpected sense of urgency and suspense. The plot continues well after Christmas Eve and we see the consequences of Jean-Louis and Maud’s choices and the bittersweet tone continues, ending with a satisfying note of wistful regret and a rather painful irony.

I’ll end this review with a quote from Senses of Cinema:

Rohmer’s approach has often been called literary. The way in which he weaves moral philosophy and actual quotations from a variety of sources into his characters’ speech is reminiscent of Dostoyevsky, or other 19th century novelists. It is Rohmer’s commitment to realism and naturalistic dialogue and settings that make his films specifically cinematic. He combines his intellectual interests with an intense examination of everyday life. We see this in the wintry landscape of the rather ordinary streets of Clermont-Ferrand, beautifully shot by the great Néstor Almendros (a frequent collaborator of Rohmer’s and the cinematographer of Terrence Malick’s magnificent Days of Heaven made in 1978). He captures the unnatural silence of city streets in the snow as well as the grey slipperiness of roads covered in sludge. As in all great films, what we see and hear when no-one is talking is as important as the plot. The magic of the film is that it moves along with a charming lightness, telling its story, and never seeming overly cerebral or melodramatic; it makes us believe in and feel for its characters, even as we analyse and dissect their actions. Compared to the films of Godard, who confronts us with his Brechtian disruptions and overt political intent, My Night at Maud’s seems rather tame. Yet the clarity of Rohmer’s vision, the intelligence and intensity that he brings to his subjects, as well as the questions he wants to ask, are roughly the same.

This is a sophisticated, delightful and witty film that is another one very high up on my list of all time favorite films. Catch it if you can.

(In my girlie dreams I always fancied myself a bit of a ‘Maud’ )