I was out with friends a few months ago in a small bar on the northern cusp of San Francisco’s Castro District. A middle-class, wood- and glass-adorned affair vaguely redolent of the neighborhood’s frontier heritage, the bar facilitated an atmosphere gregarious enough to encourage my occasionally dive-skittish patronage, though the noise level, even past 10 on a weeknight, effectively curtailed anything beyond the judiciously pithy conversation one might find on Twitter. It was, in other words, an evening of summary judgments and blurby, Robert Christgau-esque opprobrium. So I was unsurprised to hear myself offer a somewhat backhanded defense of My Night at Maud’s, which had come up in contrast to salvos from the French New Wave’s more splashy enfants terribles. “Maud fits my personality,” I said, lazily wiping sweat from my glass of ale. “It’s wry, effete, and all the sex is theoretical.”
Like all generalizing bon mots, of course, this is an embarrassingly surface-caressing assessment, and attempting to apply it to the remainder of director Éric Rohmer’s oeuvre proves it inutile, particularly in light of the gender-manipulative ferocity of the “Comedies and Proverbs” cycle. True, the dry humor involved in the Gandhi-like testing of Jean-Louis’s (Jean-Louis Trintignant) Catholic intellectualism by the neo-materialist goddess Maud (Françoise Fabian) is one of the film’s most accessible pleasures. But to shrug off the heady expository poetry of the dialogue and the talking-head, winter-cloister mise-en-scène as impotent—even if purposefully so—seems in agreement with those who find Rohmer insufferably tedious, or who inaccurately assume Jean-Louis is an autobiographical construct. And—even overlooking the fact that Jean-Louis has a child by his ideal female Françoise by the denouement—isn’t all sex, in a sense, theoretical, an act that burns as palpably in the mind and on the page as in the moist, messy reality?
My half-errors should betray just how uncomfortably close I am to Rohmer’s aesthetic and to how much probing self-reflection is necessitated by the act of witnessing a “boring” gab-fest like My Night at Maud’s. I first watched the “Moral Tales,” still Rohmer’s most applauded hexology, after discovering Criterion’s Region 1 release at a video store in 2006. I was despondently unemployed at the time and ensnared in a clumsy, unfulfilling domestic partnership teetering nauseously on the brink of matrimony; I had, like Jean-Louis with the impractical religion he had been born into and “kept up,” convinced myself of the partnership’s indispensible value through a series of rhetorical exercises and absurd syllogisms that were, truthfully, more stimulating than the love affair itself. And while My Night at Maud’s, and the remainder of the “Moral Tales,” failed to rescue me from the vortex of my own warped logic, it somehow suggested that my anxiously critical social perspective was hardly singular, or even damning. The scene where Jean-Louis meets a professor friend by chance in a café and then proceeds to ponder the exact probability of their paths crossing seemed like a warm, inviting transmission cutting through a glacially reticent universe. That Jean-Louis should approach Françoise with such charmingly jittery resolve was even hopeful (perhaps my quirky, inner lothario simply hadn’t yet found its muse?).
Admittedly, however, Shakespeare has a much better ground-level synopsis of the distinctive masculine philosophy of the “Moral Tales.” Hamlet, who could have easily been a Rohmer protagonist, at one juncture scolds himself for his tendency to scrupulously plan rather than hot-bloodedly act despite the infuriatingly filial ramifications of Claudius’s transgressions. But, he considers, man’s capacity for ratiocination must contain some self-preserving mechanism, ergo our propensity for “thinking too precisely on the event, a thought which, quarter’d, hath but one part wisdom, and ever three parts coward.” Within this immortally meta example of over-thinking the behavior of over-thinking it’s almost as if the melancholy Dane had been, like Jean-Louis, “dabbling in mathematics.” But it’s the recognition of hyper-analysis as a subconscious, aegis-molding extension of cowardice that resonates with Rohmer’s wit most uncannily.
This is, after all, an idea central to the skewed morality of the so-called “Moral Tales,” most of which involve one man, two women, and a protracted deliberation (who says you need a girl and a gun to make movies?). My Night at Maud’s propounds this complex psychological gnarl most eloquently via the eschatological stakes of Pascal’s Wager, which, in Jean-Louis’s estimation, become an unspoken metaphor for the unrewarding perils of straying from the righteous path. But when Jean-Louis is forced, at the film’s end, to misrepresent what transpired under Maud’s fluffy fur comforter in the coldest hour of that fateful Paris December, the scales of the wager are, for me, violently overturned, its theological and sexual applications collapsing meekly like dominoes. Muliebrity is Rohmer’s deity, and the difficulties of human communication are his enlightenment-obscuring dogma; whether interpreted for use in religion or relations, Pascal’s Wager illustrates the danger of using logic to intimidate one’s self into complacent submission. While Jean-Louis wins his woman, it’s only through acknowledging the stultifying inanity of that fear—an epiphany that, as with those of Rohmer’s most accomplished films, is self-enriching only because it is self-defeating.