#37 — My Night at Maud’s (Éric Rohmer, 1969)
Two old friends bump into each other one night, trading memories and even little jabs. The test out the accuracy of their lingering impressions of one another. Eventually, one introduces the other to a woman he knows, and the conversation continues in her apartment. In the fourth entry of Éric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales series, nothing much happens besides that. But in that, the filmmaker carefully cracks open the paradoxical possibilities of film: that the confined can seem expansive, the static can be kinetic, the direct can be thrillingly elusive. My Night at Maud’s is strikingly simple and marvelously complex, smearing together philosophy, theology, lust and romance into a single burst of dizzying art. There no shocks. Indeed, the eventual ending is ruefully downbeat in the way that many of the French New Wave offerings reached their conclusions. It follows right in line with the tone and measure of its place and time, and yet comes across–as did many of its direct contemporaries–as utterly free of convention.
Jean-Louis Trintignant plays Jean-Louis, the Catholic who encounters his friend Vidal (Antoine Vitez) and winds up quietly enamored with Vidal’s friend Maud (Françoise Fabian). Trintignant is quite wonderful, capturing the way that a person’s belief system can wrap them up in certain choices, can leave them pining for those things that are, by design, out of their reach. He is engaged, challenged, erudite, anxious and melancholy, essentially making him the quintessential protagonist of French cinema. Rohmer puts his characters in motion with a minimum of fuss, knowing the camera is a pathway to truthfulness, not a tool to inject ricocheting dynamics into a situation more likely to be defined by the things not said, the choices not made. The director takes an observant, almost distant approach, all the better to capture the rhythms of a long night, its shape dictated by the small, subtle attempts of the participants to prolong it. To maybe have one more drink when it’s clearly time to leave.
Many of the French New Wave practitioners were exuberant disciples of all the overt techniques that had been established in narrative cinema, but they also trafficked in a engrossing restraint. The works were built upon the attempt to tease out meaning from murmurs, to let conversations express important points through intelligent debate rather than expository announcements. At its best, the informal movement was defined by, as much as anything else, an aversion to falsehood, to the imposed color of fiction. Characters might engage in discussions of morality, but how they lived the ethos they collectively or separately espoused was even more important. My Night at Maud’s dips into that well, and benefits further from the moody accuracy of its extended evening, the sort of night when knowledge of the slumbering world outside can make a person feel more awake than ever, as if compensating for all the other souls adrift in bewildering dreams.