Saturday, October 3, 2015

À Nos Amours

On the occasion of the Museum of the Moving Image's retrospective of the films of Maurice Pialat from October 16 to November 1, the UK home video distributor Masters of Cinema has granted permission for me to post essays originally written for the DVD booklets of MoC's Pialat releases.  This 2010 essay on Pialat's 1983 film À nos amours (screening Friday, October 23 at 7 pm) serves pretty well as a general overview of my thoughts on Pialat.

Even more than the Palme d’or-winning Sous le soleil de Satan [Under the Sun of Satan, 1987], A nos amours. [1983] was the film that cemented Maurice Pialat’s standing as an important figure of the French cinema. Recipient of the Prix Louis Delluc and the César for Best Picture (the latter shared with Ettore Scola’s Le Bal [The Ball, 1983] ), A nos amours. was heralded by many French critics of the time as the most inspired of Pialat’s works, and it made a star of Pialat’s young discovery Sandrine Bonnaire. Even after the considerable amelioration of Pialat’s reputation in recent decades, the film retains a privileged position in his oeuvre.

The exceptional brilliance of A nos amours. can perhaps be connected to the unusual number of extra-filmic dimensions that Pialat imported into it. As always, Pialat’s apparent distrust of the process of generating fiction caused him to appropriate whatever chunks of reality he could lay hands upon, in order to assure himself that the world he was creating was mediated as little as possible by the simplifications of aesthetics.

  • For the third film in a row, Pialat worked from events in the life of Arlette Langmann, his former lover who had over the previous 15 years collaborated with him as editor and writer. In fact, an autobiographical screenplay written by Langmann served as material for both A nos amours. and Pialat’s 1979 Passe ton bac d’abord... [Pass Your Bac First...], with a greater emphasis on Langmann’s character Suzanne in the newer film, as opposed to the group interaction in the older one.
  • According to Marja Warehime’s book on Pialat (Maurice Pialat [2006] ), the filmmaker characteristically spiked Langmann’s story liberally with material from his own life, particularly in the uneasy dinner scene that is the film’s final set piece.
  • In addition to autobiographical material, Pialat typically grabs whatever bits and pieces he can from the camera’s documentation of his cast. A nos amours. contains the most moving example of this practice: at the end of the 1 a.m. father-daughter conversation that is the film’s centrepiece, Pialat, having gradually moved into closeups, allows his character to observe that Suzanne has lost one of her dimples, even as the evidence of Sandrine Bonnaire’s monodimpled face fills the screen. More uncomfortably, Pialat makes use of Dominique Besnehard’s effeminate body language in the scenes of domestic violence, which culminate in Suzanne spitting homosexual slurs at her brother, though the narrative otherwise casts him as hetero.
In addition to the above fiction-dodging stratagems, upon which Pialat relies in many films, A nos amours. finds some more distinctive ways to blur reality and fiction:

  • One presumes that Pialat has presided over many sets where some of the actors were unhappy, but probably never one where the script’s focus on family warfare provided such opportunities to exploit, and perhaps foster, on-set conflict. Reports of Evelyne Ker’s discontent during the shoot are painfully believable: her on-screen anguish is leavened with an odd je-m’en-foutiste quality that separates her even further from her family/fellow actors. The vivid yet mundane domestic combat in A nos amours. fascinates some viewers and repels others (even this very sympathetic viewer feels that the final family pile-up should probably have landed on the cutting room floor); but both camps would be hard pressed to think of anything quite like it.
  • Though Pialat has appeared in several of his other films, his role in A nos amours., as the father who sometimes regulates the family’s tone and sometimes destabilises it, is the only one that gave him a significant opportunity to transpose the director-actor relationship into the key of familial power structures. The complicated and affecting love between Suzanne and her father, the emotional heart of the film, often cannot be distinguished from the relationship between an inexperienced, grateful new actress and her proud but wary director, who seems to be imagining all the unworthy films that Bonnaire will make after she becomes a star and leaves him. Pialat’s role allows him to conduct the improvisation process on-screen and sometimes to expose it — as when his character asks Suzanne’s cousin Solange (Isabelle Prades) what movie the girls are planning to attend, in an attempt to catch her in a lie, then says, “You didn’t expect me to ask that question?”
Improvisation is the obvious tool for Pialat to appropriate bits of his directorial interaction with the cast and insert it into the film, and is also a shortcut to whatever frustration and rage inhabited the set. Pialat does not always choose the most splashless moments of improvisation, nor the most subtle: his editing-room choices seem to be governed less by a desire to harmonise the parts of the film and more by his pleasure at seeing aspects of his actors that would normally be ironed out during the fiction-making process.


Interestingly, though Pialat often seems to see perfection as the enemy of art, A nos amours. contains a few surprisingly upfront gestures toward a formal organisation of the material. The opening scenes of the film demonstrate these formal ideas, while illustrating several other aspects of Pialat’s style:

  • The film opens with a closeup of Suzanne reading from a script and practising lines from a play. In one sense, this is a narrative curveball of the sort that Pialat likes to throw: Suzanne is not an actress, and performing is not an important part of the story, so the film starts with random material that leads nowhere. But in another sense, Pialat was probably moved by the reflexive spectacle of his protégée struggling with a still-unfamiliar craft.
  • Cut to Suzanne reading the same lines with her friend Anne (Anne-Sophie Maillé), both girls in period costume in an outdoor setting.
  • The director of the performance, who has been hovering next to the players, begins to comment on the scene, and the rehearsal stops. “It wasn’t so good,” Suzanne observes. We wonder at this point whether Pialat has chosen to start the film with a barely disguised depiction of the filmmaking process.
  • Pialat cuts to a long shot, in which we see Suzanne’s brother Robert (Besnehard) and another man standing next to the players. No sooner is the performance over than Robert asks the director forcefully if he can take Suzanne away for an outing on a boat. The director wants to continue the rehearsal, but he has no authority: Suzanne immediately starts removing her period costume to follow her brother. To the extent the opening is a reflexive depiction of Pialat’s set, it now dissolves into self- deprecating comedy.
  • The camera pulls back to follow Robert and the man he was standing with, who is seemingly a director of the summer camp that is putting on the performance, as they walk away. This tracking shot is narratively needless but beautiful, showing other camp activity in the background as the men walk next to the sun- dappled shade of the trees. Suzanne, ready for her escape, runs into the frame from the foreground, and she and Robert exit in the background, leaving the camp director behind. Despite the rough-hewn construction of the narrative, we will see a certain number of attractive and carefully planned camera moves, alternating with more functional images.
  • Cut to the credits, over the well-known image of Suzanne on the prow of the moving boat, the wind blowing her white dress, while Klaus Nomi sings Purcell’s “Cold Song” [1981] on the soundtrack. The shock of operatic music enclosed within an unruly documentary-like ambience is an effect Pialat would repeat at the end of his next film, 1985’s Police; to put the effect under the opening credits seems an announcement of an underlying, sad structure. After the last credit, Suzanne turns to look at the camera, heightening the sequence’s self-aware aestheticism.
  • Then, veering in the direction of realism, Pialat follows the credits with a random and intense set of sensory impressions of Suzanne’s boat outing with Robert and his friends, a sequence that further delays the start of the plot. We see Suzanne dive into the water to swim with several others, with Robert yelling out to her the first of a number of thematically explicit lines of dialogue: “You’re 16 and you don’t believe in love!” Then a sensual shot of Suzanne and other bathers sunning on the deck, a sunlit carpet of flesh receding into the background of the image; Robert’s friend Michel (Christophe Odent), who will be Suzanne’s lover at the film’s end, helps her run lines for her play. Cut to a windier, darker shot of Suzanne sitting on the deck, others arrayed behind her, the mood somewhat more apprehensive as the day ends. The sound ambience of the shots in this sequence changes abruptly at each cut; the pieces do not combine well in terms of story, nor do they conjure up a unified sense of space and time. The formalist effects of the play-within-a-film and the opera credits are dissipated; we do not know which, if any, elements that we have seen will become important.
  • After this boat ride, we see a long excerpt of Suzanne’s performance (the play is de Musset’s On ne badine pas avec l’amour [Love Is Not to Be Trifled With, 1834] ). Only then does Pialat begin the story proper with the meeting between Suzanne and her boyfriend Luc (Cyr Boitard).
Formalist elements will crop up again in the film from time to time, though they will never succeed in giving the film dramatic or structural ballast. Pialat is sincere in associating the naked emotion of Nomi’s music with Suzanne, and he is also sincere when he undermines the usual intermediate dramatic steps between the raw material of life and the purity of this emotional response.

As the film’s story takes root, we begin to notice the different ways that Pialat rebels against dramatic conventions. Often the vividness of behaviour and experience in Pialat’s work is the direct result of this rebellion.

  • Weighting. As Suzanne discovers promiscuity in the wake of her sexual initiation and the loss of her relationship with Luc, Pialat shows her coupling with a number of boys, some of whom will linger in her life for a while, some of whom are passing flings. One of the most distinctive aspects of A nos amours. is that Pialat does not give the audience cues about the relative importance of the relationships. The first scene after Suzanne’s return to Paris is a post-coital chat with a boy who proves to be a transitory relationship. But Suzanne’s interaction with the boy is too substantial to indicate this: after a chat about the boy’s family and his mother’s sex life, Suzanne segues into a frank discussion of her feelings for her own parents, in which the boy participates sympathetically. The pattern continues: some of Suzanne’s most intimate thoughts and happiest moments crop up during her most casual flings. As always, Pialat sacrifices storytelling clarity for a convincing feeling of randomness.
  • Counterpoint. The issue of happiness is central to A nos amours.: Suzanne’s behaviour is consistent with a diagnosis of anhedonia. “I feel as if I have a dry heart,” she says to one of her lovers, and the outcome of the film leaves this statement on the table. And yet we often see Suzanne smiling, or laughing, or sexually fulfilled. Indeed, much of the film takes the form of a coming-of-age sex romp, with Suzanne stealing away from home for hijinks with her equally wild group of friends. (One side-effect of this portrait of Suzanne is that A nos amours. is rather a more entertaining movie than one might expect from the uncompromising Pialat.) That a film about a congenitally unhappy person should be so filled with gaiety is not merely a challenge to our ideas about how to make an art film: it also emerges as a vision of the contradictions of human nature, a vision for us to accept or reject.
  • Time jumps. The aspect of Pialat’s style that is easiest to spot is his penchant for losing large chunks of time between simple cuts, without the usual dramatic shaping to signal the elisions to the audience. Because Pialat does not care whether the time jumps resemble continuity cuts, we often fail to notice the gaps when they happen, then gradually realise that we need to reconstruct the film’s time scheme from information gathered afterwards. Increasingly, major events fall between the cuts: Suzanne’s departure for boarding school; her marriage to Jean-Pierre (Cyril Collard, the director of the remarkable 1992 Les Nuits fauves [Savage Nights]); and then its dissolution. To an extent, these lacunae are a reflexive element, a confession of the discontinuity of filmmaking. But there is also something grim and implacable about the way that time falls away in Pialat’s films, as if a cosmic timekeeper refuses to wait for the characters to resolve their issues. In A nos amours., the time gaps work to nullify the exuberance of Suzanne’s teenage sexual rebellion, to underline the ephemerality of her attachments to others, and to move her prematurely into an uncertain future.
Pialat’s unique approach to filmmaking results in a striking, practically revolutionary depiction of psychology. There is nothing analytical in Pialat’s way of showing people: his actors do not seem to be delving into an existing interior schema. In the same way, he and his actors stand in only a tangential relationship to plot and theme: large-scale ideas often make their way into the dialogue, but they seem more of a starting point than a guideline for the performances. Rather, Pialat seems to try to carve away pieces of reality — from biography and autobiography, from the actors’ lives, from set life — and then assemble them in the shape of a person. He is gambling first of all upon his ability to choose good sources for the chunks of raw behaviour, so that something interesting about people clings to the fragments. And, beyond this, he is gambling that real psychology is not so different from the Frankenstein monsters that he puts together: that it too exists in pieces rather than as an organic whole, that it is best perceived and contemplated a posteriori. In a way, Pialat is attacking the same problem, through a completely different approach, as is method acting, which uses sense memory and other techniques to draw responses from actors that can be perpendicular to the basic emotion of the scene.

The issue of psychology in A nos amours. is focused on a plot-related question: why does Suzanne repeatedly act against her own interests and destroy her relationship with Luc, the love of her life? This plot thread seems to be scripted, and is presumably drawn from Langmann’s memoir. In our first glimpse of the relationship, Suzanne pushes Luc’s hand away as he tries to touch her breasts at their rendezvous near her summer camp; her excuses for her reluctance are unconvincing, though delivered simply and lovingly. But the same night, she impulsively gives her virginity to an American boy she meets at a party. The most unusual inflection that Pialat and the actors give the story is in the aftermath of the initiation. Suzanne is distraught and crying as she goes to bed at the camp: “I didn’t even know what I was doing... I’m sick of it all.” But, walking in town the next day with Anne, she discusses the indiscretion in a much more girlish, smiling, confidential way, more preoccupied with the fickle seducer than with Luc. This shift in attitude, which works against a straightforward dramatic development of the Luc relationship, is not permanent: Suzanne will take both tones at different times in the film. Pialat and Langmann may have planned the blocky mood changes, or Pialat may have seized on normal acting discontinuities in the editing room. The psychological idea expressed by this variation is inseparable from our sense of a possible fissure in the filmmaking.

Suzanne sabotages her relationship with Luc again later in the film, and this time Pialat lets the actors do all the work. Interrupting a café scene in which Suzanne is flirting with another boy, Luc appears to beg Suzanne to return to him. Suzanne abandons her flirting instantly and reverts to adoration of Luc — “It’s as if she’s in heat,” says her friend Martine (Maïté Maillé) — but she is jangled by Luc’s attempts to kiss her, and within seconds she spirals into a bitter denunciation, then walks away from the devastated boy. The talk with Luc is broken in two by an insert shot of Anne watching, but Suzanne’s rapid volte-face is basically accomplished within the scene’s first shot, and could be interpreted as an improvisation gone wrong, a transition made too abruptly or without sufficient cause. With his characteristic taste for directness, Pialat lets the compression stand. The sudden and arbitrary shifts of Suzanne’s feeling hint at a deeper meaning — that Suzanne never really wanted the love of her life — which will not be stated explicitly, and of which Suzanne (and Langmann?) may be unaware.

The first, horrifying family brawl with Suzanne, Robert and their mother Betty (Ker) is probably the most intense example of how Pialat constructs psychology from bits of documentation. It’s impossible to say how much of Ker’s anger in this scene is premeditated, but her frightening physical attack on her daughter comes unexpectedly. After her screaming breakdown, she collapses like a puppet in Robert’s restraining embrace, clearly winded and unable to continue. A moment of quiet, then another, seemingly unmotivated assault on Robert, with bared fingernails, resulting in Robert slamming his mother’s head against the wall. Blood is running down Betty’s neck in the next shot of her, presumably from the on-set injury mentioned by Warehime, which required stitches. But even more surprising than the wound is her little exhausted laugh at a remark of Robert’s: it’s as if Pialat filmed the actors recovering from the violence and histrionics of the previous scene. Wherever that laugh came from, it stamps the scene with a philosophy, an approach to psychology that can take form only after the fact.

Perhaps because Pialat has a major acting role here, A nos amours. draws attention not only to the qualities of the behaviour in his films, but also to the kinds of behaviour that he favours. The childrearing style of Pialat’s character Roger has a distinctive tone: he repeatedly and boldly addresses the transgressive subject of his nearly romantic bond with his daughter, but shows no temptation to cross the line. Beyond this, Pialat the actor clearly exhibits a pattern that is general in the work of Pialat the filmmaker, whereby the violence of emotions alternates with a tone of wry detachment from these emotions. The early scene where Roger slaps his daughter gives us a particularly close look at Pialat’s acting style. Roger’s contained anger at Suzanne’s presumed sexual activity fails to intimidate the girl; the hint of rebellion in her response drives him to an extreme, though still controlled, statement: “The next time you pull a stunt like this, Suzanne, I’ll strangle you.” Suzanne breaks out in a silly smile at the threat — perhaps the smile of an inexperienced actress surprised by the direction that an improvisation is taking. But Roger is instantly angered by her refusal to take him seriously — or else the director is angered that the actress is not processing the information he is delivering — and slaps her spontaneously. The most striking aspect of the scene is how Roger moves to contain himself after the disruptive slap: not with apologies, but with a detached perspective. Almost instantly, he defends Suzanne against Betty’s charges of rudeness; then, addressing his employee Fanny (Tsilka Theodorou), who is overlooking the quarrel with a smile, he says, “Was it like this at your home?” The trajectory of the film follows this emotional vector, and the following scenes show a bemused Roger gradually coming to an acceptance of his daughter’s sexuality.

This pattern of uncontrolled emotion yielding to contemplation and detachment is not restricted to Pialat’s character: we see it in Suzanne’s adjustment to her summer-camp infidelity to Luc; later, Pialat moves quickly from a family screaming match in which Robert strikes Suzanne, to the scene of the siblings negotiating Suzanne’s departure to boarding school in near whispers. The contrast suits Pialat’s taste for counterpoint and for working against dramatic conventions, but it also seems to originate in Pialat’s real-life personality. No two actors can have more different styles than Pialat and Cyr Boitard, but there is something of Pialat’s self-aware self-contradiction in the way that Luc hands Suzanne a present as he bids her farewell outside the summer camp, yet maintains a morose distance from her.

If A nos amours. is the Pialat film richest in inspiration, it is far from a perfect work — and one suspects that Pialat’s brilliance and his erratic qualities have the same sources. Sometimes the film’s defects are linked to a freedom of expression: as when Pialat stitches shots together with awkward cuts, or orders scenes regardless of continuity issues. At other times, the inclusion of flat or uneventful footage seems the result of Pialat’s willful anti-aestheticism, an aversion to the seduction of the well-made object. And Pialat’s preference for directness sometimes generates dialogue that is overly thematically explicit or excessively repetitive, especially in the film’s final half-hour. Without going so far as to embrace the film’s imperfections, one can perhaps regard them as collateral damage in Pialat’s largely successful war against the spirit of fiction.

© 2010 Dan Sallitt / MoC

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