In 1969's Ma Nuit Chez Maud/My Night With Maud - the third of Eric Rohmer's "Six Moral Tales", re-released in cinemas this week by the BFI - a devout, buttoned-down, solicitudinous engineer (Jean-Louis Trintignant), described as "the quintessential Jesuit" by his closest friends, finds all his hypotheses on life, love and "mathematical hope" tested by proximity to two very different women: first, the striking blonde student he locks eyes with at Mass - in what would surely count among the cinema's most daring pick-ups, had their relationship gone any further - then, having been snowed in at her apartment one Christmas Eve, by the spiky brunette of the title, a divorced single mother who becomes our hero's conversational and philosophical sparring partner, and eventually, against the odds, his lover.
The shock, 40 years on from Maud's first release, comes from encountering a film this frontloaded with lengthy, unexpurgated, sleepover chat. The picture is primed with talk, much as Michael Bay's movies are primed with explosions - and, like Bay's movies, Maud might be an equal turn-off for those who aren't really in the mood. (All Trintignant's fussing about Jansenism is Rohmer's version of that unfathomable technobabble Bay has the rocket scientists in his films speak.) There's an especially exasperating (not to mention emblematic) scene early on chez Maud when - having been invited to stay for at least dinner - Trintignant sits with the remains of his cheesecake poised upon his fork, and proceeds to talk, and talk, and talk. Rohmer's characters like to chew things over; you may well prefer them to swallow.
Indeed, without Nestor Almendros' atmospheric photography of Clermont-Ferrand in the snow and after dark - the regional equivalent of what Godard and Varda were trying to pin down in their Paris films - it would be easy to write Maud off as anti-cinematic: to conclude that its lengthy stretches of jawing would play just as well, if indeed not better, on the page, or on the stage, particularly if we could retain Rohmer's superlative ensemble. Only by listening closely, however, do we grasp that talk is actually the film's subject of study - the manner through which these characters stave off action, justify themselves or seek to absolve their guilt. In these lives, talk has become a weapon in an ongoing battle against insecurity, which is why the film's fundamentals feel oddly timeless: these are young adults striving to articulate a path for themselves between the unnameable forces in the universe.
Talk is also Rohmer's own way of seducing the viewer (and, more precisely, the viewer's good intelligence: these are conversations we might actually like to have), just as Maud has to talk her reluctant suitor under the covers with her. As with that onscreen process of seduction, it takes a while, but it happens sooner or later, and it's why these individuals - Françoise Fabian's eponymous heroine, in particular - come to seem like real, flesh-and-blood people, rather than the hepcat signifiers and autobiographical avatars we observe in other French New Wave projects. In this bold directorial statement - a film that's effortlessly good with words, and which ranks among Rohmer's clearest and crispest pronouncements - the characters talk, therefore they are.
Ma Nuit Chez Maud/My Night with Maud is on selected release.