Saturday, May 4, 2013

Pascal's Wager

Film: Ma Nuit Chez Maud (My Night at Maud’s)
Format: Streaming video from Hulu on laptop.

My wife evidently forgot to update the account information when we switched payment plans for Hulu, which means I’m back to the “we don’t have Hulu” Hulu account. The vast number of films I had in my queue are, for me, no longer available. Fortunately for me, there are still a few films that can still be watched on the service without a paying account, and one of those, Ma Nuit Chez Maud (My Night at Maud’s), was the one I had planned on watching today. Sometimes things just work out. Of course, without the pay service, I had to sit through ads. The things I do for you people.

This is a very strange film, reminding me of nothing so much as My Dinner with Andre. Essentially, after about half an hour or so of dealing with our protagonist and his chance meeting with an old friend, we get to a highbrow conversation that dominates the film. This is the sort of film that rewards careful viewing, but is likely to leave a lot of the audience scratching its head. We get threads of conversation on religion and atheism, the nature of love, and the writings of Blaise Pascal, including Pascal’s Wager, which suggests that being religious is a safer bet than irreligion (but which contains several significant fallacies).

Our protagonist, such as he is, is Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a practicing Jesuit Catholic who holds his religious views as central to how he defines himself. While at mass, he sees a young woman named Francoise (Marie-Christine Barrault) and decides on the spot that she will be the woman he marries. Later, he encounters an old friend named Vidal (Antoine Vitez). Vidal is an unrepentant Marxist. The two have not seen each other in years, but once were close. They have dinner and, since Christmas is near, Vidal agrees to go to midnight mass. Afterwards, he suggests they visit his friend Maud. They don’t, but they do visit her a few days later.

Maud (Francoise Fabian) is an attractive divorcee and a medical doctor, as well as a one-time sex partner of Vidal. They two men sit with Maud and talk with her extensively about a variety of topics and Vidal flirts shamelessly. Eventually, Vidal leaves and we’re left with just Maud and Jean-Louis, who continue to talk. In time, they decide it’s time to sleep, and there is nowhere for Jean-Louis to sleep except in bed next to Maud, something that seems very much against his principles, as does the sex that almost happens. Instead, he leaves and agrees to come with her to a lunch the next day.

And this is where Jean-Louis’s life gets very complicated. The night he has spent with Maud has given him a new confidence, allowing him to speak to Francoise when he sees her, and even to make a date with her. And yet he is completely comfortable with Maud and feels an instant affinity with her. They spend the full next day together, and it’s evident that they have deep feelings for each other—and yet Jean-Louis feels compelled by his beliefs and principles to need things that Maud is unable to give him.

Ma Nuit Chez Maud is a deeply philosophical film, one that touches on (dare I say it) the true meaning of existence, the source of happiness and of meaning in life, on purpose and the value and meaning of principles. And in doing all this, it manages to remain completely human and vital and, for the most part, completely accessible, even to a philosophical know-nothing like myself.

This is a very slow film, and not one that makes for a good typical Saturday night film. It’s one that requires careful attention throughout, and while those with a degree in philosophy will have no trouble following everything, most of us in the audience will miss some references. The good news is that this doesn’t really affect one’s ability to follow the film or understand the relationships that are being developed in it. All of this ties back to Pascal's Wager. In short, the wager is that a believer in God loses nothing if he is wrong, but gains everything if he is right. Someone who does not believe in God gains nothing if he is right and loses everything if he is wrong. Based on that, it's better to be a believer. This wager is intrinsic in the relationship that Jean-Louis has with both Maud and Francoise, and ultimately informs what happens to all three of them by the end of the film. And the ending is magnificent.

Perhaps it’s the crawling pace of the film, but there is a sense of depression that hangs over it, at least for me. There is a feeling not of ennui, but of predestination—that nothing that happens in this film will ultimately change anything for Jean-Louis or for anyone else. It’s melancholic, and not to its detriment. It’s fascinating, perhaps in spite of itself, but fascinating nonetheless.

Why to watch Ma Nuit Chez Maud: High level conversation.
Why not to watch: It about as speedy as a sloth.


  1. When I sat down to watch this, I was expecting something... I dunno, maybe something like The Seventh Seal. Something like Bergman. And it wasn't, at least not that I remember, and I was rather substantially disappointed. Realistically, all I remember now from when I watched this (five years ago) is the incredibly slow pace of the film, as you mention. However, now that I've fallen in love with Kieslowski's Red, I'm rather keen to go back and take in Trintignant's films again with a more open mind. So I'll definitely be giving this one another go.

    1. Think of it as a sexier My Dinner with Andre. It helps. There's no visceral pleasure in this one--to paraphrase the musical "Chess," it gets its kicks above the waistline.

  2. Great review! I love this movie and Rohmer for a lot of the reasons you mention.

    1. This was my first Rohmer. I'm looking forward to my next one.

  3. Eric Rohmer loved to have long, philosophical conversations take place in his films. I love the ending of this movie.

    1. As much as I enjoyed this film, it was the last 5 minutes or so that really sold it for me. It turn it from a movie I liked into one I really liked a lot.