My Night at Maud’s (1969)

Eric Rohmer | 1hr 51min

Jean-Louis’ night at Maud’s is a test of faith brought about by chance. Where his newest love interest, Françoise, is a blonde Christian who lives traditionally, Maud is a dark-haired, secular, modern woman, playfully pushing his rigid boundaries. It is important to Eric Rohmer’s philosophical drama that she is not some antagonistic seductress though, looking to ruin or corrupt his perfect moral standard. After all, his sympathies with his God-fearing protagonist aren’t so clear-cut either, with Jean-Louis being a man struggling to reconcile his conscious actions with his faith. It is rather Maud’s transgressive incitement which motivates him to seriously consider his own life as it pertains to his values, as well as the erratic universe which pushes his fate in whatever fickle directions it may choose.

Mirrors in Rohmer’s mise-en-scène as several paths collide by pure chance.

With the character of Vidal, a Marxist university lecturer more aligned with Maud’s worldly sensibilities than those of his theological friend, Rohmer rounds out this four-person chamber drama. It is a dense script of mathematical, social, and ethical quandaries which drives My Night at Maud’s, and not one that affords its audience any time to lag behind. Lengthy conversations take place inside apartments and cafes, as Rohmer stages different combinations of character interactions without ever bringing them all together in one location. Many of these discussions are not planned, but rather emerge organically from crossings of unlikely paths, thus immediately setting the stage for an in-depth debate over the mechanics of probability.

“Our ordinary paths never cross. Therefore, the point of intersection must be outside those ordinary paths. I’ve dabbling in mathematics in my spare time. It would be fun to calculate our chances of meeting in a two-month period.”

From there, conversations regarding Pascal’s wager open up, considering the risk that human’s take with their lives in deciding whether or not to believe that God exists. It is a gamble that both Jean-Louis and Vidal play safely, though within different contexts. The latter, being an academic, chooses to believe that history holds inherent meaning, as it is only then that his life’s work can hold value. For Jean-Louis though, moral choice is an imperative he wishes to keep putting off, and it is that “half-heartedness” which Maud skewers him for.

Excellent blocking in Maud’s small apartment – she remains confidently rooted in one position while the others move around her.

Such heavy philosophical dialogue rarely hampers Rohmer’s cinematic staging of this drama, particularly in Jean-Louis’ pivotal conversation with Maud that sees him uncomfortably move around her apartment, while she lies still in bed. As he oscillates back and forth in this scene, the temptation becomes real, eventually leading to his decision to sleep next to Maud – though categorically not sleep with her. Later, Rohmer blocks Françoise in a similar position and sets up a counterpoint between both characters, though one that strikes a different note when she offers him a different room.

Symmetry in Rohmer’s compositions, expressing the order and neatness of his characters’ mathematical and philosophical fascinations.
A stunner of a frame in the very first scene, and Rohmer returns to similar compositions a few times in isolating Jean-Louis behind glass windows and doors.

The clean order of Rohmer’s symmetrical compositions is consistent with the mathematical precision of the screenplay, but in his framing of characters behind glass windows and doors he also creates a cold distancing effect. In this environment where roads are slippery with ice and sidewalks are dusted with snow, such camerawork makes for a fitting choice, as if silently encouraging these characters to break down barriers and find warmth with each other amid the winter weather. This frigidity is also somewhat offset by the festive lights and decorations that smatter scenes with religious undertones, grounding these philosophical discussions in the Christmas season where Christians congregate in churches and meditate on their faith. With this in mind, Rohmer sets in motion the first tangential crossing of paths between Jean-Louis and Françoise at a mass, as he eyes her profile from across the congregation.

Snowy landscapes and festive decorations. Rohmer very purposefully timed this shoot to align with Christmas, and it is important for both the cold atmosphere and spiritual meditations.

It isn’t long after this that he becomes convinced he will one day marry her. When Maud comes in, she is not simply drawn up as a seductive obstacle to this goal manifesting, but Rohmer rather uses her openness to expose Jean-Louis’ hypocrisy. He is a man concerned with his own respectability, and is willing to forget about his own history that carries contradictions with his faith. So too does Françoise come to a similar conclusion, asking that neither of them speak of their pasts again when their shameful misbehaviours surface.

Confessions atop a mountain, overlooking this tremendous view of the city in the midst of winter.

Perhaps though it is this course of action which grants the greatest happiness, as we see Jean-Louis and his now-wife, Françoise, run into Maud five years later – by chance of course, the same way almost every other meeting in the film has taken place. At the moment that Jean-Louis realises that Françoise was in fact the woman who slept with Maud’s husband and thus set in motion their divorce, he once again chooses to bury the past in favour of a blissful marriage.

It is telling that Rohmer chooses to stage this scene against a sunny beach rather than the snowy urban landscapes that have dominated the rest of the film, revealing a fresh warmth in Jean-Louis’ life that has failed to manifest up until now. In true philosophical fashion, My Night at Maud’s isn’t ready to deliver firm answers to its academic quandaries, and yet in this narrative built on a series of formal happenstances Rohmer also crafts an absorbing examination of fate, free will, and history as they fall under theological and secular perspectives.

An extreme shift in setting for the last scene, moving from the dead of winter to a summery beach.

My Night at Maud’s is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

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