Studies in French Cinema Volume 9 Number 1 © 2009 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/sfc.9.1.


Moral perfectionism in Eric Rohmer’s Ma nuit chez Maud
Glen W. Norton Brock University Abstract
This essay presents a new reading of Eric Rohmer’s Ma nuit chez Maud (1969) which challenges the critical consensus that its depiction of religious faith and morality is ultimately ironic. The debate revolves around the protagonist’s religious epiphany as to whom he is destined to marry. Critical consensus claims that this epiphany is sustained by lies and deceit, that the protagonist’s religious faith is tainted by a self-deluded amour-propre, and that the film’s ‘happy ending’ must therefore be read as ironic. Using Stanley Cavell’s notion of ‘moral perfectionism’ as its guide, this essay reveals that Ma nuit chez Maud in fact takes a paradoxical attitude toward its protagonist’s epiphany, one which mirrors the paradoxical nature of religious faith as evidenced in Pascal’s wager. This argument is central to the film’s moral outlook. This paradoxical attitude extends both to the film’s temporal depiction of its protagonist’s epiphany and to the so-called ‘lies and deceit’ with which he maintains his faith. Ultimately, this essay argues that the paradoxical nature of Ma nuit chez Maud allows the viewer to intuit the protagonist’s epiphany as a moment lived under the transformative aegis of divine grace.

Eric Rohmer Ma nuit chez Maud Stanley Cavell moral perfectionism Pascal’s wager amour-propre

Eric Rohmer has a penchant for exploring those vicissitudes of daily life which ultimately come to shape our moral choices. This is especially true in the case of his Contes moraux, with each tale using the trope of the ‘married man’ who becomes distracted by the ‘other woman’ to examine themes of faith and moral conviction in the face of temptation.1 In the third tale of the series, Ma nuit chez Maud/My Night with Maud (Rohmer, 1969), Rohmer’s protagonist, J-L, makes a leap of faith in the face of temptation by remaining faithful to Françoise, a woman he has not yet met, but believes he is destined to marry.2 By the arrival of the film’s epilogue, the now-married couple, with their young son in tow, seem perfectly happy. The standard critical reading of the film, however, asserts that this epilogue is evidence of the film’s ironic stance on religious faith. Rohmer is said to disavow his protagonist’s faith by depicting instead only his selfish and self-deluded amourpropre. To prove their claims, these critics contrast J-L’s deceitfulness toward his new wife with the mutual respect and honesty displayed during his night with the ‘temptress’ Maud.3 Rather than falling back upon the claim that its outlook on faith is ironic, as these critics do, this essay claims Ma nuit chez Maud in fact works to overcome our scepticism about J-L’s faith by acknowledging the film’s intuitive mode of articulation. This intuitive mode is predicated upon the film’s embodiment of paradox, one which mirrors
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1. Rohmer’s Contes moraux begin with two early short films, La Boulangère de Monceau/The Baker’s Girl of Monceau (1962) and La Carrière de Suzanne/Suzanne’s Career (1963), and continued with La Collectionneuse/The Collector (1967), Ma nuit chez Maud/My Night with Maud (1969), Le Genou de Claire/Claire’s Knee (1970) and L’Amour l’après-midi/Love in the Afternoon (1972). 2. Rohmer’s protagonist, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, is not given a name, so for both clarity and


Figure 1: Marie-Christine Barrault and Jean-Louis Trintignant in Ma nuit chez Maud (Courtesy of Les Films du Losange).
brevity’s sake, from here on in I will refer to him as ‘J-L’. 3. Those who are inclined toward this reading include Cunningham (1986), Ennis (1996), King (2000), Kline (1992) and Mellen (1973).

the paradoxical nature of religious faith as embraced by Blaise Pascal, especially in his well-known wager upon the existence of God which frames the film’s outlook on morality. The paradoxical nature of the film’s depiction of J-L’s epiphany allows us to intuit that his actions are not driven by selfishness at all, but that they are instead indicative of a moment lived under the transformative aegis of divine grace. Though it is a ‘moral tale’, it must be clarified from the outset that Ma nuit chez Maud is not meant to be didactic. The film’s morality, following in the great French moralist tradition, does not pertain to any absolute sense of right and wrong, but is instead indicative of its characters’ self-scrutiny. The morality of Ma nuit chez Maud therefore hinges upon the motives for J-L’s inward fidelity to his chosen self in the face of temptation. What Rohmer’s film attempts to communicate is not a cautionary moral about self-deluded faith, but the anxiety of living moment by moment with one’s own chosen self. For Rohmer, morality is never an ideal, it is an existential crisis. To explain better this connection between inwardness, morality and cinema, we begin with an examination of philosopher Stanley Cavell’s dictum that cinema’s true value lies in revealing our wish for selfhood (Cavell 1979: 22). For Cavell, the self is determined in a revelatory and decisive moment of ‘moral perfectionism’. Perfectionism as defined by Cavell is not confined to a debate between theories, nor is it reducible to a set of conditions for living the ‘good’ life. Perfectionism is not something to learn as one does a theory or a rationale, but pertains instead to a crucial moment
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in our continual striving toward self-realization and selfhood, a moment which ‘forces an examination of one’s life that calls for a transformation or reorienting of it’ (Cavell 2005: 354). This moment of decision and choice, which comes to everyone in every life, offers a profound insight into lived temporality. Perfectionism allows us to acknowledge the paradoxical threshold between the totality of the whole person we are at this moment, and our intrinsic temporal existence as that self which is always to come. In the perfectionist moment we somehow grasp that ‘the self is always attained, as well as to be attained’ (Cavell 1990: 12; Cavell’s emphasis). The profundity of the perfectionist moment therefore lies in the realization that our true choice of self is never singular. Such an epiphanic moment is not a cleaving point which divides our past self from our future self, but is instead the realization that this choice must be continually made in the moment as it is lived, in the ‘now’. Rohmer earns a special place in Cavell’s pantheon – indeed, as one of the few non-Hollywood film-makers he discusses at length – in part due to his ability to convey continually the depth of the inner ‘now’ lived by his protagonists. This is especially evident in Ma nuit chez Maud. In a film which seems at first to come down on the side of rationality, Rohmer nonetheless allows for an instinctual – one might say ‘faithful’ – grasping of his work, one crucial in understanding the inward struggle of moral perfectionism: ‘It would be a possible measure of Rohmer’s seriousness to suppose that he has meant his camera to validate, or discover, the fact that instinctive science, anyway, instinctive philosophy, should be expected to begin in the articulation of an individual’s intuition, before or beyond education’ (Cavell 2004: 427). Ma nuit chez Maud is a profound example of Rohmer allowing the instinctual to reveal itself as an epiphanic moment grasped, as Cavell puts it, ‘before or beyond education’. Although J-L assimilates his perfectionist epiphany into his otherwise rational existence, Rohmer allows us to intuit that something illogical, paradoxical even, is this moment’s true catalyst. This intuition, as we shall see, depends on Rohmer’s particular method of depicting the temporality of this moment as a continual ‘now’. The notion of moral perfectionism is, as Cavell admits, ‘an outlook or dimension of thought embodied and developed in a set of texts spanning the range of western culture’ (Cavell 1990: 4). We are therefore free to take up the challenge of perfectionism as it pertains especially to the wager upon the existence of God in Pascal’s Pensées, the central argument in Ma nuit chez Maud. Though the characters in the film do present individual arguments for or against Pascal, Ma nuit chez Maud as a whole does not set out to persuade or dissuade, but only to take Pascal seriously, and in doing so to use the cinematic medium as a vehicle for thought. My reading of Pascal is informed for the most part by Lucien Goldmann’s notion that his vision embodies a certain tragic worldview. Goldmann finds in the Pensées a ‘coherent and paradoxical attitude’, one which accepts the rational world yet cannot accept it as the only one (Goldmann 1976: 50). On one hand, God makes the absurd demand of faith without compromise, a faith which asks us to abandon worldly things in favour of the infinite. On the other, He guarantees the eternal, scientific laws which our reason alone can decipher. Caught between these ‘two infinites’, true faith is left with only one choice, that of saying both
Moral perfectionism in Eric Rohmer’s Ma nuit chez Maud


‘yes’ and ‘no’ to the world. Pascal therefore chooses being in the world but not of it. Take, for example, Pascal’s notion of divertissement. To remain within paradox means striving to understand rationally the world one lives in, for ‘the absence of God deprives tragic man of any right to remain ignorant of the world or to turn his face from it’ (Goldmann 1976: 52). Yet any and all activity within the world is merely a diversion from faith, and is therefore to be condemned. For Goldmann, this paradoxical attitude drives Pascal toward profound discoveries in the fields of mathematics and physics, while still allowing him to claim their ultimate ‘uselessness’ (Goldmann 1976: 50–1). Like Pascal, J-L is also man of science. At the outset of Ma nuit chez Maud we find him studying a book of mathematics, and directly following his perfectionist epiphany he wanders into a bookstore and leafs through a book on probability and statistics. Yet in the very next scene, J-L happens upon a copy of the Pensées. Here Rohmer reveals, in close-up, a passage essential to the paradox embodied by Pascal’s wager:
Follow the way by which they began: that is by making believe that they believed, by taking holy water, by hearing mass, etc. This will quite naturally bring you to believe, and will calm you, … will stupefy you [vous abêtira]. – But that is just what I fear. – Pray why? What have you to lose? But to show you that this is the way, this is what will lessen your passions, which are your great stumbling block.
(Showalter 1993: 44–5)

Having J-L first browse a book on statistics highlights the paradoxical aspect of Pascal’s wager, for it has both everything and nothing to do with probability. From an analytic, game-theory point of view, the wager seems clear. Without certainty of proof, probability dictates that the correct option is to wager on God’s existence. To abstain from choosing or to choose in God’s non-existence is to stake nothing. No matter if you are correct or incorrect, you are left with exactly what you started with: your own finitude. But there is nothing to lose and everything to gain in choosing to believe. If you are right, you gain infinity; if you are wrong, the result is the same as if you had chosen in the negative. Hence the correct wager, based upon this probability model, is that He exists. Of course, rational wagering is antithetical to true faith. The passage from the Pensées revealed by Rohmer’s camera, especially its ambiguous ‘vous abêtira’, bears out Pascal’s embrace of paradox within the wager. Reason and passion are always at war; Pascal here conveys the notion that only by embracing and disavowing both reason and passion at once can faith remain paradoxically true. Though convinced by the intellectual validity of the wager, one still must besot one’s intellect via rote and ritualistic behaviour: taking holy water, having masses said, etc. That true faith is a matter of custom is, of course, beyond common sense and reason; the paradox, however, remains. With this in mind, we come to the central question in the film: is J-L’s epiphany guided by faith or by amour-propre? An ironic reading of the film’s epilogue must claim the latter. Briefly, amour-propre concerns the prideful aspect of our social being, one which secures a meaning for itself
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by demanding that others acknowledge one’s superiority over them. During his long conversation with Maud, J-L jokes that he might find a wife by placing an ad: the woman he marries must be Catholic, blonde, etc. He declares that, if only due to his sense of amour-propre, he would remain eternally faithful to her. This declaration can certainly be used as proof of the film’s irony. In this reading, J-L finds in Françoise someone corresponding to his ethical worldview on love and marriage, someone he can use to maintain his own image as a faithful Catholic. In this reading, his sudden revelation that she is the ‘one’ is nothing more than a selffulfilling prophesy. Yet, as he chats with Maud, we know J-L has already had his epiphany. J-L’s sense of amour-propre is therefore not so clear: did his ideals exist before Françoise appeared to him, or does he declare them precisely because the one destined for him already fits them? In other words, is he describing an a priori ideal or simply listing what he intuits about Françoise? This ambiguity begets a series of paradoxes, the result of which gives us the sense, by the end of the film, that a real conversion has taken place within J-L, one which corresponds to Pascal’s notion of divine grace. Thomas Merton, one of the most prolific and profound Catholic writers of the twentieth century, notes that Pascal’s understanding of grace allows for authentic personal freedom in a present which is not predestined. This existentialist interpretation runs contrary to the orthodox Augustinian-Thomist notion that only those who are predestined for salvation receive grace (Merton 1967: 278). Michael Moriarty concurs, pointing out that Pascal’s notion of grace is ‘simultaneous with the action it prompts’ (Moriarty 2003: 152). Thus Pascal’s grace is an event, a continual ‘now’ which must again and again be chosen as such. The affinity with Cavell’s perfectionist moment is clear. Pascal’s grace is a paradoxical state lived simultaneously as actuality and possibility, always attained, yet always remaining to be attained, always chosen, yet always remaining to be chosen. Since the acceptance of grace implies this deeper awareness of lived temporality, we must carefully scrutinize how J-L’s revelation is depicted temporally. J-L is a practising Catholic and attends mass regularly, as he does on the day the film opens. This day, however, his attention is captured by Françoise, a young woman in the congregation. They exchange fleeting glances, and after mass he tries unsuccessfully to follow her in his car as she mopeds through the narrow, winding streets of Clermont-Ferrand. The next night, J-L is once again driving through streets jammed with cars. In voice-over he announces: ‘That day, Monday the 21st of December, the idea came to me, sudden, precise, definitive, that Françoise would be my wife’.4 The suddenness of his revelation is matched cinematically with the abrupt appearance of Françoise’s moped alongside his car. Though he is again blocked by traffic and cannot follow her, J-L does honk his horn, causing Françoise to turn and smile. His epiphany has been cinematically acknowledged. As Tom Ennis points out:
the scene during mass leads us to an awareness that twenty-four hours have passed between idea and decision [yet] what is evident in [J-L’s] version of events is the almost total exclusion of an intellectual process leading to a choice: the decision is instantaneous and there is no going back on it’.
(Ennis 1996: 313)

4. I defer to the English translation of the screenplay in Showalter (1993) for all citations of dialogue.

Moral perfectionism in Eric Rohmer’s Ma nuit chez Maud


5. Even if ce jour-là refers only to an exact date without any specific temporal reference, uncertainty remains as to exactly when J-L’s epiphany takes place. Adding further confusion is T. Jefferson Kline’s translation of ce jour-là as ‘On that morning’, which pushes this temporal discrepancy to its limits. Kline obviously reads the film ironically, referring to J-L’s epiphany as a ‘fantasy’ (Kline 1992: 123).

The exact moment of J-L’s sudden epiphany – indeed, the notion that it is ‘sudden’ in the first place – is put into question by the length of time between J-L’s search for Françoise after Sunday mass and her chance appearance on the Monday night. Even J-L’s voiceover bespeaks uncertainty: his revelation begins ‘ce jour-là’ (that day) when clearly the time depicted is ‘soir’ (evening).5 Yet this gap between J-L’s first vision and the sudden announcement of his revelation, rather than being an ironic index of his amour-propre, is in fact a purposeful ambiguity attesting to his paradoxical fidelity to his perfectionist self. To ask exactly ‘when’ his perfectionist epiphany takes place is to misunderstand the question, for, as we have seen, the choice this epiphany prompts must be made in the continual present. Certainly there must be an instant when the idea arrives; it is not the epiphany per se, however, but J-L’s continual choice to accept it which matters. To allow us to intuit this, Rohmer keeps this moment temporally and cinematically ambiguous. On the one hand, Rohmer attempts to convince us of its exact temporality, for what remains true is that J-L’s voice-over announcing the suddenness of his epiphany corresponds visually with the suddenness of Françoise’s appearance. On the other, it is difficult not to remain incredulous about this moment’s blatantly contrived contingency, and to therefore read it as ironic.

Figure 2: Françoise Fabian in Ma nuit chez Maud (Courtesy of Les Films du Losange).
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But then again, how should such an inward moment be depicted? Like Kierkegaard’s knight of faith, that all-too ordinary-looking man who nonetheless carries within him at every moment a profound faith, J-L’s faith is incommunicable through direct, rational means (Kierkegaard 1985: 68–70). Perhaps it can be accessed via more ‘natural’ means? Ennis makes this very argument, contrasting Ma nuit chez Maud with Le Rayon vert/The Green Ray (1986), another of Rohmer’s films in which epiphany figures highly (Ennis 1996: 314). In the latter, the main protagonist waits to see if the fabled green ray appears at sunset to guide her choice. Ennis here is intimating that Rohmer uses nature in the raw to convince his character, and us as well, of the legitimacy of her leap of faith, whereas Françoise’s sudden appearance in Ma nuit chez Maud is merely an unconvincing cinematic construct. What Ennis fails to understand is that it is ambiguity and paradox which guarantees the strength of the leap, and not merely an appeal to nature. Even though the character believes she sees it, I find it difficult to tell, even after repeated viewings, whether this ray appears at all; sometimes it does, sometimes it does not. It is this wondrous incredulity, this faithful doubt in cinema’s ability to record the aleatory – in short, this embrace of paradox – which allows us to sense the metaphysical within prosaic physical reality. This being said, Ma nuit chez Maud does in fact embrace the natural, albeit ambiguously, in its quest to validate J-L’s epiphany. Colin Crisp reads the film along a spectrum from the naturalized to the debased, the former embodied by Françoise and the latter by Maud (Crisp 1988: 56–9). Françoise lives in the mountainous countryside, Maud in the valley city of Clermont-Ferrand: Françoise is more comfortable during the daytime, Maud at night; one is blonde, the other brunette; one is religious, one agnostic; one is reserved, one outgoing. While most cite this feminine dichotomy as proof of the film’s ironic preference of Maud, this argument uses the highly dubious claim that Françoise embodies a regressive image corresponding to J-L’s expectations of the idyllic ‘good wife and mother’ (Cunningham 1986: 86). What guides this argument is not so much the spiritual or moral depth of J-L’s choice, but critical opinions about its political correctness. Frank Cunningham claims Françoise is subordinate to Maud intellectually, professionally and visually, concluding that she ‘fulfils [J-L’s] unconsidered and largely irrational image of women’ (Cunningham 1986: 87). Joan Mellen goes further, maintaining that ‘the Mauds of the world possessing imagination, spontaneity, zest for life, are infinitely more desirable than the passive, dull Françoises, who lack culture, wit, and all charm’ (Mellen 1973: 154). Furthermore, Françoise is said to embody J-L’s idyllic vision of ‘nice Catholic girls who will not threaten too much his natural timidity’ (Kline 1992: 140). Ennis takes this claim even further, claiming that ‘it might be easier to “control” a nice Catholic girl than the intellectual Maud’ (Ennis 1996: 315). Putting aside for a moment both the outrageous sexism and religious prejudice of these interpretations, these critics overlook the blatant fact that Françoise does not represent either ideal, for the epilogue reveals that she has had an affair with a married man (and that the man in question is Maud’s now ex-husband). Ultimately, what these critics fail to recognize is that J-L’s choice is not between Françoise and Maud at all, but is instead the continual choice to
Moral perfectionism in Eric Rohmer’s Ma nuit chez Maud


remain faithful to himself. In effect, he chooses – that is to say, he wagers upon – faith. There is always, of course, a tinge of scepticism involved in such a reading, one heightened by the myriad of blatant lies J-L tells in order to defend his choice. It is difficult to defend a faith propped up by lies, and to be sure, there are at least three distinct moments in the film when we can, objectively speaking, claim J-L has lied to others. But what does he truly, inwardly intend by lying? The first lie comes while J-L and his would-be matchmaker friend Vidal are having dinner at Maud’s. The conversation turns to Pascal’s low opinion of marriage. J-L states that he was thinking of this very thing the other day at mass. ‘There was a girl in front of me …’ he begins, yet is quickly chastised by Vidal: ‘I should go to mass to look for girls!’. J-L then changes his story: ‘I shouldn’t say “girl” … a young woman, with her husband’. He concludes by adding that ‘it is a difficult impression to communicate’. Though the lie here is obvious – the ‘girl’ in question is clearly Françoise – its ethical implications are not so clear. We must therefore examine its inward intent. It is perhaps not a lie at all, but instead what Jean-Jacques Rousseau contrasts as a ‘fiction’, one stemming not from an intent to deceive, but from J-L’s ‘moral instinct’: a mixture of shame and embarrassment at being teased (Rousseau 1979: 48). If so, then in its wake we may sense the first inklings of perfectionism. Indeed, though he wants to, how in fact can J-L relate the profundity of his experience to his friends, one agnostic, one atheist? That it is ‘a difficult impression to communicate’ is the best he can do, for there is a certain incommunicable madness in forsaking ethics for the bonds of faith – a madness the film acknowledges in a sermon J-L and Françoise attend just before J-L’s second lie:
Christian life is not a moral code. It is a life. And this life is an adventure, the most glorious of all adventures, the adventure of saintliness. I am not overlooking the fact that one must be mad to be a saint … But beyond our fears, we must have a faith rooted in the God of Jesus Christ, a faith that goes beyond the most fantastic hopes of men … and that always this man, this saint, whom we are called to be, this man is a man who on the one hand is dominated by certain difficulties in living … with his passions, his weaknesses, is affections, but also in living insofar as he wants to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.
(Showalter 1993: 97)

Saintliness is this movement of wanting, of acting ‘as if ’, which embodies the paradox of faith. J-L understands this all too well. After Vidal leaves J-L and Maud alone for the night, their conversation turns toward the notion of saintliness. Though he claims he cannot aspire to sainthood, J-L also claims to ask for grace to help in glimpsing its possibility. J-L here attempts to articulate the paradox of faith, one which acknowledges the impossibility of sainthood yet still struggles toward it. During their exchange, Rohmer’s camera also struggles to embody the paradoxical nature of this impossible possibility. As J-L denies wanting to being a saint, he moves in front of a lamp which leaves a certain saintly ‘halo’ around his head and body. When Maud asks about grace, he walks out of frame. A slight, almost imperceptible reframing at the end of the shot,
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one centering the lamp within the image, highlights the constructed nature of the effect. T. Jefferson Kline specifically refers to this scene, noting an ‘ironic distance’ in the camera’s anticipation of J-L’s movements. Kline’s halo, however, is not the backlighting provided by the lamp, but is embodied instead by the painting of a ‘white circle about twelve inches in diameter on a dark background’ (Kline 1992: 139) hanging on the wall beside it. In Kline’s reading of this scene, J-L ‘repeatedly approaches a position in which this circle would form a halo for the would-be, wouldn’t be saint yet never quite manages to achieve the effect’ (Kline 1992: 139). Kline concludes from this that ‘the visual commentary proffered by the image maker leaves little doubt that Jean-Louis’s ethical and moral position “misses the point”’ (Kline 1992: 139). Yet to make such a detailed study of this scene, to grant it a meaning leaving ‘little doubt’, and then to omit what, to my mind, is its most salient point – that is, its conclusion with J-L in front of the lamp – is irresponsible. While Kline’s halo never reaches J-L, my reading seems more in line with the paradoxical struggle J-L faces, in that it both is and isn’t a halo. It provides an ‘actual’ halo of light around J-L, yet Rohmer’s reframing attests to its terrestrial, prosaic dimension. We now come to J-L’s final two lies. Ethically speaking, they are not as easily dismissed as his first. In fact, they form the basis for most critical

Figure 3: The halo in Ma nuit chez Maud (Courtesy of Les Films du Losange).
Moral perfectionism in Eric Rohmer’s Ma nuit chez Maud


assumptions about the film’s ironic take on marriage and faith. The first comes after Françoise reveals she has recently had an affair with a married man. J-L lies to even the score: ‘I’m going to tell you a secret. The morning we met …I was coming from a girl’s house. We had slept together’. He is referring of course to the morning after his night chez Maud, when he actually speaks to Françoise for the first time. Of course, there is truth in this lie, for J-L and Maud do actually sleep in the same bed, but that is all. The second lie, a continuation and expansion of the first, occurs in the epilogue after the couple’s chance meeting with Maud at the beach. As J-L begins to tell Françoise the story of how he and Maud know each other, her nervousness makes him realize her lover had in fact been Maud’s ex-husband. J-L’s voiceover explains the inward intent of his final lie:
I was about to say ‘nothing happened’ when, all at once, I understood Françoise’s uneasiness wasn’t coming from what she was hearing about me but from what she guessed I was hearing about her, and which I discovered at that moment, and only at that moment … and I said, quite to the contrary: ‘Yes, that was my last fling’.
(Showalter 1993: 103–4)

What is the proper interpretation of these lies? An ironic critical stance sees in them the solidification of J-L’s self-abandonment to an ethic influenced more by amour-propre than any sense of fidelity to his perfectionist self. In line with this interpretation are Norman King, who claims J-L ‘lied to Françoise in order to gain her confidence’ (King 2000: 237); Cunningham, who claims J-L lies merely to ‘puff up his ego’ (Cunningham 1986: 88); and Kline, who insists J-L is lying about Maud’s ‘reputation’, and therefore that an ‘injustice’ is perpetrated upon her (Kline 1992: 142). This stance must therefore extend to an ironic interpretation of the film’s take on marriage as well. Critics who understand marriage in a purely social/ethical sense must agree with Ennis that ‘a couple whose relationship depends on the man’s lies about spending the night with a woman hardly emerges as a religious example to follow’ (Ennis 1996: 315). Yet in all these lies, fictions and half-truths, we are nonetheless left with the sense that they solidify the couple’s incommunicable bond of faith. Neither of them knew whom each other had affairs with, but once revealed (even though J-L’s is a lie and Françoise’s is a ‘sin of omission’) there is no need to speak of them. Though perceived by both, these lies mean little to their shared bond, so, like the inwardness of faith, they remain unspoken. Twice they agree not to talk about it; J-L claims in the end that ‘it has absolutely no importance’. Kline objects: ‘How can this can of worms be termed an effect of “grace that passeth all understanding?”’ (Kline 1992: 142). Kline is mocking Crisp here, who concludes his chapter on Ma nuit chez Maud thus:
So that it is this world – Maud’s world, of desire, appetite, and animality – which comes to seem artificial, perverse, a prison ruled by mechanistic logic, and the other – Françoise’s – which comes to seem a release into the natural fluent order of things, attained through a grace that passeth all understanding.
(Crisp 1988: 59)


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Despite all arguments to the contrary, I must ultimately agree with Crisp here, for it is precisely because they do ‘passeth all understanding’ that J-L’s lies paradoxically set marriage higher than mere ethical duty. For J-L, marriage is a matter of faith. In this sense, his final lie does not merely expound upon the first, but is in fact a continuation of his chosen perfectionist self. In the moment, something makes him choose otherwise than what he ethically and truthfully expects and in fact prepares to say. It is a moment lived as grace. Rohmer’s genius lies in his ability to haunt the viewer continually with this question: is what we see all there is? Metaphysical inwardness – what might, for want of a better term, in the context of Ma nuit chez Maud be called the ‘soul’ – is not open to direct cinematic representation, but only to an intuited mode of reception. As we have seen, to reveal the truth of inward faith it is necessary to embody paradox and thus to risk failure. We are asked to believe in J-L’s faith via a calculated gamble on Rohmer’s part: the sudden appearance of Françoise on her moped and J-L’s sudden change of heart at the film’s conclusion. It is perhaps difficult not to be wary of these moments, balanced as they are upon the wager that such carefully planned cinematic contingency allows insight into the profound, absurd, incommunicable, perfectionist choice of self. But is there another way, a ‘proper’ way to inscribe the inner presence of grace on film? If so, then spirituality in cinema is reduced to a set of rules. What Rohmer struggles to depict here is not objective knowledge about the correctness or incorrectness of J-L’s choice, but the anxiety of his choice as it is continually lived. Hence, upon reaching Ma nuit chez Maud’s paradoxical epilogue, J-L’s true inwardness cannot be deduced by any retroactive appeal to fate, circumstance, or inevitability. In believing the absurd notion that cinema captures grace by way of carefully constructed contingency, I must offer something other than mere scepticism, something other, even, than my suspension of disbelief – I too must make a leap of faith. In the final shot of the film, as he and his family run off into both a literal and temporal horizon, I sense not that J-L has chosen correctly, but simply that he has chosen, and that by keeping his secret he remains faithful to this choice. Rohmer depicts this choice as if it were infinite, and since this is the limit to which we ourselves can aspire, perhaps this is the limit to what cinema can reveal. References
Cavell, S. (1979), The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. –––– (1990), Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism, Chicago: University of Chicago Press. –––– (2004), Cities of Words: Pedagogical Letters on a Register of the Moral Life, Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. –––– (2005), ‘Moral Reasoning: Teaching From the Core’, in W. Rothman (ed.), Cavell on Film, Albany: State University of New York Press, pp. 349–60. Crisp, C. G. (1988), Eric Rohmer, Realist and Moralist, Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Cunningham, F. R. (1986), ‘Pascal’s Wager and the Feminist Dilemma in Eric Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s’, in D. Fowler (ed.), The Kingdom of Dreams:

Moral perfectionism in Eric Rohmer’s Ma nuit chez Maud


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Suggested citation
Norton, G. W. (2009), ‘Moral perfectionism in Eric Rohmer’s Ma nuit chez Maud’, Studies in French Cinema, 9: 1, pp. 25–36, doi: 10.1386/sfc.9.1.25/1

Contributor details
Glen W. Norton is an Instructor in Film Studies at the Department of Communications, Popular Culture and Film, Brock University, Canada. He has published in various journals including Post Script, Theory@Buffalo, Senses of Cinema and CinemaScope. Since 1996 he has maintained and edited Godard= Cinema=Godard, a primarily academic hub of information pertaining to the work of Jean-Luc Godard ( Contact: Department of Communication, Popular Culture & Film, Brock University, 500 Glenridge Avenue, St Catharines, Ontario, Canada L2S 3A1. E-mail:


Glen W. Norton

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