Spoilers below (for a film a half-century old)

Desire, satisfaction, and justice are uneasy acquaintances. They are asymptotes, or Italian dressing. With space, time, and energy enough, they may emulsify, fraternize, or verge, but they will never fuse.

Why? And what to do about it?

My Night at Maud’s dramatizes this problem. The film’s fulcrum is Pascal’s Wager, but instead of a mere speculative quandary — belief or atheism? — we see it incarnated in one man’s erotic dilemma — the sweet, pious Françoise or the witty, freethinking Maud? Like life, working out the answer makes him fractious, ashamed, overjoyed, and confused. I loved the film because it narrated the problems of eros with such sensitivity.

Director Eric Rohmer was a devout Catholic, so he wasn’t likely to dismiss “religion” as a repressive or obsolete option. But he could’ve made it seem pure or obvious. Instead, he showed believers and doubters laughing at themselves, trading convictions, and respecting one another as friends.

Rohmer also could’ve heightened the viewer’s anxieties about Christian faithfulness, love, and freedom. But whereas I usually build an inferno of despair with these ingredients, his “moral tale” has turned the heat down to a cozy fire.

Strangely, this warm film avoids both of these dangers — sentimentality and melancholy — by acknowledging sin. No one is pure. And that recognition clears the ground for their affection.

We see our characters live it out throughout the film. In the middle, as protagonist Jean-Louis and Françoise are beginning their relationship, she makes an embarrassed confession: She has a lover, and he’s married. Jean-Louis assures her he’s had several dalliances in the past, and that even that morning, he’d come from another woman’s bed. His admission gives Françoise some comfort, but she quickly changes the subject. The shame is still too great.

In the film’s last scene, five years later, that shame flares again before it finally evaporates. Jean-Louis hikes down the dunes toward the beach. With him are his son and wife, the demure Françoise he finally chose. And whom should he encounter but Maud, just leaving? Maud, whose clever repartee had so attracted him when he was still caught between the two women. As the three characters finally glance past one another, each discovers the other’s infidelity. Maud finally confirms her suspicions about Jean-Louis, that he always had a blonde Catholic girl in mind to marry, despite his shy denials. And although they’d never met, Françoise seems to recognize Maud and hurries down to the beach. Then, to himself, Jean-Louis makes the connection: she knew her because Françoise’s lover was Maud’s ex-husband. The fact that Jean-Louis had contact with Françoise’s past sins mortifies her.

Jean-Louis catches up with Françoise and confesses that Maud was the one he’d slept with the night before he first met Françoise. He does not mention her past, only his own. She lifts her head, and a smile slips across her face. Relieved to find her husband as faithless as herself, she grabs his hand and her son’s. The little family splashes into the surf.

The ending is perfect. Especially because it’s based on dishonesty. Françoise had sex with her lover multiple times. Although he’d had several lovers before, when Jean-Louis slept with Maud, he really only slept beside her, because of strange force of circumstance. (He does embrace her in bed for two seconds, but quickly recoils.) To comfort Françoise, he exaggerates this tryst. That is, he lies. But his lie about his actions tells the truth about his feelings—of lust for Maud and of compassion for Françoise. And that convoluted way of talking reconciles him to his beloved.

Solidarity in infidelity is the theme Geoffrey Rees also advances in his extraordinary book The Romance of Innocent Sexuality. Written in response to the church’s raging debates about sexuality, he says, Don’t start by claiming your version of love is correct. Start by rooting yourself in the same failure as everyone else, because that’s true.

As Jean-Louis learns a great deal about love from his Marxist and freethinking friends, so too can Christians learn a great deal from Rees, “a moderately observant Reform Jewish writer,” who takes on the odd task of expounding Christian doctrine better than Christians. Of all doctrines, the one he recuperates is original sin!

… the bottom line is simple: sin, not innocence. Rather than attempt to discern whose sexual desires and relationships are innocent and whose not, a more responsible sexual ethics—and more constructive also—starts with acceptance of responsibility by each person individually for the universal ruin of humankind in a single inheritable original sin that is meaningfully and appropriately associated with sexuality.

Now, I happen to think that we can’t inherit anything from a mythic primordial couple, and that even if we did, Augustine’s conclusions (e.g., the damnation of unbaptized fetuses) would be obscene. But I think Rees thinks so, too. Alongside Augustine, Foucault is guiding Rees’ study, and this is what Michel has to say about “fiction” (quoted in Romance):

It seems to me that the possibility exists for fiction to function in truth, for a fictional discourse to induce effects of truth, and for bringing it about that a true discourse engenders or “manufactures” something that does not as yet exist, that is, “fictions” it. One “fictions” history on the basis of a political reality that makes it true, one “fictions” a politics not yet in existence on the basis of a historical truth.

What matters to Rees is less what but how we believe, and what we do in response. (Form is content anyway, right?) He thinks this strange idea of original sin—that ancient, universal STD that perverts all sexuality—when we acknowledge it, can breed in us “mature humor” and “charitable anger,” which in turn can open us up to showing hospitality to outsiders.

How else could we feel or relate? That is, once we take seriously that none of us can really understand ourselves at a deep level, and that this fact produces confusion and shame. And because, as theorist Leo Bersani writes, “It is possible to think of the sexual as, precisely, moving between a hyperbolic sense of self and a loss of all consciousness of self,” it’s easy to see why our internal incoherence becomes interpersonal, sexual dysfunction and expropriation. We all want to hide or shift that failure. But as Rees argues, and Rohmer shows, accepting the guilt (even the guilt that doesn’t seem technically, individually ours) also helps us accept the people beyond our individual sphere.

Notably, this reflection on original sin isn’t extrinsic to the film, either. Although Rohmer’s characters hadn’t read Rees, they had read Pascal, an especially thorough Augustinian. To him, God was in competition with women, wine, and everything else that steals our fallen attention. To Jean-Louis, this outlook was desiccated and hateful, and it crushed him, mainly because it was so devoid of humor. Regardless of Pascal’s intent, his Pensées can only cause resentment and self-defense in Jean-Louis. That is, reading Pascal made him take himself too seriously. To give any joy or warmth, it would take two friends, a sceptic and an atheist Marxist, who respected his faith but could also laugh about it.

The same thing happened to me. My own favorite faithless Communist loves Christianity more than I do, and his humor and paradoxical affirmations help me work through my own moral anxieties. He’s open about his own—as an expert in both Lacan and Marx, Žižek sees the selfishness, delusion, and manipulation that characterize us at our cores and in our relationships. He’s dead serious about the problems he sees in the world and in humanity, but he’s also supremely comic, because there’s no other way to acknowledge uncomfortable truths.

Wanting stuff, getting it, and being fair will never perfectly overlap in the present. Each member of this trio might even fall apart under its own weight. As Žižek has argued, “desire is always desire for desire itself.” If we’re all that self-involved, and if we’re helpless to do anything about it, then a laugh, an embrace, and a sigh of relief in unison sound like just what’s needed.

Thanks to Ken Wilson for the film suggestion.