"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

January 5, 2012

Classic Film: "My Night at Maud's" (1969) by Eric Rohmer

Eric Rohmer (1920-2010) has made films about realistic people, people like us, in daily situations. There is usually no plot (happily, for plot is unrealistic and false, our lives also do not have "plots") and only a slight story. Instead, the characters in Rohmer's films talk a lot - in real-time conversations, they discuss literature, philosophy, religion. This resembles Bergman and is very different from the unsubtle shouts of action films. It is also a cultural trait of the French, love for discussion. Donald Richie has rightly remarked: American films are based on action and plot, Japanese films on atmosphere and European films on character. Rohmer uses a mix of seasoned actors and new faces, the acting is as natural as possible. The settings are naturalistic. All films have extensive voice-overs. This is all typical of the Nouvelle Vague. Rohmer only uses diegetic sound and no film music, as he regarded this as unrealistic, as if breaking through the "fourth wall."

Besides documentaries, Rohmer made about 25 feature films, among which the series of "Six Moral Tales" is best known. For Rohmer, a "moral tale" is not a "moralistic" tale but a story that describes what goes through people’s minds while they do certain things. The basic situation in these films is the same. The narrator falls in love with a woman (sometimes he has already met her, at other times he has not yet even spoken to her), then meets another one, who tempts him ("to bed or not to bed") and the protagonist has to discover his moral code to find his way back to his first love. The main character has to realize what he really wants and then remain true to that.

By far the strongest film of the Six Tales is My Night at Maud's (1969, Ma nuit chez Maud). Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a Catholic engineer working in Pascal's hometown of Clermont-Ferrand (where the head-quarters of Michelin is), is in love with a young woman, Françoise, he has seen at church (Marie-Christine Barrault). After meeting an old fiend, he is introduced to Maud (Francoise Fabian), a beautiful and free-thinking divorcee. When Jean-Louis can't return home because of  heavy snowfall, Maud invites him to spend the night with her.

My Night at Maud's was filmed in lush BW by cinematographer Nestor Almendros because black and white better fitted the winter scenery - snow is cleaner in BW than in color. The church bells of Clermont are used several times for very effective "diegetic sound."

Rohmer introduces Pascal's famous wager (you should bet on the outcome that promises the greatest reward, even if the likelihood is minuscule), which Jean-Louis applies to his own situation, gambling on the love of a woman he has not yet even spoken to and its expected, greater return, while repulsing the intelligent and attractive Maud. But he is not straightforward and rather prey to moral confusion and the many discussions in the film - about religion, philosophy, morality - often turn into self-justifications for Jean-Louis. Sometimes they are also covert lovemaking - in the Rohmerian world, talk is eros. At the same time, there is much humor in his situation, with Maud invitingly naked under the sheets, while the determined Jean-Paul wraps himself tightly in a blanket as if that would ward off seduction. This is both the most erotic and the funniest scene in any Rohmer film. In the end, he gets his Catholic bourgeois girl, and perhaps she best fits his own mediocrity, but Rohmer makes quite clear that Maud is the superior woman.

Let's have a look at the other five films in the Six Moral tales.

The Bakery Girl of Monceau (1963; La Boulangère de Monceau): A law student (producer Barbet Shroeder) roams the streets looking for a beautiful young woman he sees occasionally passing by, and to pass the time, begins a flirtation with the girl in a bakery shop. This is a 23 min short, made in 16 mm as Rohmer didn't have enough financial resources. Necessity has proved beneficial, as the film has been shot completely on the streets of Paris, giving a lively slice of life in the City of Light in the early sixties (as did Varda's Cleo from Five to Eight). (Criterion essay).

Suzanne's Career (1963; La Carrière de Suzanne): A shy student is the third wheel on the wagon of the relationship his more outgoing friend has with a young woman he seems to take advantage of. This is a 50 min featurette, again in 16 mm, filmed in the student quarter of Paris. The title hints at the fact that at the end when the young woman has "caught" a rich man, it becomes clear what her "career" was. (Criterion essay).

La Collectionneuse (1967; The Collector): An art dealer takes a vacation at an absent friend's summer house at the Côte d’Azur, where besides a painter friend he also finds a mysterious, promiscuous young woman (the title hints at her rather indiscriminately collecting boyfriends). He keeps vacillating in his attitude towards her. A good example of one of Rohmer's themes: "tepid attraction." Rohmer's first color film, with beautiful seascapes. (Criterion essay).

Claire's Knee (1970, Le genou de Claire): While vacationing at Lake Annecy, a diplomat named Jerome (Jean-Claude Brialy) meets Aurora, a Romanian writer and old flame of him. Although he's engaged to be married, she talks him into a verbose flirtation with the precocious 16-year-old daughter of her landlady, Laura (Beatrice Romand). But Jerome falls for Laura's beautiful half-sister Claire (Laurence de Monaghan) and harbors an unquenchable desire to caress her perfectly shaped knee... But that is not what the movie really is about: most important are character, thought, how people approach and repulse each other, with small but meaningful  attitudes and gestures. Jerome has an interesting, purely conversation-based Platonic relation with Laura and although he is physically attracted to the more stunning-looking Claire, we know that Laura is the more interesting person. And although Jerome gets to touch Claire's knee, with a shrewd trick, in the end, of course, he remains faithful to his absent fiancee. (Criterion essay).

Love in the Afternoon (1972, also called Chloé in the Afternoon; L’Amour l’après-midi): Frédéric (Bernard Verley) is a lawyer in a partnership, so he is master of his own time. He commutes daily from his home in the suburbs to his office in central Paris. He is married to English teacher Hélène (Françoise Verley), with one baby and another on the way. But on his commutes and during the long lunch breaks, he enjoys fantasizing about the beautiful women he sees in the City of Light. Then the impulsive and domineering Chloé (Zouzou) comes into his life, the friend of a friend who has been away from France and now needs help to get on her feet again. She increasingly involves Jerome in her hunts for jobs and an apartment, dropping in at his office at her whim. Jerome is at first irritated by her, but a dangerous friendship begins to build when they start meeting more and more. Jerome feels comfortable talking to her, but when she finally offers herself to him, he finds he is unable to cheat on his wife - and hurries home - the incident has brought him closer to Hélène. This could have been Fatal Attraction, but it is much better - it is the second best film in the series. (Criterion essay).

True to the spirit of the sixties and early seventies, sex is the trigger that challenges the protagonists, but in Rohmer's films it compels them to face moral dilemmas and delve deeply into their own minds and hearts. Rohmer's films are for people who like to read good novels that set them thinking.
My evaluation of My Night at Maud's: 10 points out of 10 for the lessons about Pascal. 
Criterion essay.