Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Revisitations: My Night at Eric's

[Since the publication of this post three years ago, Eric Rohmer died (11 January 2010) at the age of 89. The post captures what must be one of the most magical qualities of filmgoing - the fleeting emotions that one carries away from watching a film in a cinema, that linger all the way home and into one's dreams.]

My Night at Eric's

I have always found the work of Eric Rohmer, who turned 89 this year, more than a little boring. Except for The Marquise of O... (1976), which is his masterpiece and quite unlike all his other films, his foremost quality is an intellectualized sensuality, where the one invariably nullifies the other. Since he is a somewhat lightweight intellectual, Rohmer is much better when he lets sensuality get the upper hand, as he did in La Collectionneuse (1967), Chloe in the Afternoon (1972), Pauline at the Beach (1983) (thanks to the beautiful Arielle Dombasle), and My Night at Maud's (1969)

Another quality of Rohmer's work is irony: how knowledge is often withheld from the most knowledgeable; how the truth is most elusive to those who pride themselves on their honesty; and how happiness is sometimes the product of self-deception. Rohmer knows that it is good not to be wise in the ways of others or in one's own.

Jean-Louis, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, works for Michelin in Clermont, but is not adapting well to his new surroundings since his return from Vancouver and Valparaiso. He notices a pretty blonde in church (Marie-Christine Barrault), who also notices him. Then he runs into Vidal (Antoine Vitez), a friend he hasn't seen in fourteen years. Through Vidal he meets Maud (Francoise Fabian), a beautiful divorcee who, after an evening of banter on love and marriage, impulsively invites Jean-Louis, after the tipsy Vidal has gone home, to her bed. How Jean-Louis responds to her invitation sets in motion events that will change the lives of three people.

In one sense, the film is an argument against Catholicism. Rohmer's lengthy church scenes, while they made me squirm nearly as much as I did every Sunday when I was a boy, cleverly illuminate the drama of looks and gestures going on between Jean-Louis and the blonde, Francoise. And other looks and gestures between Francoise and her co-conspirators, Vidal and Maud, provide glimpses of a much broader drama that Rohmer leaves unspoken.

It is, after all, that unspoken drama that contributes an intriguing dimension to My Night at Maud's - the intersection of disparate lives, libidos, and egos, their reactions, and the resumption of their personal trajectories. Something happened at Maud's. Even Maud talks about that night with unabashed nostalgia. Near the end of the film, Jean-Louis refers to it as "that evening," and Maud corrects him: "Evening? Night, you mean. Our night." By so italicizing that wintry night in Clermont, in which two people attract, but ultimately fail, each other, Rohmer comes close to the rueful, fate-streaked universe of the Alexandrian poet Cavafy:

The Afternoon Sun

This room, how well I know it.
Now they’re renting it, and the one next to it,
as offices. The whole house has become
an office building for agents, merchants, companies.

This room, how familiar it is.

Here, near the door, was the couch,
a Turkish carpet in front of it.
Close by, the shelf with two yellow vases.
On the right—no, opposite—a wardrobe with a mirror.
In the middle the table where he wrote,
and the three big wicker chairs.
Beside the window was the bed
where we made love so many times.

They must still be around somewhere, those old things.

Beside the window was the bed;
the afternoon sun fell across half of it.

...One afternoon at four o’clock we separated
for a week only... And then—
that week became forever.

Rohmer makes that moment between Maud and Jean-Louis into a legend, making My Night at Maud's such a moving and personal experience, one of those lovely films that are fixed for us in a moment of time, the first time we saw it, but which grows on subsequent viewings.

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