Ă€ nos amours
Dir. Maurice Pialat, France, 1983

by Nick Pinkerton

Maurice Pialat's films aren't made to be liked, petted, praised, or held up as shining examples of anything. It's said that the director, a chronic malcontent by most accounts, considered himself or aspired to be a “popular filmmaker.” I don't buy it, and I can't convince myself that he did either—there's so little in his movies that openly petitions for sympathy or shows the discreet condescension that audiences have been taught to expect. Most movies, when they require the audience to read through a letter or some odd piece of exposition, keep it on-screen long enough for anyone with a first-grade reading level to slog through; Pialat’s films—cracked-up, groove-skipping things—will drop the letter entirely. Keep pace or shut up, they imply.

I can't imagine this director respecting an adoring public on the occasion that he found one, as with À nos amours, a box-office success that shared the 1984 Best Picture Cèsar with Ettore Scola's Le bal. Most of his plots seem to rely on the difficulty (the impossibility?) of reciprocal love, on pain as the intrinsic by-product of every human exchange, almost as a natural law. “Hell is other people”—it's one of Pialat's greatest preoccupations, and it’s one of the great themes—Fassbinder was likewise drawn to it, and must've recognized some kindred purpose in Pialat; it's his 1973 We Will Not Grow Old Together that's prominently channel-surfed through in Fassbinder's emotional charnel house In a Year of 13 Moons. Is there any more pressing topic, which has quietly, privately crushed more lives than all the wars and holocausts of history?

Anyhow, À nos amours will have no polite applause from me; it's been years since I first watched it, and this movie chafes me to no end. Knowing of it is a blessing and a hex. Re-watching it gives the frustrating awareness of how comparatively petty many of the experiences I have—and have had—with movies are, how a diet of mediocrity accustoms me to betraying a natural expectation that art can expand its frame into the world I'm living in; the sad truth is that most films evaporate the moment we emerge from the theater, vanquished by the more engaging muddle of life. We step outside, look at each other, ask each other if we liked it, and file it away with a trite tag of opinion attached. “So-and-so? Yeah, I saw it, not bad; nicely shot.” À nos amours is something you have to live with; I fear this film because I am incapable of passively watching it: it penetrates me, impresses itself upon my existence, sends me into paroxysms, flays me raw, makes me want to walk 20 miles, firebomb whatever relationship I’m in at the moment, scream at a stranger—and this isn’t a case of trite critical overstatement (“Firewall will leave you afraid to use a computer ever again!”). Pialat’s film has endurance-test passages of tooth-gnashing shrillness, performances that are hate-stiffened almost into mortis (notably Evelyn Ker’s matriarch), but I wouldn’t begin to know how you could suggest that it might be any better, or any worse. The ever-hanging question when writing about Mr. Pialat’s American reputation is: “Why hasn't he ever gotten his full due?” I can venture a rather simple theory: the critics are scared.

Part of À nos amours’ bracing power must stem from its being a film of adolescence, one of those works that prods awake the sullen teenager coiled within our adult selves, hence Noël Herpe's eulogy for Pialat in a 2003 Positif, shortly after the director's death: “[His] are also the films of my adolescence... For once, here was someone who was speaking to me about what I was.” But it’s not so simple—there is vigor in this movie that denies the shelter of nostalgia, a here-and-now that belongs only to Pialat. And this is important, for no single factor has stunted contemporary film culture more than its retreat from life (Q: What does an art-house audience have in common with a retirement home? A: Age.) If you like, you can locate À Nos Amours on a film history rubric of looks-like/feels-like (“The French Cassavetes,” etc.), but this is missing the point—nothing you’ve watched will necessarily deepen À nos amours; it needs to be approached with reserves of feeling, a modicum of experience. Intimidated? It’s okay, Park Chan-wook’s still making movies, but film geeks should whimper back to them with the assurance that their definition of “extreme” cinema is a chicken-shit feint.

I’m getting ahead of myself and of the basic facts: Maurice Pialat, in the space of his fiction filmmaking career, produced a dozen beautiful, crude feature-length life studies. Their most immediately recognizable commonality—the aforementioned tendency for their narratives to propel onward, heedless of exposition, for characters to emerge and disappear without polite introduction or explanation—is accounted for by the director's frequent editor, Yann Dedet, in an accompanying analytical DVD featurette, The Human Eye: “[Pialat] usually throws out bad scenes, even if they’re important plot-wise, so sometimes there are holes in the plot.”

The priority, then, isn't straight-ahead storytelling. More important is finding junctions in the flow of life when indistinct, fascinating somethings can come to the surface of his actors/characters; the distinction between the two is rarely more porous than in Pialat's work (actress Sandrine Bonnaire in The Human Eyes: “The film was a shared experience… as if I’d unconsciously wanted someone to tell my own story”; actor Dominique Besnehard: “I think he drew on everything we felt outside of the film, in our own lives, and got us to bring it into the film”), and the ease with which this ambiguity is integrated into the movie as a whole shames a hundred superfluous flicks that step back to admire themselves whenever they “blur the boundary between fact and fiction.”

The film gives the feeling of something less strategized than cobbled together from odd objets trouvés shots, a patchwork of meandering pans that come a moment after you'd expect them, two-shots, some raucous dollies… On-set improvisation and invention are key to the liveliness in Pialat's work, but even on-the-move, his actors never forget qualities like hesitation, reserve, and embarrassment, distinguishing him from the “dueling blowhard” school of loquacious American film improv—from Faces clean through 25th Hour—in which actors try to out-gab each other as though they're getting paid by the line (maybe it’s a New York thing…). Still, watching the domestic melee of À nos amours leaves the impression of a lacerating shoot. Almost every family squabble elevates into a tactilely real smackdown; at one point, when Ker cracks her head on a wall's moulding, a trickle of very real blood emerges under her hairline. Pialat's movies are testy, thrashing—one gets the sense, through his surrogate egos, that the man rebelled at quietude; the films reflect a compulsion to hurtle bodily toward the threat of tranquility.

His filmography, if it never lapses into direct autobiography, ventures into “only the names have been changed” territory—in We Will Not Grow Old Together, we follow the protagonist, a documentarian, shooting a piece on Camargue, a region that Pialat had himself visited and filmed in the same capacity, circa 1966. Jean Yanne as “Jean” evokes his director through his bearish manner and unromantic goalkeeper’s physique—the mantle of authorial stand-in was next inherited by Philippe Leotard, then by Gerard Depardieu and Jacques Dutronc in later films. Pialat’s work is unusually attuned to physique—how people occupy their space and negotiate around one another—and À nos amours reflects its maker’s frame; it has the sway of a broad-shouldered brawler. Much has been made of the death-defying athleticism of Werner Herzog’s filmmaking, of his Hemingway-cum-Crocodile Hunter derring-do, but Pialat’s films reverb with an equal domestic fearlessness, a guts-on-the-table authorial self-accounting that you won’t find in movies outside of Abel Ferrara’s early-Nineties output (most especially Dangerous Game).

À nos amours finds the filmmaker playing this “Pialat part” himself, more invested in the action than ever, though drawing the autobiography from a source outside of his own life. The film's screenplay, always a rough draft at best according to Pialat's shooting method, was provided by the director's then-companion, Arlette Langmann: a recollection of her insurgent adolescence and her relationship with her family, including a dictatorial older brother (played by Besnehard; director Claude Berri, Langmann's real-life brother, was the basis for the character) and her father (Pialat's role), who died when she was a teenager.

Under Pialat's stewardship, Langmann’s story evolved into something quite different; initially intended as a period piece evoking the swing of mid-Sixties ye-ye youth culture, the bite of budget constraints were felt early in the shoot, and the setting became contemporary. The father, as played by Pialat, a bipolar ogre forever digging in his beard, was a character too stubborn to die at the script's command—it’s suggested that the role grew as the filmmaker discovered how much he was enjoying himself on-camera (Pialat had smaller screen acting credits for Jean Eustache, Claude Chabrol, and in his own sublime La maison des bois)… or maybe he just wanted to share the frame a bit more with dear daughter Suzanne, his 16-year old starlet and discovery, Sandrine Bonnaire, whose in-bloom body, frequently viewed bare and sun-kissed, is as much this film's subject as anything—everyone in the film is fascinated by it, embarrassed by it, jealous of it.

Random scenes from a teenager’s summer at a seaside theater retreat open the film. Suzanne rehearses a period-dress play, then leaves to go boating with her brother and a group of flirtatious camp staffers; the atmosphere is sex-suffused, alert with erotic possibility. Under the film’s title we see her at the ship's prow, clad in fluttering transparent white, scored by Klaus Nomi’s falsetto soprano, Goddess-like in her erotic power; she turns to the camera, smiling—the crew observe from above: “Look at her. My sister’s pretty.” Bonnaire's performance—that word seems wrong here—Bonnaire's existence in the film is a marvelous tumult; her beauty is crude, as uncontemplated as anything in her life. Her forehead is savage, her hair a clumpy tangle, her evasive smiles and little shrugs unrehearsed.

As pointed out in Molly Haskell's liner notes essay for the DVD, the story of À nos amours is that of “a thermonuclear family romance”—Suzanne’s bursting sexuality introduces an element of the uncontrollable into the furrier's workshop/ domicile that she shares with her family; her loss of virginity precludes their dissolution. As she emerges as an erotic being, everyone who interacts with her has to negotiate with her sex; going to bed a commoner, she wakes up a sexual aristocrat. The film’s theme is just about summarized by the title of a book by the photographer Nan Goldin: The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. That “Ballad” gets at the rude musicality of Pialat, who once compared his own We Will Not Grow Old Together to Ravel; Amours, then, is a series of brutal quadrilles across the floor of the family apartment.

Suzanne has as much trouble working through her newfound power as anyone; she says she’s in love with her Parisian boyfriend, Luc (Cyr Boitard)—a serious, impeccably styled cutie who resembles an Egon Schiele sketch with a New Wave stylist—but when he treks to visit her, she blueballs him on their picnic idyll, then lets herself get picked up and casually screwed by an American teen (he blurts an awkwardly forthright anti-militarist screed toward some French sailors, one of those strange-as-life details in which Pialat’s cinema excels). That's the beginning of a litany of lovers that Suzanne tumbles through the beds of, a lineup of nice young guys who she only slightly cares about, and who never entirely congeal as characters—to borrow from Norman Mailer on Henry Miller’s sexual conquistador-ism: their pricks are closer than their faces.

Later in the film, Pialat’s patriarch will crash Suzanne’s engagement dinner, systematically smothering the celebration with a settling of scores (the story of his unannounced butting into the scene is repeated by so many talking heads in the DVD extras as to assume mythical status). Taking a breather from his offensive, the father gives voice to one of Pialat’s favorite quotations, an apocryphal goodbye from Van Gogh’s deathbed that might be the motto of Pialat’s films: “There'll always be sadness.”

This probably makes À nos amours sound like a sulky, nihilistic movie; if so, I’m doing it a grave injustice. Though the film is merciless in its depiction of close-stabled men and women’s instinct to emotionally plunder whoever's at hand, it's too extravagant with emotion to read like a cautionary tale. That is: it doesn't make you want to stay away from people, but rather to plunge back into the whole human melee, flush with the delirium of the fight. There's an exultant tragedy to the film that’s evident up-front; the title is a toast—To Our Loves!—a dedication all the more affecting because it encompasses everything: the deceit, the distance, the raucous physicality (though nobody's happy in love, I don't think there’s such a thing as “bad sex” for Pialat's robustly horny people). This vitality is about as far from “emotional glaciation” tendency in contemporary European moviemaking as you can get—and just as the committed atheist gives more thought to God than your average armchair Christian, so Suzanne who “doesn't believe in love,” per the refrain of accusation, feels it all the more deeply.

There are far-from-certain indications that Pialat’s profile among American cinephiles may be on the upswing—not the least of such signs is this DVD, his debut on the swank Criterion line in full two-disc, featurette-lavish fashion. Enough words have been expended as to why Maurice Pialat never broke into the American art house in the manner of, say, a Truffaut (who produced Pialat's 1968 feature debut, L'enfance nu) or a Rohmer (though Pialat was reportedly eternally bitter for having missed the Nouvelle Vague's height of marketability, Rohmer, probably the greatest popular breakthrough of the Cahiers group, had his first public success a year after Pialat). Rather than bemoan the situation, let's consider the too-rare pleasure of being able to encounter a filmmaker of Pialat's ability unencumbered by the weight of critical opinion and received wisdom. An American viewer doesn't have to dig him out from under his reputation; Pialat's movies still have the sheen of undiscovered country.

Criterion’s package is unimpeachable, not least the supplemental inclusion of screen tests, which give a glimpse at Pialat’s notorious tough-love technique (as Bonnaire rehearses with Boitard: “It's his first time, and he's doing better than you”). And as this is certainly one of the most important and essential domestic DVDs to be released this year, the only possible criticism is to demand the rest of his films.