About three weeks ago, while looking for a new direction to stomp around in, I picked up Maurice Pialat’s À nos amours on a roll of the dice—and was flattened by it. Since then I’ve seen six more of his features—he made ten in all, plus a handful of shorts—and I can only feel a little sick for discovering him at such a late date. The truth is he’s never gotten much notice here: he isn’t mentioned at all, for instance, in Kael’s 5,001 Nights at the Movies. But Pialat’s work is so good, and crystallizes so many ideas which I’ve entertained over the years, that I feel like I’ve just heard that a fellow named William Faulkner once existed.
Before I go on, here’s a quick recap of what I’ve seen so far:
L’enfance nue (1968) – A ten-year old orphan wreaks havoc on two foster households. Decidedly not cute or adorable, François makes the kid in The 400 Blows look like Opie Taylor, and one misdeed in particular will have a lot of viewers running to the closest rerun of Friends just as fast as they can get there. Get past that, though, and you’ll find a lot to treasure in both the kid and his story.
Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble (We Won’t Grow Old Together) (1972) – Jean Yanne is a married filmmaker who’s winding up a six-year long love affair with younger woman Marlène Jobert. It’s turned into a hideously painful relationship, physically abusive at times but mostly “just” emotionally so, with Yanne downloading some monstrously cruel tirades in Jobert’s direction. When the film begins the relationship is already over, but the news hasn’t caught up to the couple yet—they go right on fucking, swimming, eating, dancing, talking. It’s autobiographical, apparently rigorously so—Jobert says in one of the bonus interviews that Pialat was upset that the costumer couldn’t find a bikini like the one his old girlfriend wore—and Pialat’s trademark elliptical style leads to some intentional laughs about the eternal recurrence that goes on within troubled and even not so troubled relationships. About an hour into it Jobert finally starts landing some punches of her own, spelling out for Yanne all the ways he’s made her life a misery, and in a raging cri de coeur vows to never see him again. A-a-nd cut…to Yanne getting out of his car, where a beaming Jobert is waiting for him. (True to the nature of affairs, much of the film takes place in the front seat of Yanne’s car.)
Passe ton bac d’abord (Graduate First… a/k/a Pass the Bac First…) (1979) – You’ve heard it before: a group of bored high-school seniors hang out in cafés, get high, have sex, and fret about their unpromising futures. Somewhat slight compared to his other movies, it’s still a happily mussed work, and in 81 short minutes you come to care an awful lot about these kids. (Most of them were amateurs recruited from a nearby high school.)
Loulou (1980) – Isabelle Huppert is married to an advertising exec who gives her the good life; Gerard Depardieu is an ex-con whose sex drive is always in high gear. The two meet by chance and fall into an affair that’s like shooting whitewater rapids. With a storyline that’s impossible to predict and both stars giving performances to be cherished, it may be my favorite of them all. Just thinking about its final shot—a picture of pure ruined beauty—gives me the chills.
À nos amours (1983) – A young woman (Sandrine Bonnaire, in her debut) begins running on a treadmill of shallow sexual affairs; her sex life is, to some never exactly defined extent, the fallout from a tug-of-war with her family for control of her life. Her mother is a fading rose who resents the young beauty sharing her household; her brother is a baby-faced bully with distinctly unbrotherly feelings for his sister; and her father—significantly, played by Pialat himself—is an underachiever whose tangled feelings for his daughter are pushing her into the arms of strangers. I describe the movie sounding quite certain of what I’m saying; in reality it’s a much more mysterious, and touching, affair. It’s also a stone-cold masterpiece.
Police (1985) – A genre flick, but delivered with the Pialat touch. Depardieu is a hard-ass Paris detective chasing a gang of Arab drug dealers; when Sophie Marceau is caught up in one of his raids, the two find themselves falling into a relationship.
Van Gogh (1991) – The last few months of the painter’s life, notable for its treatment of Vincent as a human being rather than a one-eared dingbat genius. It’s long and occasionally taxing, but parts of it could’ve gone on forever for all I cared. In particular, a scene in a Parisian whorehouse lasts a good 20 minutes, in which time Pialat’s camera moves freely from room to room, dropping in first on Vincent, then on Theo, then on the anonymous customers and hookers taking part in a riotous cancan. Pialat’s at his best in these rambling sequences; the backyard luncheon in Loulou is even better.
Pialat is sometimes called “the French Cassavetes”, but the comparison is a slippery one, and perhaps even unfair to Pialat: his formidable dramatic ability and absolute impatience with filler led him to snip shots off the second they stopped communicating, while Cassavetes, whose respect for the Aristotelian unities often ran amok on him, held onto his shots from A to Z even when the meat of them was located only at D, L, and W. Pialat’s epiphanies come more often, with greater resonance and clarity, and capture a richer, wider spectrum of life than Cassavetes’ over-focused eye.
Pialat originally trained to be an artist, and you can see it in his work, but not in the usual painterly way. It influenced him structurally more than visually: his films communicate through isolated elements which carefully balance each other out, while his compositions, though exact and often striking, are rarely “pretty”. He belongs to the humanist tradition running from Renoir through the Dardenne brothers, and even more than the Italian neorealists his characters’ identities amount to a kind of existential soup in which all the normal signifiers of class, religion, and relationships are subordinated to physical behavior.
Pialat had as unerring a sense of what a makes a scene as anyone who’s ever yelled “Action!” Of the seven films, I found my attention wandering only in parts of the 159-minute Van Gogh. Generally, though, it’s impossible to lose interest in his stories because they’ve been ruthlessly gutted of anything that doesn’t provide illumination. That includes meaningless establishing or transitional shots (people getting out of cars, for instance), inter-scene dissolves which destroy the air of verisimilitude, prefabricated declamatory speeches, extraneous actor business, as well as the artificial and coy dialog most movies use as the building blocks of conflict.
The first time we see Depardieu and Huppert as a couple in Loulou—a movie which is about their adulterous liaison—they’re already dancing together in a smoky nightclub, and that normally mandatory stop in relationship movies, the meet-cute, which would have occurred a mere blink in time earlier, has been entirely dispensed with. Again and again Pialat’s characters are seen lashing out in one shot and fully reconciled in the next, in narrative jumps which force the viewer to forget about the story and remain focused on the people at hand; in this sense the memory of one’s own traumas provides a more reliable guide through the films than anything in their screenplays. It’s a style perfectly suited to characters with conflicting emotional drives, such as the elderly foster parents in L’enfance nue who both love and are terrorized by the little boy whose monstrous side no amount of tenderness can reach. Pialat’s uncondescending attitude towards teenagers—born perhaps from his own untamed personality—allowed him to depict them as people in their own right, with the significance of their problems undiminished by their lack of legal standing. In his eyes, adolescence requires no special treatment, not even in relationship to sex. It’s simply another stop on the continuum of the human experience.
Pialat’s first short, L’amour existe (available on the Criterion release of L’enfance nue) is a masterful look at life in the French suburbs; its wistful, doleful tone evokes both Night and Fog and Blood of the Beasts, and it’s more beautifully shot than either of those great films. It appeared in 1960, but it was only through François Truffaut’s intervention almost 10 years later that Pialat came to direct his first feature, when he was already past 40. An infamously temperamental man, he frightened, angered and intimidated his co-workers as a regular part of his method. In scenes calling for physical violence, his actors rained blows upon each other with a ferocity that takes your breath away. He discovered Sandrine Bonnaire when she accompanied her sister to an audition for À nos amours; after casting the young chaperone in the starring role (leading to what must’ve been an interesting night in the Bonnaire household), he extracted an astonishingly complex performance from young Sandrine while falling in love with her on the side. (He was 58 at the time; she, 16.) Gerard Depardieu wouldn’t speak to him for a year after finishing Loulou, then returned to the fold with a vengeance, becoming one of the director’s closest friends and shooting three more films for him. The climactic moment of À nos amours was nothing less than a great trick the director played on his own cast (you can read the shock on their faces), and when the audience whistled at him—that is, booed him—at Cannes one year, he raised his fist and hurled insults back at the room.
Add to all this his often dour social commentary and his generous helpings of extremely casual nudity, and it’s safe to say Pialat isn’t for everyone. You can probably add elitism to the list of charges, too. Work of this quality absolutely spoils me for au courant exercises like The Social Network, the anthropological fantasias of Winter’s Bone, or the trendy sitcom taxidermy of The Kids Are Alright; with their tailored quips, predictable rhythms, and compartmentalized chunks of action, each unlockable by a simpleton’s code of scrutable meaning, they look like toddlers taking baby-steps by comparison. In the end Pialat’s films represent what a cinema unfettered by the censors and low expectations might look like—a brave new world that looks exactly like our own.