Maurice Pialat was, by all accounts, a difficult man. A late bloomer in the French film industry (his feature 1968 debut, L'Enfance nue, was released when he was 43), he was always an outsider, too much of a realist to ride the freewheeling Nouvelle Vague of Godard, Truffaut, and Rivette, and too volatile to settle for the tidy Gallic sophistication of Malle and Sautet. International success in 1980 with Loulou enhanced rather than mellowed his legendary combativeness, and a series of artistic and personal conflicts in the Eighties (including, notoriously, a fist raised in defiance at the jeering Cannes audience when he picked up the 1987 Palme d'Or for Under Satan's Sun) earned him the nickname “Pialat le terrible.” Just as famous as his prickly temper were his shyness, tenderness, and generosity, evident in the enduring friendship of the cast and crew he reportedly put through the grinder (Gérard Depardieu and Isabelle Huppert, who gave some of their greatest performances under Pialat's guidance, were among the director's most loyal supporters).
This emotional contradiction is at the heart of Pialat's worldview, a vision of startling roughness in perpetual bloody conflict with extraordinary delicacy. His filmography abounds in aching loners (the rejected boy in L'Enfance Nue, the cancerous matriarch in La Gueule Ouverte, the title artist in Van Gogh), yet he is not interested in facilely enshrining their rebelliousness—rather than coddling these characters with self-pity, Pialat pushes them out into the often cruel world, for he is fascinated with the complex ways people come together and subsist, and in the human chaos that inevitably ensues. An emotion will flare up and clash violently with another, but Pialat refuses to judge or pick one over the other; instead, he instinctively pounces on the collision as evidence of the private struggle that is an intrinsic part of being alive. People have a bottomless capacity for fucking up in his films, and that capacity is not only ruthlessly acknowledged, it is also celebrated as an inescapable portion of what makes human beings human in the first place. Often labeled a misanthrope, Pialat is actually one of the medium's truest humanists, standing alongside Renoir, Rossellini, McCarey, Ozu, Cassavetes, and Altman.
Which brings us to Suzanne (Sandrine Bonnaire), the protagonist of À Nos Amours (1983). A fifteen-year-old grappling with sexuality, emotion, and family, she might be the ultimate outsider in the director's oeuvre, yet Pialat also sees her as something of a mystery. Introduced at summer camp, sunning herself at the prow of a boat while a Purcell aria throbs on the soundtrack, she's a distant figurehead; in a Victorian gown reciting archaic lines for a play, she's an image of genteel literary poise. Pialat cuts through both these notions in the following shot, in which Suzanne strides by the side of the freeway in a short red skirt, revealed not as a figure of stillness but a creature of fierce instincts, many of them puzzling even to herself. She sneaks out to meet her sensitive beau Luc (Cyr Boitard), but the brief idyll (with unmistakable hints of Pialat's early apprenticeship as a painter) comes to a sudden end when she rejects his offer of sex. At a party later that night, Suzanne takes up with a young American bloke and ends up losing her virginity to him. When in an awkward post-coital moment he thanks her in English, she responds blankly in French (“You're welcome. It's free”) and later on cries, confused about the experience yet unsentimentally accepting it.
She brings her newfound sexuality back home, where her family, who already needs little incentive to turn a slight squabble into a titanic meltdown, reacts to her casual bed-hopping with free-floating hysteria. Suzanne's promiscuity unsettles the home, drawing a sort of incestuous intensity out into the open; the Parisian apartment, sketched with a palpable sense of breathing space, sets the stage for a series of familial skirmishes, both harrowing and revelatory in their rawness. Her mother (the superb Evelyne Ker) looks at Suzanne with a mix of protectiveness and jealousy (“It's disgusting to sleep like that,” she says while gazing at her daughter's nude body), while her older brother (Dominique Besnehard) reacts to her flings with the wrath of a cuckolded husband. Above all, there's the father, played by Pialat himself as a bearish force who wavers from tender concern to tyrannical grip with a single slap. The midnight chat between father and daughter, in which he asks her about her boyfriends, kids her about the loss of her dimple, and confides in her that he'll soon be leaving the family, is not just a beautiful portrait of momentary spiritual union between the characters, but also an exquisitely sustained study of a young actress, whose onscreen give-and-take with her director goes beyond improv exercises and into a feeling of unguarded being.
Indeed, À Nos Amours would have been a landmark film simply for introducing Sandrine Bonnaire to the medium. The film opens and closes on close-ups of her face, feasting on her rough beauty, her wide forehead, her alert yet wounded eyes. Her Suzanne is in every scene, and throughout the film one feels a transfixed Pialat steering the still-unformed talent, not so much molding Bonnaire as discovering in tandem with the actress the corporeality, force, and shifting emotional depths that would later mark her greatest performances (Vagabond (1985), La Cérémonie (1995), Secret Défense (1998)). Like Renoir, Pialat would often sacrifice technique and plot for the emotional truth of his characters and actors, resulting in abrupt temporal ruptures. A cut for Pialat can mean “ten minutes later,” or it can mean “three months later”: One moment Suzanne and her new boyfriend Jean-Pierre (Cyril Collard) are looking for a hotel after she runs away from home, the next she is back home, trying out her bridal gown while her mother fondly remembers her as a little girl. The resulting impression is one of fleeting fragments of life captured like, to use the title of Kent Jones' 2004 Film Comment tribute to Pialat, lightning in a bottle—a jarring rhythm which, mirroring the miseries and ecstasies of adolescence, refuses to let us get complacently settled.
À Nos Amours is based on recollections by Arlette Langmann, Pialat's longtime writer, editor, and companion, yet it also features one of the director's own most naked moments. The character of the father was originally supposed to die, but Pialat's enjoyment of acting led him to change the course of the narrative, leading to the virtuoso engagement dinner that is the film's most complex sequence. The actors were reportedly still under the impression that the father had died, so when Pialat entered the scene, they were as baffled as the characters they were playing. A nifty self-reflexive trick, but, Pialat being Pialat, he proceeds to push it into a rude, remarkable tightwire act of hurt and confession, with the father-but-really-Pialat praising Pagnol's talent, commenting on Van Gogh's sadness, and pretty much insulting everybody at the table. (Both the character and the man come off as equal parts fearless truth-tellers and grade-A assholes: Pialat was confrontational, but he saved the sharpest knives for himself.) After this full-frontal scuffle, however, the film concludes on a note of communion, with one last talk between Suzanne and her father before she flies off to San Diego with her fiancée. Because Pialat understands the teenager's rebellion as much as the adult's worn melancholy, there's little of the adversarial divisiveness which gives, say, Catherine Breillat's early films their anguished quality. That's À Nos Amours in a nutshell: A portrait of youthful ferociousness made with wisdom of lived life.
Image/Sound/Extras: While not quite immaculate (a bit of grain occasionally creeps into the colors), Criterion's anamorphically enhanced 1.66:1 transfer does justice to Pialat's delicate, forthright eye for skin tones and lighting. The mono French soundtrack is fierce, particularly during the film's many slapfests.
Possibly as an admirable attempt at making up for the unaccountable neglect Pialat has met on American soil, the extras department is especially well-stocked. The Human Eye (1999) is an unusually penetrating hour-long documentary on the film, featuring both scholarly commentary and personal remembrances. Archival footage of Pialat on the set reveals the sensitivity which his notorious tyrannical side hid, though there's a feeling that that side is never far off (as when, in the midst of one of the actor auditions, the off-camera director can be heard provoking Bonnaire into a nervous fit). Catherine Breillat (who clashed with Pialat during the shooting of Police) and Jean-Pierre Gorin provide sharp, insightful interviews, but the most rewarding featurette belongs to Bonnaire, who movingly and perceptively recalls her initial fear as a young performer, her warm relationship with Pialat, and her admiration for his work (which she correctly describes as “realism, but also more… It's cinema”). A booklet featuring invaluable essays by Molly Haskell and Kent Jones and a couple of interviews with the filmmaker and his cinematographer Jacques Loiseleux rounds out the package.
Fernando F. Croce is a critic for Slant Magazine and the creator of the website Cinepassion.