BY KENT JONES
“Some people think Rohmer is in league with the devil,” wrote cinematographer Nestor Almendros in his book of autobiographical reflections on the cinema, a man with a camera. He was describing his working experience on My Night at Maud's (1969). “Months before, he had scheduled the exact date for shooting the scene where it snows; that day, right on time, it snowed, and the snow lasted all day long, not just a few minutes.” Later, Almendros makes a curious shift. “It is not just a question of luck; the key lies in Rohmer’s detailed preparation.”
One wonders exactly what Almendros means here. If it hadn’t snowed, would Rohmer’s detailed preparation have paid off so handsomely? Given the fact that he was working with a minuscule budget and a production schedule for which the term rushed seems generous, isn’t it likely that the entire production would have come to a standstill, depriving the film not only of its seasonal atmosphere but of one of its key dramatic elements? (In fact, such a disaster befell the shoot of The Green Ray , when the eponymous phenomenon failed to materialize, and Rohmer was forced to wait an entire year before he got the shot he needed.)
But Almendros was on to something with his seemingly contradictory statements: Rohmer’s meticulous preparation neither dispels the need for luck nor compensates for it. In fact, he creates situations, in his filmmaking and for his characters, in which preparation and chance go hand in hand. Jean-Claude Brialy’s Jérôme, in Claire’s Knee (1970), might be the ultimate Rohmer hero, in that his quest offers a mirror image of Rohmer’s as an artist: to lay the groundwork for a situation in which chance will play the decisive role. No one’s films are more “written,” more narrative based, or more logistically tied to particular places and times of year—Rohmer’s cinema is nothing if not preplanned. On the other hand, Rohmer is just as enamored of the aesthetic felicities of raw, unfolding reality as Jean Renoir or Roberto Rossellini—aesthetic felicities and moral complexities, which are infinitely richer and more . . . complex than in the work of almost any other filmmaker. François Truffaut and Jacques Rivette may have been known as the Jamesians, but while Rohmer is a temperamental world away from the author of “The Beast in the Jungle” and The Wings of the Dove, he is similarly sensitive to the layered proximity of the mental and the physical, the subjective and the objective.
Over the years, Rohmer has received a great deal of attention as a writer of dialogue, or to put it more precisely, as a creator of films structured around talk. He has also been noted as a lover of beautiful young people, as a teller of tales, and as some kind of “moralist.” None of these observations is terribly insightful, least of all the charge of moralism, which seems to rise from a simple misunderstanding of the term “moral tale.” It has often been pointed out that Rohmer is a practicing Catholic, to suggest that his Christianity is at the center of his filmmaking. In fact, while his Jesuit education may very well have instilled him with piety, it also doubtless sharpened his spirit of restless inquiry into the roles played by chance, choice, and grace in life—none of which he ever fully embraces. The Six Moral Tales do not have “morals.” Rather, they are stories of people in the process of making choices that may or may not be moral, examining the basis on which those choices are made, and thus trying to divine the distance between the real and the ideal in the process.
The key ingredient in Rohmer’s cinematic inquiries is the “ordinariness.” When he was a critic, he wrote—rapturously—on Rossellini, and it’s easy to see the link. First of all, Rossellini’s “unreasonable” heroines, like Anna Magnani’s holy fool in The Miracle or Ingrid Bergman’s Irene in Europa ’51, find many echoes in Rohmer’s oeuvre, from Béatrice Romand’s Sabine in Le beau mariage (1982) through Charlotte Véry’s Félicie in A Tale of Winter (1992), not to mention the exceedingly single-minded Jérôme. Rossellini’s penchant for interlacing documentary and fictional imperatives is continued in Rohmer. And Ingrid Bergman’s sudden exclamation of beauty and mystery in Stromboli and the change of heart at the end of Voyage in Italy are very close to the moments of revelation in Rohmer, but with a difference: Rossellini’s films feature dramatically extreme situations (a woman climbing over the top of a volcano to escape from her husband, a couple on the verge of divorce suddenly moved to reconciliation by the uninhibitedly emotional culture around them), and Rohmer’s do not. An engineer forced to spend the night at a divorcée’s house because of a sudden snowstorm in Clermont-Ferrand, a maladroit Parisian finding love on vacation, a middle-aged woman from the south of France in search of a husband for her best friend—this is the stuff of Rohmer’s cinema. The revelations in Rohmer run just as deep as those in Rossellini—that is, we infer that they effect shifts in consciousness just as great—but they arrive via the ordinary, as opposed to the extraordinary. They realign our focus so we can see the wonder of everyday life, realigning our sense of the extraordinary in the process. Jean-Louis Trintignant’s recognition of his wife’s shame at the end of My Night at Maud’s becomes just as wondrous as Francis’s tears before the leper in Rossellini’s Flowers of St. Francis—provided, of course, that one is able to suspend one’s judgment of the intellectually inclined French bourgeoisie and accept the proposition that their uptight little world can provide a window on the infinite.
This is where Rohmer’s intricacy comes into play. Even those who are unable to imagine themselves vacationing with Marie Rivière’s Delphine or Emmanuelle Chaulet’s Blanche—in The Green Ray and Boyfriends and Girlfriends (1987), respectively—or having lunch with Bernard Verley’s Frédéric in Love in the Afternoon (1972), can admire Rohmer’s extraordinary care with dramatic specifics. In My Night at Maud’s, a man (Trintignant) leaves his home in rural France and attends Mass during the Christmas season. He spots a pretty blonde (Marie-Christine Barrault) and, after the service is finished, hops in his car and follows her on her moped. He loses sight of her but soon explains to us in voice-over that this was the day he knew that Françoise was going to be his wife. Next, we see him at home studying mathematics, then at work during his lunch break. He is an engineer at the Michelin plant in Clermont-Ferrand, and when he mentions that he lives in Ceyrat, one of his co-workers remarks on the distance. That night, he stops in at a bookstore and thumbs through a copy of Pascal’s Pensées, and later runs into his old friend Vidal (Antoine Vitez) in a bar. Both men are struck by the fact that they have met completely by chance and quickly embark on a discussion of probability, which segues into Pascal, which in turn eases into philosophy (Vidal is a professor), which is a hop, skip, and a jump to Marxism (Vidal is a Marxist) and Christianity (Trintignant’s unnamed character—we’ll call him Jean-Louis—is a practicing Catholic). Vidal invites Jean-Louis to a Léonide Kogan concert, where there will be “lots of pretty girls,” and then insists that on Christmas night he accompany him to the home of a certain Maud (Françoise Fabian), a divorced woman and good friend with whom, he claims, he occasionally keeps company. His ostensible reason for asking Jean-Louis to accompany him is that he’s afraid that he and Maud will sleep together out of boredom if they’re left alone.
So, we have a sense of place (the Auvergne region) and a time of year (Christmas). We know that Jean-Louis is a Catholic, that he is a loner who lives far from where he works, that he enjoys intellectual pursuits and has a particular interest in theories of probability. We also know, via the curt narration, that he is fairly single-minded (he has decided he’s found the girl of his dreams after a couple of quick glances in church) and that the story we’re watching is in the past tense. We are also primed to accept chance as a major factor, given the manner in which Jean-Louis has spotted Françoise and run into his old friend, not to mention the discussions of Pascal. From there, we’re on to Maud’s house, where everything is turned upside down and inside out.
It is a common misconception that too much dialogue can sink a movie, which is in turn based on the equally common misconception that dialogue is always a forum for direct communication—the kind of dialogue easily found on television or in the majority of commercial films. In Rohmer’s cinema, talk is never just talk and is always a form of indirect action. For Jean-Louis, it is, or becomes, a means of endless postponement. And then there is the crucial matter of the actor who’s speaking the dialogue. There are some things that can be imparted to us easily, without contrivance, by means of narrative exposition. There are other things that cannot. And Rohmer’s knowledge of the difference between the two is one of the many rare qualities that make him such a great filmmaker. Casting is always important, but in Rohmer it is essential. Careful exposition allows us to see all the exterior traits of Jean-Louis—Catholic, intellectual, engineer, former womanizer, etc. But all the exposition in the world would not allow us to see his reticence, referred to in the dialogue long after we’ve noted it (consciously or not) in Trintignant’s comportment, his way of imparting himself one little bit at a time. Rohmer is not the only filmmaker who has mined this trait in Trintignant—it certainly served Bernardo Bertolucci in The Conformist, and it has also worked well for André Téchiné, Truffaut, and Krzysztof Kieslowski. But it is employed in those other films for its sinister edge under extreme melodramatic conditions, while in My Night at Maud’s it is the ordinary trait of a fairly common type of man seen under unremarkable everyday circumstances. Rohmer almost always works with good actors, and Trintignant is no exception. But the core of his presence here is something that is more or less unactable, which puts the film closer to Bresson than one might think. In other words, who Trintignant is, as opposed to his considerable ability as an actor, sits at the heart of this character and this film.
In order for such a strategy to work, nothing can be heightened, and to be sure, nothing ever is heightened in Rohmer’s work. Observation always takes precedence over amplification. A very simple example would be the scene where Maud’s daughter, Marie (played by Marie Becker, Fabian’s own daughter, by Jacques Becker), wakes up and asks her mother if she can look at the lights on the Christmas tree. Maud plugs in the lights, the girl has a look, and then she goes back to bed. Most filmmakers would cut to a point-of-view shot of the lights and back to an expression of wonder on the girl’s face; they would probably also take great care to ensure that the viewer shared in the wonder by framing the shot of the tree so that it became a vision, the Christmas tree. In Rohmer’s film, it’s all done in one medium-shot, and the everyday luminousness of Almendros’s imagery isn’t even slightly jacked up on behalf of the tree or the girl. Rohmer never disrupts the flow of our attention with such shifts, and this allows us an unusual opportunity to scrutinize his characters’ every move. Believability and plausibility at the most minute level are key characteristics of Rohmer’s films—in this case, how single people in their thirties, living in the provinces, behave when they’re alone, how they move, what they talk about, how they draw each other out and defend themselves from self-exposure. As long as you’re not hankering for someone to draw a knife or make a declaration, this provides the way toward a remarkable form of suspense.
What exactly transpires between Maud and Jean-Louis? One way of looking at the film is to see Jean-Louis as a man who plays it safe, rejecting Pascal’s wager by refusing to bet on the possibility of infinite happiness with Maud and banking on a less exciting woman who happens to represent his ideal type. In one sense, this describes My Night at Maud’s to perfection. But on another, deeper level, this is a story of chance—real chance versus ideal chance. “I love surprises,” proclaims Jean-Louis, and just as he is throughout much of the movie, he’s telling himself and the people around him a story. He acknowledges his “reticence,” but he is finally reticent in a way that even he doesn’t fully comprehend. Running into Vidal is a matter of chance. Finding a woman who conforms to his own preconception is not, the probability being exceptionally high that he would eventually meet a woman such as Françoise (especially high in church, since he’s in search of a good Catholic). Maud is not simply a woman of an alternate type—brunette, Protestant (nonpracticing), vivacious, “fast”—she is potentially an agent of transformation. She spends the night listening to two men tell stories about Marxism and Catholicism and Pascal, as articulate as they are indirect in their actions. Vidal tells Jean-Louis that he wants him to come along to save him from sleeping with Maud, but Maud reveals that Vidal is in love with her and that he brought Jean-Louis along as a kind of test; Jean-Louis insists that he wants to go but allows himself to be talked into staying the night because of the snow, then into moving ever closer to Maud’s bed, and finally into it. Jean-Louis thinks he’s revealing himself with all his talk about Catholicism and the sacrament of marriage, but Maud knows that it’s nothing but a barrier, the kind of barrier that men put up in order to shield themselves from the necessity of direct action. By Jean-Louis’ lights, Maud has opened a door through which he is afraid to walk for fear of jeopardizing his resolve. By Maud’s lights, Jean-Louis has already walked through the door and into the room, literally and figuratively, and his resolve and beliefs amount to nothing but impediments to recognizing and negotiating immediate reality. What are the chances that Jean-Louis and Maud will have a life together? Based on her luck with men and his avowed preference for Catholic blondes, not so great. Based on their immediate affinity for each other, not so small. “You are a happy soul, despite appearances,” observes Maud of Jean-Louis—and the essential rightness of this observation is what makes Rohmer a greater artist than Bertolucci and also points to what gives My Night at Maud’s its special spark and effervescence, which, it must be admitted, is not present in every Rohmer film.
Current fashion would favor Maud as the voice of reason when she tartly dismisses Jean-Louis’ prevarications: “I prefer people who know what they want.” Yet there’s something equally admirable about Jean-Louis’ insistence on adhering to his story and fulfilling his own platonic conception with Françoise, a decidedly unhappy soul. The necessity of choice, the pain of choice: no film is better at illuminating these two equally real aspects of living. There are no moments of grace in My Night at Maud’s, at least nothing like Natacha’s discovery of the missing necklace in A Tale of Springtime (1990), the appearance of the green ray, or the unexpected climactic return of the long-lost Charles in A Tale of Winter (such moments, along with the singular and singularly curious case of 1978’s Perceval, are the only indications of Catholicism in Rohmer’s own authorial viewpoint, at least to my mind). Yet there are intimations of grace in the slow, serpentine movement toward intimacy between Maud and Jean-Louis.
Rohmer’s films offer us an exceptionally vivid picture of how we navigate the twists and turns that life throws our way on a daily basis. “All the pleasure of life is in general ideas,” wrote Oliver Wendell Holmes. “But all the use of life is in specific solutions.” No artist has expressed this dichotomy more eloquently, or lovingly, than Eric Rohmer.