By Afra Nariman
My Night at Maud’s (1969)
Directed by: Éric Rohmer
Stars: Françoise Fabian, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Marie-Christine Barrault
A devout Roman Catholic man named Jean-Louis, who strictly follows a moral code inspired by philosopher Blaise Pascal, spots a pretty woman named Françoise at Church, experiences love at first sight, and immediately promises himself that he will marry her. Soon after, an old friend of his named Vidal introduces him to his friend Maud. After spending a night at Maud’s place, conversing about philosophy, love and life, Jean-Louis finds himself feeling conflicted about his desires.
Very few films are as bluntly philosophical as My Night at Maud’s. As a filmmaker, Èric Rohmer focuses on exploring the nature of morality through stories that revolve around a character who is presented with a moral dilemma. In this film, he gives us a character in Jean-Louis, who he himself adheres strictly to a moral code loosely based on the philosophy of Blaise Pascal.
Pascal’s “wager” is brought up in the film numerous times. It states:
In other words, when deciding to do something, don’t put too much emphasis on probabilities. The film refers to this as “mathematical hope,” which means you should always choose something that has an infinite payoff, even if it has a lower probability to be true. Something along these lines may be the reason why Jean-Louis promises to marry Françoise before he even talks to her. It’s later revealed that she fits the description of his dream wife; mainly because she’s a devout catholic.
Getting too into the specifics of the various philosophies and conversations about love and life presented in the film is impossible to do while capturing the true value and essence of the film. It’s one of those movies that you just have to experience for yourself. My Night at Maud’s is unparalleled in its dialogue. No film has more detailed, philosophical and meaningful dialogue between characters than this one. At the same time, the conversations progress naturally and transition realistically. Through these conversations, we come to know each character extremely intimately. There aren’t many better ways to get to know somebody than to speak to them about their views on life, love and morality. This film proves that the same could be said about how to best get to know characters in a film. We are given zero inclination or information about who Jean-Louis and Maud are or what kind of people they are, until their conversation later in the night after their friend Vidal leaves them. They begin to speak about life, love, divorce, faith and philosophy in one of the most enthralling and genuine scenes in cinematic history. Through their talk, they each reveal themselves extensively to one another. Rohmer created deeply engaging, real characters and in this masterful scene of purely meaningful dialogue, we come to know each of them for who they are and what they want in life.
The main topics of discussion are love and morality; and how they are often intertwined. Jean-Louis expresses that he has developed his morality from what he has learned in his past relationships. Love ensues moral challenges, and it is precisely when you are challenged, that learning occurs. When asked about what he thinks about singular immoral acts or mistakes that he has made in the past; mistakes that may not adhere to his strict moral code, he asserts that a person should be judged on an entire life, not just by a single act. In other words, live an objectively moral life. He also says that we do not necessarily think and consciously make every single decision in our lives. Rather, we choose a way to live our lives; we have principles, and these principles dictate how we naturally go about living our lives and making the decisions that we do every day.
This film is about chance, morality and love. Although there are a handful of films that are by nature intellectual and philosophical, very few do it as bluntly as My Night at Maud’s. Every single ounce of dialogue makes you think; not only about the film but about yourself and perhaps people you know. It’s an exploration of the line that you must walk when you are “trying” to be moral, yet a natural “Don Juan,” as Maud puts it. At one point in their conversation, she says:
"It's been ages since I talked like this to anyone. It feels good."
That’s what watching this film feels like. You rarely get to watch something with such stimulating and intellectual content. It truly feels good to watch My Night at Maud’s, especially today, when much of cinema has put this style to the side because “it’s too slow,” or “not entertaining.” This film is a masterful and refreshing example of incredible script-writing.