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.