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My Night At Maud's


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Fired off an email to a movie pal who especially loves this film, asking for some quick thoughts. Astutely enough, he felt qualmy about my potential response to the film, with all it's philosophizing: surprisingly enough, all the Pascal patter didn't bother me at all.

At any rate, his comment led me into jotting some thoughts about the film which I figure might lure others into our chat, so... Chime it, Rohmerians!

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HIM: Hey Ron, I do love this film....but I'm worried how you'll receive the philosophy discussions.

ME: Ah yes, I can see that! But no, I didn't find that off-putting, even though the free-will / determinism question is one of my personal betes noir, and it pervades MAUD. But I think what evaded my annoyance was the fact that the question was suffused with humanity, and was palpably, practically moral. I dislike philosophical chit-chat when it seems abstracted from life: here, though, it was rooted in real experience - the central character striving to live out his conversion with integrity, in the face of very real choices, temptations, needs, desires.

Also, these questions of luck / chance / providence / randomness / inevitability seem especially to come up when smart people fall in love: was i destined to meet this person, are we "meant for each other," or did I choose, am I choosing, must I choose love or does love choose me? And certainly this carries forward as a love affair is lived out in intentional commitment in the context of marriage - the fact that the final scene shows

the couple not only married, but raising a son, tacitly expresses the rightness of marriage as commitment, I think, especially when contrasted with Maud's solitary daughter, getting up in the middle of the night to look at the Christmas tree lights. Not that the girl's single-parent state was sentimentalized, at all: still, at least to my eyes/heart, I was glad that the boy at the end had two parents, in a committed marriage, apparently "blessed by God."

I also liked the touch that the central character remarked that he was essentially lucky, but "I'm only lucky with worthy causes. I doubt I'd have any luck committing a crime." Wonderful! The way it suggests something more than just luck, something more like providence: if this blessing of "luck" would abandon him were he to do wrong, it strongly suggests the moral/ethical component of his "luck" (which he clearly perceives as something beyond random chance), that probably its divine source.

I was reminded of two other very different films. 13 CONVERSATIONS ABOUT ONE THING, which is all about luck/providence, the question of whether good and bad happen to people completely at random, or are related to their actions and intentions - a film which I like very much, even though it's really an extended exploration of these philosophical questions (though I suppose it leans more toward the problem of evil than the free will / determinism question, and the former is admittedly a favourite of mine, where I'm allergic to the latter). And MY DINNER WITH ANDRE, a very talk-driven "conversation movie," also preoccupied with questions about the "more" that may or may not be in heaven and earth - I couldn't help wondering if Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn's title for their talky metaphysical adventure mightn't be a pretty direct reference to the Rohmer film, which is also largely an extended philosophical conversation. A favourite film.

I think I may only lose patience with philosophical themes in films when they seem detached from consequence, life, behaviour, when they aren't being played out in the dramatic action, when there are no real repercussions for the characters in the story (or for me, the viewer). The pondering only becomes ponderous when it seems like mere talk, or intellectual exercise, rather than vitally connected to the "What then shall we do" of John the Baptist, Tolstoi or Billy Kwan.

I was fascinated by the differing beauty of the two women in the film. Maud didn't seem particularly pretty to me for quite a while, but had a slightly hard look to her: it's only once the seduction really got rolling that she began to seem attractive. Where Francoise always seemed beautiful to me, in pretty much every shot. I wonder if that's entirely subjective on my part? I bet there are men who would find the brunette's more seasoned, worldly-wise beauty more appealing, or perhaps the blonde's appearance merely pretty, but not somehow substantial?

I've posted a couple hundred of my Soul Food Movies write-ups at letterboxd

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Link to thread on 'The Films of Eric Rohmer', where this film comes up a bit.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Interesting thoughts, Ron, I'm glad you saw this. I'm not sure I have much to add except to affirm that Rohmer has indeed been very good at expressing the copious talk and philosophizing in his films in dramatic, human ways...particularly in the Moral Tales series (of which Maud's is one), where the talk sometimes reinforces or counteracts/subverts the action depicted in meaningful ways. Yet some find even that "too talky," and I do suspect that each person's reaction to abstraction will differ depending on how much they have invested in thinking about or experiencing life through any given lens. Free will/determinism doesn't resonate with you, but theodicy does, and that probably reflects how you've experienced those ideas in your life, as much as, say, all the talk of faith versus rationality and creative expression resonates with me in Stalker--even if Tarkovsky is less interested in plot than Rohmer is. The ideas in Stalker don't in any way seem to me "detached from consequence, life, or behaviour." I also appreciate the way the ideas in Stalker are intrinsically tied to its aesthetic; ie, the way in which the story is told, if not the story itself (although I think it's tied to that, too).

I guess I'm saying I don't see a simple rule here for philosophy in corollation with plot alone, and part of my love of My Night at Maud's stems from the way Rohmer visualizes his ideas through shot-reverse shot editing, the documentary elements, and the shifts in day/night that occur throughout the movie as much as anything that transpires between the characters.

I was fascinated by the differing beauty of the two women in the film. Maud didn't seem particularly pretty to me for quite a while, but had a slightly hard look to her: it's only once the seduction really got rolling that she began to seem attractive. Where Francoise always seemed beautiful to me, in pretty much every shot. I wonder if that's entirely subjective on my part? I bet there are men who would find the brunette's more seasoned, worldly-wise beauty more appealing, or perhaps the blonde's appearance merely pretty, but not somehow substantial?
Very much so--I've read several commentators who mentioned how Maud's sophistication and intellectual liveliness made her far more attractive than Fran
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Sounds intriguing--its now been added to my Netflix queue (of course, at position 68 it means I'll see it sometime in late 2007, barring any James 4 mishaps to my wellbeing).

I love this aspect of the board--peeking in on folks' reaction to films I'd never consider picking on my own.

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Here's what I've come up with, first draft. I'd love it, Doug, or anyone who knows their French New Wave better than I, to help me get the historical stuff more accurate if I'm off the mark - I've done a bit of research, but I'm not writing from any depth of knowledge here. At a glance, I think I'm likely to pull the stuff about my own "free will / determinism" prejudice when I do my second draft revisions, but I try not to rewrite too hastily, so I'll leave it in for now. Apart from that... I had fun! Swell movie. I know I'll be watching it again, some day.

*

MY NIGHT AT MAUD'S ("MA NUIT CHEZ MAUD," 1969, France, Eric Rohmer)

Thanks to you, I've taken a step on the path to sainthood. As I said, women always aid my moral progress.

In the late fifties and early sixties, a group of French directors associated with the fim magazine Cahiers du cinema came to be known as the French New Wave. Truffaut, Godard and others reacted against big budget "prestige" films by creating energetic, youthful pictures that defied what they saw as the stodginess and artificiality of the so-called "tradition of quality." Rather than shooting in the controlled environment of the studio set, they took filmmaking to the streets, preferring spontaneity to caution, giving expression to the radical ideas and experimentation of their generation. What happened in Britain and America with rock and roll took place in France at the cinematheque.

Because he wrote for Cahiers through the fifties, Eric Rohmer is often included in that movement, though he's something of an odd fit. A decade older than the young lions, and with a strong literary bent, he was at times considered somewhat reactionary, or at least conservative, and his first feature films

Edited by Ron

I've posted a couple hundred of my Soul Food Movies write-ups at letterboxd

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where the talk sometimes reinforces or counteracts/subverts the action depicted in meaningful ways. Yet some find even that "too talky," and I do suspect that each person's reaction to abstraction will differ depending on how much they have invested in thinking about or experiencing life through any given lens.

Doug:

I know you're not suggesting this, but Rohmer's films aren't abstract at all. If you want to see abstraction, watch a modern action film like Mann's Miami Vice or a Tony Scott movie.

The logos/talk/bad -- image/action/good antinomy (which is a kind of a propagandistic re-statement of Hollywood's hegemonic practice anyway) becomes meaningless in films by great filmmakers. It only matters when we talk of bad films that are somehow out of balance.

Just like in life, in Rohmer, taking his cue from Mankiewicz and Shakespeare, "talk" is action. And I would put Rohmer, as a film stylist, in the same rarefied category as Dreyer, Ozu, or Tati. Why? Because he is so rigorous and precise, yet subtle, almost invisible, that most people can't really see what he is doing as something profoundly "filmic".

You can take as much pleasure in examining a Rohmer film structurally on the DVD as you can with Eisenstein, Ford or any 800 pound gorilla you can name.

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Indeed, which is what makes the end of Le rayon vert so stunning. It is one of the very rare moments in which Rohmer commits to letting an abstracted image retroactively set the tone for an entire film. One could possibly argue the same thing about the knee in (drum roll) Claire's Knee.

The wonderful irony of Rohmer's dialogue is that it is often so abstract, oblique, and even disconnected from the very real problems of his characters. They inhabit very concrete moral worlds and narratives, structured so clearly by Rohmer's gentle touch behind-the-scenes. But for all their talk, his characters, as well as the viewer, often miss this forest for the trees.

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

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  • 2 years later...

Last night, after a very busy day which left us both exhausted, we set up our DVD player to introduce us to a movie we've owned for a number of years, but not yet watched. MN@M's.

Here, by the way, is the description on the DVD jacket: "The film that made Eric Rohmer an international name, Academy Award Nominee _My Night at Maud's_ is one of the most brilliant comedies about adult indiscretions ever made..."

Cool. Insert disc. Press play.

Twenty minutes in. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Ten minutes before, discussions started about Pascal's Pensees, and his wager. Only my wife was not familiar with Pascal's wager, and I had to explain it to her. Then again, the conversations about his wager kept going on, and on, and on.

We wanted a romantic comedy. We got a college lecture. We turned it off before it hit the thirty minute mark, before we even got to meet Maude.

Somebody here please help make the case as to why I should give this a second chance. Or let me know how much you'd be willing to pay for a slightly used disc.

Nick Alexander

Keynote, Worship Leader, Comedian, Parodyist

Host of the Prayer Meeting Podcast - your virtual worship oasis. (Subscribe)

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What can I say? Rohmer is talky. He doesn't make When Harry Met Sally. I can see how it can be described as a romantic comedy, but you could be confused if you thought this was going to be like the kind of romantic comedy that plays at the multiplex -- or even like French romantic comedies such as Amalie. If you keep in mind that this is part of his Six Moral Tales series, it may help you going in. What we usually think of as romantic comedy deals with what is going to happen on the way to these two falling in love and getting in bed. MN@M is why should or shouldn't they get in bed - and love has nothing to do with it.

The mistake is going for it after an exhausting day and thinking you're seeing something else. Now that you know what to expect, pick your viewing time and mindset accordingly and it will be much better.

A foreign movie can't be stupid.

-from the film
Armin

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Somebody here please help make the case as to why I should give this a second chance. Or let me know how much you'd be willing to pay for a slightly used disc.

It is the clearest scripted articulation of what Rohmer is all about - a key that unlocks the rest of his films thematically. Which is to say, not really a date night movie for anyone other than two lonely humanities grad students. I would give it a second chance if you are interested in digging into Rohmer, or even just the Moral Tales. He has much to say to us about love, temptation, and spirituality.

I think Rohmer is very worth investing time in. Watch all you can, and then track down The Green Ray for the big payoff.

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

Filmwell | Twitter

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The mistake is going for it after an exhausting day and thinking you're seeing something else. Now that you know what to expect, pick your viewing time and mindset accordingly and it will be much better.
As a father of toddler twins, it is rare to have a non-exhausting day. Just sayin'...

Nick Alexander

Keynote, Worship Leader, Comedian, Parodyist

Host of the Prayer Meeting Podcast - your virtual worship oasis. (Subscribe)

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  • 2 years later...

Sounds intriguing--its now been added to my Netflix queue (of course, at position 68 it means I'll see it sometime in late 2007, barring any James 4 mishaps to my wellbeing).

I love this aspect of the board--peeking in on folks' reaction to films I'd never consider picking on my own.

2007, 2011. What's the difference?

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If only I had time to write more... Like Nick, I fell asleep, but out of dog tiredness. Picked it up at fifty minutes in the next night. Liked it, but felt the characters seemed more abstractions than real people. Until the end, when at the epilogue, it all came together. For all it's talk of Jansenism or free will, or moral choices in light of living out one's code, it was the lead's living out grace in action that showed that he now began to see the forest instead of just trees.

Nick, did you ever finish it?

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