Ma Nuit chez Maud ( My Night at Mauds) Eric Rohmer (Fr 1969 ) Jean Louis Trintignant, Francois Fabras, Marie-Christian Barrault
Retrocrit – More seen than heard.
Often described as talk driven, and talk centred I found it was in the film, its settings and cinematography that the Rohmer inscribed his central moral concerns.
For me two shots stood out as defining certain central concerns about which Ma Nuit chez Maud (MNCM) revolves. Eric Rohmer (ER) does not use montage, his sequences comprise compositions built into the shot, the montage shot. There is a shot where Jean-Louis (Sic) forced by circumstances to stay over chez Francoise (F), insists on making tea for the two of them. This is the first time they have actually been together and in a sense are strangers to each other. But JL does not so much make the tea as produce a theatrical performance out of making a pot of tea for two. All the actions are magnified and accompanied by gestural signs that this is a demonstration of masculine competence, a played out ritual form like the priest preparing the communion wafer. The reason I find the shot significant is because it points to an example of existential bad faith, and existentialism as a popular philosophy was part of mental fabric of the ‘60’s. Sartre gave as an example of bad faith, living in denial of being, the waiter at a café who acted (had to act?) out the role of waiter: a situation where the waiter’s role was in an expressive performance which appropriated his being. The shot of JL making a pot of tea gave the same impression as Sartre’s waiter and in looking at JL’s behaviour in the film it appears to me that ER’s concern with moral behaviour is rooted in the key psychosocial ideas generated by existentialism ideas that are themically taken up developed elaborated and intensified by artists. Sartre of course as a philosopher was originally a phenomenologist and took as a starting point propositions related to observation which were not limited to written descriptions but could be extended to other expressive forms.
The other shot that stood out for me in MNCM was one of the opening sequences introducing JL. He has just been to church and during the sequence that filmed part of the liturgy leading up to Holy Communion we see JL’s interest in an attractive blond chick (F) just a few pews away. From the interior of the church ER cuts to the exterior of the church at the end of the service. We see JL get in his car ready to stalk F to find where she lives. The stalking shot by JL by F is shot from the interior of the car ( there are in fact two shots but similar enough in composition to understand that the sequence was most likely conceived of as one shot). The shot in its interiority and intentionality comprises the most tense sequence in the film, as it has an inherent remorseless psychopathic quality. We don’t just feel we are in the interior of the car; we are in the interior of this guy’s mind. He’s man on the hunt; more accurately man machine on the hunt. An individual with a machine essence, ER’s modern corporate man on the loose, looking for his mechanical bride.
Mechanical Bride ( the Folklore of Industrial Man) is of course the title of Marshall McLuhan’s first published work, and like most of his oeuvre comprises an assemblage of text and image. Essays chronicling the way machine imagery in advertising in particular in relation to the automobile, interpenetrate contemporary consciousness. And in MNCM JL is corporate man par excellence, working as an engineer for Michelin in Clermont. JL wants life to grip the road just like tyres.
The core of the film is the sequence in which JL spends ‘the night chez Maud (M). It unfolds as a classic encounter between utterances made in good and bad faith. M has no ultimate justifying faith or philosophy; but she is honest straightforward about her life and emotions and answers the questions that JL asks. She is also attracted to JL and is open enough to show it. M lives in her being and stays true to this however hard. JL cannot answer M without prevarication and resort to justifying religious or quasi philosophical points. And when asked outright a question about his emotional commitment, he has nothing to offer a lie. There is no blond, he tells M in response to her question. But JL has already informed the viewers in voice over that he will marry the blond ( even though he has not yet actually met her). At this point JL’s philosophical and religious musings are revealed as feints; acts of specious textual enunciations designed to misdirect his audiences away from his own mechanicality, to misrepresent himself as a thinking man.
There may be many reasons that attract people to philosophy: both love of
knowledge and indifference to knowledge. Indifference is attracted to philosophy in order to hide its shame. So JL’s feint serves him well as a protective shell in the face of M’s truth, and his own attraction to M. JL ultimately only has a lie to offer, and obviously the most important person to deceive is himself. JL lays claim to the statistical propositions of Pascal in relation both to the chance of God’s existence and the advantages of taking chance when there is little to lose. In fact JL doesn’t take chances. For this reason he rejects M and hunts Francois whom he has already staked out in church. F is like a Chevrolet, an ideal religiocorporate product and JL can trust this brand like General Motors or Michelin. The blond who goes to church; her value system and desires are as open to JL as the promises of an automobile advert. Whatever JL may self believe he and F do not meet by chance; as per the car tracking shot, he hunts her down and as a corporate man gives her the chance to be the corporate wife in Clermont. F as wife is something he can control just like his car. JL would never control M, she would control him and for that reason she terrifies him. At one level MNCM is a feminist moral fable of its time.
The playing of the roles by all the actors in MNCM is nicely tuned. But in particular JLT creates an amazing physical presence out of his namesake Jean Louis. Playing JL, JLT creates a character with a haunting slimy physicality that reminds me of Robespierre. As if Robespierre were transposed and packaged as corporate man in 20 century France. Like Robespierre, JL is represented with a crabbed knotted body and soul that signals the presence of huge muscular effort required by his being to suppress the destructive negative forces trying to smash their way out of his persona. JL’s presence is always a mask: an act of bad faith: a lie. Like Robespierre JL is perhaps a man who hides behind the veil of specious philosophical concerns, busies himself with the minutiae of life whilst waiting for the opportunity to indulge desires hidden even from himself.
Buried in the final sequence of the final reel ER uncovers in the sand a final philosophical irony. The sequence takes place 5 years later, as the intertitle says when JL and F have married. As we contemplate the family, JL F and son they seem to me as a group somehow dead, or lacking life. Perhaps a trick of the camera or light? Certainly the existence together of JL and F is based on lies and deception about the events that the audience has seen. Their relationship is premised on deception, and yet in their own way they seem happy enough.. In contrast to M who has also appeared in this final sequence. For her with a life based on honesty there is only disappointment and unhappiness. The ending is ER’s final ironic statement in MNCM about the place of philosophy in human relations.