“That Monday, December 21st, I suddenly knew, without a doubt, that Françoise would be my wife,” protagonist Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Trintignant) declares in voiceover near the beginning of Éric Rohmer’s 1969 film My Night at Maud’s. Unlike the preceding entries in the director’s Six Moral Tales series, My Night at Maud’s — officially the third tale, though it was shot and released fourth due to scheduling conflicts — eschews narration almost entirely, rendering this statement all the more noteworthy. It’s also quite surprising, in that he doesn’t actually know Françoise (Marie-Christine Barrault).
Jean-Louis, a thirty-four-year-old engineer, has recently returned to France to work for Michelin in the town of Clermont-Ferrand, having previously lived abroad in Vancouver and Valparaíso. A practicing Catholic, he’s taken notice of Françoise at the church where they both attend Mass, but although they’ve exchanged brief, awkward glances and he’s followed her in his car as she’s gone off on her motorbike, they have yet to speak to each other at the time of this revelation. Still, there’s a certain logic to the idea. Françoise is a Catholic, which is a must in his future wife, and a blonde, which he likes; it may even be a kind of fate or predestination.
Things soon become more complicated, however, when he runs into Vidal (Antoine Vitez), a childhood friend whom he hasn’t seen in fourteen years, and through him becomes acquainted with the eponymous Maud (Françoise Fabian). Maud would seem to be the exact opposite of Françoise: an atheist from a family of free thinkers, a divorcee, a brunette. During the evening that Jean-Louis and Vidal spend in her home (Christmas, to be exact), they engage in a lively discussion about religion, philosophy, morality, sex, love and marriage. (It wouldn’t be a Rohmer movie without this sort of conversation.) Jean-Louis is always ready to justify his beliefs and behavior, even while admitting that he’s hardly been a perfect saint, but he finds himself challenged constantly by the others — not to mention tempted, when an unexpected snowfall forces him to spend the night at Maud’s.
The film’s winter setting is significant, not least of all from an aesthetic standpoint. While La Collectionneuse (1967) and Claire’s Knee (1970), the Six Moral Tales films made before and after My Night at Maud’s, are set in summer and shot in gorgeous color, Maud’s takes place in a black-and-white winter, adding an air of austerity that reflects a certain strictness in Jean-Louis’s moral code (though he firmly rejects the austere Christianity of seventeenth-century philosopher Blaise Pascal, much referenced throughout). The snow, specifically, also serves the plot, compelling Jean-Louis to stay overnight at Maud’s and subsequently at Françoise’s when his car gets stuck on an icy road.
There are a number of such parallels in Jean-Louis’s relationships with the two women, in spite of their outward contrasts; perhaps the dichotomy isn’t as clear as it appears, or maybe his views are a bit more muddled than he likes to admit. He explains to them both, for instance, that he’s happy around them in a way he isn’t with other people, and two complementary scenes set outdoors in the snow have him telling each woman that he feels as if he’s known her for much longer than he has. Differences exist, certainly: with Françoise, he’s looking toward marriage, while with Maud he insists that he’s only being friendly — yet his affectionate behavior says otherwise, that his claims that he only loves her platonically and that there’s no future for them are a kind of self-defense against a relationship that doesn’t fit his ideals.
Notably, most of the characters in the film have scientific careers: Jean-Louis is a engineer, Maud is a pediatrician and Françoise studies biology and works in a lab, while Vidal is a philosophy professor. It’s fitting, then, that mathematical issues, questions of probability, of chance, luck, coincidence, certainty and choice, play a major role in the story, deeply intertwined with its moral questions — though life and human relationships often prove more complex than any rules or theories that might be applied to them.
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