To see how chance and choice play out, I think the easiest thing is just to trace them through the film. That will mean SPOILERS. Fair warning!
But if you think films are serious works of art, do spoilers really spoil? Is it really too bad that someone told me how Beethoven’s Fifth or Ulysses ends or what I didn’t notice in Guerníca or how My Night at Maud’s finishes? On the other hand, if you think of films as just entertainments . . .
Éric Rohmer makes philosophical films. Ma nuit chez Maud is the third of his Six Moral Tales. The opening shot shows a landscape, part farmland, part town, all plotted and pieced, a world. We see a man looking out over the balcony of his chalet at the landscape. He turns, enters the house. We are never told his name; he is Everyman. We can call him J-L because he is played by Jean-Louis Trintignant. The world was spread out before him, and what will he choose? He chooses to get in his car and go to Mass.
Later we will learn that he is going from a distant suburb into the city of Clermont in the center of France. We are very much in the provinces. Rohmer has explained that this means the characters can have a leisurely after-dinner conversation (about, say, Pascal), something impossible in the hurly-burly of Paris.
J-L goes to Mass, and there he spots a pretty blond woman. After the service he chooses to follow her in his car but, by chance, loses her. When he goes home, he reads in a book of mathematics—is he seeking probability or even certainty?
In the next sequence he wakes and goes to work. In the cafeteria, he chats with some of his fellow-workers about a near-accident in a car, where they live, whether to go skiing, whether one is Catholic or Protestant—Idle chatter. But we are the choices we make, as an existentialist might say.
In the next conversation, as J-L enters a café, an old friend, Vidal (Antoine Vitez) greets him. Both are pleasantly surprised: good friends in the lycée and after, they have not seen each other for fourteen years. J-L speculates about the odds of their meeting in Clermont (chance again). He is himself back from working in Vancouver and Valparaiso. (The far South and the far North. Why two V’s? Vice versa? More chance?) Vidal now teaches philosophy at the university (the Université Blaise Pascal?), and they embark on a discussion of Pascal (who was born in Clermont), and in particular the famous Pascal’s wager. It derives from Pascal’s work on probabilities.
God either exists or not. What should you believe? You should not choose not to believe, because, if God exists with His infinite heaven and hell, you gain an eternity of good by believing. If He does not exist, then you have lost little or nothing.
Pascal’s wager justifies a belief in God through probability theory. If you believe in Him and if He in fact exists and with him infinite heaven and hell, then you gain infinitely. If you believed in Him and He turns out not to exist, you have lost little. Therefore a rational human being, balancing a chance of an infinite gain against a finite loss, would bet on God and behave as though God exists.
Notice that this is not a proof that God exists. It only says, a rational being would act as though He does. Pascal goes on to argue that if you disbelieve but behave as though God exists and take holy water and go to Mass, you will be stupefied into believing. This is the passage that J-L looks at in a bookstore and that Rohmer highlights in close-up. You would be doubly removing the element of chance.
J-L’s Marxist friend Vidal translates Pascal’s wager as proving that a rational man will act as if the Marxist theory of history holds true, as though history has a meaningful direction and is not simply random. Yet both men have just seen the crucial role of chance in their meeting. The whole dialogue nicely poses the central issue of this movie, Do our choices matter in a world of chance happenings?
J-L thinks they are very important, and at this point he has chosen. He has happened to see a blond woman at Mass (Marie-Christine Barrault), and he has made up his mind he will marry her. (Rohmer is playing games here. Pascal scolded the Jesuits for teaching that it was all right to look for girls at Mass because you were close to God anyway, being in church.)
J-L and Vidal go to midnight Mass, this being Christmas Eve. Vidal arranges to bring J-L to dinner the next night with his interesting friend, the beautiful divorcée Maud (Françoise Fabian). They arrive, and another long conversation ensues, about philosophy and sex. Vidal hasn’t made up his mind about Maud, but she has about him—no marriage, no affair. But what about J-L?
Given this uncertainty, Vidal kids J-L about his past affairs, and J-L justifies them in terms of his Catholic morality. No one-night stands. He only slept with women he was in love with. Maud contrasts her own free thinking to his Catholicism. The question in the minds of all three is, will Maud and J-L get it on?
Suddenly Maud’s little daughter appears, asking to see the lights on the Christmas tree. She does, and quickly goes back to bed. It is as if she simply wanted to make sure of them, introducing a note of certainty in this swirl of what-next?
It is snowing outside (chance again). Maud puts on a skimpy nightshirt that shows off her legs and gets under the coverlet, a thick white fur that matches the snow. Vidal lies on top of the coverlet and snuggles up to her flirtatiously. But he uses the snow as a pretext to leave and does leave. I think he wants to see, later, what will have happened.
J-L also starts to leave, but Maud induces him to stay, and their conversation about morality continues. Maud confesses that she is shocked by his middle-class respectability, his evasiveness, and his easy reconciliation of his sexual activities with his Catholicism. J-L informs her that his affairs ended by circumstances—chance again. He smugly discusses his affairs as moral problems (choices). He dismisses the idea that he could become a saint (although, at that moment, Rohmer’s blocking gives him a halo). He denies choosing act by act. Instead he says he has made an overall choice of a certain way of living. He has decided he wants to marry a blond Catholic girl. Brunette Maud is fascinated by him, a type she has not met before, and she remarks how quickly they have gotten to intimacies—in conversation. Intimacies, I would say, primarily about sexual choices with the snow outside providing an element of chance.
During this conversation J-L is getting on or off the bed or retreating to an armchair as he asserts his Catholicism less or more. Eventually Maud announces she wants to go to sleep and invites him to share her bed, but he wraps himself in a blanket and settles into the armchair. It’s cold though, and soon he is on top of the coverlet on Maud’s bed, and eventually under it, although fully clothed.
At the end of the night, in the languorous moments of waking, Maud makes a gesture toward seduction. Naked, she puts a bare arm across him. J-L, in turn, makes a clumsy grab, then backs off, then tries again. She dismisses him: “I like people who know what they want.”
Their conversation is an astonishing stretch of film, 43 minutes, two-fifths of the film. In an interview Rohmer, a practicing Catholic, has said, “My films deal with certain states of soul. My Moral Tales tell the story of characters who like to analyze their own thoughts and their states of mind.” Yes, indeed, no doubt about that. And “A moralist is nearer to a psychologist than to a moralizer.” The six tales follow the same pattern: a man is committed to a woman; he is attracted to another; he returns to the first. “That is,” says Rohmer, “he chooses morality rather than vice, virtue rather than vice.” The French would call the conversation with Maud, marivaudage, a kind of partly flirtatious, partly abstract or philosophical banter like that in the comedies of Marivaux. (His most famous play is The Game of Love and Chance or Le Jeu de l’amour et du hasard—exactly what we are seeing in this film.)
After leaving Maud’s, J-L happens to spot his blond Catholic girl from Mass. He confronts her and tells her he wants to see her again and get to know her. Amused, she leaves any further meetings to chance. In general, indoors is the world of choice: the colloquy at work, the Mass, J-L’s inviting Vidal to Mass, Vidal’s inviting J-L to Maud’s, the long conversation about morality. Outside is the world of chance, weather, fluke meetings, cars having accidents or getting stuck in snow.
J-L then goes hiking with Vidal and Maud. There is more banter, and this time he and Maud kiss, a “friendly kiss.” They shop for dinner and eat it with more discussion of sexual morality. They part with no plans to meet again. She will be leaving town.
J-L comes upon Françoise on her motorbike in the snow (chancy!) and drives her home. But his car gets stuck in the snow (more chance), and he has to spend the night at her place. What a contrast with his night at Maud’s is his night at Françoise’s. Where Maud and J-L talked about sex and morality, Françoise and J-L talk about making tea. She sends him off to an adjoining room. He comes back to her only to ask for matches (the characters chain-smoke), while she watches him warily from her bed. All very chaste. All very bland.
And uninteresting. J-L and Maud talked about sexual morality and morality in general in a setting of amorous tension. Their talk was edgy. J-L and Françoise talked about—nothing. Rohmer wants characters who self-analyze. Maud is such a person, Françoise is not, even though she later tells J-L something in her past that she is guilty about. They agree never to talk again about that. Talk vs. no-talk.
The last scene shows another chance meeting that makes a kind of epilogue. J-L and Françoise and their toddler son run into Maud at a beach. Maud and J-L update one another, and in doing so they uncover am extraordinary coincidence shameful to Françoise. The odds against it are formidable, but it happened. It forces the question, How does choice fit into a world of such unlikelihoods?
She and J-L again agree never to mention it. They defend against truth to simplify life, compared to the complex life that Maud lives. In psychological terms, I think “ego-restriction” (a defense mechanism which prevents anxiety by consciously avoiding situations consciously perceived as uncomfortable or dangerous). There are some places in my mind where I just won’t go.
As usual the opening and closing shots are telling. The film began with J-L looking out at a landscape rich in variety, farms, a town, churches, houses, and so on. He then goes off to Mass. The film ends with a monotonous seascape, a long stretch of flat sand and a wide, calm sea. J-L, Françoise and child run happily toward that waveless sea, while Maud seductively climbs up from the beach. I think Rohmer is contrasting a tangled but full life as lived by free-thinking Maud with the seemingly happy but in fact constricted life of J-L. and Françoise. Which would you choose?
Rohmer is devout, and as many critics have shown, one can justify a more Catholic reading of Ma nuit. In his work as a whole, he values faith over reason, unity over diversity, the next world over this, the absolute over the relative, nature over the city, and so on. Given these conservative values, we should see J-L’s turning to Françoise and ignoring her sin as the right thing to do. We should read the final run into the ocean as true joy, a proof that J-L has made the right choice. We should see chance, J-L's good luck and Maud's “bad luck with men,” as God’s administering grace—or not.
Whichever way we read it, My Night at Maud’s follows a rich tradition of French literature—think Pascal, Marivaux, or Stendhal—in which a freedom-loving central character endures a conflict between desire and social morality. And this is a very literary film: Rohmer published it as a short story in 1974. He is a great director in his literary way, but I miss the imagery and inventive camera work and editing of other great directors. I suppose it is heresy to say it, but many critics do: Rohmer is not very cinematic, despite his fine cinematographer, Néstor Almendros. Rohmer avoids the usual tactics of movies in order to leave us focused on the moral argument and a realistic portrait of today’s world in which we must make moral decisions.
Rohmer’s special style shows not so much in the film as behind the film, so to speak. He scripts every detail of speech, even the -uh’s and -er’s. He rehearses endlessly so that the actors know exactly what to say. That way he needs only a single take, usually a long one in which we do not notice how little camera movement there is. Editing, too, he rehearses at length, making the actual shooting simpler. He insists on total authenticity, photographing in a near-documentary style, because he wants to show contemporary French society as it is. He uses the streets of Clermont exactly as they occur in fact; the corners and stoppages are for real. The Masses in this movie are real Masses, not staged for the purpose. He never puts in “movie music.” All his sound is diegetic (with a source in the film like a radio or stereo). Perhaps that is why I like the sounds in this film as much as anything: the clang of French church bells, the rattle of a Renault car, the grind of its shifting gears or the whine of its tires spinning on ice. Like his characters, Rohmer the filmmaker lives in a world of chance because he depends on the weather, passersby, or the sounds of traffic or a passing airplane (as in the final scene of this movie). He wanted the Christmas decorations in the town as they in fact were (and he delayed filming to catch Clermont just at Christmas time with the snow he needed).
The closing beach scene leaves us with a choice. Which do we prefer? A complicated life of perhaps “bad luck,” Maud’s phrase, a life lived according to a moral code that she has worked out for herself? Or a simplified life of ego restriction lived according to a moral code imposed from outside? Given the contrast between vivacious Maud and insipid and ashamed Françoise and given the (to me) unappealing smugness and self-satisfaction of J-L, excusing his particular sins by some larger morality, I have to think that Rohmer’s film sides with Maud, even if Rohmer doesn’t think that. Clearly I am substituting my values for his. But isn’t that the human, if not the critical, thing to do?
Be that as it may, I read this as a film about chance and choice. The question for Rohmer’s characters is, How do you choose a moral life in a world governed by chance? The question for Rohmer himself is, How do you make an authentic movie in a world governed by chance? And perhaps that is why these conversations, seemingly casual, matter so much to their author and why they come to matter to us.