In Alan Sharp's script for Arthur Penn's Night Moves, detective Harry Caul says that watching an Eric Rohmer movie is like watching paint dry. The picture he's referring to is this one, but it's more a comment on Harry's closed mind than a criticism of 'cinema moralist' Eric Rohmer. My Night at Maud's is about the last days of an intellectual bachelor, searching for the right answers, which of course translates as the right woman. It indeed almost all talk, but Rohmer gives it a natural flow that's totally unlike movie dialogue. My Night at Maud's is a classic art film, celebrated as the third of Eric Rohmer's 'moral tales'.
My Night at Maud's is the perfect antidote to faux-intellectualism. The three main characters are supremely self-conscious adults, all professionals in their thirties. The protagonist is making an effort to stop drifting and settle into a permanent philosophy, a difficult task when the main social talent of his peers seems to be the clever dissection of each other's ideas. They pretend they have nothing to hide, but they are all social deceivers. Either Vitez is actually crazy about Maud, or Maud is a liar. Self-pronounced 'serious fellow' Jean-Louis can indeed resist Maud's seduction, but maybe not from personal virtue. Maud's cool manner may hide some deep personal problem, and she may be consciously or unconsciously trying to enlist him as a personal support system. Just as in real life, people have personal motivations that must be carefully hidden.
It's all handled with great ambiguity, with the 'sophisticated' participants constantly pretending they're above their own feelings, cloaking them in interesting talk that substitutes for more dangerous honesty. Jean-Louis appears to be retreating to what's traditional and safe, marrying a much younger woman within his church. But Rohmer's point of view emphasizes the wisdom behind his conservatism.
All three who spend the night at Maud's need other people, but have erected formidable defenses against being hurt. Jean-Louis affects an air of unconcern. Maud is provocatively aggressive, but she seems to be looking for someone on whom to inflict her self-denied problems. Jean-Louis does a good job parrying her constant criticism, which only makes him seem more attractive to her.
Vitez seems basically dishonest when dealing with his 'friend' Jean-Louis. He hedges about his relationship with Maud, and his motives for shoving Jean-Louis in her direction are obscure. He also must be prevaricating when he claims not to get involved with his students. There's definitely some history between Vitez and Francoise, that Jean-Louis either isn't aware of, or wisely ignores.
Viewers waiting for a big action scene are going to be sorely disappointed, but those sufficiently sensitive to the nuances of personal interaction will find a rich vein of possible meanings and interpretations here. The ending is particularly pleasing to male viewers - Jean-Louis is one man capable of figuring things out for himself, and making decisions that are good for all concerned. I only wish I were half as perceptive and tactful.
Jean-Louis Trintignant is supremely likeable, not too handsome but easy to warm up to. Francoise Fabian cleverly plays a sleek minx who can have her way with most any man she wants, but has trouble hanging on to them. With just a few looks, Marie-Christian Barrault is able to suggest a lot of back-story that she's glad her boyfriend isn't forcing out into the open. She was later nominated for an Oscar for Cousin Cousine.
My Night at Maud's centerpiece is the long, stimulating discussion in Maud's apartment which becomes a stealthy game of hidden agendas. After only a few minutes, the trio knows that somebody's going to end up in bed with somebody. The situation has a hint of that joke in the original Bedazzled: "If you can stay up with a woman to a quarter past two, listening to whatever garbage she's coming out with, you're in." Except Jean-Louis isn't just looking for a fast lay.
The situation also resembles that favorite pasttime of young singles, preferably in a semi-academic setting, of having periodic all-night conversations that, particularly if the people are drinking, appear to uncover monumental Life Truths. They're really about being single and uncommitted, discussing the deepest thoughts one can conjure as an excuse for not finding somebody special, or committing one's self to something serious. Listening to one's favorite music helps, too. The characters are a bit old for the game as we experienced it, but My Night at Maud's really brings back the feeling.
Fox Lorber's DVD of My Night at Maud's is a good but not exemplary presentation, much finer than those earlier Lorber discs but still somewhat lacking. The transfer is clean but not particularly new-looking, with un-removable subtitles. Overall, it makes Nestor Almendros' b&w photography look a bit dull. Transferred full-frame, the main titles are suspiciously tight on the sides, suggesting that the image may be cropped from 1:66. 1
Although we Americans have to read the entire film in subtitles anyway, the audio track is a bit on the low side and I found myself turning the volume up several times as the film progressed. Partial text filmographies are provided for Rohmer and Trintignant.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
My Night at Maud's rates:
1. Don't take this as more
Fox-Lorber bashing, as their simultaneously-released DVD of Jean-Luc Godard's My Life to
Live is an excellent transfer.