To the Bitter End

The context of no context: A self-questioning French director who insisted on imperfection

Maurice Pialat, who died last year at age 77, was a Euro-film conundrum—hailed yet reviled, widely distributed yet rarely appreciated, popular yet biliously anti-populist, high-profile yet contemptuous of the movie culture around him. Even by the standards of French nose-thumbing, Pialat was a thorny malcontent (winning at Cannes in 1987 for Under the Sun of Satan, he wound up his dry thank-you speech to a catcalling crowd with "Know that if you do not like me, I do not love you either"), and his movies were virtual subversions of narrative filmmaking orthodoxy. All the same, after three early features, Pialat saw all of his films, six out of six from 1979 to 1991, get well-publicized U.S. releases. (His last, 1995's Le Garçu, became notorious as one of the decade's best and most shamefully undistributed imports.) However much Pialat's career sustained momentum due to Gérard Depardieu's fidelity to the man's vision, the films themselves comprise an artist's self-critique teetering on the edge of misanthropy.

Likened often enough to a Gallic Cassavetes, Pialat may well have provided the source code for the elliptical realism that's become de rigueur for an entire subsequent generation (Desplechin, Denis, Assayas, Breillat, Cantet, Dumont, etc.). His films are never merely stories; each entry in the scant Pialat canon has the sense of having been edited down from a work twice as long—by a seditionist flagrantly derisive of narrative sutures, dramatic accumulation, and psychological clarity. Deliberately as fragmentary as our friends' real lives are to us, a Pialat movie is a runaway train of uncued explosions and uncontextualized incident. Jump cuts can span seconds or years, primary characters can simply appear in a crowd without being "introduced," scenes vital to our understanding of motivations and relationships are simply elided and guessed at. Offscreen space-time is so voluminous that what we see feels like chance encounters, life glimpsed through a passing train's windows. This prickly strategy tends to refocus our attention on independent moments, but the entire passage of a Pialat is what's critical—humbling, non-omniscient, imperfect, and insisting on our own imperfection as viewers.

Of his first four films, We Will Not Grow Old Together (1972)—a tempestuous flowchart of a doomed affair that plunges into and out of the romantic intercourse between Jean Yanne's menopausal hothead and Marlène Jobert's long-suffering campagnarde like a fish hawk—was the largest success in France and at festivals. But Pialat's discovery of star power, employing Depardieu and Isabelle Huppert in the bed-headed Loulou (1980), put him on the world map. (Andrew Sarris's zealous review in these pages is still remembered by Huppert as her best American notice.) Disarmingly intimate and maddeningly noncommittal, Loulou still pulses, but its main artery is instead Guy Marchand as Huppert's pugnacious, unstable husband. Like Yanne in the earlier movie, Marchand's self-hating bourgeois is a Pialat proxy, the flabby, self-demolishing, bitter modern man around whom life flows obliviously.

Depardieu and Huppert in Loulou
photo: Buena Vista Pictures
Depardieu and Huppert in Loulou

This was also Pialat's personification of Depardieu's tortured priest in Under the Sun of Satan—a holy man capable of miracles but incapable of hope—and Jacques Dutronc's eponymous angst-saint in Van Gogh (1991), a reimagining of the most famous art life in cultural history as a dyspeptic yearning for death. Likewise, À Nos Amours (1983), Pialat's premier examination of familial breakdown (based upon the remembrances of screenwriter Arlette Langmann, sister to Claude Berri), centers on Sandrine Bonnaire's boiling, ink-eyed teen tramp but nevertheless pivots on her unhappy father's rupturous decisions. Pialat plays him, taking on the responsibility of every shortsighted mistake and scarring disaster.

In Le Garçu, the self-excoriation hits the heart directly—Depardieu stands in for Pialat as an egomaniacal, defensive father of a precocious preschooler played by Pialat's own son. Parental rights and autumnal small-mindedness exude the naked pain of physical torture, and Pialat's disjunctive style gives the film the immediacy of a confession. Has any filmmaker put himself on trial as relentlessly? Still, in his films Pialat never exhibited remorse or guilt for his recalcitrant self—he strove only toward facing himself in the mirror.

 
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