Night Moves’ private detective Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman) may not understand the difference between chance and choice, or the need to consider long-term consequences, but director Arthur Penn surely does. That’s why Eric Rohmer’s Ma nuit chez Maud (My Night at Maud’s, 1969) figures so prominently in Night Moves (1975).
When Harry visits his wife Ellen (Susan Clark) at her antique shop she invites him to join her and her shop assistant when they go to see My Night at Maud’s. She is using her assistant as a beard for her meeting with Marty Heller (Harris Yulin), and the invitation is part of her deception as well: she knows her Harry. He responds with Night Moves most famous line: “I saw a Rohmer film once. It was kinda like watching paint dry.” (1)
As Harry later approaches the Magnolia Theater hoping to catch up with Ellen, we see the marquee from one side and the front. He makes a U-turn and we see it from the other side. All say, “Eric Rohmer. My Night at Maud’s.” We see the sign again when Harry follows the car in which Ellen leans over and kisses the lover he hadn’t until that moment known she had.
Shooting and editing in Night Moves are highly economical. Many key facts go by once, often fast. The call from Nick (Kenneth Mars) in the opening scene giving Harry Arlene Iverson’s (Janet Ward) case, for example, is barely audible under the music. The background information on Arlene provided by Nick is on a tape Harry plays while he’s driving through night-time Los Angeles streets to the Magnolia. Harry flies to New Mexico and back, to Florida and back, and to Florida a second time, but Penn never shows a single commercial airplane. Instead, he always has Harry in his guacamole green Mustang in California and in a different rental car each of the three times he’s away: the rental cars are instant synecdoche for air travel.
So why so much talk and imagery having to do with My Night at Maud’s? Why do we hear about the film once and see that Magnolia marquee in eight separate shots? Why did Penn substitute Rohmer’s film for the Claude Chabrol film in Alan Sharp’s original script? (2)
My Night at Maud’s is about a man, never referred to by name in the film itself but generally listed as “Jean-Louis” (Jean-Louis Trintignant) in the credits, who encounters an old friend, Vidal (Antoine Vitez), in a restaurant. They discuss belief, choice, responsibility and Pascal. Later, Vidal brings Jean-Louis to the apartment of Maud (Françoise Fabian), a physician, where they have dinner and continue the conversation. Vidal gets drunk and Maud sends him home. It is Christmas, the town is covered with new snow, so Maud insists that Jean-Louis, who lives in the hills outside of town, spend the night at her place because the roads are dangerous. He does. They talk, she offers him sex; he declines. The next morning he encounters Françoise (Marie-Christine Barrault), a young woman he has previously seen in church. In the film’s final scene, Jean-Louis and Françoise, now married and with a young son, encounter Maud at the beach. Jean-Louis realises that not only do Maud and Françoise know one another, but Françoise was the woman Maud’s husband was having an affair with when Maud’s marriage broke up. He decides to say nothing about it because more knowledge about the past will do no good to their relationship in the future. Some secrets, he decides, are better kept and some actions are better not taken.
Jean-Louis is a man who makes choices not so much on the basis of what he wants to do as on the basis of what he believes he ought to do. There is a great deal of discussion in the film about Pascal’s “wager”: if there is the slightest chance that God exists, Pascal argued, then it is to your advantage to act accordingly because by doing so you have eternity to win and therefore your life has meaning; if you do not act accordingly you risk eternal damnation. By extension, Pascal’s argument goes to the meaning of all choice: consequences unlikely to occur but of great moment must be taken seriously because if you choose incorrectly the results could be catastrophic and irreversible. There is also a great deal of discussion about living by and violating one’s principles, fidelity, faith and love.
My Night at Maud’s was released in the U.S. in 1970 and had two Academy Award nominations the following spring. It was influential enough that Chanturgue, a wine from the Auvergne region mentioned in the film, went from being virtually unknown in the USA in 1969 to one of the highest-selling imported white wines in 1971. Night Moves was shot in 1973. If you haven’t seen My Night at Maud’s, it is unlikely you know about the central character’s devotion to an idea or the great amount of screen time devoted to Pascal, moral choice, principles and love. In that case, it’s just the movie Harry’s wife was at the night he learns she’s been having an affair. But the scene is far more resonant if you know that the central issue of the Rohmer film is about making choices when you cannot know their potential consequences, and that the central character is a man who believes absolute fidelity is not only possible but, for him, necessary. It also helps if you know that My Night at Maud’s is a film about a man who has an opportunity to have sex with a beautiful intelligent woman but chooses not to; that Harry’s wife was seeing the film with a man she has been secretly having sex with for an unknown time; and that later, when Harry has an opportunity to have sex with an attractive woman who is involved with another man and does, he isn’t so much making a choice as being distracted.
This short discussion of My Night at Maud’s in the context of Night Moves is a slightly amended extract from an article titled ‘Loose Ends in Night Moves’ largely devoted to Arthur Penn’s film which will appear in Issue 55 of Senses of Cinema. Thanks to the author for permission to run the extract in advance of the full article.
- The line was quoted, for example, in Rohmer’s New York Times obituary, January 11, 2010, online at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/12/movies/12rohmer.html?hpw
- Jean-Pierre Coursodon said to Penn, “Here are three superimposed three-way relationships: Moseby’s client’s adulterous affair, mentioned on the tape, Harry’s wife’s affair as she is in the theater with her lover, and the triangular relationships in Ma nuit chez Maud.” Penn responded, “This is actually the reason why I chose Rohmer’s film. [Alan] Sharp suggested a Chabrol film in his script, I forget which one, but it made no difference as far as the psychological point was concerned as Harry is no ‘intellectual.’ But the Rohmer reference does add something thematically.” Arthur Penn interview by Jean-Pierre Coursodon originally published in Cinéma, May 1977. Reprinted in Arthur Penn Interviews, Michael Chaiken and Paul Cornin (eds.), Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2008.