Sunday, July 15, 2012

#345: My Night at Maud's

(Eric Rohmer, 1969)

Eric Rohmer's third moral tale (and third feature film) is actually the fourth film in the series, since La Collectioneuse was filmed first while Rohmer waited for his star for this film to have an opening in his schedule. It's also arguably the best, having benefited from the experience of shooting and editing its predecessor (successor). Certainly, My Night at Maud's is the most widely well-regarded film in the series - and in Rohmer's career - having been the film that catapulted him to international stardom and placed him alongside his fellow Cahiers vets Truffaut and Godard as a major voice in the New Wave. Criterion calls it "one of the most influential and talked-about films of the decade" - though unlike The 400 Blows, its importance apparently does not so outweigh the other installments in its series that it would necessitate a stand-alone release.

The biggest shift Rohmer made between shorts and features in the series (practiced in La Collectioneuse but perfected here) was a move from long stretches of narration that depicts the inner thoughts of the protagonist to huge dialogs, often between a man and a woman who are balanced precariously on the threshold of a sexual encounter, but occasionally between friends. The bulk of My Night at Maud's is taken up by these huge conversations, first between protagonist Jean-Louie and his old friend Vidal, then by Jean-Louis and Maud, and finally Jean-Louis and the object of his true affection, Fran├žoise. The abundance of these conversations pushes the narration into the background; it disappears for so long in the middle of the film that, when it finally comes rushing back in the final moments, its reemerging thought has that much more notable of an impact. Similarly, the conversations themselves are absorbing and thought-provoking; there is a great deal to ponder in My Night at Maud's.

Jean-Louis is also notable because he is the first protagonist in the series (both chronologically and numerically) who is generally likable. Sure, he's self-absorbed, a bit overly simplistic in his worldview, and perhaps a bit selfish. But he's a big step up from people like Barbet Shroeder in The Bakery Girl of Monceau, who similarly chased after a woman in the street he had only seen from afar but was confident he would marry. Jean-Louis never misleads Maud - though one could argue he only avoids doing so because Maud is so aware of the situation that she prevents him from misleading her. Fran├žoise seems unlikely to succumb to his nearly forced destiny, but his persistence pays off in the end - Jean-Louis might be the best case for The Secret in cinema.

Perhaps most interestingly, My Night At Maud's final morality lesson comes at the very end of the film and for the first time directly related to the constant woman in Jean-Louis's life (as opposed to the fleeting temptress, the counterpoint to each of the series' protagonist's true love). Jean-Louis makes the decision to lie for his wife, letting her off the hook so they can continue on with their happy lives. It's probably the case that Jean-Louis is proud of himself in this moment, and there's certainly the case to be made that this final moral quandary was a core reason why the film hit it big in the heart of the sexual liberation. But I think Rohmer's fundamental conservatism was actually the real appeal of the film for an audience that had taken the dive and knew what treacherous waters they would have to navigate. For them, the dance Jean-Louis performs with Maud must have felt very real, and the questions raised throughout the film - not just in the final moments - cut as deep then as they do today.

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