Rohmerathon: My Night at Maud’s, by Scott Nye
My Night at Maud’s, released in 1969 in France and 1970 in America, was Eric Rohmer’s true crossover hit. Not only his first film to be released in this country, it achieved such success in the art houses that it crossed over to mainstream theaters as well. It became something of a reference among certain chic circles, and, even as the European cinema boom was fading, one of its most instantly-recognizable titles. Given that “European” translated quickly to “sexy,” just hearing the words “My Night at Maud’s” conjures up endless possibilities. Maud must be some kind of woman, for the protagonist to remember that night in conjunction with her name, and the singular “night” suggests a certain volatility, a sole outing not be repeated. Did they fight? Was one of them visiting town only briefly, or about to leave for good? Obviously there’d be nudity, maybe even some sex; why else would you spend the night? And who is “me” anyway? What’d he do to get a night with Maud? Who is this Maud?
Whether those spectators who flocked to the movie were disappointed that the night is so long coming, over sooner than they might have expected, only teasing in its use of nudity, and completely free from actual intercourse, I cannot entirely say. I’m willing to wager Gene Hackman’s oft-quoted line from Night Moves – “I saw a Rohmer film once; it was like watching paint dry” – had at least something to do with My Night at Maud’s (or its follow-up, Claire’s Knee), or at least that the connection would be more immediately made by the audience, who could chuckle along having similarly felt swindled. Maybe other audiences acclimated to what Rohmer was up to.
My Night at Maud’s was the first Rohmer film I saw. I loved it instantly. I’m not going to even pretend that it has nothing to do with the degree to which I identify with it. Like its unnamed protagonist (we’ll call him Jean-Louis, as many do, after the actor who portrayed him, Jean-Louis Trintignant), I came up in a Catholic environment and have long identified with the faith. I had a light, but engaged interest in mathematics and philosophy. I had been in a few relationships, but never had much interest in dating casually, and was perfectly content to be alone for awhile before settling down. More pertinently, though, I went through a good deal of my life with a very set idea of the kind of woman I would wind up with until a direct encounter with the opposite quite exploded that notion. Unlike Jean-Louis, I settled down with her.
This film became a sort of alternate reality, in which I had met the right girl but not gone for it. The film doesn’t come out and say that Maud (Françoise Fabian) is perfect for Jean-Louis; but they are well-suited to one another. Over the course of the night, instigated by a mutual friend’s insistence that he accompany them, Maud presses Jean-Louis on his philosophical convictions, and he spends a good deal of time defending himself and subtly altering his position so that he may remain “right.” He’s making more of an effort to be a good Catholic lately, and isn’t quite in the practice of laying out the way in which his beliefs correspond (or don’t) with his life, but is too proud to back down. Maud seems to recognize this, and wanders through their talk a bit amused, but also appreciating his certainty, and eager to test the limits of his determination.
Essentially, Jean-Louis has set out to marry a good Catholic girl, and feels he found one in Françoise (Marie-Christine Barrault), whom he sees at Mass regularly and, hey, also happens to fit his aesthetic goal of being blonde, young, and pretty. Like many religions, Catholicism has its share of contradictions, the most interesting of which is the degree to which it emphasizes humility and serving the poor while conducting its services in some of the grandest, most ornate places of worship in the west. Its priests are dressed in fine, flowing garbs, yet expected to go into the streets amongst those society has most cast out (though the more casual black clothing is appropriate to the task and position). Similarly, Jean-Louis presents himself as a modest man with a strict moral code, but it’s one he subverts or dodges at any opportunity so that he may try to maintain appearances. He’s no sooner started pursuing Maud as a romantic partner than he’s literally running after Françoise on the street. He’s not interested in Françoise for her character, and in fact looks down on her for some of what is revealed as they get closer, expecting her to fulfill his ideal rather than match his reality.
By the time we find out how much Françoise and Maud have in common, it’s too late for anyone to do anything about it, and Jean-Louis finally makes his most mature, moral decision we’ve seen from him throughout the entire film; one not based on the personal satisfaction he’ll get from it, but that in its capacity to improve someone else’s life. He may have chosen his wife for the wrong reason, but he’s starting to figure out how to truly live for another person.