We lost Jean-Louis Trintignant recently. He was 91 so it wasn’t too shocking. But what is a bit surprising is how many of my all time favorite films have him in the cast. He wasn’t exactly a character actor, but he could either dominate a film or slip into the supporting cast, depending on what was necessary. So I thought it would be useful over the next couple of weeks to discuss a few of Trintignant’s greatest films.
Let’s start with the 1969 Eric Rohmer film My Night at Maud’s. I should say up front that I am a huge Rohmer fan. I am as familiar as anyone with the famous diss on Rohmer in Night Moves that watching a Rohmer film is like watching paint dry. It pains me a bit that this line is perhaps how he is most known to many people. It’s certainly true that his films consist almost entirely of people having intense conversations. If you don’t like that, well, go watch Batman 82: Batman Attends a Neil Diamond Concert. For those of us who like films that explore ideas, Rohmer is one of the true greats.
My Night at Maud’s is Rohmer’s first full-length feature, though the third in the Six Moral Tales, as the first two were shorts. Like most of his films, the plot is simple. Trintignant plays a devout Catholic man in a town in the French Alps. After many years, he meets an old high school friend, who is a bit of a louse. The friend is buddies and occasional lovers with a woman named Maud, who is a divorced single mother. All of the characters are in their mid-30s. Trintignant has idealized his woman as a young blonde devout Catholic and has found her in his church. He begins to woo her. But over one long night–the centerpiece of the film; the scene goes on for nearly an hour–Trintignant, Maud, and his friend all meet at her apartment. They talk about morality, religion, Pascal, love, and sex. Trintignant’s friend clearly wants him to sleep with her. She is very open to this. Will Trintignant resist the temptation?
The answer is, and this is no spoiler alert because it’s obvious, is that yes, he will resist. The reason this all works is that he’s not really that sympathetic of a character. He’s a smart guy but he’s a prig and very invested in his own self-image. Meanwhile, Maud, played by Françoise Fabian, is an extremely sympathetic character. Beautiful, of course, but also just someone you would probably want to hang out with. Unlike most of the French New Wave, Rohmer actually cared enough about women to write good roles for them. Later in his career, most of his films would feature female characters in the lead. This is opposed to the massively misogynistic Godard and Truffaut. If Trintignant had slept with her, the film would have been ruined. Trintignant himself loved this. He hated playing romantic leads and thought it way more interesting that he didn’t have sex with Maud, even though for years audiences would mention this to him because she is so appealing in the film.
In any case, whether any Rohmer film is for you or not is something only you can decide, but My Night at Maud’s is certainly a good place to start, though I think Rohmer used color so well after this and it’s a bit of a bummer it is a black and white film.
Here’s Roger Ebert’s review of the film. He loved it. And here’s the trailer.