Life Worth Living

Nick Pinkerton on a retrospective of Maurice Pialat at MoMI

Maurice Pialat, Van Gogh, 1991, 35 mm, color, sound, 158 minutes. Van Gogh (Jacques Dutronc).

THE WORK of the French director Maurice Pialat belongs to that category of films for and by the walking wounded, films that touch on the insoluble outrages of existence—the fact of our impermanence and our embarrassing inability to face up to it, the mortifying discrepancy between what we say and what we do. These disheveled, glowering movies are unreconciled to the world, and in their cussed opposition there is a measure of consolation. Brusque and bracing, Pialat’s films aren’t so much clean “slices” of life as ragged, gouged-out fistfuls of the stuff.

The Museum of the Moving Image’s Pialat retrospective includes the ten feature films that the late-bloomer director completed before the end of his life, all playing on 35 mm, as well as a handful of his early documentary shorts and what is probably—at least outside of France—his least-known major work, La Maison des bois (1971), a seven-part television miniseries that takes place in a rural village during the years of the Great War, sensitive to the faint tremors of that distant conflict which reach the home front. It is the most complete retrospective of Pialat’s work to appear in New York City since a program at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in 2004, a year after the filmmaker’s death, a series which this author saw while in his early twenties, a period marked by fathomless depression, and which helped him to see himself better than most any artwork encountered before or since.

The FSLC retro also included a gallery show of Pialat’s early canvases, bearing the stamp of his favorite Post-Impressionists, Pierre Bonnard and Paul Cézanne. He began as a painter—information that may give you the wrong idea about the films that he would go on to make, which are not the sort of things usually described as “painterly.” Jacques Dutronc, who starred in Pialat’s Van Gogh (1991) as the most dyspeptic version of the titular Dutchman ever put on screen, described his director’s works as “moving paintings, not quite dry.” Pialat was born in 1925 in Cunlhat, Puy-de-Dôme, in the central French region of Auvergne. His father, like the horny, handsy dad played by Hubert Deschamps in La Guele ouverte (1974), was a small business owner, though when Maurice was two the father moved the family to the Parisian suburb of Courbevoie—earlier the home turf of another unmannerly Frenchman, Louis-Ferdinand Céline—and took a job as a truck driver. The boy would ever after self-identify with the working class, and among whatever other virtues his films have, they are documentaries about working-class home decor, the eye-searing wallpaper and the rusticated, homey touches.

Maurice Pialat, We Won't Grow Old Together, 1972, 35 mm, color, sound, 110 minutes. Catherine and Jean (Marlène Jobert and Jean Yanne).

Pialat left school early, like the teenage protagonists of his Passe ton bac d’abord (1979), then later enrolled in L’Ecole des Arts Decoratifs. Failing to support himself as a painter, he took sales jobs to support his young wife, and then started having a bit of trouble as a husband as well, carrying on a six-year affair which would provide the raw material for his mercilessly self-critical relationship autopsy We Won’t Grow Old Together (1972). As depicted in that film, Pialat made a series of short subject documentaries while trying to launch himself as a filmmaker—a batch of these, shot in Turkey, will play MoMI—and in 1969, in his early forties, he finished his debut fiction feature, L’Enfance nue, which aligns itself closely with the inner emotional life of a child, Francois (Michel Terrazon), bouncing around in the French foster care system before landing in the care of an older couple in the northern mining town of Lens (also the setting for Passe ton bac).

As the preceding suggests, Pialat’s films drew extensively from his own life experience—and given his relatively tardy start as a filmmaker, something which he never stopped bemoaning although this extended gestation was very likely essential in giving his work the quality that it has, this experience was significant. This streak of autobiography continued all the way to his final movie, Le Garçu (1995), a film that describes the inchoate feeling of encroaching obsolescence developing in a man who has become, like Pialat, a father for the first time in middle age. (Pialat’s widow, Sophie, who has gone on to a successful career as a producer of such films as last year’s Timbuktu, will be visiting MoMI for the retro.) However, Pialat also produced a period biopic (Van Gogh), an idiosyncratic take on the policier genre film (1985’s Police), two movies concerned explicitly with female desire (Loulou [1980] and A Nos Amours [1983], the latter of which introduced Sandrine Bonnaire to the world), and a one-off literary adaptation, from the work of the Catholic novelist Georges Bernanos (Sous le Soleil de Satan [1987]). Though these went well beyond the range of Pialat’s actual experience, they never went beyond his grip as a filmmaker or his capacity for empathy with his subjects—an empathy which is all the more radical in that it makes no recourse to mollycoddling or glossing over.

Le Garçu was the fourth collaboration between Pialat and Gérard Depardieu, who played the film’s lead, and who once memorably described his director as “a son of Auvergne with a bull’s neck and blacksmith’s hands.” Often in the market for on-screen alter egos, Pialat preferred performers with rugby pitch–ready physiques like his own—a Depardieu or We Won’t Grow Old’s Jean Yanne, for example. Pialat even appeared as an actor in a few of his own films, as well as those of other directors—for example Mes Petites Amoureuses (1974) by Jean Eustache, a filmmaker whose project of conflating life and art came closest to Pialat’s own. On-screen, Pialat gave the simultaneous impression of a rude, burly power and a certain delicacy of manner, a seemingly contradictory combination that is also evident in his films.

Maurice Pialat, Police, 1985, 35 mm, color, sound, 113 minutes. Inspector Mangin and Noria (Gérard Depardieu and Sophie Marceau).

To call Pialat a “realist” is helpful inasmuch as it gives some idea of what his films are like to someone who has never seen one. There is much in his filmography, however, that bridles under this label—Sous le Soleil de Satan features the performance of an honest-to-God miracle, while Van Gogh contains passages that belong to a musical extravaganza. These exceptions notwithstanding, Pialat sought always to capture moments of unvarnished authenticity, often working with the barest outline of a script—as on Passe ton bac—or doing away with what script he had as he saw fit—as in the nearly fifteen-minute family dinner scene in A Nos Amours where the long-absent patriarch, played by Pialat, returns to the table to wreak emotional havoc, a scene whose palpable tension is explained by the fact that the actor-director actually ambushed his unprepared cast on-set. Scenes which failed to capture lightning in a bottle were left on the cutting-room floor, regardless of what essential story-advancing information they might have contained, meaning that Pialat’s storytelling is by necessity elliptical in the extreme, often lurching past months and significant life events with a single unceremonious cut.

Given Pialat’s late start, his struggles with financing, and his anguished, combative working method, we are fortunate to have gotten to the final tally of ten films and a TV miniseries. L’Enfance nue is the emotional sequel to The 400 Blows (1959), whose director, François Truffaut, here acted as Pialat’s producer. La Maison de bois, better than any work I know, establishes the sentimental idea of patrie that was behind World War I. We Won’t Grow Old Together and La Guele ouverte are two of the most devastating portrayals of loss—the first of a lover, the second of a parent—in cinema, anchored by perfect closing shots. Passe ton bac is a detail-perfect portrayal of dead-end teenage life in the crap late 1970s, shiny with black pleather and pomme frites grease. A Nos Amours depicts female promiscuity not as a problem to be solved but as a viable, if exhausting, lifestyle. Police is a perverse exercise in an artist working against his own strengths, but Depardieu has never been so moving as in the moment where he confesses his love for Sophie Marceau, and turns the movie on its head. Van Gogh is as much an evocation of the belle epoque as a portrait of the artist who produced Sunflowers, and is, with Sous le Soleil de Satan, a lacerating portrayal of ascetic self-destruction. Like any artist worth the name, Pialat was defined by his contradictions: He was an antiromantic to whom love was paramount, a prototypical blue-collar tough guy with a soft spot for arty pop, as evident in the use of Klaus Nomi’s “Cold Song” in A Nos Amours, or when the camera tracks to the dance floor filling with Electric Sliders while a Björk track comes on in Le Garçu. “There’s definitely, definitely, definitely no logic / To human behavior,” the singer delicately enunciates over hectic jungle drums, offering a crisp summary of Maurice Pialat’s obstinate, messy, utterly thrilling cinema.

A retrospective of the films of Maurice Pialat runs through November 1 at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, New York. The retrospective travels to the TIFF Cinematheque in Toronto from October 22–December 5.