A wild, furious, and genuinely unsettling ego is on display in Maurice Pialat’s We Won’t Grow Old Together, which is finally receiving a full-week stateside run some 40 years after it premiered at Cannes and opened in France. Adapted by Pialat from his own novel, the director’s second proper feature is dedicated entirely to the bitter happenings experienced and dolled out as Jean (Jean Yanne), a fortysomething filmmaker stagnating in small-time gigs, wallows in the final throes of his six-year affair with the much younger Catherine (Marlène Jobert), the aspiring actress who once adored him and now is only partially interested in the occasional roll in the hay with this aging, violent ogre.
The film was, as one might infer, a deeply personal one for Pialat and, though more or less linear, it constitutes more of an assemblage of clipped memories of the final months of Catherine and Jean’s very public adultery. Pialat’s uncanny and abrupt visual rhythm, sculpted with help from editors Arlette Langmann and Corinne Lazare, initially feels off-kilter, but eventually reveals an essential focus on what’s felt and what’s said, and what’s often the rift between those two delicate occurrences. Jean speaks to his detached but improbably loyal wife, Francois (Macha Méril), and his aging father (Harry-Max), and Catherine invites him to spend time with her disapproving yet accommodating parents (Christine Fabréga and Jacques Galland), but even these encounters act as echoes of what occurred between these unlikely lovers.
One is tempted to see the largely verbal happenings between Catherine and Jean as a battle of the sexes, but seeing as Catherine largely remains civil and understanding to Jean, even at his nastiest, it’s not entirely true. In fact, what’s most remarkable about the film is how it employs the bitter, self-centered and angry reactions of Jean, who routinely belittles Catherine and refers to her as a “rat,” to show how forgiving, compassionate, and truly lovely Catherine is, even in her most confused, careless and unbalanced moments. By the time the gorgeous, melancholic final image rolls, we almost come to understand why Jean clings to Catherine (and his memories of her) with such crazed desperation.
The self-excoriating style that the late Pialat practiced in We Won’t Grow Old Together and throughout his career returns for more careful consideration at perhaps the most opportune time, as disciples of the French filmmaker’s unforgiving artistic tendencies (Hong Sang-soo and Joe Swanberg, to name just a pair) are now encountering critical accusations of stagnation and repetitiveness. It’s a feeling that can be felt in the film’s undercurrent, as a great deal of Jean’s volatile emotions seem to stem from his own inability to invent and change; Catherine often tells Jean that he should be working on his screenplay and he’s quick to ignore or dismiss such suggestions. Though small in scale and arguably repetitive, We Won’t Grow Old Together strikes at the heart of how devotion to art and devotion to life sometimes crash catastrophically, and how one can often either can tend to or rub salt in the wound the other inflicted.