Eric Rohmer died earlier this year aged 89. For me, he was always the odd one out of the Cahiers gang who were at the centre of the French New Wave. He was older than the others and had already been a teacher and a novelist before he became editor of Cahiers in 1956. He began making short films in the early 1950s and completed his first feature Le signe du lion in 1959, but failed to make the same impact as Chabrol, Godard and Truffaut. In some ways, Ma nuit chez Maud was what might be called his ‘break-out’ film in 1969 when it won prizes and nominations outside France. By this time Rohmer was in his late 40s but for most of his career he made films about the young bourgeoisie – often students and mostly artistic or intellectual.
With his admiration of Rossellini and his penchant for location shooting, Rohmer’s early films bear some resemblance to the ‘young people on the streets’ feel of early Chabrol, Godard and Truffaut. However, in other respects they are quite different. There is little of the convention-breaking cinema, the bravura set pieces, the innovative camerawork and mise en scène. There are cultural references, but not so much to cinema. Instead, Rohmer’s films are filled with talk and long takes in medium shot. If you know only one quote about Rohmer it is likely to be the line from Night Moves, Arthur Penn’s 1975 movie, in which Gene Hackman’s character says that experiencing a Rohmer picture is “like watching paint dry”. Fortunately, I don’t agree. I wouldn’t claim that Rohmer’s cinema is exciting but he was a highly-skilled craftsman and had a certain kind of genius for understanding how life’s more sensitive souls go about building relationships.
Ma nuit chez Maud is the third of Rohmer’s so-called ‘Six Moral Tales’, which in turn was the first of three series of ‘tales’ and ‘proverbs’. The first two of the ‘moral tales’ were officially ‘short films’ (which we might discuss later) but Maud was a feature, shot in black and white in Academy ratio (1:1.33) by Nestor Almendros. The print at the National Media Museum was a 2K digital restoration released by the British Film Institute and very beautiful it is too.
Outline (no spoilers )
Christmas week in Clermont-Ferrand in Central France. ‘Jean-Louis’ (he isn’t given a name, but the character is played by Jean-Louis Trintignant) is a 34 year-old engineer at the Michelin factory. He has recently returned from working overseas in Vancouver and Valparaiso and doesn’t know many people in the city. During Sunday Mass he spots a young and attractive blonde woman, decides that she is his ideal type and attempts to follow her from church – but loses her in the traffic. Spending his spare time studying maths and browsing bookshops looking at works by Pascal, he runs into an old school-friend, Vidal, who teaches philosophy at the local university. They are both bachelors and decide to swap activities. Vidal invites Jean-Louis to a Mozart recital, Jean-Louis takes him to Midnight Mass. On Christmas Day, Vidal takes Jean-Louis to dinner with an old friend, Maud. She is divorced with a small daughter and discussion turns to relationships, religion and Pascal’s wager – essentially that it is rational to bet on the existence of God as there is more to gain and less to lose that way. Jean-Louis seems prepared to stick to his conviction that he will marry a good Catholic girl (preferably blonde). Vidal, a lapsed Catholic Marxist, and Maud, an atheist (from a Protestant family, I think) tease and challenge him. As the snow falls more heavily, Jean-Louis, who lives out in the countryside, is persuaded to stay the night after Vidal has gone home, slightly worse for wear. How will Jean-Louis cope with sleeping in the same room as Maud? Has she planned to trap him?
The next day, the trio re-unite with one of Vidal’s other female friends and go walking in the snowy hills. That evening Jean-Louis sees Françoise, the young woman from church, struggling with her moped in the icy city streets and offers to give her a lift home – to a village close to his own.
I did see this film back in the early 1970s, but I remembered virtually nothing, apart from the location, the snow, the lovely Françoise Fabian as Maud and the importance of Jansenism. This time round I found it utterly charming, possibly because it took me back to how I sometimes behaved in 1969. I wish I could remember why Jansenism stuck in my memory. Possibly it was because we studied it for A Level European History. (For some reason, I’ve always remembered the title of an André Bazin essay in which he describes William Wyler as the “Jansenist of mise en scene“.) If I understand it now, it links Jean-Louis’ Catholicism and his interest in Blaise Pascal (1623-62) – who was a Jansenist (and was born in Clermont-Ferrand). The split in French Catholicism took place in the 17th century and Jansenism is usually seen to focus on ideas about ‘predestination’, free will and human responsibility with the Jansenists opposed by the Jesuits and associated with the Calvinists. To be frank, the intricacies of theological debates about French Catholicism leave me cold, but when they are translated into questions about a man’s approach to sex, romance and marriage they become much more interesting. Rohmer’s tales often seem to offer a man or a woman a choice between two potential partners and the narrative then focuses on how they make a decision. In this case, Jean-Louis (who by implication is a ‘Jesuit’, opposed to Jansenism and therefore conflicted over his interest in Pascal) must decide between his principles – which lead him towards the younger, Catholic woman – and the excitement of the opportunity for spontaneity offered by Maud. Both women are attractive and the decision does become philosophical. Rohmer is very clever in that the central characters are connected with each other in ways which at first aren’t apparent. The film’s resolution (a ‘five years later’ coda) is provocative. I think Jean-Louis makes the ‘wrong’ decision – but I’m not sure he would have been happy with the ‘right’ decision.
This is a perfect film in terms of script, location and casting and its simple but effective camerawork and mise en scène serve the narrative well. The chilly winter scenes seem to encourage the attempt to be clear-sighted and Christmas is surely the time to put relationships under the microscope with the emphasis on family celebration (here again, Rohmer has a little discussion about the Protestant (Anglo-American) focus on Christmas – and the more restrained French Catholic approach). The casting decisions are important, I think. Françoise Fabian is seductive and ‘modern’ – i.e. 1960s modern – fun and almost girlish, even though she is a mother in her thirties. Marie-Christine Barrault, by contrast, has a timeless appearance as Françoise. She seems to me the ultimate attractive bourgeois young woman. Although she was the least experienced of the quartet, she plays the role well with hints of something else behind her outwardly sunny disposition. On a couple of occasions you do really wonder whether Jean-Louis has seen enough films noirs. (Just realised that she has a little of Joan Fontaine about her?) Antoine Vitez is similarly well cast as Vidal, but my real interest is Trintignant.
Trintignant was by 1969 a major French star straddling roles from the avant-garde Trans-Europ-Express (1966) to the massively popular love story Un homme et une femme (1966). In 1969 he also starred in the Costa-Gavras film Z about the Greek junta and a year later he was the lead in Bertolucci’s Il conformista. A formidable screen presence, brooding, squat and with the suggestion of powerful urges beneath his controlled features, he at first seems an unlikely choice for the role of this conservative engineer. I was taken aback when he smiled and suddenly his very composed appearance changed. I was also conscious of the tightly-buttoned suits and the hairstyle that seemed controlled until a wisp or two broke loose. The sheepskin coat came as something of a shock – perhaps it meant something different in France at this point – in the UK it has variously signed the car salesman, the cad, the man in the saloon bar etc. I fear I’m going to have to rent the DVD and watch this again.
Here’s the BFI trailer to give you a sense of the film. (Note that there is no non-diegetic music in the film, only the recital that the two men attend – the use of Mozart in the trailer is a con.)