The male protagonist of Maurice Pialat’s We Won’t Grow Old Together works as a documentary filmmaker, a small but not insignificant detail. The character, Jean (Jean Yanne), is an admitted surrogate for the director, who based his second feature on a past, very personal period in his life. Though he worked in the mode of classical fiction filmmaking, Pialat possessed an unmistakably raw and immediate stylistic sensibility that, when coupled with his often uncomfortably intimate narratives, betrayed the urgency of firsthand, privileged accounts. His films, particularly his early efforts, are thus informed by the practicalities of nonfiction storytelling more so than they are beholden to its tenets. These are hyper-detailed, intuitively constructed chronicles, cinematic autopsies of very real events that just so happen to carry universal applicability.
We Won’t Grow Old Together, from 1972, is perhaps Pialat’s most painfully autobiographical work. A portrait of prolonged discontent, the film unforgivingly depicts the aggregating traumas of an unraveling relationship, one resembling in nearly every facet an affair its director was still reeling from throughout his first decade of work in the cinema. As the film opens, we learn that Jean and Catherine (Marlène Jobert) have been lovers for more than three years, and by its conclusion they’ll have carried on for over six, few of which have been spent in happiness. Jean’s wife, Françoise (Macha Méril), is aware of the ongoing affair, but is as inexplicably loyal to her husband as Catherine is attached to him. Barely 25 years old, Catherine is idealistic yet tentative, while middle-aged Jean is frustrated by his lack of success and the obligations of both married and extramarital life. Neither seem aware that their relationship has been built on a premise of dishonesty, and instead subject themselves to a series of breakups and reconciliations, each one more tortuous and tenuous than the last.
Pialat structures the film in fairly progressive fashion, opting not to frame or demarcate each subsequent scene, but rather to position each sequence in relation to or in contrast with the last. We’re thus left with an episodic yet emotionally nested narrative which proceeds in carefully integrated achronology. Save for the opening scene, it’s never quite clear at which juncture we’re eavesdropping on Jean and Catherine, who fight and forgive in an near-endless succession of verbal, and in some cases physical, altercations. In one darkly humorous scene, they acrimoniously part ways only to arrange a rendezvous minutes later; Pialat doesn’t even bother to cut. In addition to its inherently intriguing ambiguity, this formal strategy reinforces the notion that, for Pialat, love and life is simply an accumulation of moments both great and small, some more memorable than others, but never incidental to one’s autonomy, or lack thereof.
For Jean and Catherine, love is predicated strictly on romance, and when that fades, what they’re left with is one of life’s great situational ironies: a May-December affair, sustained by a passion which first brought them together, but with little capacity for enduring benefit. When the inevitable does finally transpire, the film duly conforms to a linear denouement as we witness the fallout from the couple’s many transgressions and the acknowledgement of the self-destructive impulses which may nonetheless still linger as they embark on new, separate chapters in their respective lives. Catherine’s eventual decision and Jean’s acquiescence are both gradual, as is the film’s cumulative power. Early on, Françoise describes to Jean the empathy she encountered on a recent trip to Russia, attesting to a cultural disposition that is “not sentimental…but feelings are what count the most.” It’s an intangible yet deeply felt observation that encapsulates much of the anti-romantic but resolute nuance of both We Won’t Grow Old Together and Pialat’s consummate body of work.
Representing We Won’t Grow Old Together’s debut on any Region 1 home-video format, Kino Classic’s Blu-ray is a gracious, appropriately reverential release. Picture quality is understandably at the mercy of early-’70s film stock, thus clarity and contrast are somewhat variegated, though colors are deep throughout. Darker scenes lose a bit of depth, but detail is notable in outdoor sequence, as is grain structure, and overall the 1080p transfer seems authentically preserved. Audio, meanwhile, utilizes a nice two-channel DTS-HD track. The film is almost wholly dialogue-driven, but voices are directed upfront and rendered clearly. There’s little background noise to note and the one instance of music, featured in the film’s final scene, is handled adeptly.
Extras are slim but well considered. A short video essay by filmmaker Alex Ross Perry (Impolex, The Color Wheel) is an inspired inclusion, and the director speaks skillfully of the film’s style and structure, even noting a specific shot he stole wholesale for his latest film, Listen Up Philip. Elsewhere there’s an emotional 20-minute interview with Marlène Jobert discussing Maurice Pialat’s process and his problems on set with Jean Yanne, as well as the film’s original theatrical trailer. Rounding out the package is a small booklet with an observant essay on the film by critic Nick Pinkerton.
Maurice Pialat’s second and most painfully autobiographical work makes its Region 1 home-video debut in a gracious, appropriately reverential Blu-ray package.