August 07, 2010

Ma Nuit chez Maud

My night with Maud is one of those French films in which nothing actually happens. The main action of a film is an inconsequential conversation between three characters, all of whom know that they won't meet often again. But on the other hand: the conversation is much more important than that. Its a conversation which centres upon the French philosopher and mathematician, Pascal. Pascal proposed a famous wager: he argued that one had to believe in God. The wager which justified that belief went thus, if God existed your belief would entitle you to eternal happiness, if God did not exist, you lost nothing by believing in him. Rohmer, the director of My night with Maud, plays with the wager. The Catholic within the film, Jean Louis, applies the wager as Pascal himself did. His friend Vidal, a communist, applies it in a different sense: Vidal believes that life is worthless without a great purpose to live for. His application of Pascal is to use the wager to justify his communism. If Communism was correct and there was a tide to history, Vidal argued, his life would have meaning were he a communist: if the world had no meaning then whether a communist or not, it did not matter whether he was a communist, his life was meaningless either way. Better to believe in the illusion and have the chance of achieiving eternal happiness or fulfilment, than to live in frustration and meaningless.

Rohmer in this film demonstrates again and again that the wager has a power that we must acknowledge. Ultimately that power depends on the fact that human beings are caught often between two actions- to act or not to act. Jean Louis, the main protagonist, is always caught between acting and not acting. He might sleep with a woman or not. He might fall in love or not. He might do many things butthat is different from doing any of those things. The film opens with a series of shots in a cathedral. Jean Louis listens to his priest and spots a pretty girl across the Isle. Religion though seems dry and insufficient: the priest is boring, the girl cycles away, the service ends in boredom. Religion leaves Jean Louis sitting in his rooms, reading Pascal again and again, testing the mathematics, analysing the philosophy. He meets, in town, an old school friend Vidal who proposes the wager with history replacing religion. Vidal offers to take him to a concert where there will be girls, as a response Jean Louis takes him to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Vidal takes him to meet Maud.

The centre of the film is the conversation between Maud, Jean Louis and Vidal. The conversation between the three involves Pascal and reflects different styles. Vidal is ironic and slowly drinks to drunkenness. Jean Louis is blundering and slightly one dimensional. Maud is sexy, intelligent and seductive. All three of them dance intellectually and sexually around each other. Vidal leaves Maud and Jean Louis alone and they talk all night. Ultimately again their focus is another aspect of the wager: Maud offers Jean Louis her body and the man refuses. She turns it back on him: reminding him that she has asked him for a reason. She seeks human companionship, he rejects the offer. He rejects the real possibility of something that might go somewhere- to dalliance or to love. His rejection is not merely a rejection of her as an option but a rejection of her as a human: he values his preferences and morals more than her happiness that evening.

Jean Louis throughout the film behaves fatallistically. He refuses to make positive choices, flowing with the choices that God provides him with. Even his affairs, he tells Maud, are those of a man who does not decide to fall in love and yet falls in love. They fall away when they are no longer convenient, when he or the girl concerned moves away, God disposes his life through providence. In that sense he does not really take Pascal's wager seriously. This is perhaps most evident in the second half of the film where he finds the girl he saw in the Cathedral and has a relationship with her. With Maud we saw a personal connection, one of the things I found troubling about hte film on first viewing is that with this second girl there is no connection. This is explained as soon as you realise that Jean Louis's actions throughout are driven by providence and not by choice. This means that as Maud points out he is incapable of morality, it also means that he fails in a curious sense Pascal's wager. The wager demands a commitment to happiness which Jean Louis will never make: he will never sacrafice his mistresses for his God, never sacrafice his conventional codes for a girl who might be the one of his dreams and is always propelled to choose things by providence rather than choice.

I haven't provided a full or good analysis of the film: it is definitely worth watching though- for some amazing performances and interesting concepts.

1 comments:

James said...

Excellent review. What an ass Jean Louis sounds. He's kind of Crooked Timber to Vidal's Harry's Place.

I can't help thinking, however, that Maud could, in other circumstances, turn down Jean Louis without ever being in danger of "rejecting him as a human being" as well as "rejecting him as an option" - unless, of course, that that imbalance of the sexes exists in Britain without existing in France.