Eugene Kang: This month, we will be discussing Éric Rohmer‘s My Night at Maud’s, the third (released as the fourth) film in his series entitled ‘Six Moral Tales.’ Each of the films in this series focuses on the same basic plot. A man is in love with one woman, is seduced by another woman for a period of time, and eventually returns to his first love. In Maud’s, the man in question is Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Trintignant), an engineer who has taken a job where he knows nobody. He is also a devout Catholic, and in fact, he sees his first object of affection Francoise (Marie-Christine Barrault) at a mass. Yet Jean-Louis will soon find himself tempted by Maud (Francoise Fabian), the worldly and attractive friend of a friend, and their first meeting takes up most of the second act of the film.
I suggested Maud’s because it is the holiday season and this film has often been cited as an example of a Christmas film that isn’t really a Christmas film. I also wanted to wrestle with the work of Eric Rohmer, who to me, is one of the directors of the French New Wave that I have the least experience with and, consequently, a shallower understanding than I would like. Reading a little of his background, I am tempted to see Maud’s as an autobiographical film to some extent. Like Jean-Louis, Rohmer was an intellectual, first focusing on literature before becoming obsessed with film after befriending the other founders of the French New Wave (Godard, Truffaut, Rivette, etc.) He, like Jean-Louis, had been raised Catholic and felt some shame about his chosen profession, fearing that his conservative parents would disapprove. From what I have seen Rohmer’s work, I get the sense that he lies somewhere between Godard’s and Rivette’s intellectual experiments and hijinks and Truffaut and Varda‘s more overt humanism and interest in human behavior. I detect that tension between the spiritual and the physical in Maud’s and am eager to discuss it, but before we do, what is your experience with Rohmer’s work and what were your impressions of My Night at Maud’s?
Alper Kavak: My Night at Maud’s is the second film I have seen in Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales series, the first one being The Bakery Girl of Monceau. As you have previously mentioned, Eugene, all six films revolve around the same structure, which I find especially appealing. My Night at Maud’s is the first feature-length one of the six, as The Bakery Girl of Monceau was only a tad over twenty minutes, and the second film in the series is likewise under an hour. So, to me, it feels like this is Rohmer’s first attempt at fully exploring the themes he wanted to, and for the lack of better words, I think he nailed it.
Where the film really shines is its atmosphere, and by that, I mean its endless serenity. There is no sense of urgency and everything evolves in its own pace and time. Granted, this is more or less characteristic of the era the film was released in, though it does not take anything away from the fact that the film is perfectly suited to this calm atmosphere.
The reason I found the atmosphere this fashionable is exactly what you pointed at: ‘tension between the spiritual and the physical’. It is under no circumstances subtle, as seen from countless references to philosophers and authors throughout the film, though I think Rohmer really tried to find the balance between portraying a low-key crisis and showing a bourgeoisie debate. There is definitely a lot to take in here. How would you consider that balance, so to speak?
Eugene: To say Eric Rohmer is not subtle seems a bit counterintuitive, but I agree with you, Alper. In the opening scene where Jean-Louis is attending mass, I was struck by how distant and removed the priest and his sermon is from Jean-Louis to the point that he notices the beautiful blonde woman whom he believes he is going to marry someday, a perfect encapsulation of this tension between body and soul.
For a film that is so serene as you say, it is also highly personal. Often, I think of personal narratives as having heightened emotions and being prone to exaggeration, whether through nostalgia or unrealized feelings. Yet Maud’s goes against that obvious trend quite deliberately. Just the fact that Rohmer wanted it shot at Christmas time, a time of colorful festivity, yet he did it in black and white, is a bold choice. I think Rohmer does this to underline the dichotomy that the protagonist draws between the two extremes of psyche and eros. In fact, I don’t know how you reacted, but I found this film quite funny in how Jean-Louis tries to deny he is a creature of the flesh, even though he doesn’t believe that 100 percent about himself.
The point when the true battle happens between body and soul is, of course, when he meets the titular Maud. I think Rohmer and cinematographer Nestor Almendros do such a great job lighting and presenting Maud as so full of life. Even in her relatively austere apartment, she fills her home with light. And of course Fabian’s performance is subtly breathtaking. Throughout the whole 40 minute scene, it is clear that Maud sees right through Jean-Louis, but not in a condescending or cold way. In fact, she is having fun making Jean-Louis uncomfortable with his advances without being overly aggressive for the most part. Not to be too extratextual, but if Rohmer was recalling how some woman in his own life made a great impression on him, he captures the intoxicating effect it has in this movie. What did you think of Fabian’s performance and that extended second act?
Alper: I somehow managed to miss the allegory in the opening scene, but now that you mention it, it should have been obvious actually. Moreover, I think it is also a great introduction to the clash in Jean-Louis’ view of life. By that I mean, the contrast between his rational thinking and what he thinks he knows about religion by heart.
The entirety of the second act was very interesting – I felt to my very core how stuck Jean-Louis was in his views at first. That struggle is what makes Maud so interesting, though. The second act mostly feels like a cat-and-mouse game, where Maud clearly knows when and how she can strike. She, of course, does not do so in a hostile way, but rather in a clever, playful way – as you have also mentioned. Moreover, Fabian’s performance is quite lighthearted, which definitely adds to the uniqueness of her character. Even if I see the ‘romantic’ aspect, Jean-Louis’ and Maud’s intellectual back-and-forth -which Rohmer might have encountered in his personal life as you pointed out- can be adapted to the dynamics of any two people, I think. This is not to say that the romantic aspect is irrelevant, though, on the contrary, it strengthens the so-called back-and-forth.
The second act became more meaningful at the end when Jean-Louis and Maud ran into each other on the pathway few years after they had met. I think it really helped put the rest of the plot into perspective. What do you make of that?
Eugene: I found the time shift to be quite daring in that it denies the viewer immediate closure. Yet we can still see how much of an effect that relatively brief interaction years ago had on Jean-Louis. I agree with you that the way their back and forth could be applied to any two people, which is why he also has more confidence in pursuing Francoise, someone who might have remained a mere object of fantasy if he hadn’t been emboldened by his apparent success with Maud. Because I loved Fabian’s performance as Maud so much, Barault’s performance seems to pale a bit in comparison, but I appreciated how much she is a real character who doesn’t merely exist to gratify Jean-Louis’ fantasy about her, as so many women in movies directed by men tend to be. The fact that she reveals that she had been in an affair with a married man (Maud’s husband as we later find out) breaks any illusion of her being some pure, angelic presence.
I have noticed in this series that while they entertain and explore the fantasies that men have about women, Rohmer takes great pain to talk about the consequences of having these illusions. Maud’s ends in a seemingly happy ending with Jean-Louis and Francoise ending up together, but their marriage isn’t a vision of perfection. They carry quite a bit of baggage with them, much of it having to do with Maud, but in the end, they choose not to talk about it since it has no bearing on their current lives. I am still getting a grasp on this ending. Is it too dismissive of Maud and her influence, or should we admire how Rohmer is willing to let his movie end on a fairly ambiguous note?
Alper: I feel that the ending hits all the right notes, by which I mean that it does not distance itself from the reality that Rohmer had built the first two acts. It is somewhat dismissive of Maud and her influence, yes, but I cannot imagine any other way this would play out without feeling forced. Therefore, I think that the marriage of Jean-Louis and Francoise is pretty much the best and the happiest ending under these terms, even if they carry a bit of baggage with them. This is mostly noticeable when Jean-Louis and Francoise talk right after Jean-Louis runs into Maud. That, I’d say, was the real payoff.
It will be stating the obvious, I know, but nevertheless, the other five films (with two of them being quite short) in the ‘Six Moral Tales’ series of Rohmer would be worth watching, especially coming from My Night at Maud’s. It seems that the beauty of ‘Six Moral Tales’ is that it does not necessarily have an order, but still, in order to get the full picture, one might want to finish the entire series.
Eugene: I also believe that Rohmer eschews traditional Catholic morality by painting in a sad, but empathetic light. She is not exactly happy with her current life, but it is not because of some character flaw or some unforgivable sin that she has committed. And as for Jean-Louis and Francoise, it takes a much more mature and nuanced view of their relationship than I had anticipated and doesn’t cast serious judgment on either of them. I realize that a lot of the French New Wave films I have seen tend to focus on youth and its dramatic highs and lows, but Rohmer seems uniquely concerned with “grown-ups” and their mundane, but still important, concerns. Perhaps this stems from the fact that Rohmer was almost a decade older than many of his contemporaries and had more life experience even before making films. I am still a novice when it comes to the French New Wave, but I appreciated seeing the same spirit of experimentation being applied to a very relatable struggle for a lot of people.
I would still consider Claire’s Knee the finest of the ‘Six Moral Tales’ I have seen, though I haven’t seen all of them. I would also recommend Hong Sang-soo, who takes more than a few notes from Rohmer in terms of exploring the complexity of relationships between men and women as well as doing subtle variations on similar stories. My personal favorites are HaHaHa and On the Beach at Night Alone, but Woman on the Beach may be the most Rohmer-like in its intense focus on its characters and how deep it goes into the dynamics between them.