The Relentless Vision of Maurice Pialat (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Adam Bingham
Naked-Childhood, two-disc DVD, color, 80 min., 1968. A Masters of Cinema release, distributed by Eureka Entertaiment..
We Will Not Grow Old Together, DVD, color, 102 min., 1972. A Masters of Cinema release, distributed by Eureka Entertaiment.
The Mouth Agape, two-disc DVD, color, 82 min., 1974. A Masters of Cinema release, distributed by Eureka Entertaiment.
Pass Your Exams First, DVD, color, 81 min., 1979. A Masters of Cinema release, distributed by Eureka Entertaiment.
Loulou, DVD, color, 101 min., 1980. An Artificial Eye release.
À nos amours, two-disc DVD, color, 102 min., 1983. A Criterion Collection release, distributed by Image Entertainment.
Police, two-disc DVD, color, 109 min., 1985. A Masters of Cinema release, distributed by Eureka Entertaiment.
Van Gogh, two-disc DVD, color, 152 min., 1991. An Artificial Eye release.
In his Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson describes Maurice Pialat as “a wounded, battered humanist, one of the few links we have now to the heritage of Ozu, Mizoguchi and Renoir.” Conversely, in a review of his film Police for Time Out, critic Chris Peachment echoes what has become a more widespread reaction to Pialat when he offers a contrasting heritage within which to position and understand the director: that of French culture’s perceived strain of overt misanthropy. Both the commonalities and the discrepancies between these competing viewpoints—each writer’s elucidation of Pialat’s lineage in diametrically opposed terms—bespeaks something of the ambiguous position this director occupies within the annals of French filmmaking, and the tenuous balance of antinomies that define his career.
He was a fiercely independent figure who nonetheless sporadically worked with big stars in recognizable (if frequently distorted) generic frameworks. He combines elements of fiction and documentary modes, and is a director of naturalistic, domestic, ostensibly realist narratives that manage to open windows onto grander themes and concerns: from the structures of patriarchal culture to the transience of time and the viability of an interior, spiritual life in a frequently hostile or debased milieu. Furthermore, within the films themselves, one finds characters and scenes that mirror such extrafilmic dichotomies by progressing in an uneasy tension and marked symbiosis between contrasting states: between, for example, tenderness and violence, or between quietude and closeness on the one hand, and dislocation, alienation, and despair on the other.
If several of the above features call to mind Robert Bresson, this is far from coincidental. Indeed, the comparison is rather illuminating. Both directors began their artistic lives as painters before moving on to filmmaking, and both began anomalously with comedic works (Bresson with a now-lost comedy of manners entitled Les Affaires Publiques in 1934, Pialat in 1957 with a stylized, silent slapstick short called Funny Reels that looks back to René Clair and forward to the work of Richard Lester). Both directors worked selectively on very personal projects over a period of around four decades, their careers often intersecting with notable trends and movements (particularly the Nouvelle Vague and thereafter the emerging canonical European art cinema) without ever becoming a part of these prevailing cinematic winds. And both filmmakers are elliptical storytellers whose films are built as much around absences as around what is present, what is left out as opposed to what is realized.
It is this final point that is perhaps Pialat’s most salient and striking narrative technique: the aspect of his style that is most immediately apparent when considering his work as a whole. It is also a dichotomy that can be applied to Pialat himself, who attained name recognition as a director while his work remained relatively little seen, and only rarely written about. The heretofore lack of availability of his work has certainly contributed to the ongoing dearth of critical discourse on Pialat in English language criticism (one short book thus far, published in the U.K. in 2006 as part of a series on French filmmakers). Thanks to Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series, Artificial Eye, and Criterion, however, one can for the first time begin to discover Maurice Pialat on DVD, and it proves a welcome, long overdue opportunity.
Viewed today, six years after his death and twelve years since his last work, he emerges as a key figure in the development of that austere, uncompromising strain of French cinema that would achieve prominence in films like Louis Malle’s Lacombe Lucien, Sandrine Veysset’s Will it Snow for Christmas?, and Bertrand Tavernier’s The Bait, and which today finds its nadir in such figures as the Dardenne brothers and Bruno Dumont. Pialat’s early works anticipate these films’ microcosmic stories of broken families and corrosive personal relationships, their emphasis on predominantly working-class characters and environments, and their concern with existential self-definition and the extent to which characters’ identities and subjectivity can be shaped by personal agency as opposed to the environment and familial/social milieu in which they live. What is surprising, no less than it is astonishing, is how early in his career Pialat cemented this particular esthetic, and at a time when there was almost no audience for works of committed social realism.
By the time of his first feature, Naked-Childhood in 1969 (which was a commercial disaster upon its theatrical release), Pialat had already developed and refined the stylistic and thematic features that would continue to dominate his subsequent work. Naked-Childhood concerns a young orphan and juvenile delinquent and his protracted and problematic attempts to fit in within two contrasting foster homes: one a young family with their own child, the other an elderly couple with experience of fostering who have other children already living with them. Given this subject matter, Pialat’s film clearly takes its place within a well-worn genre in French cinema—the drama of adolescence. It is a dramatic framework that has seen notable films by Jacques Feyder (The Faces of Children), Jean Vigo (the seminal Zéro de conduite), René Clément (Forbidden Games), Louis Malle (Zazie on the Metro), Lucile Hadzihalilovic (Innocence), and the aforementioned Sandrine Veysset (Will it Snow for Christmas?), in addition of course to numerous works by Truffaut (The 400 Blows, The Wild Child, Small Change).
With Truffaut as coproducer on Naked-Childhood, one can but refer back ten years to his own feature debut as a point of comparison to Pialat’s first film, and the two prove fundamentally different. Truffaut follows Jean-Pierre Léaud’s Antoine Doinel step by step through his fractured adolescent existence: from unhappy home life and troubled schooling, through close friendship, juvenile delinquency, and ultimately on to capture, imprisonment, and escape. At each successive stage of the story, he carefully elucidates the incidents and familial/environmental hardships that impact upon his young protagonist, and thereby stresses the concrete specificity of this particular case. Pialat, by contrast, employs an elliptical narrative form and a more distanced, dispassionate tone, leaving gaps in action and motivation that require an active viewer to invest in the film to fill in its myriad empty spaces.
Most overtly, Naked-Childhood set the template for almost all Pialat’s subsequent films insofar as its stark opening throws the audience straight into a story in medias res, a narrative already underway within which we have to work hard to orient ourselves. There is no exposition regarding young Francois’s real family, nor does Pialat endeavor as his narrative develops to explain his protagonist’s contradictory, self-destructive behavior, such as his constant reversion to acts of delinquency even when he seems to be finding happiness in his new home. As such, Pialat’s elliptical style becomes both narratively and thematically motivated, as it is a marked absence (of a secure home and family) that continues to define Francois’s life. Conversely, the abrupt, disorienting opening further reflects this young character, someone who himself has been, and will again be, suddenly thrown into a new environment and left to make his own faltering way. By the end, he himself has become an absence, the writer of a letter to his last foster parents whose positivity it is up to each of us to decipher for ourselves.
Pialat’s third film, The Mouth Agape, followed Naked-Childhood by proving unpopular on its initial theatrical release. Made in 1974, just two years after Cries and Whispers, the film covers ostensibly similar territory to Bergman’s drama: that of a woman’s protracted, agonizing death from (presumably) cancer, and the effect this has on those around her. Otherwise, however, there is little commonality between the two films. Narratively, Pialat replaces the sisters in Bergman’s film with his middle-aged protagonist’s estranged husband and adult son, while stylistically he completely overhauls Bergman’s design. Working for the first and only time with the great cinematographer Nestor Almendros, Pialat forgoes the stylized blood red and pure whites of Bergman’s mise-en-scène, not to mention the rich natural tones of his DP’s work with Terence Malick and Eric Rohmer. Instead, he develops a desaturated, almost monochromatic color palette of dull browns and greens and murky grey-whites, the increasing lack of color an objective correlative to the life draining away from the central character.
Moreover, where Bergman’s characters in Cries and Whispers wrestle with spiritual, divine questions of faith and belief, The Mouth Agape is the least spiritual film one could imagine. It is unblinking in its focus on the corporeality of human identity, on earthly, corruptible flesh as the repository of self-definition. It is, quite obviously, the decay of the woman’s body that anchors Pialat’s film. But against this is set the husband and son’s ceaseless desire for women and sex, their constant need for healthy female bodies, which is underlined in a sequence shot showing the son, Phillipe, undressing and desperately kissing and caressing a prostitute before collapsing on a bed in premature excitement. This is not seen to be motivated entirely by their wife/mother’s condition—it is made clear that both have long behaved in this fashion. But their actions are exacerbated by her encroaching death, and as such relate to a crisis of masculinity in which a consumption of sex becomes an attempt to negate a fundamental lack, specifically the Lacanian lack associated with the symbolic order of subjectivity in which the child enters the realm of the father (underlined by the commonality of their actions in this film) and seeks out sexual substitutes for the mother. In effect, they are seeking a measure of respite through control of other women, as death becomes figured as a chasm (the woman’s gaping, consuming mouth) that wrests power away from them and negates their status as living, desiring subjects.
Connected to this is the sense that the mother’s debilitation proves analogous to the behavior of these men. As noted above, the title of the film comes from a scene in which the now-incapacitated woman is being fed, and opens her mouth wide to receive the food that she then mechanically chews as a kind of residual instinct divorced from emotion or enjoyment. Eating is thus signposted as a significant feature of The Mouth Agape, and accrues a symbolic import in the equally residual sexual urges of the two men, in their own appetites which they seek to fulfill as if acting out a preordained fate. Given the preponderance of mealtime scenes in Pialat’s work (more so even than Chabrol), and their frequent basis as a site for tense scenes of domestic antagonism, this particular film could well be argued to be a key to the cinema of Maurice Pialat.
This primal male/female dimension reappears in the third film available from Eureka: Pialat’s seventh, and, on the surface, most uncharacteristic film. Police was an original screenplay by Catherine Breillat, who subsequently fell out with Pialat and saw her script worked over by a number of other writers (even after production had commenced) in order to flesh out the masculine aspects of the story. The film initially seems to be a narrative anomaly in Pialat’s oeuvre, a particularly rigorous and detailed but otherwise not terribly unconventional French policier. What emerges, however, is arguably one of the most radical genre films in French cinema. It is a film of two distinct halves, in which an investigation by Gérard Depardieu’s determined cop Mangin into drug-trafficking by three North African immigrants and a French woman named Noria (Sophie Marceau) suddenly transforms into a tale of obsessive love and personal loss as Mangin begins a desperate affair with Noria, whom he could not convict.
Beginning in typical Pialat style with an interrogation already underway, the first part of Police proceeds with an almost documentary veracity and enormous attention to the details of the case. There are several more lengthy interrogations, and through the movement between these interviews the dynamics of the hypermasculine environment of the police station is laid bare. This, however, proves misleading when the case against Noria fails and the narrative dynamic changes to antipathy and investigation within the fraternity of the criminals, who know Noria has stolen their money. This is where the emphasis on intense interrogations in the first section of the film emerges as crucial, as they throw into relief the figurative interrogations that define its latter half, wherein Mangin attempts to uncover the truth about Noria, about her actions and feelings. And thus, like The Mouth Agape, it is the elusive, unknowable woman that dictates masculine behavior, and the crises that arise therein.
Alongside this ambitious structure, however, comes a feeling that Police’s thematic focus is not well-served by its narrative (something perhaps derived from its various authors). The metamorphosis of Sophie Marceau’s Noria from object of interrogation to object of lust and desire, from the focus of an institutional to a personal gaze (so clearly signaled as two sides of the same coin), is never entirely satisfactorily worked through with regard to her narrative context. Beside her, Depardieu’s protagonist remains too distant and opaque a presence to fully elucidate and explore by contrast the rich potentiality of male arrogance, impotence, and need for control that the earlier drama We Will Not Grow Old Together so successfully mined. One may regard this as a presentation of essential emptiness, just as Noria is thematically positioned as unknowable and distant. But for an almost two-hour film these points become belabored, the characters mere thematic ciphers rather than the flesh and blood people so convincingly etched elsewhere by Pialat. And, as a consequence, they would appear to become default settings for a director working in a new and alterior narrative and generic universe and feeling himself to be alienated within it, a director too markedly falling back on the familiar with the kind of residual urge that afflicts a number of his characters. Nonetheless, at a time when the policier in France had passed its successive heydays of Becker, Melville, José Giovanni, and Jacques Deray, and entered a heritage-dominated national cinematic wasteland in which it would remain until the likes of Olivier Marchal and Jacques Maillot rescued and redefined it, Police was a timely genre film. And it remains interesting as such because implicitly it simultaneously unpicks and comments on its generic status and foundation, and in so doing offers a gift to connoisseurs of both genre and auteur theory as an example of how the two can clash and run counter to one another.
The two most recent Eureka releases in the Masters of Cinema Pialat series are also in many ways the most valuable, representing as they do a pair of films that have never before been available in the U.K. or the U.S., and indeed that have rarely been seen even in theatrical screenings. Pass Your Exams First and the aforementioned We Will Not Grow Old Together can be regarded as companion pieces to two other Pialat films with which they form particularly revealing parallels. Following on from Naked-Childhood, the former could well have been called Naked-Adolescence. It shares with its progenitor a candid, unflinchingly naturalistic, unsentimental tone and quasi-véritéstyle, along with a focus on troubled, damaged youth in a run-down working-class milieu (in this case Lens). In contrast to Naked-Childhood’s focus on a single young boy, however, the latter film features a multitude of characters, centering as it does on the plight of a group of aimless teenagers who are thrown into the deep end of the real world after finishing school, and who struggle with how best to proceed with their lives while similarly despairing over their troubled home lives and personal relationships.
Pass Your Exams First is noteworthy for refusing not only to sentimentalize or romanticize its youngsters, but also to conceive of their lives in anything other than the most immediate, sensory terms. Unlike the myriad young characters in Italian neorealism—unlike even those in the aforementioned Nouvelle Vague films by Truffaut and Malle (which both celebrate the potentialities of singular youthful subjectivity and innocence by depicting Paris as an exclusive playground)—Pialat’s teenagers here carry almost no subtextual weight or symbolic baggage. They are represented and defined as “youth” in so far as the travails of their lives and actions carry a recognizable charge, but are not used as narrative signifiers or signposts to anything beyond the denotative. As Bruno Dumont would do in his debut The Life of Jesus (itself released on the Eureka Masters of Cinema label just prior to these works), Pialat trades off specificity against abstraction, the concrete details of location, time, and place against the universality of the problems on view. Thus, the film’s deceptively free-style structure, which adds to an air of discursive observation, compares and contrasts various problems facing teenagers. Pialat simply drops in apparently arbitrarily on the characters, picks out his subjects, then moves on to consider others as is his wont, leaving several stories and lives suspended in narrative animation. This leads to specific formal contrasts and juxtapositions, such as those between the various relationships that develop and disintegrate over the course of the film, and these as opposed to the case of one boy who voraciously chases any and every girl he possibly can, including those he has already been with.
The result is a narrative methodology that destabilizes its own prototypically binding laws of causality and spatio-temporal coherence, something that emerges as an especially connotative move in that it ultimately testifies to Pialat’s desire to explore post-high-school youth as a particularly, paradigmatically interstitial time. In other words, such extrafilmic devices and dichotomies (particularly the fact/fiction divide) provide an objective correlative to characters who are caught in a push/pull of opposing forces: between school and work, family life and independence (two characters leave Lens for a new start in Paris at the film’s end), and between youth and adulthood, the past and the future. With this, Pialat is taking a significant step towards the realization of his long-cherished project À nos amours, and prefigures what will be that film’s defining image (in French cinema’s second most iconic freeze-frame ending) of life as an endless negotiation of the aforementioned dichotomies. Pialat’s adult characters tend to collapse before the weight of their own extremes of feeling and behavior, action and reflection (that is, they cannot negotiate between opposing states). But taken together with the earlier Naked-Childhood and later À nos amours, one can see in Pass Your Exams First the director’s hope that, for his younger protagonists at least, the possibility of progress exists. It may not be much, but it is as positive as Pialat gets.
We Will Not Grow Old Together, based on Pialat’s own autobiographical novel, is a sober study of the end of a relationship between two people, a middle-aged man and a younger woman. Their tempestuous liaison, already six years old when the film begins, finally approaches its overdue conclusion as the narrowly-focused narrative progresses. Or, to be more precise, it begins irrevocably to break down and disintegrate, and in so doing gives rise to all manner of physical and emotional violence between a couple who can’t live with or without each other, who seem increasingly to retreat into one another out of a fear to move on with, indeed to live, their lives. Much of the film is given over to this curious, masochistic stasis, in which several intense and tumultuous confrontations repeatedly give way, in a series of short, concise scenes—elliptically strung together so as to dispense with any narrative context—to reunions and joyous returns, only to return to violence and discord as quickly and as surely. As such, We Will Not Grow Old Together becomes one of Pialat’s most diagrammatic explorations of the in-between time that afflicts many of his protagonists, and makes the film a fascinating counterpoint to The Mouth Agape’s portrait of the forced breakdown of a marriage between a woman succumbing to terminal illness and her ceaselessly philandering husband. Both films unfold in a nether world, an eternal present caught between remote past and uncertain future, and in both the woman moves beyond the man and out of his life, leaving him stranded at the film’s end without any real hope of progress or personal fulfillment.
We Will Not Grow Old Together takes its place in a well-worn variant on the genre of the melodrama, one that may in fact be termed antimelodrama for the harrowing, claustrophobic, chamber-dramas of recrimination, hurt, loss, and violence (both emotional and physical) that comprise their typical register. Pride of place within this form must go to Rossellini’s masterpiece Voyage in Italy and Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, which together crystallized the template of focusing on masculinity in crisis as the ground zero of domestic discord. It is a schematic that variously defines Agnes Varda’s La Pointe Courte, Godard’s Contempt, Claude Chabrol’s Pleasure Party—which plays out an uncomfortably real scenario featuring writer Paul Gégauff and his actual ex-wife—and more recently Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives, Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, Ryosuke Hashiguchi’s All Around Us, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Climates, Andrei Zvyagintsev’s The Banishment, and Sam Mendes’s adaptation of Richard Yates’sRevolutionary Road.
Typically, however, Pialat offers variations on this theme. Chief among these is the fact that his protagonists are an unmarried couple, suggesting that the link between them is an entirely physical tie, not the legally-sanctioned union of man and wife, nor even a fulfilling emotional bond: just a physical reaction as marked as the wife’s need for food and the husband and son’s for sex in The Mouth Agape. Therefore, the aggressive masculinity on view in Jean Yanne’s protagonist, especially in the rhyming scenes of near assault in which he first rejects and later almost rapes his partner, becomes an even more desperate, naked attempt at control that can but fail, at dominating a partner who will ultimately elude his grasp.
Relationships between men and women are without exception volatile entities in Pialat’s world, ritualistic sites of both intense conflict and, just as strongly, feelings of desire and passion. But they are always doomed, always exist (as the title of this film ably and amply suggests) in the here and now without any possibility of growth or development. They exist as arenas wherein (especially male) needs and hungers have to be satiated, in the manner of an addict craving a hit, where turbulent emotions are played out only in extremes, and from which respite is sought like a weary soldier from the frontlines or the trenches. We Will Not Grow Old Together is, in this regard, the foundation from which other Pialat films grow, the touchstone for a career built around a very literal battle of the sexes.
Taken together, Eureka’s Masters of Cinema titles offer just about as comprehensive an introduction to Pialat as it is possible to find. Perhaps mindful of the fact that much of this work will be new to a majority of viewers, each of the first three DVD releases (Naked-Childhood, Police, and The Mouth Agape) come in two-disc special editions, and as such each contains a wealth of supplementary material. Much of this takes the form of interviews—some with Pialat, but a majority with the cast and crew involved in the making of the films—which, given that a number of them were conducted shortly after Pialat’s death, tend to focus on the man himself as much as on the works at hand. As interesting as these undoubtedly are, however, the real treasures of these releases are a collection of Pialat’s shorts and discursive essays, ten in all that appear alongside two of the three films. Accompanying The Mouth Agape are Pialat’s very earliest shorts—Funny Reels, The Familiar Shadow and the Eric Rohmer-esque Janine—along with the six brief but rewarding filmed essays he made in Turkey in 1964 (which capture perfectly his documentarian’s eye and poet’s heart). The DVD of Naked-Childhood contains only one short, Love Exists (made in 1960), which is notable for prefiguring the later sojourn in Turkey with its poetic focus on a Parisian working-class suburb.
Each film also features a dense booklet containing a useful essay on the film and newly translated interviews with Pialat, trailers, and an assortment of outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage. In addition, there are two detailed documentaries about Naked-Childhood and Police. The former, entitled Observations: Around Naked-Childhood, was made immediately following production on the film, and features not only an account of its making (via interviews with Pialat and the actors), but also scrutinizes the plight of real-life cases of neglected, abandoned children, and the effects of perpetually being uprooted to live with different families. The latter, Zoom onto Police, is a 2002 featurette consisting of interviews with several of the cast and crew, who all speak candidly about the film’s complicated genesis and troubled production. To complement this documentary short, there is an excerpt from a French television show featuring footage of Pialat and the actors at work during the seventeenth day of production onPolice, which gives a brief glimpse of the director’s instinctive approach to his craft and meticulous working methods.
Pass Your Exams First and We Will Not Grow Old Together are available only in single-disc editions, rather than the two-disc sets of the three other Eureka films. This drop in quantity, however, does not negate the standards of quality established in the earlier releases. Each film is accompanied by substantial interviews that expound on the background to, and making of, the films, while a worthwhile documentary on Pass Your Exams First by Serge Toubiana catches up with the setting and the cast almost thirty years later, and, like the film itself, finds interesting connections between past and present.
The three other DVDs currently available, all of which predate those in the Masters of Cinema series, cover Pialat’s later career, and represent some of his better known, more internationally successful and acclaimed works. From Artificial Eye there is Loulou and the magisterial Van Gogh, and from Criterion a two-disc special edition of À nos amours. These films display most overtly the paradigmatic balance of dichotomous elements, feelings, and impulses that animate Pialat’s body of work, none more so than Van Gogh, in which there arises an even more striking structural antinomy that animates the entire narrative. Here, at least in Pialat’s quietly radical conception (the film covers only the final three months in the painter’s life, his time at Auvers under the watchful, admiring eye of Dr. Gachet), Vincent is a painter who apparently paints only sporadically. Over the course of a two-and-a-half-hour film, there are comparatively few scenes depicting Van Gogh at work. And even those that do appear are either filmed in extreme close-up, showing only paint being daubed onto or scratched away from an already vivid canvas (as in the film’s opening image), or are interrupted, as a multitude of different characters keep frustrating his attempts at painting and thereby denying his expressive needs, his primary emotional outlet.
Of course, in reality this was far from true: his final months in Auvers saw Van Gogh at his most prolific, producing almost a new work every day. Pialat is canny enough, however, to take this knowledge for granted, and thus the fact that he rigorously eschews and elides the scenes of feverish, tortuous creation that figured heavily in both Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life and Robert Altman’s Vincent and Theo feeds into a thematic presentation of Van Gogh as divided soul unable to reconcile his life and his art. In other words, here in his penultimate film, one finds arguably Pialat’s boldest, most narratively pervasive absence—that of the artist away from his art. In place of such scenes, Pialat concentrates on naturalistic moments of domestic life: mealtimes, moments of lust with his prostitute lover or of companionship with prospective partner Marguerite Gachet, and instances of private introspection and torment.
The most striking instance of this approach occurs relatively early, and highlights Van Gogh’s status as Pialat’s most beautiful film. It is a series of scenes depicting Vincent’s brother Theo’s visit from Paris with his wife and newborn child. Over the course of their morning arrival, lunch in the garden, afternoon by the river, and departure in the evening, Pialat and cinematographers Giles Henry and Emmanuel Machuel (with whom he was working for the first time) capture the deepening colors and progressively rich play of light and shadow on water and through foliage to create a simple but palpable sense of the passage of time: “sculpting in time,” to quote the title of a book by Andrei Tarkovsky. At no point does Pialat emphasize or insist upon either a subjective vision (as in the spurious and self-aggrandizing dream narratives of Carlos Saura’sGoya in Bordeaux or Raoul Ruiz’s Klimt) or an objective, distinct sense of the overwhelming beauty of the natural world. The film never cuts away from the characters to survey their sublime surroundings, being content instead to casually observe them as the environments in which the characters act and through which they move. As a result, the film’s keenly felt transience becomes all the more moving and affecting, and its landscapes all the more beatific as a representation of something simple and tangible forming a stage on which tortured characters act out their ritual dramas of death and destruction.
Van Gogh takes its place at the head of Pialat’s career by virtue of the fact that it echoes a number of the director’s earlier films. Most overtly, Vincent Van Gogh himself becomes something of a cinematic brother to François, the foster child protagonist of Pialat’s debut Naked-Childhood. Both have spent a great deal of time being shunted between different homes and surrogate families, and the behavior of both alternates between a longing for love and intimacy, and violent outbursts that alienate those closest to them. As in The Mouth Agape, Van Gogh’s narrative traces a drawn out, incremental slide into inexorable death, while the film calls to mind Police insofar as the central character is torn between his work and his increasingly fractious personal feelings. And finally, the film’s presentation of Theo, his wife Jo and Vincent as a figurative and tense familial unit of parents and problematic, rebellious child has marked overtones of À nos amours. It is for this reason, coupled with Van Gogh’s focus on a painter (Pialat was himself a painter, and remained devoted to art even above filmmaking), that one senses the director here distilling a lifetime’s obsessions and preoccupations. Indeed, it is tempting to conclude that, in one of cinema’s supremely autobiographical oeuvres, it is in fact the real-life tortured artist Vincent Van Gogh with whom Pialat feels the deepest affinity. By turns childlike and aged beyond his years, desperate for love yet unable to keep from alienating those closest to him, shunning family yet incapable of independence and self-sustenance, he is a man and a painter of immense turmoil and deep-seated contradictions. And as a consequence, it is fascinating to read Pialat into him, to speculate on the connection between filmmaker and subject in a work in which the symbiosis of life and art occupies center stage.
If Van Gogh demonstrates the extent to which Pialat’s films can often be seen to reflect and refract one another in their narratives and thematic concerns, the earlier Loulou and À nos amours are particularly apt companion pieces. Like Van Gogh, Loulou is named after its protagonist, in this case a hedonistic, unemployed ex-con (Gérard Depardieu) involved in a fractious relationship with a young woman named Nelly (Isabelle Huppert) who has left her bourgeois home and married life to be with him. (Interestingly, the role of Loulou was originally conceived for Jacques Dutronc, who went on to play Vincent Van Gogh, suggesting a further connection between the two films.) The focus, though, begins more and more to drift onto Nelly, whose divided self (she continues to return to her husband even as she yearns for the earthy, animalistic sexuality on offer from Loulou) marks her out as the true protagonist by dint of the commonality of this characteristic across a majority of Pialat’s central characters.
Nelly thus occupies a figurative place at the center of a conflict between post-women’s-lib social politics and sexual freedom, and perceived entrapment within domesticity. It is problematic for her because, as she says early in the film, she needs both, but can find little room for maneuver as she is perpetually assailed and assaulted by the positions in which she is placed by the men around her. Pialat effectively undermines any anticipated stereotypes, however. The husband Nelly leaves is also her boss at work, which amply connotes the status of their relationship, but he is the one who is also savagely violent with her on a number of occasions. Loulou, in contrast to the cliché of an unreliable, dangerous, sexually available but emotionally closed off thug, is actually given to moments of affection and romance; he introduces Nelly to his mother, and even tells her that his wish is to marry her. And in fact it is only his paranoid belief that Nelly regards him only as a sexual partner that precipitates disillusionment with the relationship on his part.
Typically for Pialat, this sense of competing opposites feeds into a presentation of life as a battleground between uncontrollable emotions and impulses—between action and reflection, violence and tenderness. This is underlined in the person of Nelly’s husband, who three times in the opening thirty minutes violently berates and attacks both his wife and Loulou, only to calm down and talk openly and meekly with them immediately following his outburst. Ultimately, the heart of the film resides in such moments, redolent as they are of a pronounced irreconcilability between emotion and action, between self and other—and of feelings and interior states that cannot be adequately expressed and are corrupted in translation. Each character in Loulou tends to see projections of themselves rather than others. And with the titular figure perhaps on the cusp of a return to prison, it is useful to speculate here (as it is often in Bresson’s films) to speculate on the extent to which the characters are imprisoned within both themselves and their society.
The portrait in Loulou of a young woman precariously poised between sexual proclivity and the constricting nature of her staid, quasibourgeois home life is, in À nos amours, taken up by Pialat and Arlette Langmann (coscenarist on both films) and reworked into what is by common consent among his greatest works. The film centers on fifteen-year-old Suzanne, whose violent and broken home life leads her into a series of sexual encounters with a number of different partners as she tries to compensate for her domestic hardship and absent father (played by Pialat himself). The implied Oedipal thrust behind Suzanne’s trajectory over the course of this film is further underlined and answered in the person of her brother, whose attachment is to his mother, and who beats Suzanne for the contempt she shows toward her.
It is little surprise that Catherine Breillat was initially to work with Pialat on this project, as it ostensibly bears comparison with her own directorial debut, A Real Young Girl. As it is, the fantasy sequences found in Breillat’s film do not materialize in À nos amours. It is, again like Loulou, a raw, semiimprovised slice of life in which the unstable balance of this quasiincestuous family is writ large as a statement on the need for people in close proximity to dominate and consume each other (appropriately, this climactic scene of familial meltdown takes place at a dinner party). It is also, like other Pialat films, a semidocumentary. Where Naked-Childhood contained aspects of discursive material on foster children, and Police on the interior dynamics of a police station and its investigative practices, À nos amours is a documentary about an actress, Sandrine Bonnaire, here making her film debut. A number of the opening shots—of Bonnaire/Suzanne rehearsing a play, lounging on a boat or walking in the sun—resonate with a sense of erotic contemplation and potentiality, and it is tempting now to read them as markers of a performance aimed directly at Pialat’s eagerly receptive and voracious camera. Indeed, the fact that Bonnaire went on to essay very similar roles in two subsequent Pialat films, Police and Under the Sun of Satan, speaks volumes about what she represented for her director.
Indeed, the notion of performance is also inscribed into the thematic core of the film itself. Suzanne is first seen reading for a play at a summer theater camp, and thereafter plays a number of roles for a number of different characters, most overtly in the way she parades her sexuality for a litany of adoring suitors-to-be. In the last instance, this is what makes the warm, positive closing scenes of father/daughter bonding so moving: it is arguably the only time that Suzanne has been allowed to be herself, which in the various battlegrounds of Pialat’s families and relationships is a prized commodity.
The DVDs of Van Gogh, Loulou, and À nos amours are somewhat less exhaustive than their counterparts from Eureka, despite the fact that two of the three films (Van Gogh and À nos amours) exist in two-disc sets. The image quality of the transfers is certainly impeccable, especially À nos amours, which typically for Criterion features a painstaking high-definition digital transfer. With regard to extras, the stress is for the most part on quality over quantity. Loulou has only a short interview with Isabelle Huppert, whilst Van Gogh features a newly-recorded interview with Jacques Dutronc, in addition to over thirty minutes of (mostly short) deleted scenes, complete with a fascinating video introduction by Pialat’s long-time editor Yann Dedet. Also included in this package is a gallery of Pialat’s own drawings and paintings, which proves a useful collection to peruse alongside the film, as Pialat drew on his painter’s sense of light and composition in Van Gogh above all his work. The paintings themselves are mostly impressionistic rural landscapes in the mould of Sisley or Pissaro, but they evince the same feeling of intimacy, of a private, lived-in world being opened up and anatomized, that defines his films.
À nos amours comes replete with a 1999 documentary on the film entitled The Human Eye, in addition to an archival excerpt from a French television show featuring behind-the-scenes footage and interviews, a 2003 interview with Sandrine Bonnaire, and new video interviews with Catherine Breillat and director/academic Jean-Pierre Gorin. The documentary, directed by Xavier Giannoli (who recently made The Singer with Gérard Depardieu) covers the chaotic style, shooting, and meaning of the film, while Breillat and Gorin both touch on Pialat’s cinema, with the latter further outlining his views of Pialat’s place within French filmmaking. Rounding out the set is the usual Criterion booklet, which features critical essays and interviews with both Pialat and cinematographer Jacques Loiseleux.
The cinema of Maurice Pialat, so very well represented by these DVD releases, is long overdue for international recognition and celebration. He is a director whose fierce independence, unflinchingly personal conception of cinema, and abiding emphasis on ragged, imploding families place him easily alongside Fassbinder or Bergman, even if such a comparison does little to elucidate the intimate, often documentary (indeed almost home-movie) tone and mode of address of his cinema. That this aspect of Pialat’s work was in evidence from the very beginning, with his feature debut Naked-Childhood, is all the more remarkable. And it would go on to animate almost all his subsequent features, leading to an oeuvre that as a whole mimics its constituent works in being exquisitely, at times disturbingly, poised between conflicting states. If such an interstitial thematic is Pialat’s abiding interest, then it can be seen to apply to his career and to himself as well as to his films.
It is ultimately in this area that the true worth of Maurice Pialat can be most keenly felt: here was someone for whom filmmaking was an expression, an extension, of the soul, who was compelled to lay himself prostrate before his art and unpick his life before his camera’s unblinking eye. Filmmaking was for Pialat a way of life, less as an obsessive cinephile in the manner of his Nouvelle Vague contemporaries, less even as a simple mode of self-expression. Rather, one senses that for this director cinema was something of a mirror, an arena of self-exploration, even self-exorcism, in which he could look at and assess, question and reprimand himself: in other words, follow Van Gogh in needing his art to bridge a gap between interior and exterior, self and other. Such a body of work is, to say the least, a rarity in modern world cinema: before Three Monkeys one would perhaps have pointed to Nuri Bilge Ceylan, and one may approach, say, Terence Davies or the leading lights of the Chinese sixth generation (especially Jia Zhangke and Wang Xiaoshuai) along these lines. But beyond such marquee names there are few major auteurs that spring readily to mind as offering anything like the gut-wrenchingly personal yet never self-regarding cinema of Pialat. And this fact only serves to heighten the belief that this DVD retrospective is a major event, that it fills a hitherto gaping hole not only in the French, but in the European canon, and either introduces or crystallizes the work of one of the great directors.
Adam Bingham has just completed a Ph.D. in Japanese Cinema at the University of Sheffield, England, where he also teaches Film Studies. In addition to Cineaste, he writes for CineAction, Electric Sheep, Asian Cinema and Senses of Cinema.
Copyright © 2009 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXV, No. 1