Like its zealous protagonist, Maurice Pialat’s Under the Sun of Satan is at once austere and jittery with nerves. Donissan (Gérard Depardieu), a priest consumed with fears of hell, opens the film in conversation with his dean, Menou-Segrais (Pialat), though his discussion is more of a monologue. As Menou-Segrais shaves a small tonsure into his pupil’s hair, the young man engages in extended denial of the self, abasing himself with statements like “I’m like a zero, only useful with other numbers.” Despite this, Donissan struggles to interact with other people; having grown up poor, he knows too much of the world’s filth, which complicates the purity of his theology. The dean, with his bourgeois background, has the luxury of being worldly, sufficiently removed from the harshest realities of life that he can embrace the contradictions of God’s teachings and creations.
Pialat gives a calm, detached performance as Menou-Segrais, though the priest’s gently chiding tone clashes with the looks of open envy he betrays for the strength of Donissan’s convictions. Depardieu had worked with Pialat twice before this film, yet his casting here is particularly ingenious. Nearly 40 at the time of filming, Depardieu portrays the priest’s faith with such intensely insular naïveté that he seems decades younger. Depardieu is one of the most physical of actors, and his mastery of body language undermines a character who seeks to deny the body and its temptations. Depardieu silently pinpoints the paradox of this way of life, peaking in scenes of Donissan’s self-mortification, in which he sanctifies his physical form by defiling it.
As if to stress the oblivious hypocrisy of Donissan’s physical punishment, the film juxtaposes him with Mouchette (Sandrine Bonnaire), a local woman who impulsively kills one of her lovers. The two are bonded from the start, with a cut from Donissan gazing at an unseen presence to the woman killing her paramour suggesting that he sees her sin from afar. But if Mouchette, who’s so uninhibited that she can drift from her dead lover to flirtatiously showing off her baby bump for another, represents a purely carnal life, Donissan’s fixation on the inherent sin of people’s physical selves implicates him just as deeply into the manners of the flesh. His complete abstinence from all aspects of life doesn’t purify him so much as reconfirm his fears of innate evil.
Spiritually, this self-loathing manifests in a theological outlook that sees Satan, not God, around every corner, and in one unnerving scene, Donissan comes across a horse dealer (Jean-Christophe Bouvet) on the road one night who gradually reveals that he may be the devil. The man’s leering, sexual harassment of the priest is calm and deliberate; he treats Donissan like a meaningless plaything, something to be tempted solely for the sake of stacking the deck. This treatment fits within Donissan’s archly Manichean worldview, one where people are merely the pawns for beings with unfathomable levels of power. Embedded within Donissan’s exaggerated efforts throughout the film to resist the devil in this battle, however, is a contradiction: In seeking religious purity as a defense, the priest so completely gives in to his fear of Satan that he belongs to him anyway.
Wally Kurant’s crisp cinematography looks splendid on Cohen’s Blu-ray. The general pall of the image’s blue tint is occasionally offset by painterly applications of color that pop in the background, calling attention to the careful visual schema of the film. Healthy grain preservation preserves the texture of the actors’ faces and the small, natural details of cluttered interiors and cold, infertile countryside. Dialogue, the predominant force of the mono soundtrack, is mixed with clarity throughout. The occasional intrusions of background noise and Henri Dutilleux’s somber score balance out the mix.
Interviews conducted with Gérard Depardieu, Wally Kurant, and production designer Katia Wyzkop thoroughly cover the production, the depth of each talk revealing how carefully every aspect of the film was planned. Raw footage from the set, as well as an hour’s worth of deleted scenes, further testify to this fact, bolstering Maurice Pialat’s reputation as a French Cassavetes by showing how much acting guided the shoot and how the final cut retains only that which reveals its characters in every frame. The trailers for the film’s original theatrical release and its restoration are also included.
Maurice Pialat’s controversial Palme D’Or winner receives a beautiful Blu-ray from Cohen Media Group, making it easier than ever to appreciate as one of its director’s, and star’s, best films.