Wednesday, October 04, 2006

MY NIGHT AT MAUD'S


MY NIGHT AT MAUD'S ("MA NUIT CHEZ MAUD," 1969, France, Eric Rohmer)
Thanks to you, I've taken a step on the path to sainthood. As I said, women always aid my moral progress.

In the late fifties and early sixties, a group of French directors associated with the fim magazine Cahiers du cinema came to be known as the French New Wave. Truffaut, Godard and others reacted against big budget "prestige" films by creating energetic, youthful pictures that defied what they saw as the stodginess and artificiality of the so-called "tradition of quality." Rather than shooting in the controlled environment of the studio set, they took filmmaking to the streets, preferring spontaneity to caution, giving expression to the radical ideas and experimentation of their generation. What happened in Britain and America with rock and roll took place in France at the cinematheque.

Because he wrote for Cahiers through the fifties, Eric Rohmer is often included in that movement, though he's something of an odd fit. A decade older than the young lions, and with a strong literary bent, he was at times considered somewhat reactionary, or at least conservative, and his first feature films – LA COLLECTIONEUSE and MA NUIT CHEZ MAUD – didn't appear until after the heyday of the New Wave had passed. Yet in at least one significant way, MY NIGHT AT MAUD'S reconnects with something essential – indeed, essentially spiritual – in the foundation of that movement.

In 1954, Cahiers du cinema published an incendiary article by the 22-year-old Francois Truffaut which came to be something of a manifesto for the emerging filmmakers. As well as castigating established film practice for its plodding lack of originality, "A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema" also chided commercial screenwriters for what Truffaut saw as an anti-clerical agenda, an expression of their pervasive (and hypocritical) contempt for common, middle-class life. The young idealist called for a kind of honest portrayal of ordinary life and faith which could deal with the intangible mysteries of human experience.

Fifteen years later, Eric Rohmer's breakout film took to heart that specific aspect of Truffaut's call to arms. MY NIGHT AT MAUD'S is the story of a perfectly bourgeois 34-year-old engineer, recently converted to Catholicism, who struggles to live out the call of his newfound spirituality confronted with philosophical challenges and temptations of a more immediate kind. Hip late-sixties audiences who expected the Mass which opens the film to be subverted for comic effect were confounded when the central character's Christian commitment was treated throughout with respect: what first reads as stiff and prudish awkwardness soon looks more like a rather winsome and self-effacing sincerity. By the time we return to the church for midnight mass on Christmas Eve, and then again on a Sunday morning toward the end of the film, we're no longer surprised that the priest's homily is not only wise but pertinent, the sacrament portrayed as something holy, even desirable.

MY NIGHT AT MAUD'S is one of Rohmer's "Six Moral Tales," stories of men whose love for a woman – as well as their chosen moral code – is tested by an encounter with another woman who tempts him to abandon his choice.No sooner is Jean-Louis smitten with the beautiful Catholic girl he sees in church – "That Monday, December 21st, I suddenly knew, without a doubt, that Francoise would be my wife" – than his Marxist friend introduces him to Maud, a sensuous, accomplished and thoroughly secular woman of the world who sets out to seduce this na├»ve, intellectual young man.

One of the film's greatest charms is the humanity with which Rohmer treats all his characters: just as Jean-Pierre is never condescended to (except, playfully, by the other characters) because of his religious convictions, neither is Vidal portrayed as a doctrinaire atheist – he has recently become fascinated by the religious writings of Blaise Pascal – nor Maud as a predatory, immoral seductress. The writer-director sets up a marvelously balanced romantic triangle where every character is believable, dimensional, likeable, and where no choice or consequence is a foregone conclusion. Indeed, there's something close to the spirit of Christ in the compassionate even-handedness that runs through so many of Rohmer's films. As he writes in his book on Alfred Hitchcock, "It is not the poet's business to judge his characters, nor any man's business to judge his fellows."

Perhaps that's part of the reason why MY NIGHT AT MAUD'S had such a powerful impact on Andrew Greeley, the prolific Catholic sociologist, priest and writer – whose popular novels may owe a debt to this film, combining as they do the spiritual and sexual lives of their characters (though Rohmer's film is far subtler than Greeley's fiction). In God And Popular Culture Greeley writes of this film's sacramental quality, of the personal religious epiphany he experienced when he viewed it. Of course, the Rohmer film was almost the only film of its day to take seriously the life of faith, placing a devoutly religious character at the centre of its story, which may account for the powerful spiritual effect the film had on the young priest. – that, and the script's combination of spirituality and intelligence.

The people in this film love to talk, and they're good at it – one wonders if the title of Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn's talky metaphysical masterpiece, MY DINNER WITH ANDRE, might be a tip of the hat. The flow of language, the swirl of ideas is almost intoxicating; the stuff of friendship, a means of seduction, the overflow of abundant hearts. ("I can't seem to stop talking these last few days. Like I need to pour my heart out." "You need to get married.")

These characters are not only talkers, but thinkers, readers: they meet in book shops, they investigate each others' bookshelves, they grab a random volume for a quick skim while tying their shoes (!) – even if it happens to be a dusty old tome like True And False Conversion, Or Atheism Debated. They argue Pascal's wager and apply it to Marx's theory of history, they question Pascal's asceticism ("Christianity is not a moral code, it's a way of life.") and the coldness of his calculating approach to creation, conjecturing that mathematics can be as much an occasion of sin as lust. Jansenism – think of it as Catholic Calvinism, a similar mix of grace, predestination and piety – becomes a central preoccupation of the characters, and (here's the treat!) plays itself out in the events of the story, where choice, luck, predestination and grace weave together in a playful metaphysical dance. (Notice the way Rohmer introduces morality into the question of chance, deftly transmuting dumb luck into something closer to divine providence: "I like to make the most of chance opportunities. but I'm only lucky in worthy causes. I doubt I'd have any luck committing a crime.")

I'm not much for abstract philosophizing: the whole free will versus determinism thing is a particular non-starter for me, a personal bete noir that I believe should be restricted by law to late-night dorm chats for sophomore philosophy students. But darn it all, it works here – in fact, it's downright sexy. (Now I'm thinking of Julie Delpy in BEFORE SUNRISE. Maybe it's a French thing…) But isn't it true, when we fall in love, suddenly these questions of fate and choice become not abstract, but acute? Where (and how) does "we were meant for each other" evolve into "I choose you"? The dance of destiny and desire, choice and consequence, are played out with understated brilliance in this exquisitely French, exultantly Catholic little romance, a sexy film about chastity with a head full of ideas.

THE GREEN RAY, PERCEVAL, METROPOLITAN, 13 CONVERSATIONS ABOUT ONE THING

The recent Criterion release of this film is available at Videomatica

1 comment:

sposadelre said...

Thanks for letting the wider world know about this film. I found your blog on Christianity Today's Film site. I look forward to see at Night with Maud one of these days.