Pascal’s Wager is one of those things everyone knows, even if one isn’t consciously aware of knowing it. Likewise, its presence in Eric Rohmer’s My Night At Maud’s is both overt and subtle.
Devout Catholic Jean-Louis (a guarded Jean-Louis Trintignant) sees a beautiful young woman at Mass and informs, via voiceover, “I suddenly knew without doubt that Fraoncoise would be my wife.” Moments later, he is in a bookstore, thumbing through a copy of Pascal’s Pensees, and reads: “They began as though they did believe, with holy water and Masses, etc. … You too may follow that way to unthinking belief.”
Blaise Pascal was many things, foremost among them a leading mathematician and theologian. The famed gambit that bears his name is found in the Pensees and reflects the 17th-century philosopher’s pragmatic side. “God is, or He is not,” Pascal posits. “But to which side shall we incline?” Because Pascal believed the existence of God could not be determined through reason, he said a person must wager one way or the other; the smart money, according to Pascal, is on God, because a life lived virtuously has everything to gain if God does exist, but nothing to lose if He doesn’t.
Which brings us back to Jean-Louis, who is pious, but not unblinkingly so. His faith is challenged when he encounters Vidal, a former schoolmate who is now a philosophy professor and Marxist; it is established that they have reunited at a place which Jean-Louis has never been and that Vidal visits rarely (is this meeting fate, chance, mathematical odds?).
Vidal cajoles Jean-Louis into joining him at the apartment of Maud, an attractive divorcee who also happens to be a free-spirited atheist and who further pushes Jean-Louis’ comfort zone, albeit more altruistically than Vidal.
All this may sound tediously high-brow, but in the hands of Rohmer, a quiet giant of French cinema who died earlier this year, the movie plays as a breezy comedy of words. Rohmer may have favored a brand of formalist intimacy over the jump cuts and free-roaming cameras of his New Wave peers, but that’s not to say his films lack energy; the vitality of Rohmer’s films stems from his characters and the situations in which they find (place?) themselves, situations that often put their virtue in the balance (My Night At Maud’s is one of his Six Moral Tales) and have them struggling with self-doubt and life-altering decisions.
But Rohmer’s gift, enriched in My Night At Maud’s by the sumptuous black-and-white cinematography of the great Nestor Almendros (a frequent early collaborator with Rohmer, who also lensed much of Terence Malick’s striking Days of Heaven), lay largely in his ability to observe these existential crises as they grow organically and humanly, with their natural, bittersweet humor in full blossom.
At Maud’s, the wine flows and so does the conversation. “I must say, you both stink of holy water,” she chides the men as Pascal’s logic is discussed. Meanwhile, Vidal, clearly smitten with Maud, and she clearly not vice versa, continues to provoke the “shame-faced Christian” and “shame-faced Don Juan” Jean-Louis:
“You still chasing after girls?” Vidal asks.
“No,” Jean-Louis replies defensively.
“You used to. When I met him he was quite the ladies’ man.”
“You met me when I was 10.”
As the stormy—both figuratively and literally—night wears on, Maud (Francoise Fabian, finding just the right balance of playful sensuality and intellectualism) dresses down to merely a shirt and reclines on a bed stationed in the living room (so that her young son may have the bedroom). When Jean-Louis prepares to leave with Vidal, Maud presses him to stay given the weather and the distance home, an offer he reluctantly accepts.
He eventually spills his unspoken desire for Francoise, and Maud offers to help, saying some women are natural matchmakers. “I flee them like the plague,” Jean-Louis responds.
She also invites him into bed. And while her intentions seem innocent, Jean-Louis perceives at least an element of temptress. “Are you afraid?” Maud inquires. “Of yourself or me?”
It is a question that haunts Jean-Louis, even after meeting and, yes, marrying Francoise (at the end of their rocky first date, Jean-Louis discovers the book True and False Conversion, or Atheism Debated on a shelf in Francoise’s apartment). Their marriage, Jean-Louis narrates, is an “adventure of sanctity.”
Jean-Louis, it seems, has chosen his side in the great, cosmic coin flip and is content with his call. But as the film builds to its beguiling, unexpected final moments, destiny—or the divine or probability—once again intervenes and forces Jean-Louis to consider his choice … and to make another one that carries no less weight.