We Won’t Grow Old Together, Maurice Pialat’s second feature, was made between films about an unwanted foster child’s search for a home (L’Enfance Nue, 1968) and the death of a parent (La Gueule Ouverte, 1974). But though We Won’t Grow is a love story, after a fashion, it’s no oasis of relief. One typical exchange on breakups shows the film’s capacity to seek out and puncture vital spots: “When someone leaves, it’s like a death.” “Worse, they still exist.”
A certified hit in France with almost 2 million tickets sold, We Won’t Grow had its U.S. premiere at the 1972 New York Film Festival but is only now receiving a 40-year-belated commercial release with a week-long stay at BAM. Given that unfashionably late post–New Waver Pialat never exactly became a household name in the States, this is audacious programming—but brilliant, too, an opportunity for a new audience to discover one of the great lions of international cinema.
We Won’t Grow follows the affair—six years old and in extreme unction as the film begins—between Catherine (Marlène Jobert), a working-class 24-year-old, and Jean (Jean Yanne), a fortyish filmmaker stuck in the small-time who never tires of reminding Catherine of her background while belittling her mind. The film is a procession of their breakups and reconciliations during clandestine meetings, business trips, and weekend seaside holidays—for Jean still shares an apartment with his wife, Françoise (Macha Méril), while Catherine lives with her parents.
After exchanging unforgivable slanders, Catherine and Jean will part with slammed-door finality . . . only to be together again in the next scene, reconciliations more and more absurd each time they happen. Aside from his bracing naturalism, Pialat’s stylistic signature is the ellipsis: “He usually throws out bad scenes, even if they’re important plot-wise,” is how editor Yann Dedet, a longtime Pialat collaborator, explained the director’s intuitive narrative logic, “so sometimes there are holes in the plot.” As a consequence, his stories don’t sequentially flow so much as swerve around madly, leaving viewers the work of constantly orienting themselves.
Pialat compared the structure of We Won’t Grow to that of Ravel’s “Boléro” for the gradually increasing fortissimo of its subtly varied-yet-repetitious phrases, variations that here show as a gradual shift in the balance of power. A slim redhead best remembered from Godard’s Masculin, Féminin, Jobert looks like a poor match for Yanne, the ogreish woman-killer from Claude Chabrol’s Le Boucher. “Kiss me,” he tells her. “I won’t eat you”—but we have already seen Jean cuffing Catherine’s face and rending her clothes when turned down in the bedroom. At first, Jean can bring Catherine running with a tap on the horn of his old Renault, but after these almost imperceptible changes, it is he who finally begs, he who is left, he who loses.
Pialat described Jean as “an anxious 40-year-old adolescent, unsuccessful in his occupation.” This must be taken as merciless self-deprecation, for the material of We Won’t Grow was autobiographical in the extreme, recounting a failed love affair that ended six years before Pialat began filming, after first attempting to purge the memory in a novel of the same name. Recognizably imitating his irascible director, Yanne is playing the “Pialat part” taken up in later movies by Philippe Léotard, Guy Marchand, Jacques Dutronc, and by Pialat himself. The constant in these characters is a compulsive bomb-throwing impulse. “No one can be happy with you. You create anxiety,” Catherine tells Jean, describing Pialat and his unpredictable, saboteur’s manner of setting a scene.
We Won’t Grow ends on an unaccountably painful memory, the image of happiness receding in the distance, just out of reach. Pialat’s first short of note was 1960’s L’Amour Existe; his arguable masterpiece was 1983’s À Nos Amours, which has him delivering the fatherly insight “You’ll never love anyone” to Sandrine Bonnaire. These titles—Love exists! To our loves!—are boldly affirmative, the films anything but. “Love” is a quicksilver thing that can’t be held in the present tense. It is somewhere between nothing and everything, and no one pinned down more of its complexities and contradictions than Maurice Pialat, hunting barehanded for slippery truths.