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, La Cérémonie, Secret Défense). 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’sÀ 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.
Review: That Was Something Lays Bare the Ephemeral Desires of a Lost Youth
By the end, the lesson we’ve learned is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft.
Film and theater critic Dan Callahan’s witty debut novel, That Was Something, chronicles the young adulthood of Bobby Quinn, a gay Midwestern transplant who’s just moved from Chicago to Manhattan to attend New York University. Retrospectively, it examines his obsession with the two leading players in the story of his early days in the city in the late 1990s: the enigmatic Ben Morrissey, an irresistible fellow student destined for fame in the art world, and the mysterious Monika Lilac, a dramatic and performative slightly older cinephile whose devotion to silent films is emblematic of her entire character. “I was looking for the keys to the kingdom, and I found them or thought I did in Manhattan screening rooms, in the half-light and the welcome dark,” Bobby declares to the reader in the novel’s opening, and so begins a provocative—and conspicuously wine-drenched—narrative that serves both as a paean to a bygone era and an emphatic testimony about how we never really leave behind the people, experiences, and places that shape us into who we are in the present.
For a fleeting period of time, the lives of these three characters become intertwined and united by their shared passion for the cinema—and for each other. While Ben and Monika enter into a tumultuous romance, Bobby watches from the sidelines as he privately explores his own sexuality, mostly in dalliances with anonymous older men who he meets at bars in Chelsea, having learned to offer himself up “as a kind of virgin sacrifice.” Throughout, Callahan’s frank descriptions of Bobby’s early sexual experiences are a welcome departure from metaphor, while still seeming almost mythical in the way that Bobby recalls them, just like how all of the liminal moments in our lives—the moments in which we cross a threshold and permanently abandon whoever we had been before—seem to mark our personal histories almost like the transitions between the disparate chapters of a novel.
Bobby has been deeply in love with Ben ever since the two met for the first time in a common area of their shared dormitory at NYU, and Ben keeps Bobby only barely at arm’s length—sexually and otherwise—throughout the dazzling weeks, months, and even years of their relationship as young men. He constantly reminds Bobby that they would probably be lovers if only Ben were gay, which is obviously music to Bobby’s ears, fueling many of his private fantasies. And Bobby is also the prized subject of Ben’s budding photography career, often photographed in the nude, and both the photographs themselves and the act of bringing them into the world blur lines of sexuality and masculinity as the friendship between the two young men deepens and becomes increasingly complex.
Callahan cocoons his characters in what feels like a time capsule, capturing them at their most beautiful and glamorous and then presenting them to us as if on a stage—or on a screen, which the characters in the novel would agree is even more intimate, even more akin to a grab at immortality. Other characters drift in and out of the central narrative in the same way that one-night stands and people we’ve met only at dimly lit parties can sometimes seem blurry and indistinct when we try to recollect them later, but the love story that Bobby is most interested in sharing with the reader is that of a queer young man’s obsession with his larger than life friends during a time when everything for him was larger than life.
Callahan’s previous book, The Art of American Screen Acting: 1912-1960, demonstrates the author’s talent for dissecting the subtlety and nuance of the many nonverbal ways in which the icons of the screen communicate with one another, and here too in That Was Something is close attention paid to the power of performance. The novel is also a story about falling in love with a city, even in retrospect—and even after the version of the city that you originally knew is gone forever. And in the familiar yet always poignant way in which the sights and sounds of a lost New York typically wriggle their way into a novel like this one, the city is at first a backdrop before it inevitably becomes a character.
Monika Lilac hosts a silent film-themed party at her house during which the guests have been cleverly instructed to pantomime their communication to one another rather than speak out loud, and to write out any absolutely necessary dialogue on handmade title cards. At the end of the party, the various revelers—wearing only their underwear, at Monika’s command—all together “streamed out into the night and ran like crazy” through New York City streets while being pummeled from above by heavy rain, not caring at all who was watching. And Bobby, from the vantage point of years in the future, recalls:
In any other place, we might have been harassed, arrested, or the object of wide-eyed stares. Not in Manhattan. And that has its flip side, too. Because Manhattan will let you do whatever you like, at any time of the day or night, but it won’t ever pay attention to you. You can be world famous, and Manhattan still basically doesn’t care, most of the time. And if you aren’t world famous, Manhattan regards you at several ice-slicked levels below indifference. And sometimes, on less wonderful days and nights, some attention might be welcome.
In a blurb on the novel’s back cover, Wayne Koestenbaum describes That Was Something as “The Great Gatsby on poppers,” and there’s definitely something of Nick Carraway in the voice of Bobby Quinn as he looks back at his disappearing New York and the people who populated it, the ghost of a city that disappeared forever the moment he looked away. Callahan’s novel enters the canon of the queer roman a clef—as well as the literary New York novel—by mixing vibrantly realized memories of a fleeting youth, ruminations on the origins of desire, and a deeply felt nostalgia for the way things once were into a cocktail that tastes exactly like growing up and growing older in the same city in which you were once young. And the hangover after a night spent knocking them back in the dim light of a Manhattan dive, as anyone who still occasionally haunts the haunts of his youth can tell you, is always brutal.
Bobby is now many years older as he narrates That Was Something, his desires tempered or at least contained by realistic expectations of how and in what ways they might be satisfied, and his relationships with Ben (now famous) and Monika (now vanished) are either nonexistent or else greatly demoted from the centrality that they had once firmly occupied in the narrative of his life. But there’s still urgency in what Bobby is telling the reader. In the novel’s brilliant final pages, we come to realize that the act of looking back at our younger selves is both masturbatory and transitory, mostly an exercise in framing. Bobby has been explaining how age has made him wistful about his moment in the sun, but then he’s suddenly remembering a fantasy that he once enacted alone one afternoon in his dorm room, back when he was still a virgin—and back when all of his fantasies were about Ben Morrissey:
I entered another place with my mind. It felt like what stepping into the past would feel like now, maybe. It was forbidden, and I was getting away with it. … Looked at from the outside and with unsympathetic eyes, it would be pitiful and grotesque, maybe even laughable. So why am I still so certain that something else occurred?
The lesson we’ve learned by the end of That Was Something is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft. Just think of all that film that ends up on the cutting room floor during the editing process, to be forgotten and swept away with the garbage after the best take has been safely delivered. Only with the benefit of hindsight can we wipe away the shame and growing pains of early stabs at love and failed expressions of desire and instead render the past beautifully, artfully, just as the cinematic film frame limits our perspective so that all we can see is what the director has meticulously manufactured specifically for us. The equipment that made the image possible in the first place has been painstakingly concealed, so that all we notice—all we remember—is whatever ends up remaining beneath the carefully arranged spotlight.
Sometimes a great novel, like a great film, can at once transform and transport us, offering a glimpse into a lost world made all the more beautiful by the distance it asks us to travel into our hearts and minds. At the end of one of the last film screenings that Bobby attends in the company of Monika Lilac, she says wistfully to him, “You know, you’re downhearted, and you think, ‘What’s the use?’ and then you see a film like that and it speaks to you and suddenly you’re back in business again!” And the film they’ve been watching, she has just whispered to Bobby as the credits rolled in the emptying theater, was the story of her life.
Dan Callahan’s That Was Something is now available from Squares & Rebels.
Blu-ray Review: Peppermint Soda Gets 2K Restoration from Cohen Media Group
Diane Kurys’s poignant debut powerfully evokes the bittersweet feelings of leaving behind the halcyon days of one’s youth.
Diane Kurys’s Peppermint Soda is like flipping through a young girl’s diary, capturing as it does snippets of the small-scale tragedies, amusing hijinks, and quotidian details that define the lives of two Parisian teenage sisters over the course of their 1963-to-‘64 school year. Through a delicate balancing of comedic and dramatic tones, Kurys’s debut film taps into the emotional insecurities and social turmoil that accompany the awkward biological developments of adolescence with a disarming sweetness and subtlety, lending even small moments a poignancy that shuns overt displays of sentimentality or nostalgia. As evidenced by the opening title card, in which Kurys dedicates the film to her sister “who has still hasn’t returned my orange sweater,” Peppermint Soda’s authenticity arises from its specificity, both in its characters’ tumultuous inner lives and the detailed rendering of their friends and teachers, as well as the classrooms within which they passed their days.
Structured as a series of loosely connected vignettes, the film bounces between the introverted 13-year-old Anne (Eléonore Klarwein) and her outgoing, popular 15-year-old sister, Frédérique (Odile Michel), who both attend the same strict, bourgeois private school. While Anne’s concerns often verge on the petty, be it her frustration at her mother (Anouk Ferjac) refusing to buy her pantyhose or at her sister for preventing her from tagging along to social gatherings, Kurys depicts Anne with a uniquely compassionate eye, mining light humor out of such situations while remaining keenly aware of the almost insurmountable peer pressures and image-consciousness that are the driving forces behind most irrational teenage behavior.
Some scenes, such as the one where Anne’s art teacher ruthlessly mocks her drawing in front of the class, are representative of the emotionally abusive or neglectful relationship between Anne and many of the adults in her life, and throughout, Kurys understands that it’s how Anne is seen by her classmates that most dramatically affects her state of mind. In the heightened emotional state of teenage years, the sting of simply not having a pair of pantyhose can be more painful than a teacher’s overbearing maliciousness. But Peppermint Soda isn’t all doom and gloom, as the bitter disappointments of youth are counterbalanced with a number of droll passages of Anne gossiping and goofing off with her friends. Particularly amusing is a conversation where Anne’s friend confidently, yet with wild inaccuracies, describes sex, eventually guessing that boy’s hard-ons can grow to around six feet long.
In Peppermint Soda’s latter half, Kurys seamlessly shifts her focus toward Frédérique, broadening the film’s scope as current events begin to shape the elder sister’s political consciousness. Everything from John F. Kennedy’s assassination to a classmate’s terrifying firsthand account of the police’s violent overreaction to a student protest against the Algerian War lead Frédérique to slowly awaken to the complexities of the world around her. But even as Frédérique finds herself becoming quite the activist, handing out peace pins and organizing secret meetings in school—and much to the chagrin of her mother and her sexist, conservative teacher—she’s still prone to fits of emotional immaturity when it comes to her boyfriend.
It’s through these frequent juxtapositions of micro and macro concerns, when the inescapable solipsism of childhood runs head-on into the immovable hurdles and responsibilities of adulthood, that Peppermint Soda most powerfully evokes the bittersweet feelings of leaving behind the halcyon days of one’s youth. Yet the sly sense of whimsy that Kurys instills in her deeply personal recollections acts as a comforting reminder of the humor tucked away in even our darkest childhood memories. Sometimes it just takes a decade or two to actually find it.
Peppermint Soda is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Cohen Media Group.
Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing
If it were biologically possible to do so, both Ed and I would happily switch places with A Quiet Place’s Emily Blunt.
If it were biologically possible to do so, both Ed and I would happily switch places with A Quiet Place’s Emily Blunt, because we’d much rather give birth in a tub while surrounded by murderous blind creatures than have to once again write our predictions for the sound categories. As adamant as we’ve been that the Academy owes it to the nominees to air every category, which they agreed to after an extended “just kidding,” it might have given us pause had the sound categories been among the four demoted by Oscar. But no, we must now endure our annual bout of penance, aware of the fact that actually knowing what the difference is between sound editing and sound mixing is almost a liability. In other words, we’ve talked ourselves out of correct guesses too many times, doubled down on the same movie taking both categories to hedge our bets too many times, and watched as the two categories split in the opposite way we expected too many times. So, as in A Quiet Place, the less said, the better. And while that film’s soundscapes are as unique and noisy as this category seems to prefer, First Man’s real-word gravitas and cacophonous Agena spin sequence should prevail.
Will Win: First Man
Could Win: A Quiet Place
Should Win: First Man