Golden Anniversaries: 'My Night at Maud's'

Tuesday, March 19, 2019
A still from 'My Night at Maud's'.

Revisiting the Cinematic Landmarks of 1969

by:
Andrew Wyatt

Throughout 2019, Cinema St. Louis will feature films celebrating their 50th anniversaries, with major works from 1969 screening during the Robert Classic French Film Festival, QFest St. Louis, and the Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival. In addition, CSL will co-present Golden Anniversaries — a stand-alone festival of six key films from 1969 — on three consecutive weekends this fall (Aug. 31-Sept. 1, Sept. 7-8, and Sept. 14-15) at the St. Louis Public Library’s Central Library. The Lens will present essays on many of those films, beginning with this entry on director Éric Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s. Note: This essay contains a detailed discussion of the film's plot and therefore includes major spoilers.

My Night at Maud’s will screen at 7 p.m. on Sunday, March 24, 2019 at Washington U.'s Brown Hall Auditorium as part of the 11th Annual Robert Classic French Film Festival. Purchase tickets here.

‘My Night at Maud’s’: Design for Living

By Robert Garrick

1969 / France / 105 min. / Dir. by Éric Rohmer / Premiered May 15, 1969, at the Cannes Film Festival; opened in select U.S. cities on Mar. 22, 1970

On the 50th anniversary of My Night at Maud’s, it’s helpful to remember what the world was like back in 1969. The sexual revolution was in full flower thanks to “the pill,” which had gained wide acceptance by the late 1960s. Movies, under the new MPAA rating system instituted in 1968, were suddenly full of profanity, nudity, and sex. An X-rated picture about a male prostitute, Midnight Cowboy, was 1969’s Oscar winner for Best Picture. It was the era of free love and busted taboos.

It was against this background that Éric Rohmer made My Night at Maud’s, a deadly serious film about moral choices, about living a Christian life, and — most of all — about the constant struggle between the human impulse to reason and the Catholic requirement to have faith.

Maud’s was the third and probably the most heralded of Rohmer’s six Moral Tales. These films, which catapulted Rohmer into the first rank of world directors, all took the form of a first-person narrative. The narrator — always a male character — would seek a woman. He’d be distracted by a second female, often a highly physically attractive one, but eventually he’d return to the first one. This is the model of F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), a film that Rohmer knew and admired.

Rohmer’s Moral Tales were not stories with a “moral”; nor were they held up by Rohmer as examples of “morality.” Instead, they were films about characters who were guided by fidelity to a moral idea. In My Night at Maud’s, one character is a dedicated Marxist and another is struggling with Catholicism. “What interests me,” Rohmer said, “is showing men who are not absolutely certain of the validity of their adherence to a doctrine, and who interrogate themselves about it and place a wager on it.”

There’s no violence in My Night at Maud’s, no crime, no explicit sex, no action, and not much plot. There’s no music — just lots of beautifully written dialogue. The talk is of religion, philosophy, Catholicism, morality, math ... and Blaise Pascal. (More later about him.)

Through it all, there are sexy scenes between men and women, which no doubt contributed to the film’s success. After a rocky showing at Cannes in 1969, My Night at Maud’s became a popular hit in Paris, then in London. It was a sensation at the 1969 New York Film Festival, after which it became a major commercial and critical success in the United States in 1970. Andrew Sarris rated Maud’s one of the three best films of 1970, and ultimately he included it as one of the four best films of the decade. Richard Schickel said it was the best film of the year. At the Oscars, My Night at Maud’s was nominated for both Best Foreign Language Film and Best Original Screenplay.

The critics who wrote about Maud’s mostly zeroed in on the male/female dynamic. Rohmer has said that the original idea came to him in 1945, and it involved a man trapped in a room with an extremely attractive woman for an extended period. So that is the heart of the film, and that scene in Maud’s — the titular “night” — consumes half of its running time.

But Maud’s is not a film about sex or romance. Nor is it a comedy, as some have written. Rohmer’s film is about religion and Catholicism. It’s about living an ascetic life and obtaining eternal salvation. It’s a sermon, built around one man’s spiritual adventure

The first shot in My Night at Maud’s is important. It’s a bird’s-eye view of a small town in the mountains, a jumble of gray houses and rugged terrain, with some church steeples. We’re in the French provinces — the hinterlands — and the scene is just outside the town of Clermont-Ferrand. The winter sun is rising on the Forez Mountains.

The next shots reveal that this is the point of view of the narrator, who is nameless throughout the film. Let’s refer to him as Jean-Louis, after Jean-Louis Trintignant, the actor who plays him.

That cluttered opening shot is a reflection of Jean-Louis’ moral state. He’s confused; he’s looking for rigor and meaning in his life. He’s single, 34 years old, recently returned to France from South America, where he worked as an engineer. Now he’s employed at the local Michelin plant.

Jean-Louis is personable, attractive, and doing fine professionally. He’s had a series of girlfriends, all serious relationships, and he’s maintained the connection to the Catholic Church that he inherited from his parents. But it’s not enough, and Jean-Louis knows it. He’s marking time; it’s not a “life.”

In church (Notre Dame du Port) the same day, Jean-Louis spots a single blond woman in profile. She appears to be serious about the services. She turns slightly in the direction of Jean-Louis, showing that she feels his gaze. Jean-Louis is fascinated with this woman — perhaps she is the ideal he has been looking for. They don’t speak, but the woman knows that she’s being examined. She leaves church on a motorized bicycle, and Jean-Louis follows her in his small car through the narrow streets of Clermont-Ferrand.

This scene — which is straight out of Vertigo (1958) — is telling. When Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) tailed Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) in his car through the streets of San Francisco, he appeared to be a hired detective watching a wealthy woman who was in the thrall of a psychic deception. That’s what we thought — but the reality was something quite different. Madeleine was not the woman Scottie thought she was. And Scottie was more than a detective: He was a detective who was becoming dangerously infatuated.

Rohmer was a Hitchcock scholar — he and Claude Chabrol wrote the first book-length study of Hitchcock in 1957, right around the time Vertigo was released. It’s likely that this scene was intended as a quote from Hitchcock, and as a form of shorthand. Jean-Louis is becoming infatuated with this woman, whose name (we later learn) is Françoise (Marie-Christine Barrault). And Françoise is not quite what she appears to be.

As Jean-Louis pursues “the girl on a bicycle,” we are in the car with him. It’s small, constricted, noisy. The street is narrow, with lots of obstacles. Françoise moves effortlessly through this terrain on her more primitive vehicle, but Jean-Louis is ultimately blocked by another car and loses her. He’s frustrated, but he will not forget François.

A day or two later, Jean-Louis enters a café in Clermont. He bumps into an old classmate, Vidal (Antoine Vitez), whom he hasn’t seen in years. Vidal is a Marxist, an atheist, and a university professor in philosophy. Neither Jean-Louis nor Vidal are regulars at that café. The meeting seems almost mystical, a remarkable chance occurrence.

It’s Dec. 24, Christmas Eve. Vidal and Jean-Louis eat, and there’s a discussion of the ideas of Blaise Pascal, the 17th-century French mathematician and theologian whose birthplace was Clermont-Ferrand. Pascal is famous for his “wager” — the notion that it is rational to commit to Christ. Pascal’s logic: If the wager proves wrong — if life was meaningless — nothing would be lost. But if the wager is right — if Christ was the Lord — eternal salvation would await.

Jean-Louis finds Pascal’s wager too “rigid” and says so. Vidal says that in his own life, he’s applied the wager to Marxism. Vidal personally doubts that history has any meaning, but he’s “wagered” that history does have meaning and that Marxism is the future. That’s the wager — the only one, Vidal says — that allows him to live.

Rohmer has talked of the importance of fidelity: fidelity to a woman, to an idea, or to a dogma. Pascal’s wager says you have to pick a side; you have to make a bet. You can’t reason your way through life; you must pick a guiding principle and stick to it.

Following the meal, Vidal has tickets to a violin performance, and Jean-Louis comes along. Then Jean-Louis says that he plans to attend Midnight Mass, at the start of Christmas Day. Vidal agrees to come, too, and says that he later wants Jean-Louis to visit the apartment of his friend, who is getting a divorce.

That friend turns out to be Maud (Françoise Fabian), and Jean-Louis’ “night” with her begins in the wee hours of Christmas Day.

The night at Maud’s apartment consumes half of the film. Vidal is there at first, but he ultimately gets drunk and leaves. He and Maud had been occasional lovers, but on this night Maud is more interested in Jean-Louis. So they are alone in Maud’s apartment, together.

Maud is beautiful, all right. She’s a brunette. She’s charming, smart, talkative, congenial. It’s snowing outside — perfect Christmas weather — and Maud convinces Jean-Louis to sleep in “her spare room,” because it would be too dangerous to drive home.

As it turns out, there is no spare room, and Maud spends most of the night gently trying to seduce Jean-Louis. They talk of religion, of philosophy, of romance, of Pascal. Maud asks for her cigarettes and for a drink of water. She’s trying to get Jean-Louis closer to the bed, where she sits in her nightshirt.

Jean-Louis blunders his way through the session, saying this and that, somehow resisting the stunning Maud, but never completely closing the door on sex with her. Eventually he sleeps, chastely wrapped in blankets, next to her on the bed. In the morning, he almost succumbs to Maud’s advances, but she says no. “I like people who know what they want,” she says harshly.

They agree to meet later in the day, in the mountains, at a planned event. Maud teases him: “There’s a girl you might like ... a blonde.”

Now the sun is up on Christmas morning, and Jean-Louis is having breakfast in a café. Through the windows, he sees the blonde woman from church, Francoise, go by on her motorbike. He leaves the café, without his coat, and runs after her in the street. He meets her and makes a clumsy but effective introduction, telling Françoise that he would like to get to know her. They agree to have lunch the next day, after church.

We are now in the final third of the film. Through a series of remarkable “chances,” Jean-Louis spends the night in the apartment of Françoise, in the mountains above town. (Again, the weather forces him to stay.) It’s the opposite of the night with Maud. Françoise does have a spare room, and she parks Jean-Louise there. There’s never any question about sex — there will not be any. Françoise is proper and chaste throughout. She even resists a kiss from Jean-Louis.

It’s Françoise, though, whom Jean-Louis craves. He tells her he loves her. Up in the mountains, outdoors, she confesses that she is not the girl he thinks she is. She had an affair — with a married man. Jean-Louis is shaken but he accepts the news. Françoise says: “Let’s never speak of it again.”

Five years pass. Françoise and Jean-Louis have married — in the Catholic Church, of course — and they have a son. We see the three of them climbing down a hill, to the beach, on a hot sunny day. They run into Maud, who is climbing up the hill, alone. Françoise looks uneasy and (after a quick introduction) continues on, and Maud speaks to Jean-Louis alone. She is as beautiful as ever. She says she’s remarried, and that it’s not going well. She cuts off the discussion because she can see that Françoise is uncomfortable. She continues up the hill, and out of the film.

Down on the beach, we learn that the married man with whom Françoise was having an affair was Maud’s husband. As Françoise makes this confession, Jean-Louis lies to her, telling her that Maud was “his last fling.” Again, Françoise says: “Let’s never speak of it again.”

And they run, together, with their son, toward the water, with the clear skies overhead. The film ends.

In My Night at Maud’s, Jean-Louis is forced to choose between Françoise and Maud. Françoise is mostly a cipher, an idea. She never says much, and she doesn’t seem to have much of a personality. But to Jean-Louis she is associated with the Church, and she represents a possible marriage, a family, and a lifetime commitment.

Maud, on the other hand, is beautiful and exciting and nice. But she represents passion. Maud is looking for sex first and maybe something else later. Somehow, Jean-Louis resists Maud’s advances during their “night,” in the early hours of Christmas Day.

Much has been made of the differences between Maud and Françoise. Maud is brunette, dark, educated, older, urban, well off, quite comfortable indoors and at night, worldly, divorced. She’s sexually eager. She’s not a believer, and Rohmer calls her a “socialist.” She’s gorgeous, but there’s something vaguely threatening about her looks. She could be a beautiful witch. In the last scenes of the film, where she’s outdoors and in the sunlight, she’s uneasy, out of her element.

Françoise is the opposite in almost every way. She’s blond, young, still getting her education. She’s religious, a Catholic student in biology. She’s quite comfortable outdoors, on her motorbike, on the beach, and in the mountains where she lives. She’s at home in the sunlight. She’s not talkative, not all that interested in ideas. She’s quiet and a bit awkward. She’s sexually restrained. She’s never been married.

These opposites are part of the look of the film as well: black and white — and a lot of gray. Clermont-Ferrand is depressing and gray in the depths of winter, but there is also “color.” Rohmer: “It’s a film in color in a way, except that the colors are black and white.” The dreary nature of Clermont-Ferrand represents Pascal’s idea that grace awaits in another life, not on Earth. As for the blacks and whites, in the clothing, in the volcanic rock buildings of Clermont — they represent the different paths available to Jean-Louis.

The previous discussion of the Hitchcockian scene early in the film, where Jean-Louis tails Françoise in his car, makes Rohmer’s affinity for that director clear. Most of the writers at Cahiers du Cinema in the 1950s, Rohmer included, regarded Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks as two of the greatest directors. (Andre Bazin would refer to Rohmer, with amusement, as a “Hitchcocko-Hawksian.”) Hawks favored an eye-level camera, with long takes, natural dialogue, and medium shots. That’s the formula used by Rohmer in Maud’s. There are few close-ups, and there’s no fancy editing. It all seems quite relaxed. The focus is on the players, not on the director.

Obviously, the core of the film is the choice between Maud and Françoise. All of the players are nice people — attractive, well spoken, pleasant. There are no heroes or villains. But there are profound differences nevertheless. Jean-Louis spends most of the film in a state of confusion, but he is able to stick with his original feeling that Françoise is the answer. He resists the more worldly and sexy Maud.

Françoise represents faith. She represents Catholicism, marriage, simplicity. She also represents the natural world — the outdoors. Maud represents reason. She is her own master. She works her way through life logically.

Faith vs. reason. Jean-Louis chooses faith. At the very end of the film, after his final commitment to Françoise, the world opens up for the two of them and their child. They run to the ocean in what appears to be a moment of great joy. Jean-Louis, who began the film staring at a mess of buildings and mountain crags, has found peace and simplicity.

More than a few critics are unhappy with this interpretation of the film. Marion Vidal, for example, finds Jean-Louis appalling. He’s “a master of mental restriction and lie by omission.” Maud is honest, gracious, sensual, and direct: “When I say yes, it’s yes; when I say no, it’s no.” The critic describes the marriage to Françoise as “a fantasy marriage, founded on lies and secrecy.”

Frank Cunningham agrees with Marion Vidal. He sees Maud as an exemplary character, albeit a tragic one. (She loses two men to Françoise and is now involved in another failing marriage.) He describes the last scene of the film: “Hand in hand, holding their child, they run from the prying camera’s eye into the sea, secure in their illusions, their conventional marriage, their need not to be honest with one another, far from the moral struggle and ambiguity faced daily by Maud.”

Cunningham and Marion Vidal are not wrong, and neither is Maud. They believe in reason — in the ability of humans to forge their way through life, logically and honestly, one action at a time.

That’s one approach. In the film, it doesn’t work well for Maud, or for Vidal, the man who introduces Jean-Louis to Maud. Maud and Vidal are not happy, and they’re not successful in their relations with the opposite sex.

Rohmer has said that if Jean-Louis had slept with Maud, the affair “would have lasted a week and then it would have been over.” The priests in the film — whose words were carefully chosen by writer/director Rohmer — come down solidly on the side of faith. At the second church visit, the Dominican priest says that “Christian life is not a moral code. It is a life … the adventure of saintliness.” He goes on to say that “one must be mad to be a saint.” Only by making the “bet,” by being all-in, can you be mad. Once you’re on the path, you have to stay there, with faith that things will work out.

Critic C.G. Crisp, who wrote a major work on Rohmer, points out: “Maud is the opposite of mad. She has learned to live in a relative world.” That sounds positive. But then Crisp writes: “Rohmer allows her point of view full expression, so that it is easy to come away from the film feeling that he supports her. The devil is convincing; his arguments are always more plausible than God’s, because he has reason on his side. And some of the arguments prove immensely attractive to our hero, who is guilty of the most specious bad faith in defending his mediocrity and his lack of total commitment.”

It’s chilling to remember that Maud’s presence in the film comes courtesy of Vidal, who appears out of nowhere in the cafe. The very name “Vidal” is an anagram of “dival,” or devil. Vidal is an atheist and a Marxist; Rohmer has called Maud a “radical socialist.” To Rohmer, these are not good things. Maud is not a believer, and when the evening begins, with the two men arriving from Midnight Mass, Maud says they “reek of Holy Water.” Maud is charming, but so was Count Dracula. Both of them are uncomfortable around religious symbols.

Crisp reminds us that for much of the film Jean-Louis is boxed up — in his car, staring out of his windshield; in Maud’s apartment; in the apartment of Françoise. Only at the very end does Jean-Louis break free, running with joy toward the open world of the beach and the sky. Crisp points out that by fully committing to Françoise at the end of the film, Jean-Louis is “choosing a rigid code of religious doctrine, a tightly structured system — a ‘prison’ — in preference to the looser, more liberal system of the freethinker, Maud. Yet the visual imagery works in the opposite direction, to suggest the ultimate escape from such a prison.” Rohmer is saying: Only through faith, even mad faith, can one become truly free.

At Midnight Mass, on Christmas Day, just before his night with Maud, Jean-Louis hears the priest say: “The birth, at which we rejoice, is not above all the birth of the infant Jesus, it is our own. Something must be born in each of us this night.”

Robert Garrick — attorney, board member of the French-preservation nonprofit Les Amis, and former contributor to the davekehr.com film blog — will introduce and discuss My Night at Maud’s at 7 p.m. Sunday, Mar. 24, at Washington U.’s Brown Hall Auditorium. Purchase tickets here.