My Night at Maud's

17/04/2019

Deliberating on the Contingent

Eric Rohmer's films work off the contingency of situation within the story, and the deliberation involved in the making. This could make Rohmer's film either flaccid and haphazard or patronising and cynical, but if they are neither it rests on Rohmer's belief that he never quite knows what his films mean or what his characters' intentions happen to be, but that at the same time the work is very precise. “In so far as my own films are very elaborate, very constructed, this impression [of freedom] tends to disappear...” but he also says earlier in the same interview “but of all the arts, the cinema – and this is the paradoxical character - is the one where the reality of the thing filmed is of the greatest importance, where the 'interpretation' aspect seems sometimes to disappear entirely.” (Realism Reader) He doesn't want us to know what we should think when we watch his films; he wants us to think about what we know – to speculate over an experience that is of course partly a product of his imagination (My Night at Maud’s is based on a story Rohmer wrote years earlier), but also a product of location - a filmed reality. It is true Rohmer used a studio set for the apartment the central character and the title character spend a large chunk of the film in, but he also filmed in the high-perched Clermont-Ferrand, a city in the centre of France, a city small enough to allow for the sort of coincidences he wishes to put into play. There may be a high degree of narrative and psychological control in My Night at Maud's, but can we really claim to know the motives of the characters the way we might in films where characterisation is transparent and very deliberate - where coincidence has nothing to do with it at all? For Rohmer, character is usually opaque, as if we have so many motives and counter-motives that cancel each other out, so many rationalisations for actions that perhaps could have been done differently and would no doubt have demanded a different set of justifications. What are we to make of the various characters and their motives and actions in My Night at Maud's – some of which are undeniably deliberate, while others seem contingently driven, and still others leading to actions the characters themselves couldn't predict even if they are the results of others' agency?

If we think for example of the motives of Maud (Francoise Fabian) in this film about a man in his mid-thirties (Jean Louis Trintignant) who spends the night in the company of the titular, atheistic character, but seems keen to save himself for a woman who he has seen in church, what is she seeking from him? Does she actually like him a little or a lot? Does she show interest so that the colleague, Vidal (Antoine Vitez), who joins him at Maud’s, can see that she is at least keener on Jean-Louis than she is on Vidal? Does she wish to seduce Jean-Louis to show how weak his religious beliefs are next to her atheistic desires? Maud remains enigmatic not because she is hiding things from the other characters and from us, but because she may not entirely know her own motives, or that the term might be too strong to describe some of her behaviour. She seems a combination of whims, habits, motives and principles. It may be a habit that she sleeps naked in her bed no matter how cold it happens to be even if she has a stranger like Jean-Louis staying over and keeping her company. (She decides he can't drive home as they notice snow has started to fall.) It may be a whim that leads her say that she will tell Jean-Louis her life story (“in several sessions” after Jean-Louis says it will take too long), but a principle that makes her an atheist. Her motive in letting Jean-Louis stay might be to get rid of Vidal, but it would be a risk to let a strange man stay in her home in an attempt to get rid of a familiar one to whom she isn't very attracted, unless she happens to be far more attracted to the stranger.

Yet when we hear Maud say that she wants Jean-Louis to remain, not only insisting that the roads aren't safe, but that she lost a friend this way, we might assume this is a ploy, casually mentioning a friend's death all the better to ensnare Jean-Louis. But later as she does tell Jean-Louis a little of her life story, she informs him that the person who died on the roads was someone she was very close to indeed. As she discusses the failure of her marriage and the affairs both her and her husband had, she says that hers was with a follow doctor, a brilliant man who pleased her in every way and who died in a road accident: his car skidded on ice. We don't doubt that she is telling the truth, and it gives her earlier remarks about wishing Jean-Louis to stay for his own safety a credence they wouldn't initially seem to have. We could also see that she has linked Jean-Louis in her mind with her brilliant late love, and may be seeing in Jean-Louis a future one. Perhaps. What we do sense, however, is that Maud is someone capable of immense emotional complexity that the viewer cannot easily read. If we reduce her to a woman who just wants to get Jean-Louis into bed, we will have to entertain the various modes of her behaviour and the permutations of her mind. Maud is, of course, a character on screen, but she is also a subject for our attention – someone we cannot claim to know, just as we cannot claim to know the people we meet in life. We wouldn't want to labour this point (which can lead to a very naïve approach to spectatorship) but we don't want to undermine it either. As Rohmer says “for me, the important thing in film – to repeat what [Andre] Bazin said – is ontology and not language. Ontologically, film says something that the other arts don't say...If one studies the language of film, one finds the same rhetoric as in other arts, but in a rougher, less refined and less complex style.” It is partly this less complex style that can lead to the ambiguity Rohmer seeks. Rather than seeing cinema as an assertive art form that can tell us how we should think (so much easier to do in the novel), Rohmer is interested in film as a recording device that captures the Bazinian ambiguity in front of the lens. Rohmer isn't averse to voice-over (a literary device in film), and uses it quite brilliantly at the very end of My Night at Maud's, but he uses it not to assert point of view but to give it individual perspective.

We find out at the end of the film that Maud's husband's lover would seem to have been none other than the woman Jean-Louis is now with, and the woman Jean-Louis was interested in and keeping himself chaste with Maud over that night, It is five years later, Jean-Louis and his wife have a young child. They are living in Clermont-Ferrand, Maud is now in Toulouse, and they happen to meet on the coast. As they talk, Francoise continues on with the child, and Maud says, as she and Jean-Louis part “hurry, your wife will think I'm telling you awful things.” It is clear that Maud's husband's lover had been Francoise, that earlier she had talked about an affair with a married man, and when we see the look on Francoise's face when she sees Maud, and take into account Maud's comment about his wife worried that she will be saying bad things about her, that this is the case. In voice-over, Jean-Louis says that as he was about to say nothing had happened between Maud and himself, so he realised that the problem was more that something had happened between Francoise and Maud's husband. We cannot know this for sure but that is Rohmer's point: all the inferences move in this direction to make it all but unequivocal without making it categorical. 

The film is the accumulation of rationales, stratagems, reasons etc. And in this Maud would seem to be the most complex character, Jean-Louis the most wilful, Francoise the most secretive and Vidal the most pragmatic. But on top of the characters Rohmer also lays out the thought of Pascal, evident in the conversation between Vidal and Jean-Louis a third of the way through. This is the chance meeting that will also lead to Jean-Louis going to Maud's. Shortly before bumping into Vidal he has been browsing bookshops, coming across maths books like the Calculus of Probabilities, before finding Pascal's Pensees in another store. He reads a passage that talks about lessening one's passions, which can prove a great stumbling block to finding the way and not long after this he stumbles into Vidal in a bar. They haven't seen each other in fourteen years and they immediately agree to a drink as the conversation turns to Pascal. Jean-Louis and Vidal discuss the improbability of their meeting and Maths is invoked, but it happens to be Vidal who brings up Pascal, rather than Jean-Louis, who not long before has of course been searching the philosopher out. But while this might seem like a weakness in another dramatist, where the need for categorical cause and effect is strong, in Rohmer's work this is part of the play of only one of three elements: chance, causation and motivation (and its variations). 

To understand the originality of Rohmer's exercise let us break down these categories into typical filmic terms. Chance is often what does no more than set a story in motion: two lovers meet for the first time in years – they are now married to others but still are in love with each other. A son realises that the man he is now working with is actually the father who left him when he was born. A man turns out to wrongly targeted by a hitman, is maimed and goes in search of the man who killed him. These will start with chance and quickly settle into causality. In the latter instance the man, divorced with no children, might find that the person who crippled him was forced into the hit by gangsters who threatened to kill his entire family and they had told him the person he was to kill was a notorious mobster. Our hero was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the pair of them then go and take out the people who hired the hit, as well as the gangster who was originally targeted. Our hero helps a family and wheels away into the sunset, a good deed categorically done after the contingent had been done to him. An exaggerated example but one which will serve our purpose. Then we come to character. Our hero has little to live for but at least initially has thoughts of revenge. These get converted into vengeful thoughts with a benign purpose as he slaughters gangsters and saves a family. (One reason why Taxi Driver is the masterpiece it happens to be is because of the complications it insistently gives to a scenario that is not too far removed from the one above.) Our hero's motivations are very clear even if they are not always consistent. He wants to kill a man whose life he will then protect. 

Yet My Night at Maud's, like numerous other Rohmer films, including La Collectioneuse, Claire's Knee and Pauline at the Beach, insists on keeping contingency, causality and motivation in states of flux as the story never solidifies into the solid assumptions of the example we have given, but remains in a state of crystallizing possibility with Pascal, in this instance, used as a hypothetical series of possibilities hovering over the narrative. When Jean-Louis and Vidal invoke the French theologian and mathematician, Jean-Louis sees somebody too rigid. Jean-Louis may be a practising Catholic but as a Christian he wishes to fight the philosopher's rigidity. Vidal, a Marxist, sees the appeal of Pascal's wager as he couches it in Marxist terms. He proposes that there might be a ten per cent chance that history has meaning; 90 per cent chance that it does not. He would prefer to wager on that small possibility that gives him hope rather than go with the 90 per cent probability that it doesn't and be left despondent. Yet as he says this, and as we see his character later at Maud's, we might notice that Vidal, rather than offering idealism in this perspective, manages instead to convey the pragmatic. By wagering on history he allows himself to be happy with his choice. Jean-Louis looks like a far more troubled figure, someone whose motives for seeking out Pascal lies in dissatisfaction rather than satisfaction. Rohmer thus utilises Pascal neither to further the story nor clearly reveal character. He isn't there as a casual conceit hanging over the film giving it an ironic and knowing dimension, but to complicate matters further: to show that the same idea can be adopted in very different ways. When we listen to Vidal in the bar we might notice his passion, but we may believe later that this is not the same as conviction. He will speak with authority in the moment but the extension of that moment into others shows him less resolute and why we might see his Pascalianism as pragmatic. After all, when Vidal says when they're out having another drink that Jean-Louis should meet Maud, he indicates that she doesn't go out much because she feels ill at ease, but when we later see her she seems very at ease indeed. While Vidal reckons Jean-Louis should come so that nothing will happen between Maud and Vidal, we will later discover that Maud was never very interested in Vidal – they slept together once and it is Vidal who is keen. There is no position that we can hold with certitude but we can with confidence. When we see Vidal showing signs of affection towards Maud she pushes him away in a gesture that suggests there have been many such advances and many rebuffs. While Vidal might have a point about Maud's social unease if we take into account the death of the man she loved in what would seem to be the relatively recent past, this still doesn't quite square with Vidal's perception – as though Vidal projects a more vulnerable woman onto Maud than she happens to be, perhaps partly because of his own feelings of vulnerability towards her. 

It is one of the many examples we could give in the film of Rohmer's interest in creating spaces between contingency, causality and character all the better to create observation rather than comprehension. While his style of narration is intricate and plotted, that wouldn't be enough: Rohmer would seem to want us to understand the images not merely as well put-together pieces of material, but material woven out of and into a new life, a cinematic life that nevertheless will not completely remove the life from whence it has come. If Rohmer sees himself in many ways as a Bazinian, as someone who believes in film's capacity not only to capture the world but still resemble it in its capturing, then it is important that we view the events with some of the ontological ambiguity Bazin insisted upon. When Rohmer says “if the spectator had not found beauty in this world, how could he seek it in its image? How could he admire an imitation of life if he did not admire life itself”, (Realism and Cinema) he is talking about the importance of what is not only in front of our eyes but what is in front of his lens. The film is not so much constructed out of that world to create an aesthetic object discrete unto itself but must remain very closely affiliated with the perceptions of that world. This might not make it realism (which wouldn't finally to be Rohmer's concern), but it would be perceptually consistent with seeing the world. This is a big claim that needs to be argued for, but if we take Bazin's famous remark about the ontological ambiguity of reality, and see that the operative word for Rohmer is not reality but ambiguity, we can understand more clearly what Rohmer is trying to achieve. After all, if he were so concerned with realism would using a studio set for Maud's apartment undermine the attempt? Let us not be too purist here, even the resolute realist will cave in on occasion to the pragmatic demands of the filming. But Rohmer is interested in something else: a work that leaves us less with the subtext that makes clear why a character will do something even if it is never stated, but what might be behind their actions which may remain mysterious to them and certainly to us. We might have a friend who has been having an affair for years and we always saw him as the perfect family man, or a friend who admits to us that he is having an affair and can't quite understand why. He still loves his wife and doesn't love the other woman but feels compelled to continue the affair nevertheless. In the first instance we have the undisclosed and in the second the unfathomable. It is something of these common enough categories in life that Rohmer explores in his cinema. If he is a realist it is a realism of a particular type, one that has little to do with what we might assume is plausible in dialogue or situation but that out of an artificiality towards both achieves a sort of higher realism. 

This is the realism that demands the perceptual problems in film can resemble the perceptual problems in life. In most films we can work out the plot but that really isn't our purpose: we can just as easily wait for the filmmaker to do it for us. But in Rohmer's films, and none more so than My Night at Maud's, we can muse over motives and explanations that do not justify themselves entirely within the realm of the narrative. When for example Maud says after Vidal leaves the apartment that she and Jean-Louis have been bad, she adds that Vidal won't be able to sleep all night because Jean-Louis and Maud will be alone together. Jean-Louis is surprised by this – didn't he choose to leave for another appointment? That was his bravado speaking, Maud says, as she tells Jean-Louis how keen Vidal happens to be. She asks Jean-Louis if Vidal told Jean-Louis about how much in love he was with her, and Jean-Louis says not at all – but that he did admire her. Maud backtracks a little and suggests this was Vidal being discreet. She then chooses not to be discreet at all – saying she was silly enough to sleep with him once. Are we to take what she says at face value, and how does it compare to Vidal's take on the situation that he has offered to Jean-Louis earlier in the bar? Vidal, of course, says that Jean-Louis should come to Maud's with him so that Maud and Vidal don't fall into bed with each other; the implication that they have done so often enough for it to be a habit they ought to try and avoid. For Vidal it is a habit; for Maud a one-off mistake.  Who is telling the truth? We might see in Vidal's body language more enthusiasm for Maud than Maud shows towards him, but would the situation be reversed if there were two women and one man in the situation and Vidal wanted to make a good impression and to enchant the other woman? Nevertheless, all things considered, we may believe that Maud is the more reliable of the two of them, that her take on the relationship more accurate than Vidal's, Maud seems indifferent as she speaks about Vidal; Vidal sounds wistful when he discusses why a relationship with Maud wouldn't work. But if we believe Vidal has told Maud how much he loves her, as Maud claims, this wouldn't necessarily mean that Maud has made this up (though she might have) but that Vidal has exaggerated his feelings towards Maud. Is he also interested in the student that we see him with when Jean-Louis bumps into him; the woman who goes for a walk up the mountain with Jean-Louis, Maud and himself? We don't know for sure, and partly because we don't know where his discretion finally lies. Maud may think he has been discreet concerning his feelings for her, but how can she know that he hasn't hyperbolized them for the purposes of seduction? Perhaps Vidal's discretion comes much later, when he sees in the street Jean-Louis and Francoise. As they all exchange an awkward moment, Jean-Louis asks if Vidal and Francoise know each other and they say yes before discussing Maud, even if she isn't mentioned by name. Does Vidal bring her up to chastise Jean-Louis for not saying goodbye to her (she has now moved to Toulouse) but avoids using her name well aware that he knows Francoise was Maud's ex-husband’s lover? Is this where he is practising discretion? 

When John Orr in Cinema and Modernity understandably invokes Les Liaisons Dangereuses, when numerous others have seen the influence of Marivaux more generally on Rohmer's work, we can see that the points of comparison only takes us so far. These are plotted works, seventeenth and eighteenth-century stories of manipulation and intrigue, even if Marivaux is more benign than Laclos. Rohmer doesn't only want the well-made screenplay, he wants the spaces in between to create the ambiguities that incorporate our speculative relationship with life. While those seeking the well-made nature of the work will acknowledge the importance of Pascal and the irony of Jean-Louis' idealism, the viewer who sees in Rohmer's film freedom rather than constraint, possibility rather than determinism, will emphasise the indeterminate rather than the categorical ironies. It is categorically ironic that Jean-Louis who keeps himself chaste when he visits Maud will discover that his devout ideal woman Francoise has in the past had an affair with Maud's husband. But the indeterminate irony rests on the sort of echoes that come off situations which seem to ask of us the nuance of life as readily as the hermeneutics of art. Clearly Rohmer has to make clear to us at the end of the film that Francoise had an affair with Maud's ex, and dramatically this is is subtly but clearly played out, We know that her ex had an affair with a young religious woman, Francoise tells Jean-Louis that she had an affair with a married man, we find out that Vidal knows Francoise, Maud tells Jean-Louis on the beach he should get back to his wife since she will think Maud is saying bad things about her, and we see on Francoise's face that the penny is dropping – that Jean-Louis has worked out the nature of her past relations just as we the viewer happen to do so as well. This is the plotted aspect of the film. We need a hermeneutics to make sense of it, but the plot structure is there to guide us along. Yet alongside it we have what we will call the speculative as well as the hermeneutic. What are Maud's feelings towards Vidal and vice versa? What are Maud's towards Jean-Louis and vice versa? This isn't idle, but it isn't quite hermeneutically necessary either. A viewer coming out of My Night at Maud's who has failed to grasp that Francoise was Maud's ex's lover hasn't been paying enough attention, but how much attention should be paid to these other speculations on top of the categorical? When we muse over Maud's feeling for Jean-Louis this isn't idle in the way that musing over Francoise's for Vidal would be. There is no speculative invitation on the film's part to muse over such a relationship – it seems very clear that they know each other only through others, and thus we see awkwardness rather than affection. Even our observation about Vidal and the other women he knows we offer only because we might wish to understand better what his feelings are for Maud.

If My Night at Maud's is a great film, then, it isn't only because it brilliantly and very subtly lays out a story about a man's ambivalent relationship with the Catholic faith that Rohmer tries to resolve by offering the predestination of Pascal without the rigour of the Theologian's asceticism, and does so in the central character seeing a woman at church who he insists will become his wife, even if there is irony in that the woman he chooses is far from chaste. It is also that we can speculate within an already intricate hermeneutic by following closely the body language of the people Rohmer films. It is here where Rohmer's cinema comes into its own, where someone who wrote the six moral tales (of which My Night at Maud's is one) found in the writing of them that they were not yet quite complete, And central to this incompleteness, we might believe, is the absence of body language incorporated within film language, with Rohmer trying to find a gestural mode that would  expand cinema into the ambiguity of life through the exploration of gesture. 

In an interview on the DVD extras of An Autumn's Tale, Rohmer says that though people often cross their arms in life, they do so far less frequently in cinema. It may be one of many gestures that are common to life but limited in film, as if film, while capable of drawing from the full reservoir of life's gestures, takes only enough of them that it needs to tell a story. If many claim that there are only so many stories, that whatever their ostensible originality, they fall under a small number of throughlines, perhaps subsequently there are only so many gestures that are drawn upon – that there is a scrapheap of human gesture left discarded by art, and even by cinema. It is perhaps this scrapheap that the new wave turned to in an effort to reinvigorate film with life so that in very different ways Godard, Truffaut and Rivette found gestures not at all new to life but nevertheless felt new to film. But if Godard, Rivette and even Truffaut radicalized gesture, gave it the force of an outside, a force that generated an energy from the arbitrary, Rohmer's gestural contribution appeared the most naturalistic. However, if we look at some of these moments closely, we can see just how odd they can seem, and how much space the director gives us to interpret them without feeling that we are merely following the story, however nuanced it may be.

At one moment in Maud's flat we have Jean-Louis sitting in the chair opposite, Maud now under the covers in bed, and Vidal lying next to her on the covers, fully dressed, “I like you” Maud says to Jean-Louis but it is Vidal's head that is nestled on her shoulder as she then moves a little, letting his head slide down her arm, and then pushes him away. In another film this would be the paramount focus, the narrative movement of rejection, but Rohmer's originality here is twofold. Firstly, he relegates this rejection to parenthesis as the focus happens to be the conversation between Maud and Jean-Louis - how if he is a good Catholic hasn't he remained chaste until marriage? Secondly, by making it subordinate, Rohmer gives to gesture its manifold nature not only its dramatic purpose. When Rohmer says with cinema, interpretation can fall away altogether, there is the suggestion that the looseness of film, the manifold nature of its meaning, can leave us not only interpreting what is clearly intended, but also what is more accidentally captured. While we might accept it is necessary that Maud seductively persuades Jean-Louis to stay over, it would seem less necessary that Vidal leans into Maud and Maud casually pushes him away. We do not need to interpret this moment as we need to interpret Francoise's reactions to Vidal and Maud. Yet it is the speculation alongside the interpretation that makes Rohmer's film so rich and beyond ready comprehension.

We are not saying that most of the elements in Rohmer's films aren't very deliberate. Not only is Pascal's thought incorporated, but it is also filmed in the town where he was born, Clermont-Ferrand. Pascal was a major innovator in the realm of calculus and concerned with probabilities. Rohmer, of course, incorporates this into his film as one of the ironies he explores. While Jean-Louis wonders what the probability would be of meeting Vidal when they first bump into each other, he also knows that the chances are high that he will meet by chance the woman he wishes to become his wife. When he follows her around the streets of this small city early in the film, the odds are likely that he will see her again soon. The population is around 150,000 and they are both Catholics. Why wouldn't they meet again? But the odds are much smaller that this ideal woman would be a woman he meets ex-husband's lover. The small odds that make Francoise inevitably his, are met with the far less likely odds that she belonged before to someone he indirectly knows. Rather than Francoise the paragon of virtue who chance delivers, is she the scarlet woman who cruel fate reveals to be tainted indeed? We needn't see this is as Rohmer's moral assertiveness coming in; more his interest in the application of our wishes meeting with the further complications of other people's lives. Francoise needn't become a lesser woman in Jean-Louis' eyes; just a subtly different one 

But in those eyes that we view events partially through, might we wonder if there is more of an affinity between Jean-Louis and Maud and that it is only Jean-Louis' projection onto Francoise that indicates this is the more significant relationship? Here we can take the hermeneutic irony of the film's conclusion into the speculative aspect of the reality we see in front of our eyes, created out of the ambiguities Rohmer's cinema allows. We needn't be naïve about this, but it is often wise in film to suspend an aspect of our sophistication. This might be no more than the naivety of accepting that cinema unavoidably shows us so much that even if it is clear in what it presents it cannot help at the same time also representing beyond that presentation, and Rohmer seeks to allow for this open aspect. As he says, “Obviously! The cinema shows real things. If I show a house, it’s a real, coherent house, not something made out of cardboard. When I show traffic on the road, it’s real traffic in a certain city, at a certain moment. It’s the same for the discourses in the film, I’m not looking for schematisation. I’m showing a Marxist, a Catholic, not the Marxist, the Catholic!” (Cahiers du Cinema). Rohmer adds, “a film never allows us to admire a translation of the world, but to admire, through this translation, the world itself. The cinema is an instrument of discovery, even in fictional films.”  It is this discovery we find in the speculative dimension the film allows, within the interpretive aspect it insists upon.

It is where the film's form isn't irrelevant even if there is an element of it that indicates it must at the same time be naturalistic. Yet like the body language in Rohmer's work, the form is evident without being obtrusive, as if Rohmer seeks the singularity of his vision within the context of the verisimilitude he demands, (a demand he would call into question of course in some of his later films, like Perceval le gallois and The Lady and the Duke ). This is where for Rohmer weather is both mise-en-scene and nature, plot and chance. “Ma nuit chez Maud is a subject that I carried around inside me since 1945. Since then, it has undergone enormous modifications. A character locked up with a woman by an exterior circumstance was the primary dramatic idea. But back then it was about the curfew, during the war, and not snow.” But “For me, the snow represented the passage from “tale” to mise-en-scene. Snow is very cinematographically important for me. In the cinema, it makes the situation stronger, more universal than the external, historical circumstance of the occupation.” (Senses of Cinema) While setting it in the time of the occupation would have doubled his theme from one point of view (emphasising the twin significance of the birthplace of Pascal and also the temporary seat of government during WWII) it would also have undermined an aspect of it from another. Jean-Louis is forced to stay overnight by natural forces and not by human agency. It allows the theme to be played out not as doubly emphatic thematically (the occupation and Pascal as key features of Clermont-Ferrand) but to allow the assertive (Pascal) and the contingent (the weather) to work in conjunction. The snow is an element of mise en scene for Rohmer that finds its way into the story, more than an element of the story – hence the passage from tale to mise en scene.

Walter Benjamin in ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ notes “thus, for contemporary man the representation of reality by the film is incomparably more significant than that of the painter, since it offers, precisely because of the thoroughgoing permeation of reality with mechanical equipment, an aspect of reality which is free of all equipment. And that is what one is entitled to ask from a work of art.” Rohmer would see this is as the essence of film art rather than a failure of it. That one cannot control every aspect of the image, gives to the image its art as readily as what is deliberate within that artwork. The story is about a man in his thirties who finds himself in the company of Maud but determined to stay chaste for Francoise. That is undoubted. But the ambiguous gestures the actors provide and that Rohmer films allow for another film on top of the unequivocal one. What Maud's feelings are towards either Vidal or Jean-Louis are ambivalent, and even those we might assume are undeniable (those towards the dead lover), are so certain that we might wonder if he is being idealised in his death. Above all else what one senses watching a Rohmer film is the push of narrative and the pull of ambiguity that combined give his work the Rohmeresque sense of coherence and contingency – the feeling that we have watched a very deliberate and tightly scripted film, but also a recording of that script which insists on opening up the spaces the script would seem to close down. There are many superbly scripted films that don't do this – from His Girl Friday to Chinatown, from The Godfather to Some Like it Hot. They are often brilliantly made, with camerawork, music and acting that emphasises the meaning sought. Then there are others, like Taxi Driver, Manhattan, The Long Goodbye, that want to find their meaning against their story as well as inside it, as if trying to find another story out of the filming that cannot only be found in the scripting. My Night at Maud’s might be the story of a great, unrequited love affair between Jean-Louis and Maud, the self-sacrifice of Vidal who can see an affinity between Maud and Jean-Louis that he cannot find with her, and of Francoise locked in a marriage with Jean-Louis but still in love with Maud's husband. It is the story that will make no synopsis of the film, but let us say the freedom of Rohmer's cinema is that he gives us the space to create it, however, unlikely it would be that others may be inclined to agree with it.

 

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

My Night at Maud's

Deliberating on the Contingent

Eric Rohmer's films work off the contingency of situation within the story, and the deliberation involved in the making. This could make Rohmer's film either flaccid and haphazard or patronising and cynical, but if they are neither it rests on Rohmer's belief that he never quite knows what his films mean or what his characters' intentions happen to be, but that at the same time the work is very precise. "In so far as my own films are very elaborate, very constructed, this impression [of freedom] tends to disappear..." but he also says earlier in the same interview "but of all the arts, the cinema - and this is the paradoxical character - is the one where the reality of the thing filmed is of the greatest importance, where the 'interpretation' aspect seems sometimes to disappear entirely." (Realism Reader) He doesn't want us to know what we should think when we watch his films; he wants us to think about what we know - to speculate over an experience that is of course partly a product of his imagination (My Night at Maud's is based on a story Rohmer wrote years earlier), but also a product of location - a filmed reality. It is true Rohmer used a studio set for the apartment the central character and the title character spend a large chunk of the film in, but he also filmed in the high-perched Clermont-Ferrand, a city in the centre of France, a city small enough to allow for the sort of coincidences he wishes to put into play. There may be a high degree of narrative and psychological control in My Night at Maud's, but can we really claim to know the motives of the characters the way we might in films where characterisation is transparent and very deliberate - where coincidence has nothing to do with it at all? For Rohmer, character is usually opaque, as if we have so many motives and counter-motives that cancel each other out, so many rationalisations for actions that perhaps could have been done differently and would no doubt have demanded a different set of justifications. What are we to make of the various characters and their motives and actions in My Night at Maud's - some of which are undeniably deliberate, while others seem contingently driven, and still others leading to actions the characters themselves couldn't predict even if they are the results of others' agency?

If we think for example of the motives of Maud (Francoise Fabian) in this film about a man in his mid-thirties (Jean Louis Trintignant) who spends the night in the company of the titular, atheistic character, but seems keen to save himself for a woman who he has seen in church, what is she seeking from him? Does she actually like him a little or a lot? Does she show interest so that the colleague, Vidal (Antoine Vitez), who joins him at Maud's, can see that she is at least keener on Jean-Louis than she is on Vidal? Does she wish to seduce Jean-Louis to show how weak his religious beliefs are next to her atheistic desires? Maud remains enigmatic not because she is hiding things from the other characters and from us, but because she may not entirely know her own motives, or that the term might be too strong to describe some of her behaviour. She seems a combination of whims, habits, motives and principles. It may be a habit that she sleeps naked in her bed no matter how cold it happens to be even if she has a stranger like Jean-Louis staying over and keeping her company. (She decides he can't drive home as they notice snow has started to fall.) It may be a whim that leads her say that she will tell Jean-Louis her life story ("in several sessions" after Jean-Louis says it will take too long), but a principle that makes her an atheist. Her motive in letting Jean-Louis stay might be to get rid of Vidal, but it would be a risk to let a strange man stay in her home in an attempt to get rid of a familiar one to whom she isn't very attracted, unless she happens to be far more attracted to the stranger.

Yet when we hear Maud say that she wants Jean-Louis to remain, not only insisting that the roads aren't safe, but that she lost a friend this way, we might assume this is a ploy, casually mentioning a friend's death all the better to ensnare Jean-Louis. But later as she does tell Jean-Louis a little of her life story, she informs him that the person who died on the roads was someone she was very close to indeed. As she discusses the failure of her marriage and the affairs both her and her husband had, she says that hers was with a follow doctor, a brilliant man who pleased her in every way and who died in a road accident: his car skidded on ice. We don't doubt that she is telling the truth, and it gives her earlier remarks about wishing Jean-Louis to stay for his own safety a credence they wouldn't initially seem to have. We could also see that she has linked Jean-Louis in her mind with her brilliant late love, and may be seeing in Jean-Louis a future one. Perhaps. What we do sense, however, is that Maud is someone capable of immense emotional complexity that the viewer cannot easily read. If we reduce her to a woman who just wants to get Jean-Louis into bed, we will have to entertain the various modes of her behaviour and the permutations of her mind. Maud is, of course, a character on screen, but she is also a subject for our attention - someone we cannot claim to know, just as we cannot claim to know the people we meet in life. We wouldn't want to labour this point (which can lead to a very nave approach to spectatorship) but we don't want to undermine it either. As Rohmer says "for me, the important thing in film - to repeat what [Andre] Bazin said - is ontology and not language. Ontologically, film says something that the other arts don't say...If one studies the language of film, one finds the same rhetoric as in other arts, but in a rougher, less refined and less complex style." It is partly this less complex style that can lead to the ambiguity Rohmer seeks. Rather than seeing cinema as an assertive art form that can tell us how we should think (so much easier to do in the novel), Rohmer is interested in film as a recording device that captures the Bazinian ambiguity in front of the lens. Rohmer isn't averse to voice-over (a literary device in film), and uses it quite brilliantly at the very end of My Night at Maud's, but he uses it not to assert point of view but to give it individual perspective.

We find out at the end of the film that Maud's husband's lover would seem to have been none other than the woman Jean-Louis is now with, and the woman Jean-Louis was interested in and keeping himself chaste with Maud over that night, It is five years later, Jean-Louis and his wife have a young child. They are living in Clermont-Ferrand, Maud is now in Toulouse, and they happen to meet on the coast. As they talk, Francoise continues on with the child, and Maud says, as she and Jean-Louis part "hurry, your wife will think I'm telling you awful things." It is clear that Maud's husband's lover had been Francoise, that earlier she had talked about an affair with a married man, and when we see the look on Francoise's face when she sees Maud, and take into account Maud's comment about his wife worried that she will be saying bad things about her, that this is the case. In voice-over, Jean-Louis says that as he was about to say nothing had happened between Maud and himself, so he realised that the problem was more that something had happened between Francoise and Maud's husband. We cannot know this for sure but that is Rohmer's point: all the inferences move in this direction to make it all but unequivocal without making it categorical.

The film is the accumulation of rationales, stratagems, reasons etc. And in this Maud would seem to be the most complex character, Jean-Louis the most wilful, Francoise the most secretive and Vidal the most pragmatic. But on top of the characters Rohmer also lays out the thought of Pascal, evident in the conversation between Vidal and Jean-Louis a third of the way through. This is the chance meeting that will also lead to Jean-Louis going to Maud's. Shortly before bumping into Vidal he has been browsing bookshops, coming across maths books like the Calculus of Probabilities, before finding Pascal's Pensees in another store. He reads a passage that talks about lessening one's passions, which can prove a great stumbling block to finding the way and not long after this he stumbles into Vidal in a bar. They haven't seen each other in fourteen years and they immediately agree to a drink as the conversation turns to Pascal. Jean-Louis and Vidal discuss the improbability of their meeting and Maths is invoked, but it happens to be Vidal who brings up Pascal, rather than Jean-Louis, who not long before has of course been searching the philosopher out. But while this might seem like a weakness in another dramatist, where the need for categorical cause and effect is strong, in Rohmer's work this is part of the play of only one of three elements: chance, causation and motivation (and its variations).

To understand the originality of Rohmer's exercise let us break down these categories into typical filmic terms. Chance is often what does no more than set a story in motion: two lovers meet for the first time in years - they are now married to others but still are in love with each other. A son realises that the man he is now working with is actually the father who left him when he was born. A man turns out to wrongly targeted by a hitman, is maimed and goes in search of the man who killed him. These will start with chance and quickly settle into causality. In the latter instance the man, divorced with no children, might find that the person who crippled him was forced into the hit by gangsters who threatened to kill his entire family and they had told him the person he was to kill was a notorious mobster. Our hero was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the pair of them then go and take out the people who hired the hit, as well as the gangster who was originally targeted. Our hero helps a family and wheels away into the sunset, a good deed categorically done after the contingent had been done to him. An exaggerated example but one which will serve our purpose. Then we come to character. Our hero has little to live for but at least initially has thoughts of revenge. These get converted into vengeful thoughts with a benign purpose as he slaughters gangsters and saves a family. (One reason why Taxi Driver is the masterpiece it happens to be is because of the complications it insistently gives to a scenario that is not too far removed from the one above.) Our hero's motivations are very clear even if they are not always consistent. He wants to kill a man whose life he will then protect.

Yet My Night at Maud's, like numerous other Rohmer films, including La Collectioneuse, Claire's Knee and Pauline at the Beach, insists on keeping contingency, causality and motivation in states of flux as the story never solidifies into the solid assumptions of the example we have given, but remains in a state of crystallizing possibility with Pascal, in this instance, used as a hypothetical series of possibilities hovering over the narrative. When Jean-Louis and Vidal invoke the French theologian and mathematician, Jean-Louis sees somebody too rigid. Jean-Louis may be a practising Catholic but as a Christian he wishes to fight the philosopher's rigidity. Vidal, a Marxist, sees the appeal of Pascal's wager as he couches it in Marxist terms. He proposes that there might be a ten per cent chance that history has meaning; 90 per cent chance that it does not. He would prefer to wager on that small possibility that gives him hope rather than go with the 90 per cent probability that it doesn't and be left despondent. Yet as he says this, and as we see his character later at Maud's, we might notice that Vidal, rather than offering idealism in this perspective, manages instead to convey the pragmatic. By wagering on history he allows himself to be happy with his choice. Jean-Louis looks like a far more troubled figure, someone whose motives for seeking out Pascal lies in dissatisfaction rather than satisfaction. Rohmer thus utilises Pascal neither to further the story nor clearly reveal character. He isn't there as a casual conceit hanging over the film giving it an ironic and knowing dimension, but to complicate matters further: to show that the same idea can be adopted in very different ways. When we listen to Vidal in the bar we might notice his passion, but we may believe later that this is not the same as conviction. He will speak with authority in the moment but the extension of that moment into others shows him less resolute and why we might see his Pascalianism as pragmatic. After all, when Vidal says when they're out having another drink that Jean-Louis should meet Maud, he indicates that she doesn't go out much because she feels ill at ease, but when we later see her she seems very at ease indeed. While Vidal reckons Jean-Louis should come so that nothing will happen between Maud and Vidal, we will later discover that Maud was never very interested in Vidal - they slept together once and it is Vidal who is keen. There is no position that we can hold with certitude but we can with confidence. When we see Vidal showing signs of affection towards Maud she pushes him away in a gesture that suggests there have been many such advances and many rebuffs. While Vidal might have a point about Maud's social unease if we take into account the death of the man she loved in what would seem to be the relatively recent past, this still doesn't quite square with Vidal's perception - as though Vidal projects a more vulnerable woman onto Maud than she happens to be, perhaps partly because of his own feelings of vulnerability towards her.

It is one of the many examples we could give in the film of Rohmer's interest in creating spaces between contingency, causality and character all the better to create observation rather than comprehension. While his style of narration is intricate and plotted, that wouldn't be enough: Rohmer would seem to want us to understand the images not merely as well put-together pieces of material, but material woven out of and into a new life, a cinematic life that nevertheless will not completely remove the life from whence it has come. If Rohmer sees himself in many ways as a Bazinian, as someone who believes in film's capacity not only to capture the world but still resemble it in its capturing, then it is important that we view the events with some of the ontological ambiguity Bazin insisted upon. When Rohmer says "if the spectator had not found beauty in this world, how could he seek it in its image? How could he admire an imitation of life if he did not admire life itself", (Realism and Cinema) he is talking about the importance of what is not only in front of our eyes but what is in front of his lens. The film is not so much constructed out of that world to create an aesthetic object discrete unto itself but must remain very closely affiliated with the perceptions of that world. This might not make it realism (which wouldn't finally to be Rohmer's concern), but it would be perceptually consistent with seeing the world. This is a big claim that needs to be argued for, but if we take Bazin's famous remark about the ontological ambiguity of reality, and see that the operative word for Rohmer is not reality but ambiguity, we can understand more clearly what Rohmer is trying to achieve. After all, if he were so concerned with realism would using a studio set for Maud's apartment undermine the attempt? Let us not be too purist here, even the resolute realist will cave in on occasion to the pragmatic demands of the filming. But Rohmer is interested in something else: a work that leaves us less with the subtext that makes clear why a character will do something even if it is never stated, but what might be behind their actions which may remain mysterious to them and certainly to us. We might have a friend who has been having an affair for years and we always saw him as the perfect family man, or a friend who admits to us that he is having an affair and can't quite understand why. He still loves his wife and doesn't love the other woman but feels compelled to continue the affair nevertheless. In the first instance we have the undisclosed and in the second the unfathomable. It is something of these common enough categories in life that Rohmer explores in his cinema. If he is a realist it is a realism of a particular type, one that has little to do with what we might assume is plausible in dialogue or situation but that out of an artificiality towards both achieves a sort of higher realism.

This is the realism that demands the perceptual problems in film can resemble the perceptual problems in life. In most films we can work out the plot but that really isn't our purpose: we can just as easily wait for the filmmaker to do it for us. But in Rohmer's films, and none more so than My Night at Maud's, we can muse over motives and explanations that do not justify themselves entirely within the realm of the narrative. When for example Maud says after Vidal leaves the apartment that she and Jean-Louis have been bad, she adds that Vidal won't be able to sleep all night because Jean-Louis and Maud will be alone together. Jean-Louis is surprised by this - didn't he choose to leave for another appointment? That was his bravado speaking, Maud says, as she tells Jean-Louis how keen Vidal happens to be. She asks Jean-Louis if Vidal told Jean-Louis about how much in love he was with her, and Jean-Louis says not at all - but that he did admire her. Maud backtracks a little and suggests this was Vidal being discreet. She then chooses not to be discreet at all - saying she was silly enough to sleep with him once. Are we to take what she says at face value, and how does it compare to Vidal's take on the situation that he has offered to Jean-Louis earlier in the bar? Vidal, of course, says that Jean-Louis should come to Maud's with him so that Maud and Vidal don't fall into bed with each other; the implication that they have done so often enough for it to be a habit they ought to try and avoid. For Vidal it is a habit; for Maud a one-off mistake. Who is telling the truth? We might see in Vidal's body language more enthusiasm for Maud than Maud shows towards him, but would the situation be reversed if there were two women and one man in the situation and Vidal wanted to make a good impression and to enchant the other woman? Nevertheless, all things considered, we may believe that Maud is the more reliable of the two of them, that her take on the relationship more accurate than Vidal's, Maud seems indifferent as she speaks about Vidal; Vidal sounds wistful when he discusses why a relationship with Maud wouldn't work. But if we believe Vidal has told Maud how much he loves her, as Maud claims, this wouldn't necessarily mean that Maud has made this up (though she might have) but that Vidal has exaggerated his feelings towards Maud. Is he also interested in the student that we see him with when Jean-Louis bumps into him; the woman who goes for a walk up the mountain with Jean-Louis, Maud and himself? We don't know for sure, and partly because we don't know where his discretion finally lies. Maud may think he has been discreet concerning his feelings for her, but how can she know that he hasn't hyperbolized them for the purposes of seduction? Perhaps Vidal's discretion comes much later, when he sees in the street Jean-Louis and Francoise. As they all exchange an awkward moment, Jean-Louis asks if Vidal and Francoise know each other and they say yes before discussing Maud, even if she isn't mentioned by name. Does Vidal bring her up to chastise Jean-Louis for not saying goodbye to her (she has now moved to Toulouse) but avoids using her name well aware that he knows Francoise was Maud's ex-husband's lover? Is this where he is practising discretion?

When John Orr in Cinema and Modernity understandably invokes Les Liaisons Dangereuses, when numerous others have seen the influence of Marivaux more generally on Rohmer's work, we can see that the points of comparison only takes us so far. These are plotted works, seventeenth and eighteenth-century stories of manipulation and intrigue, even if Marivaux is more benign than Laclos. Rohmer doesn't only want the well-made screenplay, he wants the spaces in between to create the ambiguities that incorporate our speculative relationship with life. While those seeking the well-made nature of the work will acknowledge the importance of Pascal and the irony of Jean-Louis' idealism, the viewer who sees in Rohmer's film freedom rather than constraint, possibility rather than determinism, will emphasise the indeterminate rather than the categorical ironies. It is categorically ironic that Jean-Louis who keeps himself chaste when he visits Maud will discover that his devout ideal woman Francoise has in the past had an affair with Maud's husband. But the indeterminate irony rests on the sort of echoes that come off situations which seem to ask of us the nuance of life as readily as the hermeneutics of art. Clearly Rohmer has to make clear to us at the end of the film that Francoise had an affair with Maud's ex, and dramatically this is is subtly but clearly played out, We know that her ex had an affair with a young religious woman, Francoise tells Jean-Louis that she had an affair with a married man, we find out that Vidal knows Francoise, Maud tells Jean-Louis on the beach he should get back to his wife since she will think Maud is saying bad things about her, and we see on Francoise's face that the penny is dropping - that Jean-Louis has worked out the nature of her past relations just as we the viewer happen to do so as well. This is the plotted aspect of the film. We need a hermeneutics to make sense of it, but the plot structure is there to guide us along. Yet alongside it we have what we will call the speculative as well as the hermeneutic. What are Maud's feelings towards Vidal and vice versa? What are Maud's towards Jean-Louis and vice versa? This isn't idle, but it isn't quite hermeneutically necessary either. A viewer coming out of My Night at Maud's who has failed to grasp that Francoise was Maud's ex's lover hasn't been paying enough attention, but how much attention should be paid to these other speculations on top of the categorical? When we muse over Maud's feeling for Jean-Louis this isn't idle in the way that musing over Francoise's for Vidal would be. There is no speculative invitation on the film's part to muse over such a relationship - it seems very clear that they know each other only through others, and thus we see awkwardness rather than affection. Even our observation about Vidal and the other women he knows we offer only because we might wish to understand better what his feelings are for Maud.

If My Night at Maud's is a great film, then, it isn't only because it brilliantly and very subtly lays out a story about a man's ambivalent relationship with the Catholic faith that Rohmer tries to resolve by offering the predestination of Pascal without the rigour of the Theologian's asceticism, and does so in the central character seeing a woman at church who he insists will become his wife, even if there is irony in that the woman he chooses is far from chaste. It is also that we can speculate within an already intricate hermeneutic by following closely the body language of the people Rohmer films. It is here where Rohmer's cinema comes into its own, where someone who wrote the six moral tales (of which My Night at Maud's is one) found in the writing of them that they were not yet quite complete, And central to this incompleteness, we might believe, is the absence of body language incorporated within film language, with Rohmer trying to find a gestural mode that would expand cinema into the ambiguity of life through the exploration of gesture.

In an interview on the DVD extras of An Autumn's Tale, Rohmer says that though people often cross their arms in life, they do so far less frequently in cinema. It may be one of many gestures that are common to life but limited in film, as if film, while capable of drawing from the full reservoir of life's gestures, takes only enough of them that it needs to tell a story. If many claim that there are only so many stories, that whatever their ostensible originality, they fall under a small number of throughlines, perhaps subsequently there are only so many gestures that are drawn upon - that there is a scrapheap of human gesture left discarded by art, and even by cinema. It is perhaps this scrapheap that the new wave turned to in an effort to reinvigorate film with life so that in very different ways Godard, Truffaut and Rivette found gestures not at all new to life but nevertheless felt new to film. But if Godard, Rivette and even Truffaut radicalized gesture, gave it the force of an outside, a force that generated an energy from the arbitrary, Rohmer's gestural contribution appeared the most naturalistic. However, if we look at some of these moments closely, we can see just how odd they can seem, and how much space the director gives us to interpret them without feeling that we are merely following the story, however nuanced it may be.

At one moment in Maud's flat we have Jean-Louis sitting in the chair opposite, Maud now under the covers in bed, and Vidal lying next to her on the covers, fully dressed, "I like you" Maud says to Jean-Louis but it is Vidal's head that is nestled on her shoulder as she then moves a little, letting his head slide down her arm, and then pushes him away. In another film this would be the paramount focus, the narrative movement of rejection, but Rohmer's originality here is twofold. Firstly, he relegates this rejection to parenthesis as the focus happens to be the conversation between Maud and Jean-Louis - how if he is a good Catholic hasn't he remained chaste until marriage? Secondly, by making it subordinate, Rohmer gives to gesture its manifold nature not only its dramatic purpose. When Rohmer says with cinema, interpretation can fall away altogether, there is the suggestion that the looseness of film, the manifold nature of its meaning, can leave us not only interpreting what is clearly intended, but also what is more accidentally captured. While we might accept it is necessary that Maud seductively persuades Jean-Louis to stay over, it would seem less necessary that Vidal leans into Maud and Maud casually pushes him away. We do not need to interpret this moment as we need to interpret Francoise's reactions to Vidal and Maud. Yet it is the speculation alongside the interpretation that makes Rohmer's film so rich and beyond ready comprehension.

We are not saying that most of the elements in Rohmer's films aren't very deliberate. Not only is Pascal's thought incorporated, but it is also filmed in the town where he was born, Clermont-Ferrand. Pascal was a major innovator in the realm of calculus and concerned with probabilities. Rohmer, of course, incorporates this into his film as one of the ironies he explores. While Jean-Louis wonders what the probability would be of meeting Vidal when they first bump into each other, he also knows that the chances are high that he will meet by chance the woman he wishes to become his wife. When he follows her around the streets of this small city early in the film, the odds are likely that he will see her again soon. The population is around 150,000 and they are both Catholics. Why wouldn't they meet again? But the odds are much smaller that this ideal woman would be a woman he meets ex-husband's lover. The small odds that make Francoise inevitably his, are met with the far less likely odds that she belonged before to someone he indirectly knows. Rather than Francoise the paragon of virtue who chance delivers, is she the scarlet woman who cruel fate reveals to be tainted indeed? We needn't see this is as Rohmer's moral assertiveness coming in; more his interest in the application of our wishes meeting with the further complications of other people's lives. Francoise needn't become a lesser woman in Jean-Louis' eyes; just a subtly different one

But in those eyes that we view events partially through, might we wonder if there is more of an affinity between Jean-Louis and Maud and that it is only Jean-Louis' projection onto Francoise that indicates this is the more significant relationship? Here we can take the hermeneutic irony of the film's conclusion into the speculative aspect of the reality we see in front of our eyes, created out of the ambiguities Rohmer's cinema allows. We needn't be nave about this, but it is often wise in film to suspend an aspect of our sophistication. This might be no more than the naivety of accepting that cinema unavoidably shows us so much that even if it is clear in what it presents it cannot help at the same time also representing beyond that presentation, and Rohmer seeks to allow for this open aspect. As he says, "Obviously! The cinema shows real things. If I show a house, it's a real, coherent house, not something made out of cardboard. When I show traffic on the road, it's real traffic in a certain city, at a certain moment. It's the same for the discourses in the film, I'm not looking for schematisation. I'm showing a Marxist, a Catholic, not the Marxist, the Catholic!" (Cahiers du Cinema). Rohmer adds, "a film never allows us to admire a translation of the world, but to admire, through this translation, the world itself. The cinema is an instrument of discovery, even in fictional films." It is this discovery we find in the speculative dimension the film allows, within the interpretive aspect it insists upon.

It is where the film's form isn't irrelevant even if there is an element of it that indicates it must at the same time be naturalistic. Yet like the body language in Rohmer's work, the form is evident without being obtrusive, as if Rohmer seeks the singularity of his vision within the context of the verisimilitude he demands, (a demand he would call into question of course in some of his later films, like Perceval le gallois and The Lady and the Duke ). This is where for Rohmer weather is both mise-en-scene and nature, plot and chance. "Ma nuit chez Maud is a subject that I carried around inside me since 1945. Since then, it has undergone enormous modifications. A character locked up with a woman by an exterior circumstance was the primary dramatic idea. But back then it was about the curfew, during the war, and not snow." But "For me, the snow represented the passage from "tale" to mise-en-scene. Snow is very cinematographically important for me. In the cinema, it makes the situation stronger, more universal than the external, historical circumstance of the occupation." (Senses of Cinema) While setting it in the time of the occupation would have doubled his theme from one point of view (emphasising the twin significance of the birthplace of Pascal and also the temporary seat of government during WWII) it would also have undermined an aspect of it from another. Jean-Louis is forced to stay overnight by natural forces and not by human agency. It allows the theme to be played out not as doubly emphatic thematically (the occupation and Pascal as key features of Clermont-Ferrand) but to allow the assertive (Pascal) and the contingent (the weather) to work in conjunction. The snow is an element of mise en scene for Rohmer that finds its way into the story, more than an element of the story - hence the passage from tale to mise en scene.

Walter Benjamin in 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' notes "thus, for contemporary man the representation of reality by the film is incomparably more significant than that of the painter, since it offers, precisely because of the thoroughgoing permeation of reality with mechanical equipment, an aspect of reality which is free of all equipment. And that is what one is entitled to ask from a work of art." Rohmer would see this is as the essence of film art rather than a failure of it. That one cannot control every aspect of the image, gives to the image its art as readily as what is deliberate within that artwork. The story is about a man in his thirties who finds himself in the company of Maud but determined to stay chaste for Francoise. That is undoubted. But the ambiguous gestures the actors provide and that Rohmer films allow for another film on top of the unequivocal one. What Maud's feelings are towards either Vidal or Jean-Louis are ambivalent, and even those we might assume are undeniable (those towards the dead lover), are so certain that we might wonder if he is being idealised in his death. Above all else what one senses watching a Rohmer film is the push of narrative and the pull of ambiguity that combined give his work the Rohmeresque sense of coherence and contingency - the feeling that we have watched a very deliberate and tightly scripted film, but also a recording of that script which insists on opening up the spaces the script would seem to close down. There are many superbly scripted films that don't do this - from His Girl Friday to Chinatown, from The Godfather to Some Like it Hot. They are often brilliantly made, with camerawork, music and acting that emphasises the meaning sought. Then there are others, like Taxi Driver, Manhattan, The Long Goodbye, that want to find their meaning against their story as well as inside it, as if trying to find another story out of the filming that cannot only be found in the scripting. My Night at Maud's might be the story of a great, unrequited love affair between Jean-Louis and Maud, the self-sacrifice of Vidal who can see an affinity between Maud and Jean-Louis that he cannot find with her, and of Francoise locked in a marriage with Jean-Louis but still in love with Maud's husband. It is the story that will make no synopsis of the film, but let us say the freedom of Rohmer's cinema is that he gives us the space to create it, however, unlikely it would be that others may be inclined to agree with it.


© Tony McKibbin