Saturday, September 6, 2014

My Night at Maud's (Ma Nuit Chez Maud)

MY NIGHT AT MAUD’S (Ma Nuit Chez Maud)           A                    
France  (110 mi)  1969  d:  Éric Rohmer

You have two things to lose:  the true and the good; and two things to stake:  your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to avoid:  error and wretchedness.  Since you must necessarily choose, your reason is no more affronted by choosing one rather than the other.  That is one point cleared up.  But your happiness?  Let us weigh up the gain and the loss involved in calling heads that God exists.  Let us assess the two cases:  if you win, you win everything:  if you lose, you lose nothing.  Do not hesitate then:  wager that he does exist.

Pascal's Wager from Pensées, by Blaise Pascal, 1669

Throughout Rohmer’s career, he kept searching for life’s secrets and meanings, sharing his understandings with his audience in what might be called a lifelong conversation in search of meaning.  But it’s here in this film that it all began, as it is perhaps the most autobiographical of Rohmer films, where Jean-Louis, Jean-Louis Trintignant using his own name (though “I” is the only name used in the film), is the stand-in for the director with his moody, self-absorbed, Catholic intellectualizing, while Françoise Fabian as Maud is perhaps his idealized woman, beautiful, strong, atheistic, and equally intelligent, perhaps a bit more mature than the men she knows as she’s more certain of herself, while the blond and Catholic Marie-Christine Barrault as Françoise is a more compatible version of his ideal wife.  More than anything else, this is a film of ideas, the ones that haunt the artistic creator, obviously, but the universality of philosophical thought carries over into the lives of the audience.  This film is almost scientific in the way it presents itself, well thought out ahead of time, perfectly harmonious and balanced, the only one of Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales (Six Contes moraux, 1963–72) that was shot during the winter.  As an example of Rohmer’s commitment to detail, he insisted that the shooting for this film had to begin during the Christmas holiday season, but when actor Jean-Louis Trintignant was unable to make that precise date, Rohmer postponed the film for a year until all the stars in the sky were properly aligned.  As a result, chronologically it changes the sequence of the Six Moral Tales, where this is supposedly the third in the sequence, but the fourth LA COLLECTIONNEUSE (1967) was shot two years earlier.  The film is consistent in the third spot, however, introducing thematic complexity to the story, including maturity from the characters, who in the other 5 episodes are much younger, while maintaining a certain symmetry as the first three Tales are in black and white, none more beautifully than MAUD, while the final three are shot in color.  As the centerpiece of Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales, using older and more mature characters, each one involved in their careers, this was Rohmer’s only use of professional actors throughout the entire series other than Jean-Claude Brialy in CLAIRE’S KNEE (1970), where the director insisted upon using Brialy against type.  Here responsibility is a given, as 34-year old Jean-Louis has traveled to Canada, America, and Chile through his job as an engineer for Michelin, has had his share of relationships with women, but now is attempting to settle down, where he’s single, serious, and unattached, but Catholicism is an essential component of his life.  In one of the earliest scenes, he’s at church just before Christmas listening to the mass as he sees a young blond across the aisle, vowing then and there to marry her.  When he attempts to follow her on her motorbike afterwards, he loses her in the traffic.

Mirroring the narrative of the first Moral Tale, THE BAKERY GIRL OF MONCEAU (La Boulangère de Monceau, 1963), the protagonist falls in love with a woman he sees on the street without ever having spoken to her, but then becomes sidetracked and involved with another woman who literally consumes his interest before accidentally running into the first woman, where in each instance a choice must be made.  Purely by accident, the story veers into another direction when he runs into an old friend, Vidal (Antoine Vitez), a former student friend, now a marxist philosophy professor at a local university that he hasn’t seen in 14 years.  They pick up where they left off, however, discussing the merits of Pascal and Catholicism, attempting to apply mathematical logic to abstract thoughts, combining mathematics and metaphysics, where both are well aware of each other’s views, with Vidal commenting, “To a communist, Pascal’s ‘wager’ is very real,” claiming “Gorky, Lenin, or maybe Mayakovsky talking about the Russian revolution said that circumstances forced them to take the chance in a thousand because it was infinitely better to take that chance than no chance at all.”  Together they attend a concert of violinist Léonide Kogan playing a Mozart piano and violin sonata, integrating art into the equation, highlighting the contrast between the painted angels on the ceiling at the performance and the massive empty space above the parishioners inside the cathedral, both houses of thoughtful contemplation. When Vidal invites him to an evening dinner engagement with Maud, identified as a good friend and occasional lover, coming from a family of free thinkers (or Freemasons) where irreligion is a form of religion, whose winning attributes are her intelligence and beauty, Jean-Louis continues where he left off, reflecting upon a life of moral values that would embrace faith, where Catholicism is encapsulated in delineating the complex nature of morality rather than demarcating clear distinctions between good and evil.  Separating himself from sacred devotion through abstinence, “As a Christian, I say it’s evil not to acknowledge what is good,” acknowledging that he can appreciate the fine wine that comes from the region, believing religion enhances not only one’s life, but the merits of marriage.  “Religion adds to love, but love adds to religion also,” where at that moment Maud’s young daughter peeps her head out the door, as if adding context to the stated premise.  His strict and somewhat selfish principles take the non-believers by surprise, so they continually tease him, as they’re basically excluded from his existential philosophy that only concerns his own personal salvation.  The key ingredients to the film include naturalism, an element that exists in all Rohmer films, but also a willingness to present a free-flowing discussion of ideas relating to life, relationships, and our place in a world that incorporates faith.  This identifies the central themes of the Six Moral Tales, which continue to be discussed throughout the film. 

Perhaps it might be interesting to note that the precise definition of “moral” means something slightly different in French than the same word in English.  Quoting Rohmer who elaborates extensively in Graham Petrie’s interview from Film Quarterly, Summer 1971:

In French there is a word moraliste that I don’t think has any equivalent in English.  It doesn’t really have much connection with the word “moral.”  A moraliste is someone who is interested in the description of what goes on inside man.  He’s concerned with states of mind and feelings.  For example, in the eighteenth century Pascal was a moraliste, and a moraliste is a particularly French kind of writer like Le Bruyère or La Rochefoucauld, and you could also call Stendahl a moraliste because he describes what people feel and think.  So Contes Moraux doesn’t really mean that there’s a moral contained in them, even though there might be one and all the characters in these films act according to certain moral ideas that are fairy clearly worked out. In Ma Nuit Chez Maud these ideas are very precise; for all the characters in the other films they are rather more vague, and morality is a very personal matter.  But they try to justify everything in their behavior and that fits the word “moral” in its narrowest sense.  But “moral” can also mean that they are people who like to bring their motives, the reasons for their actions, into the open.  They try to analyze; they are not people who act without thinking about what they are doing.  What matters is what they think about their behavior, rather than their behavior itself.  They aren’t films of action, they aren’t films in which physical action takes place, they aren’t films in which there is anything very dramatic, they are films in which a particular feeling is analyzed and where even the characters themselves analyze their feelings and are very introspective.  That’s what Contes Moraux means.     

The discussion on Pascal and Christianity alone are worth the price of admission, where a half century later they remain as blisteringly intense and applicable in today’s world, proof that films with ideas last, while conventionality fades.  Trintignant’s man of faith character is consistent with many of the roles he took throughout his career, an educated man of conscience who often sees himself drowning in mediocrity, such as his infamous role as a sexually repressed secret police agent seeking redemption through normalcy during the fall of Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship in Bertolucci’s THE CONFORMIST (1970).  But the philosophical discussion only leads us into Maud’s apartment, who conveniently dismisses the professor on grounds he’s had too much to drink, leaving her alone with her man of principles.  The astonishing power of the film is the performance of Françoise Fabian, an Algerian by birth, the widow of French director Jacques Becker, and while thirty years younger, she never appeared in any of his films.  She did, however, work for Luis Buñuel in his provocative tale of erotic surrealism in BELLE DE JOUR (1967), Jacques Rivette’s near 13-hour masterwork OUT 1 (1971), also OUT 1: SPECTRE (1974), while appearing again in a dream sequence of Rohmer’s LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON (1972), the concluding film of the Six Moral Tales.  While she has appeared in more than 80 films since 1956, she is a revelation here, a modern woman, a free spirit, sexy, intellectually engaging, and sophisticated, one of the more intriguing female characters to appear in French films, while largely unheralded, as her appearance in the film is a complete surprise.  She is vibrant and stunningly beautiful, unconventionally liberated, has that mysterious, indefinable female essence, appears smarter than Jean-Louis in every sense, certainly more openly honest, can hold her own on any subject, remains true to her convictions, yet the film focuses nearly all its attention on him.  They spend the night in her apartment sharing intimate conversations, where the contrast between the two is the tale of the film, as she sensuously manipulates him into her bed, though he remains wrapped in a blanket, but it’s the wintry season, so it gets cold at night.  While he convinces himself that he’s into something deeper, she sleeps naked where the sexual invitation appears open, as she does invite him into her bed, while teasing him about his “dream woman,” the blond he’s only seen and never spoken to.  The choice becomes Pascal’s wager, as Maud is there in the flesh, in the here and now, while his other option exists only in his head.

The gorgeously austere black and white cinematography by Néstor Almendros is striking, especially the wintry town of Clermont-Ferrand during the Christmas season in the snow.  Pascal’s ideas are not only introduced, but become the overriding theme of the story, where the center of interest is free choice.  Will a man bet his future happiness on marrying a girl he has only seen, and will that translate to a fulfilling married life together?  Morality for Rohmer in his Moral Tales does not mean normal moral behavior, but rather a struggle within a certain individual to come to terms with crucial decisions, while being able to explain to himself and those around him his or her rationale for these decisions.  While romantic interests seem to fuel this speculation, in this film the holy trinity is reflected by the triangular sets of ideas embodied in the three main characters, a Catholic, a Marxist, and an agnostic.  A fourth is added to the equation when Jean-Louis finally introduces himself to Françoise on the street in an awkward introduction, while meeting again shortly thereafter when he offers to drive her home during a heavy snow.  When his car conveniently gets stuck outside her student dormitory apartment, she offers him a spare room, where he behaves like a perfect gentleman.  Later they are seen in church together (for the first time), as only then can an appropriate relationship ensue, where each acknowledges previous love affairs, but agrees to leave them in the past.  Five years later they are married with a young child vacationing at the beach (which is actually a setting on the island of Belle Île, a favorite setting for Claude Monet who painted the rock formations, File:Claude Monet Pyramides Port Coton.jpg - Wikimedia ..., also Storm off the belle ile coast - by Claude Monet), when they run into Maud.  Apparently she and Françoise are familiar with one another, but not on good terms, where it is implied that Françoise’s previous affair with a married man was likely the husband of Maud.  The surprise at seeing one another evokes similar feelings of the past, which quickly resurface, as the two obviously have some chemistry together, perhaps reminding him of what he’s lost, while she remains at ease with herself, confident as ever.  Jean-Louis, however, as an engineer with an interest in mathematics is more calculating, where certain conditions must be met before he can love a woman — first and foremost she must be a Catholic, and the rest will follow — while for Maud love is unconditional, with no strings attached.  All the forces are at play here in this simple exchange, which ends blissfully in such a picturesque realm, where the viewers will continually have to ask themselves where they fit into so many of these fateful moments, some of which occur by sheer coincidence, suggesting happiness will always rely upon some element of chance.             

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