“My Night at Maud’s” is technically the third installment in Éric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales series even though it was the fourth film made. Due to a required Christmas time shoot and prior commitments, lead actor Jean-Louis Trintignant wasn’t available until the following year. That little nugget aside, the film became Rohmer’s first big critical and commercial success both in France and in the United States.
Rohmer was the oldest of the French New Wave pioneers, nearly ten years the senior of his contemporaries. He was also known for being stylistically reserved compared to Godard, Truffaut and the like. But that doesn’t mean his films weren’t bucking trends. Quite the opposite. Just watch a Rohmer film and you can’t help but see the La Nouvelle Vague sensibility.
His Six Moral Tales basically follow the same narrative framework. They feature individuals who find their own moral code challenged in one way or another. More specifically, they are men who are in love with a woman but find themselves tempted by another. A big part of the focus is on how each of their personal moral codes lead them through their crisis.
In “My Night at Maud’s” we have a devout Catholic named Jean-Louis (Trintignant). He is firm in his beliefs and in the practice of his faith. He’s fallen for a young blonde parishioner (Marie-Christine Barrault) from a church he attends even though he has never spoken with her. But it’s not for lack of trying. He follows her out of church or down the tight city streets only to lose her around a corner.
One evening Jean-Louis bumps into an old childhood friend Vidal (Antoine Vitez), a brash opinionated fellow who rather enjoys the chance to needle and poke. Vidal convinces Jean-Louis to accompany him on a late night visit to a recently divorced friend named Maud (played by the captivating Françoise Fabian). The three share an evening of conversations about love, marriage, Christianity, and the writings of Blaise Pascal. After Vidal leaves Maud encourages Jean-Louis to stay. What follows is a seductive game of cat-and-mouse versus a deeply-held set of moral convictions.
Rohmer’s audacious middle act is filled with long talky takes mostly between Jean-Louis and Maud and that’s not a knock on it. Just the opposite. The natural flow of the dialogue and the subtle movements of Néstor Almendros’ camera completely sells it and keeps us locked onto these two characters. We also get a good sense of Jean-Louis and Maud’s fascinations with each other and their differing perspectives on practically everything. Plus seeds are planted throughout the conversations that surface in the last act.
Over the years the chatty middle act is what “My Night at Maud’s” has become known for. The title itself contributes to that perception. But there is more to Rohmer’s film than that both before and after the signature scene. As with all French New Wave films, this one still feels fresh and unique. Nearly fifty years after its release you still see it bucking trends and plowing new ground. That alone is a remarkable accomplishment.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS