My Night with Maud (Ma nuit chez Maud)
France (1969) Dir. Eric Rohmer
It’s Christmas and devout Catholic Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Trintignant) quietly watches Françoise (Marie-Christine Barrault), a young blonde woman he sees at Mass. Bumping into an old Marxist friend Vital (Antoine Vitez), Jean-Louis is introduced to Maud (Françoise Fabian), a divorcee with an eight year-old daughter Marie (Marie Becker). When the snow starts falling making it difficult to drive, Maud insists that Jean-Louis stay the night in her apartment – a proposition that provides much conflict for Jean-Louis Catholic based morals.
I guess I only have myself to blame. Eric Rohmer is one of those directors whose work seems to polarise opinion. He is highly regarded among the pantheon of French directors from the New Wave of the 1960’s along with Godard, Truffaut and Chabrol and this film is often vaunted as one of his greatest works. But as the old adage goes “one man’s meat is another man’s poison” and what make Rohmer popular in some eyes is the very reason he has his detractors – that being his heavy reliance on dialogue. A lot of dialogue. A heck of a lot of dialogue.
Thus I must confess to have turned off a couple of Rohmer’s films early due to being bombarded with meaningless and directionless chat for over twenty minutes and no sign of a story even appearing close on the horizon. My Night with Maud isn’t that bad as Jean-Louis’s character and infatuation with Françoise is established almost immediately so we have a reason to follow him on his journey. Then he meets Vital and they immediately start having a discussion on the opinions of 17th century French mathematician and Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal and his wager (Google it – it would take too long to explain it here).
This might sound fascinating for some but not for everyone – especially if you have no knowledge of Pascal and his teachings which is likely to be quite a high percentage of the audience. After a night on the town Vital takes Jean-Louis to meet Maud where they spend the night talking some more about religious and moral beliefs, with the pious Jean-Louis outnumbered by the more modern thinking Vital and Maud. Not viciously of course – this is 1960’s France where it seems people sit around philosophising all day long while wrecking the ozone with their cigarette smoke. At least in Rohmer’s world this is the case.
As it happens Maud isn’t a lose woman as the above passage may sound, revealing that her current state of interment is the fall out from her recent divorce brought about by her husband’s infidelity with a nice Catholic girl so she took a lover in revenge. Maybe for this reason Maud sees Jean-Louis as a challenge despite making it clear she respects him and his beliefs.
Unfortunately while this should be the key scene of the film it comes with over half and hour left to go. Blessed with a bit more action this time Rohmer still has to squeeze in more in depth discussion, this time from the other side of the fence as it seems Maud might have given Jean-Louis the kick up the backside he needed.
For people who don’t “get” world cinema and see French films in particular as endless wafflefests that are the definition of pretentious there is a fair chance this film will exemplify that for them. To be fair I doubt that Rohmer was being pretentious here – rather he had lot to get off his chest about religion, fidelity, marriage, love and morals.
This film is in fact the fourth film in his Six Moral Tales all of which are based on F.W Murnau’s silent classic Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans in which a married man is tempted away by another woman only to return to his wife. Rohmer must really like this premise as he got six films worth of material out of it. With this tale we are rewarded with a nice twist in the final act but it is bit of a slog getting there and I can see it underwhelming a lot of viewers if 90 minutes of previous endless chat isn’t their thing.
While the film might not have won over this reviewer the cast at least deserve respect for having to memorise such lengthy and verbose passages of dialogue. Jean-Louis is a slightly bland protagonist to get behind but Trintignant makes him believable while Françoise Fabian is an absolutely fox as the teasing Maud. How Jean-Louis resisted her I have no idea!
So once again I find myself confronted by another esteemed classic that I didn’t fully enjoy nor do I see why it is so revered. The premise behind My Night with Maud appealed to me but the execution less so. Sorry Rohmer fans.