My Night at Maud’s (1969)

Dir. by Eric Rohmer

Images: Complete lack of shot/reverse-shot. Instead, much of the dialogue is framed in static medium shots, some lasting more than a minute. Speaker doesn’t address camera directly, but the effect is the same, involving the viewer as an active participant. “Our” voice is heard from off screen.

• • •

Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a young engineer, spies his ideal woman at Sunday Mass. Francoise (Marie-Christine Barrault) is young, attractive, blonde, and, most importantly, a practicing Catholic. Before they have even met, Jean-Louis determines that Francoise will be his wife. His pursuit is interrupted, though, when he happens upon Vidal (Antoine Vitez), a childhood friend who he has not seen in 14 years. The two spend an evening discussing religion and philosophy, then agree to meet again the following day at the home of Maud (Francoise Fabian), a beautiful divorcee who Vidal has been seeing. When the three meet, their conversation again turns to philosophy and religion, particularly the consequences of Pascal’s wager.

My admittedly superficial understanding of Pascal’s wager: Given even overwhelming odds against the existence of God (say, 100 to 1), we must bet on that one chance. For if God does not exist, and we lose the bet, then our loss is inconsequential. But if God does exist, then our lives gain meaning and our reward is eternal.

The three main characters are an interesting study in contrast. Vidal sees the wager as a logical tool for explaining everything, from religion to politics. For Jean-Louis, Pascal is too strict, a logician who has sacrificed sensual pleasure (“Pascal never said, ‘This is good,'” Jean-Louis tells his companions). His stance on Pascal is one of the many contradictions in Jean-Louis’ ideas, as he himself adheres strictly to (or at least claims to) the mores of Catholicism. Maud is a sensual being and an atheist, who tires of Jean-Louis’ pretenses and deftly dissects them. When left alone with Maud, Jean-Louis is forced to test his principles, to overcome his temptation in order to remain faithful to Francoise, a woman he has not yet met.

I have seen several of Rohmer’s films over the last few months, and they never fail to elicit from me the same response. Thirty minutes into them, I’m typically annoyed, either by the characters or by Rohmer’s style. His film worlds are populated by self-absorbed “navel-gazers” (a common criticism) and his use of voice over narration often seems redundant. But, without exception, I have eventually fallen into Rohmer’s rhythms and become fascinated by those same characters. Most impressive is his ability to build a logical dramatic tension into his finales. The end of My Night at Maud’s — a coda that takes place years later, in which we learn that Jean-Louis and Francoise are married and that she may have had an affair with Maud’s husband —felt more forced than most, but the result is the same: despite the film’s slow pacing (or, more likely, because of it) I became anxious for the film’s conclusion, unaware of which way the story would turn until it did.