An uncompromising auteur whose work is corrosive and tender in equal measure, Maurice Pialat (1925–2003) gave one of the most infamous of all acceptance speeches when Under the Sun of Satan, his ferocious examination of religious devotion, was announced as the winner of the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1987. Taking the stage as the auditorium erupted in violent boos, Pialat had this to say to his detractors: “If you don’t like me, I can tell you that I don’t like you, either.”
Though illustrative, that anecdote has often overshadowed Pialat’s films themselves, too little seen here and difficult to place in any one school or movement in French cinema (“Post–New Wave,” the adjective often affixed to him, functions at best as a chronological marker). The Pialat retrospective presented by the Museum of the Moving Image — which includes all ten of his features (all to be shown in 35mm), a handful of shorts, and La Maison des Bois (1971), his six-hour TV miniseries about World War I — not only offers the opportunity for viewers to discover (or rediscover) this singular corpus, but also stands as one of the indispensable events of a cine-glutted fall season.
From 1951 to 1966, Pialat made fifteen shorts, both fiction and documentary; his debut feature, Naked Childhood (1968), performed entirely by nonprofessional or first-time actors, is, as its title suggests, an unadorned, unsentimental depiction of a troubled ten-year-old foster kid named François (Michel Terrazon). Significantly, one of the movie’s producers is François Truffaut, whose own first film, The 400 Blows (1959), centers on one of cinema’s most enduring pubescent truants, Antoine Doinel, played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, to whom Terrazon bears a striking resemblance. Yet what distinguishes Pialat’s tough yet compassionate study, among the best about youth, is its multigenerational cast: After being kicked out by an exasperated thirty-ish couple, François is taken in by an aging twosome who live with an even more ancient relative. The unruly minor shares an especially close bond with the oldest, bedridden member of the household — an affection that doesn’t preclude his pilfering her pocket change while she dozes.
Pialat also expressed tremendous empathy for teenagers, the subject of Graduate First (1978), conceived of as a sequel of sorts to Naked Childhood. “This is a hick town,” a nineteen-year-old laments to his fellow adolescent residents of Lens, a city in northern France offering little hope for gainful employment but plenty of opportunities for doomed early marriages and pregnancies. As with Naked Childhood, Graduate First impresses with its ethnographic immediacy; Pialat’s survey of his characters, at once specific and casual, offers up such ineradicable details as the sound of Pop Rocks exploding on the tongue, the fervor of arguments over the merits of Pink Floyd versus Bob Marley, and the snug cut and fit of athletic apparel worn in late-Seventies gym classes.
À Nos Amours (1983), the director’s other exceptional film on adolescence, marks the screen debut of one of the most vivid, vibrant performers of the past 30-odd years: Sandrine Bonnaire, only fifteen at the time the project was shot, and here, in the first of three movies she made with Pialat, starring as Suzanne, a sexually adventurous young Parisian whose libidinal urges ignite operatic dustups among her family. Pialat plays Suzanne’s unnamed father, an inconstant patriarch who lovingly, even flirtatiously, treats his daughter as a co-conspirator one moment only to slap her across the face for her unapologetic desires in the next. Suzanne is a knot of contradictions, like all teenagers; though Pialat refuses to explain or tidy up his heroine’s at times maddening inconsistencies, there is never any doubt whose side he’s on — a position underscored by his pleasingly perverse decision to cast himself as the film’s most unreliable character.
Notoriously tetchy, Pialat may have intended his role in À Nos Amours to be read as wryly autobiographical. More transparently — and scathingly — personal is We Won’t Grow Old Together (1972), based on the filmmaker’s novel of the same name, a lightly fictionalized chronicle of his six-year extramarital affair with a younger, working-class woman. The director’s surrogate, Jean (played by Claude Chabrol regular Jean Yanne), is a fortysomething, marginally employed documentarian who still shares a house with his frequently absent spouse; he subjects his 25-year-old lover, Catherine (Marlène Jobert), to such blistering insults as “You’ve never succeeded in anything and you never will.” This miserable pair fights and reconciles repeatedly over the course of nearly two excruciating, riveting hours: Their seemingly final, furious, door-slamming partings are immediately followed, after a jarring cut, by yet another ill-fated reunion. Few films have ever captured so searingly love’s powers to curdle, to derange, to imprison.
Faith’s ability to do the same is achingly anatomized in Under the Sun of Satan, the Cannes prizewinner mentioned above. With Gérard Depardieu (whose four films with the director, made between 1980 and 1995, showcase the now-tarnished icon at his magnetic best) in the role of the self-flagellating Father Donissan, the film also features Bonnaire as a murderer whose soul the fanatically devout priest tries to save and Pialat, then 61 and in his final performance as an actor, as Donissan’s temperate superior. “Wisdom is the vice of the old,” the elder cleric tells his subordinate — the line made all the more meaningful for being delivered by a man who was committed to honoring the young, the middle-aged, and the gray-haired by addressing their flaws head-on.
Museum of the Moving Image
October 16 through November 1
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 13, 2015