French New Wave cinema came into being with a handful of French directors who began making films in the late 1950s: Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rivette, Rohmer, and others. Their works were linked through Cahiers du Cinema, the most advanced critical film journal at the time. Under the wing of the great film historian and critic...
Though Eric Rohmer may not have been in the forefront of the Cahiers group, his work is artistically the most subtle. Before discussing his work, however, we must briefly recapitulate the key issues of the New Wave that developed in France after 1958. We also need to look at Rohmer's Catholic paradigm, as he is the only New Wave director with an articulated Christian approach. With the benefit of these two perspectives (New Wave and Roman Catholic) we will be able to evaluate one film from Rohmer's rich and varied productions since 1959: My Night at Maud's (1969). This film belongs to Rohmer's first series of films, "Moral Tales."
...My thesis here is that Rohmer's films are a cinema of grace. Rohmer hid profound religious beliefs under the surface of his films. The somewhat superficial moral structure of My Night at Maud's is partly a device to reveal the true nature of grace. I will also try to show how the moral in this film and Rohmer's other films is a reflection of divine immanence...
Eric Rohmer's Catholicity
...As a political and aesthetic conservative, Rohmer was an outsider in the milieu of French film making during the 1960s. His articulated Christian approach was not exactly popular in a time when the Church and all other social and political authorities were dismissed by the cultural elite. To understand Rohmer's religious intentions and the religious content of his films, we need to understand the Catholic way of perceiving reality.
Ingrid Schafer (1991) makes a very clear distinction between what she calls the Catholic and the Protestant imagination. She talks about a Catholic "both-and" imagination versus a Protestant "either-or" imagina-tion. "Both-and" reflects the incarnation: God became man, and he is truly God and truly Human at the same time. The Protestant paradigm focuses on "divine transcendence" versus the Catholic focus on "divine immanence" ( p. 50-51). Divine transcendence sees the world "fractured by original sin," while divine immanence views the world as originally blessed by a God who is a caring and loving Father.
The Catholic imagination is "analogical" according to Shafer. The world as God's creation shows us how God is. We learn about God by understanding the world. This distinction is based on the Catholic emphasis on the Incarnation and the Sacrament. Divinity and flesh are intermingled; God himself is also truly human and the blood of Christ is physically present in the communion cup. For Thomas Aquinas the whole world was sacramental, "a bearer of grace." In the Catholic perspective the "artists are sacrament makers, revealers of God-in-the-world" (Shafer, p. 52). R.A. Blake claimed (1991) that people tend to come closer to the divine "through the senses-through color and form, through song and story and dance--than through precise verbal formulations of their theologians" (p. 60).
With one or two exceptions Rohmer's films do not deal with any explicit spiritual or religious themes. His attention is rather directed to contemporary man, his values, conflicts, and everyday problems without any reference to religious or non-religious beliefs. Bedouelle (1979) notes that "such attention to what we might call the spiritual dimension of every human situation has become a commonplace in post-Conciliar Catholic thought" (p. 272). For Bedouelle, Rohmer's films, especially the "Moral Tales," represent a rediscovery of Christian reality.
Rohmer, however, obviously had more on his mind than moral education. He held that "Christianity is consubstantial with the cinema," and that "the cinema is the cathedral of the twentieth century" (Bedouelle). The latter statement is interesting with regard to another significant focus of the Catholic imagination. Shafer states that the Catholics emphasize the "the individual relating to God as a member of a community" (Shafer, p. 53). The community of people serving God is realized through the cathedrals. And what is the "cathedral" expressing if not "the liturgical re-enactment of God's comedy of grace," Shafer notes (p. 53). Film as a collective art form does carry traits of the cathedral. However, Rohmer probably had a more transcendent concept in mind when using "cathedral" as a metaphor.
...The hero of [My Night at Maud's] is Jean-Louis, an unmarried engineer in his early thirties and a practicing Catholic who has recently returned to France from years of work abroad. A chance encounter brings him together with an old friend, a Marxist atheist philosophy professor, who introduces him to Maud. Jean-Louis spends the night with Maud, talking, discussing, and finally platonically sleeping by her side. Before that night, however, he had seen a girl in church whom he hoped someday to marry, but with whom he had been unable to make contact. In spite of Maud's invitation -she is beautifully attractive--Jean-Louis is "faithful" to the image of his prospective wife and declines sex with Maud. The next day, in another chance encounter, he meets the girl from the church. Their relationship is sealed. The film ends with talk, reflection, and observation.
In several ways Maud is one of Rohmer's most exceptional films. It is his only film dealing overtly with religion: several times we are brought into the church to partake in the Catholic mass--one scene actually involves a full-dress Sunday sermon. The principal topics in the night-time conversation of Maud and Jean-Louis deal with Christian beliefs and Catholic morals.
The film also makes extensive literary cross-references. Scarcely an argument is presented without reference to Pascal, Rousseau, or Chanturgues, not to mention the Church, Christ, and religious ethics.