(Dir. Eric Rohmer, France, 1969)
Very few films seek to candidly dialogue about religion (especially Christianity) without some underlying agenda or bone to pick with a rejected childhood faith (though the greats Bergman and Dreyer have, of course, made compelling works doing just that). The films of Scorsese and Malick come to mind, though Catholicism typically plays a supporting role in the works of the former, and the infusion of Christian themes in the films of the latter can easily be perceived as impressionistic amalgams of vague spirituality. And then there’s Éric Rohmer. The political and religious outlier in the rather liberal group of Cahiers du cinéma critics-turned-directors, Rohmer made no effort to hide how his faith influenced his cinema. Inspired by Murnau’s unashamedly conservative (not to mention hugely influential) fable Sunrise, Rohmer first garnered international attention with a series of films titled Six Moral Tales – each a riff on that seminal silent film’s central moral quandary, namely a married or attached man is tempted by the allure of another woman and must choose between his established partner or the thrill of the new. Of these six films, the third feature My Night at Maud’s made the biggest splash, and for good reason; it continually vies with his later work The Green Ray as the director’s greatest film.
So, who better than this rather singular voice in the French New Wave to ignite this much-needed conversation on religion and morality? The director built a career on these dialogue-heavy philosophical musings, and it’s no wonder most point back to My Night at Maud’s as the filmmaker’s prototype. The film is unapologetically heady (its characters frequently debate Blaise Pascal and his contemporary relevance) and challengingly ambiguous in specific questions of morality (do its characters alter their behavior to match their beliefs, or adjust their beliefs to encompass their behavior?). The story centers on a young devout Catholic man (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who dutifully attends Sunday mass each weekend, but it’s clear from the film’s first moments that God is not the only thing on his mind. As Jean-Louis recites the service’s weekly liturgy, the camera wanders then lingers on a pretty, young blonde woman a few pews away. The stone-faced and determined man follows her one morning after the service and in voiceover narration tells the audience that in that moment he knew Françoise (Marie-Christine Barrault) would one day be his wife.
Rohmer immediately derails this potential romance with a shift in narrative as Jean-Louis bumps into an old college friend Vidal (Antoine Vitez) at a downtown café. The pair sits down for coffee and delves into a rather in-depth conversation on the writings of Pascal – the first sign that Rohmer’s film is expressly concerned with these meaty dialogues between educated characters that most filmmakers choose to leave off screen. We learn that Vidal is an atheist but admires the Christian philosopher while Jean-Louis is a committed Catholic but not a fan of Pascal and his ideas. Vidal reveals that he’s currently in an unusual relationship. The woman is recently divorced, has a young daughter, and neither is entirely certain of any future together. In order to ensure the two don’t have sex simply out of boredom, Vidal invites his friend to accompany him to the woman’s apartment that very evening. Hesitantly, Jean-Louis agrees and there meets the captivating and freethinking Maud (Françoise Fabian). Not surprisingly, the heart of the film lies in these scenes documenting Jean-Louis’ crucial night with Maud. At first the trio discusses all manner of topics and opinions. They remain cordial and respectful, and no verbalized objection to either conservative religion or liberal progressivism is off limits. When Vidal realizes he’s had a bit too much to drink and a snowstorm buries them inside, he convinces Jean-Louis to stay the night since he lives farther away. Vidal leaves, and Jean-Louis’ firmly established morals are put to the test.
The remainder of the film, then, hinges on what does and doesn’t happen during his night with Maud. It represents a turning point for the film’s protagonist who remains adherent to his chosen faith, but recognizes and admits his own fallibility. He and Maud both understand that given their circumstances and outlooks on life, they cannot be together despite the precise moment when they nearly give in to their carnal desires. Temptation, it seems, is too powerful a force, which is why Jean-Louis decidedly chooses to sleep in a room and bed separate from another object of his affection when he’s similarly stuck at Françoise’s place on a later evening. He’s undeniably attracted to Maud, but his dedication to his faith keeps him from pursuing the matter further. The rest of the film deals with these complicated decisions and minor choices that add up to form the basis of our character as individuals. Jean-Louis moves on to pursue Françoise instead, and in a late-film narrative contrivance (though appropriately so), it is revealed that Maud and Françoise share a prior connection that muddies his relation to both.
In the film’s final moment, Jean-Louis is given an opportunity to absolve Françoise of a past offense or seemingly justly out her in an act of strict adherence to morality. If his night at Maud’s taught him one thing – and it’s echoed in a priest’s late-film sermon – it’s that for him Christianity isn’t merely a moral code, but a way of life. Devotion to the Catholic faith perhaps looks less like a spotless record and more like the forming of a lifestyle of choosing rightly. In his final decision to protect Françoise’s dignity – though in doing so he tells a small lie – he ultimately makes the moral choice. It’s this purity of heart, Jean-Louis (and perhaps Rohmer as well) suggests, and not just individual actions that makes any person a true believer. Rohmer’s treatment of the Christian faith and its followers is rather uncommon for cinema – a medium that has a long history of poetic criticism of religion – and it’s refreshingly so. There’s absolutely nothing preachy or condescending in Rohmer’s work, but it’s honest and uncompromising in its depiction of real people – both religious and not – nonetheless. For that, then, My Night at Maud’s is likely Rohmer’s opus, a document of considerable philosophical depth and a work of art of exquisite beauty at the same time.