Thursday, January 2, 2014

My Night at Maud's (1969)

In Arthur Penn's Night Moves, Gene Hackman famously says, in response to his wife asking if he wants to go see My Night at Maud's, that he's seen a Rohmer film before and that "it's kinda like watching paint dry." The line is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, of course, but it does invite one to speculate about the extent to which a Rohmer film actually is boring. That his movies usually concern the interactions between people, often men and women, and aren't at all interested in diverting plots is why someone might be inclined to call them dull. Yet, to paraphrase a line from Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, the problem isn't that the movie is boring, but that the viewer is bored.

The funny thing is, My Night at Maud's is one of the least boring movies ever. It's typical Rohmer in that it consists almost entirely of characters in various locations engaging in conversation. Jean-Louis is a Catholic who meets up with an old friend obsessed with the works of Blaise Pascal. Together they discuss philosophy, attend a concert, then Mass, and finally meet up at his friend Maud's apartment, where the conversation continues. You get the idea. The wonderful thing is that they all have really worthwhile things to say. Watching the film is like eavesdropping on people who are talking about things that matter such that you don't want to stop listening. Anyone who appreciates human beings engaging their intellectual capabilities should find this anything but dull viewing. 

Yet despite its philosophical musings, the movie is hardly an academic exercise. Rohmer has a great way of using intellectual activity to broach various aspects of human behavior. Ultimately, the film is about the conflict between beliefs and ideas and our more primordial tendencies. Jean-Louis is a disciplined Catholic who believes in putting structures and systems before natural desires. The beautiful Maud represents the antithesis of Jean-Louis' views. The night in the film's title largely concerns her attempt to prove how his ideas result in hypocrisy. Beautifully, though, Rohmer isn't out to takes sides with anyone. When it seems as though he's taken an anti-establishment position, he turns corners and allows for Jean-Louis to continue to defend his Catholic position. There's a sort of epilogue that closes out the film in which Rohmer beautifully wraps up the story, offering closure without giving any kind of answers to the questions he's been asking. Somehow, he manages to feel content after raising so many problems. And as a result, so do we.

It's understandable why someone might think certain movies are like watching paint dry. I was just watching Antonioni's Red Desert, and as much as I enjoyed it, I see how someone raised on pop tarts and MTV might find it a little unbearable. But My Night at Maud's should be entertaining for anyone who has a mind and likes to use it. Unlike the bored people in an Antonioni film, Rohmer's characters are actually interested in life and in figuring out is endless complexities and dilemmas. The film is a puzzle of the human soul, and is fun just like a jigsaw puzzle can be fun. It takes work to reach results, yet if the work wasn't kind of enjoyable, we would never bother to work on puzzles in the first place. 

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