By Mike Dub
In describing Eric Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s, the third and probably best-known of his Moral Tales, it is tempting to use terms that might sound somewhat condescending, or make the film seem trivial. “Novel,” “refreshing,” even “daring” – they are all words that could dangerously imply that Rohmer relies on a gimmicky approach to tell this personal story of love and temptation. However, the key to Rohmer’s films, it seems to me, is that he doesn’t seem to see his approach as novel. The sensibility of this film, in particular, seems quite a natural, even commonsense approach for a director who views cinema as an extension of literature, and philosophy an extension of the soul.
The film follows Christmas week in the life of Jean-Louis (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant), a devout Catholic and grossly intellectual engineer in his mid-thirties. Like the narrators of previous Moral Tales, Jean-Louis is in love with a stranger, a beautiful blonde he makes eye contact with at church. He doesn’t speak to her, but he does stalkishly follow her home one evening, realizing, “I suddenly knew, without a doubt, that Francoise would be my wife.”
Later he meets an old friend, Vidal (Antoine Vitez) who, after a hefty conversation about statistics and Pascal, convinces Jean-Louis to have dinner with him and his “friend,” Maud (Francoise Fabian) – he is afraid that if he goes alone, they will make love “out of boredom.” Jean-Louis goes, putting up just enough of a fight to save face before being convinced.
Maud is a beautiful, brunette temptress, a woman who talks more freely, though not necessarily openly, than the two men, and provokes them with gentle seductions in between philosophical debates. At one point, she changes into a revealing nightshirt and crawls into bed, explaining, “I’m a terrible exhibitionist. It just comes over me.” Later, she informs Jean-Louis, “I’m very hard to please when it comes to men.” Her bohemian sensuality creates a conflict for Jean-Louis, who feels that he is fervidly committed to Francoise, despite having never spoken to her. As Maud tries to entice him, Jean-Louis barricades himself from temptation behind an idealistic commitment to the sanctity of love. “If you’re really in love with one girl,” he explains, “you don’t want to sleep with another.” His protest is no less heartfelt for its transparency.
The centerpiece of the film, as suggested by the title, is the evening at Maud’s, which takes up about half of the film. In his review of Suzanne’s Career, Daniel Barnes noted that visual acuity is not Rohmer’s strong suit. However, with a bigger budget and a more professional crew, the intimacy of the apartment setting relieves him of a certain sense of obligation to visual technique. In this film, the editing plays a more impactful role, as Rohmer’s camera alternates hanging onto single participants, capturing their faces as they try to distill meaning from their dialogue.
My Night at Maud’s is a film full of conversation, mostly weighty discussions about everything from mathematics, to religion, to philosophy, to love. It is also a film about conversation. The characters all mean what they say, but they rarely say what they mean. They use conversation, particularly the long evening discussion at Maud’s, as a means of self-identification, image creation, and not-so-playful verbal jousting. Meaning must be parsed out through careful examinations of intent (Jean-Louis repeatedly asks Maud, “Are you sure you’re not tired?”). Arguments must be explained and defended as though out of honor, despite inherent logical flaws that Rohmer is too intelligent to call hypocrisy. And amid all the self-defining philosophical musing, the greatest display of action occurs when someone leaves – which itself is laden with its own confrontational message.
Through all of this, Rohmer stays respectfully non-judgmental of his characters. My Night at Maud’s is an odd type of morality play: it is about its characters’ decisions, but it has nothing to do with codifying right and wrong. “What counts for me,” Jean-Louis says to Maud as he lies draped across her bed, fully clothed, “is not one deed, but an entire life. Every life is made of whole cloth.” Their night together will become just another stitch in that cloth, a single moment in which experience was both gained and lost.