Personal Moral Codes

MY NIGHT AT MAUD'S (1969)

To view My Night at Maud’s click here.

Éric Rohmer, “the most durable film-maker of the French New Wave”, according to his obituary in The Daily Telegraph, established international prominence when My Night at Maud’s (1969) was nominated for two Academy Awards. My Night at Maud’s is being screened on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck as part of a Blue Christmas theme that invites viewers to “Have a holly, jolly, melancholy, festive season.” With this in mind a black-and-white feature mulling religious and moral questions set in the industrial city of Clermont-Ferrand certainly fits the bill. Rohmer was a champion for authenticity. This means if he was going to film a church mass, it would be a real church mass being delivered to the faithful. If music is heard, it had a diegetic source onscreen and reason to exist. If locations were alluded to, those actual locations were used. And if the story takes place on Christmas Eve, then the film itself had to be shot on Christmas Eve too. This last point is the reason the film was delayed for a year, and may have also contributed to the reason My Night at Maud’s is known for being the third within his Six Moral Tales series, albeit the fourth in order of release.

My Night at Maud’s offers black and white cinematography by Néstor Almendros (Days of Heaven[1978]), long static takes and exacting conversations steeped in philosophy, morality and religion which focus on the moral codes of a young Catholic engineer. As in the other films belonging to the Six Moral Tales, a man in love with one woman meets another woman and is tempted to stray but, in the end, it’s the moral code that wins.

MY NIGHT AT MAUD'S (1969)

My friend Atticus Bergman disagrees with the previous sentence, adding: “I would say that it’s not necessarily the moral code, and it’s (rather debatable) supremacy, which holds the greatest significance, but rather the moral ambiguity that surrounds the roaming of the heart, even when there aren’t any punitive consequences to the eternal restlessness of desire. In all his films, Rohmer is especially concerned with this territory of ambiguity… His plots generally consist in progressively twisting and turning it, as if it were some sort of wet rag, saturated with the ambivalent fluids of the human spirit.”

MY NIGHT AT MAUD'S (1969)

The other films in the Six Moral Tales series include The Bakery Girl of Monceau (1963), Suzanne’s Career (1963), La Collectionneuse (1967), Claire’s Knee (1970) and Love in the Afternoon (1972). There are exceptions to the rule, as noted by Richard Brody in his New Yorker article (August 26, 2015): “The Film in Which Eric Rohmer Let Desire Win.” That film was The Marquise of O (1976), in which Brody notes the following:

The essence of Rohmerism is restraint. For instance, in My Night at Maud’s, Maud and Jean-Louis spend a night together just talking; in Claire’s Knee, the seductive Jérôme caresses the titular joint as a private synecdoche for the sexual relationship with Claire that he doesn’t pursue. That’s why The Marquise of O is the vanishing point of Rohmer’s philosophical universe: it’s his movie about what happens when a classic Rohmer character—a punctilious aristocrat whose sense of morality and of social norms ought to restrain him—lets himself go unrestrained, taking advantage of a situation where his lack of self-restraint can (at least for the moment) go undetected and he can take his pleasure, and do evil, without fear of the consequences.
With the words “go undetected” above, I can’t help but wonder what reasons Rohmer himself had for wanting to avoid the public eye – aside for the obvious nuisances brought about by fame. His desire for secrecy and anonymity went further. Some have opined it was because he didn’t want his family to know that he was a filmmaker. But it must go beyond family matters, because even a colleague of mine who was tasked with placing flowers on his grave in Paris could barely find where Rohmer had been buried. It was under an unremarkable cement square that did not call attention to itself. Even Rohmer’s name casts a cloak of invisibility, as it is a pseudonym that takes Erich von Stroheim’s first name and combines it with Fu Manchu author Sax Rohmer’s last name. His actual name is listed as either Maurice Henri Joseph Schérer or Jean-Marie Maurice Schérer – take your pick.

Rohmer, a Catholic, was that rare soul who succeeded in making movies free of commercial pressure to pursue his interests in history, literature, theology and philosophy. He was a teacher, a journalist, an editor at Cahiers du Cinéma and a co-writer to Claude Chabrol’s Alfred Hitchcock book. Rohmer, in other words, was no slouch. He knew of that which he wrote, and thought, and filmed. “The people in my films,” he stated, “are not expressing abstract ideas… but revealing what they think about relationships between men and women, about friendship, love, desire…” Characters pretending to hide end up revealing their true selves. Perhaps the same can be said of the director.

Pablo Kjolseth

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