Choice and Chance: A Dialectic of Morality and Romance in Eric Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s

Let us weigh up the gain and the loss involved
in calling heads that God exists. Let us asses the
two cases: if you win you win everything; don’t
hesitate then; wager that he does exist.

–Pascal

Ma nuit chez Maud (My Night at Maud’s, 1969) is Eric Rohmer’s third in the sequence of the ‘Six Moral Tales’, though chronologically it follows La collectionneuse (1967), which is numbered as the fourth but came out two years earlier. The reason for this chronological anomaly springs from the fact that Rohmer wanted Jean-Louis Trintignant for the leading role in Maud, as he intended to shoot the movie at Christmas, to coincide with the actual time when the action in the movie takes place. Trintignant was not available then so the filming started a year later. As we shall see, the film’s numerical sequence is consistent with the thematic complexity to the story. My Night at Maud’s is the first full-length feature in the group (provided one keeps the change of chronology in mind), La boulangère de Monceau (The Bakery Girl of Monceau, 1962) being about 20 minutes, while La carrière de Suzanne (Suzanne’s Career, 1963) doesn’t exceed an hour. Whereas in the first two ‘Tales’ all the major characters were in their late teens or early twenties, in Maud three of the four major characters are all mature adults in their mid-thirties, and the fourth, Françoise, at 22, has already had experiences beyond her years. In addition, the theme of a man committed to a woman but gone astray momentarily before going back to the same woman is now presented in expanded terms of dramatic action and thematic complexity. In some ways, Maud is the most atypical of Rohmer’s Moral Tales, for its dialectic touches on topics that seem only indirectly related to romance, deviating from the rather simple formula of the first two (and the subsequent fourth), and assuming a distinct characteristic of its own, for it branches off from its rather simple initial formula to topics such as religion, Marxism, mathematics and discourses on Pascal, the latter’s ideas having a direct bearing on the actions of the main character. Even a casual viewer of My Night at Maud’s soon becomes aware that the central point of its dialectics is Pascal, whose ideas are referred to and heatedly debated by the principal characters. It is no accident that the action of the film takes place in Pascal’s birthplace, Clermont-Ferrand (Clermont en Auvergne during Pascal’s time), and that Rohmer had made a documentary on Pascal for French television a few years before the movie appeared. (1)

That Pascal’s ideas become the overriding theme of this story becomes evident by the fact that as soon as the three main characters assemble, they begin to discuss Pascal, relating his views to modern times and to their individual lives. Pascal’s famous “wager” remains at the center of these discussions, which, in the course of the narrative, are broadened to include other related topics such as mathematical probability and free choice. As the discussions progress, it becomes clear to the viewer of Maud (as well as to the reader of his short story on which it is based) that the center of dramatic interest is free choice, as the main characters do indeed make conscious choices, taking chances between lesser and great alternatives, as Pascal recommends. It is also evident that chance plays a role in the making of these decisions. Chance and choice interweave (relate), as the fortunes of all the principal characters are shaped by the interplay of these forces. The main character, especially, “bets” on his future happiness by marrying a girl he hardly knows but counting on his instinct that the choice he has made is the correct one. Still, chance has a great deal to do with his decision, as we shall see.

All these elements have a bearing on the outcome of an essentially romantic story and are organically connected to the drama of a man about to make a commitment to marriage. If there is a moral in this tale, it is a very complex one, for none of the characters involved can totally extricate himself, or herself, from all the traps and snares of moral ambiguity. As already noted, morality for Rohmer does not mean normal moral behavior but rather a struggle within a certain individual to come to terms with crucial decisions and to explain to himself and those around him his or her rationale for these decisions. The film still moves within the parameters that Rohmer has established for this group of tales. Thus the dialectic ventures beyond the romantic interests featured in almost all his stories. As a result, the film’s dialectic consists of a “triangular” set of ideas embodied in its three main characters and is carried out in extended conversations among them. One is an avowed Catholic, the other a Marxist, and the third an agnostic. This triangle expands to include the fourth concerned person, a man’s final choice as a marriage companion, the person to whom a male Rohmer hero (at least in the Moral Tales) will eventually return.

The film came as somewhat of a surprise to his audiences of the late ‘60s, and it may still look surprising to those of today; on the surface, it is no more than a rather ordinary story of romance of a straying man, sort of “lost sheep,” or “prodigal” lover, who eventually comes back to his initial choice. But the moral of this story, always an ambiguous concept with Rohmer, is not only a man’s struggle to remain loyal to his original choice when faced with temptation; it is also a rather detailed account of his religious views, in this case his beliefs in marriage as a result of love. This is a Catholic subject; for the man looking for a woman to marry must also comply with his moral principles as a Catholic. But the religious/philosophical underpinnings of the story add a new dimension to the existing formula, which in the end conforms to Rohmer’s original intentions to make several variations of the same theme in the six tales. Yet this tale is more complex than previous ones (or perhaps the ones that follow), for it is also predicated on views theoretically opposed to each other; here are at least three points of view: one, of a Catholic who staunchly defends his practice; another, of a Marxist atheist who finds Pascal relevant to modern politics; and, of a freemason and agnostic, a woman who is also the love interest of these two men in the triangle. As these three views collide in a rather strenuous debate, the dialectic touches on several other factors – religion, theology, science, mathematics, history, love – thrown into the mix. All three participants, however, concentrate on one idea, examined from three points of view: the idea is that of choice – and of how choice is influenced by chance. As usual, the main character faces choices, often coming to a seeming impasse when he is tempted; but choices are also faced by other characters, for different reasons – a historian, for instance, can make a bet, and choose the idea that history has meaning. And a woman, unlucky in love up to a certain point in her life, can choose to avoid a permanent commitment and seek love of the moment. Pascal’s “wager”, above all, implies choice. Life is meaningless without a conscious commitment to salvation through Christianity; and, as soon as this commitment comes into play, and the choice is made, life acquires a direction that gives it its meaning. As usual with Rohmer, however, “freeplay” – a concept not unlike Jacques Derrida’s “de-centering” of an idea (in this case love) – also comes in; thence ambiguity with all its ironic twists is present, eradicating all sure bets to salvation. Maud seems to end happily, with a man having married the wife he loves and living with her and their child, but we know that his having made a choice has also involved a certain compromise. Let us look into the story a bit closer.

My Night at Maud’s opens with a man (Trintignant) driving his car to church, on a snowy Sunday, where he attends mass with other parishioners. It is 21st December, just a few days before Christmas, and, after a sermon and the reciting of “The Lord’s Prayer”, the man, who exchanges glances with a young woman, Françoise (Marie-Christine Barrault), standing not far from him, follows her as she is riding her motorbike, but then loses her in the traffic. The man, who remains without a name throughout the movie, is next seen at his apartment reading a book of mathematics, and next day we find him at a cafeteria with a group of friends having breakfast and chatting; then visiting a bookstore where he browses at a book of calculus and probabilities; then at another bookstore he picks up Pascal’s Pensées and turns the pages, highlighting a passage about “unthinking belief”. Next, he is seen at a cafeteria, where he meets an old friend, Vidal (Antoine Vitez), whom he hasn’t seen since they were in school together, 14 years before. Vidal, who teaches philosophy at the university, spends a little time with him at the café, where the subject of mathematics comes up, since Jean-Louis (let us call him that for the sake of convenience) has taken an interest in it (in the short story we learn that he had studied mathematics in school, while Vidal tended towards literature). Vidal counters that mathematics has relevance in many subjects – philosophy and linguistics being among them – and brings up Pascal, whose ideas he considers relevant to modern times.

The character in the short story refers to the “arithmetic triangle” but the Vidal of the movie bursts out in a passionate diatribe on Pascal’s famous wager, and its relevance to modern times and its particular value for a Marxist like him. He says that Pascal’s wager has a modern relevance, and, as a Marxist, he has chosen to believe that history has meaning. Like Pascal, a modern Marxist has a question before him. Pascal’s wager poses a question to those who seek belief on rational grounds: Proposition A is that God does not exist, or at least you don’t know that He exists. In that case, if you accept this proposition, you lose if you are wrong. Proposition B posits that God exists, as does immortality (or, in the Pascal lexicon, “infinity”). If you go with proposition A, you lose, without hope of redemption. If you go with proposition B – that God and immortality exist, then, even though you bet against greater odds, you still have a chance to reach infinity, a mathematical result of differential calculus. Just as a believer who sides with God and immortality by making Pascal’s wager, so a Marxist can choose to interpret history (and politics) as a progression of events with a meaningful goal. You can assume the chances are 50/50, but even if you bet 10 against 90, it would be better to bet that history has meaning, for the gain would justify your supposition. Otherwise he would have to consider history as a passing series of casual events without meaning, which would defeat the purpose of his existence. Gorky and Lenin, Vidal observes, made a bet on similar grounds: if their chances of succeeding in their ideology were one to a thousand, it would be better to take that chance than none at all. Thus, the Marxist, like the religious man, can also make a similar choice, or place a “bet” on the notion that history has meaning.

At the conclusion of their meeting, Vidal invites Jean-Louis to a concert, given by Léonide Kogan, the famous violinist, that night. He could meet some pretty girls there, he tells him. After some hesitation, Jean-Louis accepts to go, for it occurs to him that Françoise (he has already mentioned her name in his first voice-over commentary) would be there. As the music of a Mozart violin sonata is being played, he scans the audience, in the hope of seeing her. After the two friends attend midnight mass at Christmas Eve, Vidal then invites Jean-Louis to go with him on Christmas day to visit a woman he knows, and, after some hesitation, Jean-Louis accepts. Maud (Françoise Fabian) is an enticing divorcee, a pediatrician, who lives with her young daughter and a servant. At dinner, the Pascal question surfaces again, and this time its relevance to a modern man and woman is debated between Jean-Louis and Maud. Jean-Louis and Vidal have come from midnight mass at Christmas Eve (the previous evening) and Maud mockingly observes that they “stink of holy water”. She is an agnostic with little use for religion, coming from a family of free thinkers (or Freemasons). Pascal is not for the likes of her, although she obviously has read his works, as a copy of the Pensées is found in one of her shelves. Needled by Vidal, she responds that she doesn’t care for Pascal’s notion of a human being as “a thinking reed between two infinites” or that the fate of humanity had something to do with the size of Cleopatra’s nose. Vidal makes it no secret that he is familiar with Maud, and one detects he is still smitten, but leaves the field open to Jean-Louis, pretending he has left a window open and the snow will go in. They revert to the subject of Pascal, and Jean-Louis, who dabbles in mathematics, and has lately taken an interest in Pascal, as he has already told Vidal at the restaurant, declares once more that he finds him wanting. When asked why, Jean-Louis rather smugly dismisses Pascal’s famous wager, not liking the “lottery aspect of it”. As a mathematician, he finds that one can calculate probabilities, given certain facts, but in the absence of such facts, the result of calculation would amount to zero. More importantly, he rejects Pascal for his refusal to sanction marriage, or love in marriage. Jean-Louis claims that Pascal himself had abandoned his principles and had condemned science and mathematics at the end of his life. Pascal, Jean-Louis also contends, dealt in abstractions, being unable to appreciate food (and the Chanturgue wine they are drinking, which he probably drank himself), marriage, love and the material pleasures of life – things a Catholic does not care to abandon. He says he finds Pascal’s wager, a bet for those who wanted a good reason to commit to God and immortality, inadequate as a proposition for salvation.

When Vidal leaves, a potential physical encounter with Maud proves a half-baked affair since Jean-Louis has already committed to Françoise, and has revealed to the audience, in voiceover, that this is the woman he will marry. Though he is clearly attracted to Maud, who makes all too obvious overtures to draw him into her arms (she sleeps in the nude), he wavers when he wakes up in the morning at her side, kisses her passionately but then retracts; she rejects him when he tries to follow her to her bathroom, saying she can’t love a man “who doesn’t know his mind”. But we know that she continues to have an interest in him. Later that morning, as Jean-Louis sits at a cafe, he spots Françoise in the streets, runs after her and introduces himself, thus starting a relationship with her. They meet again soon, once more coincidentally, and this time it is snowing so heavily he offers to drive her to her apartment, in a student dormitory – for she is a biology student. His car is stuck in the snow, and she offers shelter for him for the night, at a room next to her. He behaves like a perfect gentleman, only getting up once to ask her for matches. She appreciates that, and they meet again, and this time he is seriously in love with her and asks her to marry him. She confesses she has a lover, or, rather, had one, a married man. Jean-Louis admits that he, too, has had affairs with other women. The past is the past, and must be forgotten. Five years later, as they and their young child are vacationing at a beach, they meet Maud again. Apparently she and Françoise had known each other, and at this point – though it is not at all clear – we suspect that Françoise had been having an affair with Maud’s husband. Maud has remarried, doing not so hotly with her new husband – she never has any luck with men, she tells him. She is just the same: attractive, sexy, and with no trace of regret about the past, and she would try to seduce Jean-Louis again, if she could. Seeing her case is hopeless, though, she just walks off, and the happy couple trot over to the sand beach with their young son and dip into the sea happily.

Though the story revolves around that simple plot line, the idea of chance and choice – of calculation and coincidence – surfaces as soon as Jean-Louis meets Vidal at the café, and says he can calculate the odds of their meeting there, had he known certain facts about him. Jean-Louis still believes in taking a calculating chance – the chance that brought him into contact with Françoise – and he believes in choice, since as a “converted” Catholic he can put aside his youthful indiscretions and marry a girl and live a normal married life. Despite his apparent rejection of the Pascal premise, ultimately, he does make a “bet” on an unknown girl (as he says he had made a decision to marry her as soon as he saw her in church), in a sense taking up Pascal’s advice to wager his life on only a possibility (or probability) that he would be happy. As a Catholic who has been “converted”, and has given up his previous indiscretions, he must make that choice. Not to have made a choice such as this, he would probably remain unmarried and an errant, subject to the whims of fate and chance.

What is interesting here is not the final resolution, but the fact that the greater part of the movie is spent at Maud’s apartment, during the night and in the ensuing afternoon, after they have met again during a mountain climb. As usual with Rohmer, the temptation is greater than the ultimate reward. And as is also customary with his male characters in his Moral Tales, Rohmer shows how ironies reverberate through the confrontations between a male character who is tempted and the female character who acts as the tempting agent. Jean-Louis resorts to fibbing, denying that another girl already holds his interest, and that in Maud he sees a danger of being derailed from his conformist views and newly acquired “conversion”. Simply put, his conversion sounds phony, and his decision ironic, though ultimately it may lead to stability. He rationalizes, as Pascal points out, an approach that does not lead to unbounded infinity. It could have been more interesting if he had bet on Maud, a concrete and tangible (and physical) proof of love, but evidently, Maud frightens him, so he cannot make the jump. Thus the whole concept of “betting” becomes ambiguous, for, after, all, who can know for sure that one alternative will lead to “infinity”, as opposed to another? Modern life does not offer such guarantees. And yet, Jean-Louis remains loyal to his own “morals”, for, in his mind, his choice of the Catholic girl, since he is a converted Catholic, will ensure him what he seeks: a steady, happy life. But the film reveals the ironies of choice, and, although Pascal is not rejected by Rohmer’s tale, his premises are shown to be revealing in their nakedness, for modern ambiguity, and the knowledge of life itself as it is – including eating, drinking, smoking, and making love – precludes a commitment to infinity in the same way that the seventeenth century thinker would have us believe. Jean-Louis’s rejection of Pascal, as he points out that man’s “sterility” in not accepting food or women, is also an added irony to the story.

That is why the ending is so deliciously two-pronged. On the one hand, Maud, who by coincidence finds herself on the beach with him – now married to the woman he loved and with their child – is still capable of provoking him and reminding him of what he has lost. She walks away with a swing of her hips and a swagger only known to temptresses and women assured of their power over men – for Maud is Pythia, Circe and Eve, perhaps a duplicate of Haydée in the previous tale, but one endowed with wisdom won by years of experience. She is Pythia, for she guesses all along that he had a Catholic girl in tug, even before he utters a word about her. Maud spots what she thinks is Jean-Louis’ weakness: to love a woman “certain conditions” must be met. He cannot love a woman without “planning ahead, calculating, and classifying.” (3) First, the woman must be a Catholic, and then love will follow. For Maud, love should be unconditional, no strings attached. This was a choice that brings a peace of mind and stability, perfectly Catholic from all points of view. But it is a choice mocked by one who is unattainable, and unhappy. This is the essence of the dialectics of the story. All the forces are at play here: religions, which dictates one’s choice; love, which is “real” in a physical sense but no guarantee of future happiness; faith, which is crucial to a believer; and even history and politics – admittedly borderline issues – which are affected by Pascal’s thesis that one must take a chance and bet on the desired alternative. But chance always affects choice. Even if one can calculate a probable encounter, one cannot always count on it. After all, Jean-Louis had lived two months in Clermont-Ferrand and had not met Vidal; and he would not have met Françoise at the time he did without having spent the night at Maud’s. None of these facts could be judged as stable, or certain. Human life – and consequently happiness, such as one chooses to define it – will always depend on chance, and choice, to some extent, on coincidence. A mathematician would do well to calculate, but he is still at the mercy of the merest incident, such as a snowstorm. With all this said, Jean-Louis can exercise his free will when, at a crucial moment, he is master of his own happiness, when, at the very end, he chooses not to reveal to Françoise that he has understood her predicament – that he knows she had been the lover of Maud’s husband. That would have embarrassed her and perhaps ruined his by-now established marital happiness. Rather, he said that the night at Maud’s was his last escapade. He shifts the burden of sinning to himself; and that little act of mercy redeems him.

Endnotes

  1. “Entretien sur Pascal” (1965) in Rohmer’s television series, En profile dans le texte.
  2. Hugh M. Davidson, Blaze Pascal (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1983), pp. 30-31.
  3. Eric Rohmer, Six Moral Tales, tr. Sabine d’Estree (New York: The Viking Press, 1980), p. 104.

by Constantine Santas April 2010 Eric Rohmer Dossier, Feature Articles, Issue 54

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