Friday, December 17, 2010

My Night at Maud's

"There is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite. And so our proposition is of infinite force, when there is the finite to stake in a game where there are equal risks of gain and of loss, and the infinite to gain".

Rohmer's My night at Maud's is the third of his 'Contes Moraux' and as for as the talking style philosophizing goes, this is the best of the three I have seen so far. Jean-Louis is an engineer who has returned from overseas and is shown attending mass, a few days before Christmas. There, he spots a young blonde woman and on his way back, tells us that she will be his wife in the future. A chance encounter later sees Jean-Louis reunited with an old friend Vidal and the two soon start talking about chance and probability. Vidal reveals he is a Marxist while Jean-Louis confirms he is a Catholic. The two start discussing chance and Pascal's wager. Later still, Vidal invites Jean-Louis for dinner at his friend's Maud's place. Maud is divorcing and as Vidal declares, it will stop the two of them sleeping together out of boredom. Jean-Louis accepts.

Maud is a charming and exquisitely sensual, exquisitely attractive woman, who is disarmingly frank and brutally challenging to some of Jean-Louis's opinions, as the night moves on. Jean-Louis confirms that he follows a strict catholic moral code and that he would want his future wife to be a catholic and blonde, though the latter could be compromised. However, he also does admit that he has occasionally not been able to follow catholic morality. He lies about not knowing who the supposed blonde is he though he has only seen her. He declares that re-reading Pascal has done nothing for him for he finds Pascal's wager as not in the catholic spirit. When Maud asks him if he has morally compromised himself, he admits that he has but only when he has been single and not in a relationship. Soon they discover a snow storm has hit the town. Vidal decides to leave, leaving Jean-Louis behind, who accepts Maud's invitation to spend the night at her house, in her spare bed room.

Maud invites Jean-Louis to sleep next to him, atop the covers of her couch bed, which he rejects initially, settling on a sofa chair. But soon afterwards he gets up and settles next to Maud atop the covers. Previously Maud has declared that she sleeps naked during the night and true to her word, she does. Jean-Louis, however, stands by his moral code and doesn't give in to any temptation. Later in the morning, he feels a stirring of desire for Maud and on her responding, he stops himself. After that, he tries again but is rejected by Maud as she declares that "she likes men who know what they want." Jean-Louis later departs and becomes a good friend of Maud's and the two meet again. Their discussions continue to focus on their futures, especially if the two could be suitable for each other.Maud also tells Jean-Louis how her own marriage ended because of her husband's affair with a young blonde. Jean-Louis meets his blonde girl again by chance and declares his affection for her, asking her "do i have a chance to get to know you?" She is unhappy because of her own terminated love affair but seems quite receptive to Jean-Louis.

It is interesting to note that Jean-Louis is clearly attracted to Maud who also likes him. However, he accepts to spend the night with Maud while Maud only invites him to; he could have rejected that. Jean-Louis also adheres to his rigid moral stands but does cave in completely when he lies next to Maud. It is she who on rebuffing him, sends him to his usual catholic norms. Maud is not playing with him but testing him when Maud invites Jean-Louis to sleep next to him, which he rejects initially but accepts soon afterwards. Jean-Louis, in my opinion, could have left with Vidal and not stayed with Maud. After all, if the roads were treacherous for Jean-Louis, they were so for Vidal too. Jean-Louis actually believes in his standards, in his catholic values but does not think that he can be happy with Maud. However, on another meeting with her, he declares that only she can make him happy and that he feels happy only in her presence.

Maud is unhappy with her present situation but is not attracted to Jean-Louis' religious convictions. She openly tells him that he cannot convert her. While openly saying that she would be happy to marry him, she also thinks that it could possibly overwhelm Jean-Louis, who reminds her of a boy-scout figure.

It is interesting to see that once again, the main protagonist is either self- assured or self- absorbed. By putting temptation in his way, Rohmer is actually continuing a narrative of temptation being put in the way of someone who could be potentially tempted. In a sense, the temptress seems to be blamed more for tempting than the tempted. I am not sure if it is the product of a certain religious sensibility that has set the tone for such narratives down the ages or whether the female sex is sen as natural tempter. In that sense, the temptation or moral dilemma facing Jean-Louis is more concrete, in that he is lying next to Maud who is naked and perhaps willing; contrast this with Claire's Knee where the temptation is still inside the mind at a more nascent stage. From that point, I think the morality discussions are more subtle and psychological in Claire's Knee than here. Hence I preferred Claire's Knee to Maud, metaphorically speaking, though I would like to be in Maud's company.

There is perhaps a standard depiction of a femme fatale here in Maud in contrast to the blonde woman Jean-Louis finds in the church. It is difficult in a Pascalian sense for Jean-Louis to marry Maud because she is Maud; Maud is not ethereal and a believer as the blonde is. Maud is wise and wordly and fast, while the blonde is vulnerable looking and appears innocent. Maud is treated in a standard moral attitude and in that sense, I could only sense a male morality towards her. I do not know if all male morality is also a standard religious morality after all. When Jean-Louis discovers that his blonde wife is the same woman with whom Maud's husband had an affair, he declares to his wife that they are square, for the day he met her, he was with Maud. He does not tell his wife that he did not sleep with Maud but creates a situation where he actually lies to his wife, who responds that they should never talk about things past now.

Personally I found Jean-Louis as a hypocritical male agent, who has an idealized notion of womanhood and marriage, seeing things through a Catholic prism but actually doing the opposite. His wife must be Catholic and blonde, but he does not mind sleeping next to Maud, who has dark hair. While Maud is intelligent and understands Pascal more than Jean-Louis perhaps, Jean-Louis wants to settle with his blonde wife who appears that she may not understand Pascal. The last scene of the movie has Jean-Louis and his wife meet Maud on a beach by chance. Maud and Jean-Louis stop to have a chat, and Maud seems unsurprised that the blonde woman is his wife. He makes a reference to the evening they had spent together five years ago but Maud reminds him of the fact that it was a night.

Maud has remarried she tells him, but the marriage is not working out as she says that she has no luck with men. Maud then leaves as she walks away with Jean-Louis striding towards his wife and child. That is such a melancholic and bitter moment, it is actually a source of discomfiture for a sensitive person. Maud had liked Jean-Louis but he is not morally strong enough to be with her, I think she is intelligent enough to realize that. Jean-Louis had also liked Maud but he is shackled by his resolves; by not sleeping with Maud, he has won a wife but lost much more.

Regarding the setting, by now, we know that talk and philosophizing is the tone of Rohmer territory. This is black and white and winter, hence no summer grass or sunshine or placid lakes. The snow and the frost on the roads is captured beautifully. The camera focuses for minutes together on the speaking face, gathering all the inflections and nuances.. Francoise Fabian as Maud is lush with a burning sensuality. She is however able to transform into playful innocence ( as if sensuality is not innocent, too much Rohmer talk) in a moment's passing. Jean-Louis Trintignant draws the viewer in and he reveals himself very slowly. I was not however attracted to his persona as I was to Jerome in Claire's Knee. That speaks volumes about his performance which is brilliant. This movie has become one of my favourites and is nothing less than a masterpiece.

It is interesting to note that Pascal was born in Clermont, where the movie was shot.

1 comment:

Ivona Poyntz said...

Great post. Rohmer is putting his characters in what Mikhail Bakhtin calls 'threshold situations', which force them to reappraise their entire lives/belief systems, and explores how they react. No one actually deviates/develops/grows from their inherent first positions: Even though Maud is so much more interesting and complex than Francoise, Jean does not choose her because she is not catholic, and no threshold situation is capabale of changing his life stance. So, its a pity that in the end we see no character growth whatsoever.