At first glance, going from last week’s film (Night of the Living Dead) to this week’s (My Night at Maud’s) may seem like a journey from the ridiculous to the sublime, but not so fast. There is more similarity here than just the names of the films or of the two directors, (George A.) Romero and (Eric) Rohmer (a name borrowed by the latter out of respect for director/actor Erich von Stroheim and pulp author Sax Rohmer, both of whom embellished or changed their names). As critic Robin Wood has pointed out, Romero’s “Dead trilogy” has serious implications beyond its appeal to the mass market, and it would be hard to find a more serious filmmaker than Rohmer this side of Carl Th. Dreyer, Robert Bresson, and Ingmar Bergman. My Night at Maud’s even deprives the audience of many of the visual rewards available from that trio’s most studied films, although there is an austere beauty to the black-and-white cinematography of the gifted Nestor Almendros. (Almendros was to serve Francois Truffaut and Luis Buñuel, among others, before coming to America to shoot Terence Malick’s stunning color masterpiece Days of Heaven, which we will be showing in August.) There is even a dash of sentimental romanticism in Dreyer/Bresson/Bergman that Rohmer is reluctant to provide while his protagonists dissect Blaise Pascal.
None of this is meant to denigrate Rohmer. When he died three years ago, I suggested he may have been the world’s foremost living director, owing in part to My Night at Maud’s. Although Rohmer had been an important part of the French New Wave birthed by Andre Bazin’s Cahiers du cinéma, his arrival on the international scene as a director came after Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, and Claude Chabrol became household names among cinephiles. Although he shared his comrades’ admiration for American films, he was always something of an odd man out. Godard eventually drifted off into left-wing politics and over-contemplation of his navel, and Truffaut, while not overtly political, produced socially rebellious heroes like Antoine Doinel, Charlie the piano player, and Montag the renegade fireman. Chabrol’s subversiveness was closer to that of his idol, Alfred Hitchcock, whom Rohmer also highly regarded, leading to a book by the two young Frenchmen. Politically, Rohmer was more conservative than his colleagues, but he managed to serve as the editor of Cahiers for seven years. Outside of the art cinema scene, America did little to reciprocate Rohmer’s admiration beyond an Oscar nomination for Maud’s, only his third feature.
Without going into a detailed discussion of Rohmer’s work (approximately 30 features and 20 shorts), my viewing experience this week reinforced for me the fact that cinema is rich in many things. I looked at Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now Redux (which we will also be showing in August), nearly three-and-one-half hours of spectacular, almost unearthly images of horror and man-made hell dealing with many of the same issues as My Night at Maud’s. Rohmer’s film mostly features polite, articulate 20th-century folks sitting around discussing the contemporary relevance of a 17th-century philosopher. Coppola’s insane helicopter/napalm sequence features a variation on Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, while Rohmer presents a provincial Mozart concert. My takeaway is that both films are serious, and both are cinema.
Rohmer as a critic was a major contributor to the development of the auteur theory at Cahiers. He argued against the concept that aging directors became less cogent and creative with the passing of years. This became especially relevant in his own case when his films were still winning prizes as he approached 80, and he remained an active director almost until his death at 89.