A Life Well-Lived is the Reward Itself: My Night at Maud’s, by Eric Rohmer
“… For that’s what interests me: showing men who are not absolutely certain of the validity of their adherence to a doctrine, and who interrogate themselves about it and place a wager on it.” — Eric Rohmer
Eric Rohmer, who was 10 years the senior of other nouvelle vague auteurs, offers us Ma Nuit Chez Maud, or My Night at Maud’s, a quiet, introspective narrative that Rohmer himself said was made for intellectuals. His characters are nothing if not intellectual, Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Trintignant), an engineer and amateur mathematician, a philosophy professor (Vidal, Antoine Vitez) and student (Francoise, Marie-Chrstine Barrault), and a doctor (Maud, Francoise Fabian), make up the four leading roles, and the fifth major character, Rohmer’s camera itself, serves in place of the audience, which is meant to be inside the film alongside these characters, discussing issues of chance, predestination, religion and logic with them.
Alexandre Astruc’s camera-stylo is a notion that Rohmer takes to heart in My Night at Maud’s, and as a result, he offers a cinematographic style all his own, one that serves a very important purpose in a movie devoid of plot. Rohmer’s flourishes of New Wave independence are on display throughout the film, despite its introspective tone and quiet, unoffending mood, and total lack of scoring. A far more conservative member of the Cahiers du Cinema crowd, Rohmer offers conservative camera choices, but ones that create revolutionary questions about how an audience interprets characters on screen through use of traditional intercutting, and how those interpretations change based on camera placement and editing choices. By the end of the film, we are left with something quite understated and beautiful, much like the character of Jean-Louis himself, who will always be a human guided by the principal that it is better to believe, be wrong, and lose nothing, than to disbelieve, be wrong, and lose everything. A faith-driven logician. If Rohmer’s intention is to display the wondrous complications and inherent hypocrisies of existentialism, then he has most certainly stuck the landing.
“In Rohmer’s cinema, talk is never just talk and is always a form of indirect action,” Kent Jones writes. “For Jean-Louis, it is, or becomes, a means of endless postponement. And then there is the crucial matter of the actor who’s speaking the dialogue. There are some things that can be imparted to us easily, without contrivance, by means of narrative exposition. There are other things that cannot. And Rohmer’s knowledge of the difference between the two is one of the many rare qualities that make him such a great filmmaker.”
Here, Jones touches on the topic of what can and cannot be delivered through the spoken word. In My Night at Maud’s, what isn’t said is as of much importance as what is, and Rohmer tips us off to this knowledge through his editing and camera placement choices. His cinematography is sparse, he finds a spot for his camera and places it there for long stretches at a time. This gives us a sense that we are in the world with these characters, moving around Maud’s apartment, finding a place to sit and talk for a while, before focusing our attention somewhere else. In traditional cinema, directors often use shot-reverse-shot to deliver conversations between two characters. While one character delivers her lines, we are positioned just off the other characters’ shoulder. When lines are done being delivered, we switch to the other character’s shoulder and watch the second character respond, and back and forth until the conversation is complete. These types of scenes are aided with wide angle shots of both characters in view, as well as POVs, and other angles that help the intercutting from getting stale.
But Rohmer takes this style of filmmaking and chucks it out the window. During the conversation in which Maud explains to Jean-Louis what happened to her lover, the doctor who died skidding on the ice, Rohmer leaves his camera in one spot, with Maud in a medium-one, for a full 3-minutes and 55-seconds. In a film with a total run time of just about 100 minutes, that single shot constitutes 4-percent of the entire picture. In it, Maud leans forward to deliver these lines: “It just proves how unlucky I am. When I actually have a chance to succeed, it doesn’t happen. I was sure I’d found the man of my life. Someone attracted to me, whom I found attractive in every way. Another doctor, very brilliant, full of passion for life. I’ve never known anyone whose sheer presence was such a joy. He died just like that, in a car crash. He skidded on the ice. That’s fate for you.” What Maud is doing here is explaining the downside to Pascal’s wager, that is, what it feels like to believe in something profound and life-changing only to have it taken away. Pascal argues that if God isn’t real, then nothing is lost for either believer or non-believer, but that’s simply not so. What’s lost is a lifetime free of guilt.
Guilt is never touched upon explicitly in the picture, yet it is omnipresent. This paradigm is often true in the psyche of the Christian. If man is imperfect, and made of sin, then the realization of said sin comes with the guilt associated with it. Guilt is a very clear motivating factor in Francoise’s life. She’s terrified of being judged for her past sins by Jean-Louis, and it’s Jean-Louis’ understanding of guilt on his own that allows him to see her fear and assuage it by admitting his own sin. One attains this understanding by sitting in church week after week and hearing that you are only truly forgiven yourself once you learn to forgive those around you. While he delivers these themes, Rohmer never strays from his pacing, allowing his camera to be still, and his characters to inhabit the frame unfettered by micromanagement. By setting his camera down and allowing his characters to breath, he brings them to life. Maud’s long medium-one is just one of many medium close-ups in the film in which Rohmer leaves one character in a lingering shot while he or she talks to another character off-screen. The shot is one often seen in documentary filmmaking, or say, in Truffaut’s 400 Blows – shots in which the audience is given an opportunity to see a character develop not only through the spoken word, but by reacting to words that are spoken to him or her. Body language often is lost in traditional intercutting, as directors will throw in one or two prescribed and over-directed reaction shots, but here, Rohmer simply lets his characters live in their time and space and we learn so much more about them as a result. How their faces twitch at certain words. How their breathing patterns change. Whether their lip upturns, or their gaze moves to the floor based on certain stimuli. Their emotion is unearthed subtly through their body language in these lingering shots, but very few directors have the patience to reveal emotion in this fashion, nor do they trust their audience to allow the slow-burn of intellectual revelation to take place. This type of filmmaking is revolutionary, but understated, as is everything else in My Night at Maud’s. Rohmer is challenging us not to just listen to his characters’ existential conundrums, but to explore our own as well.
“… This allows us an unusual opportunity to scrutinize his characters’ every move,” Jones writes. “Believability and plausibility at the most minute level are key characteristics of Rohmer’s films—in this case, how single people in their thirties, living in the provinces, behave when they’re alone, how they move, what they talk about, how they draw each other out and defend themselves from self-exposure.”
Tobias Grey writes: “Rohmer was and remains the most literary of filmmakers, one whose primary concern is less with dealing in what people do than with what is going through their minds as they are doing it.”
There is no score in My Night at Maud’s. There is no music, period. Diegetic or non. It’s jarring at first, and it leaves the film feeling sparse. We drive in Jean-Louis car and we can hear every bump in the road. We move through vast open spaces and only hearing the passing murmurs of extras. When we are at Maud’s or at Francoise’s, we are given no musical cues, no clues as to what a character could be thinking or feeling. Again, Rohmer is challenging us. He believed that there were two interpretations of any narrative. The initial, and the explored, that is, an interpretation based on a first viewing and without much consideration, and a second interpretation, in which one delves deeply into a story and finds the themes, moods and tones contained therein, and forms those puzzle pieces together into an interpretation all her own. By keeping music out of his picture, Rohmer is saying that the audience’s interpretation of the film is just as important as the auteur’s interpretation. He respects the audience. He values their intellectualism and ability to find the meaning of his characters and the meaning his characters represent in their own lives. Musical cues are hints as to what we should be feeling as an audience. Without those hints, we are free to interpret the characters as our own psyche allows. It gives us an opportunity to project our own choices on to Jean-Louis or Maud and judge their choices in comparison to our own.
What I find ironic is that Rohmer’s film found a greater respect in America than it did in France. It won the 1969 Academy Award for best foreign film. One wonders if it was because of the film’s regard for Catholicism that made it so popular stateside. I found myself identifying with this film incredibly well in the third act especially. Perhaps it is Jean-Louis final act of selflessness that made the film transcendent for me. After sitting through a sermon in which the Priest speaks about the duality of Christianity, of finding a balance between the truth of sin and the desire to live a life of sanctity, Jean-Louis and Francoise run into Maud at the beach with their son and after a brief and pleasant conversation with Maud, Jean-Louis finds Francoise pensive and unsure of herself. In voiceover, Jean-Louis explains that he will act selflessly and speak of his own sin, rather than discuss hers, allowing her an out to bypass her guilt and live happily. Here, Jean-Louis has taken the words of the Priest and given life to them, exploring the beauty of Pascal’s wager – A life well-lived is the reward itself. If selflessness allows others to feel good about themselves, then happiness will be the result. It’s a lesson direly in need of absorption in America today.