Early on in her seminal text, From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, critic Molly Haskell makes dismissive note of the “modern” movie, something that was then purported by many to be a corrective to classical filmmaking. One of its chief tenets, she claimed, was that we came out of the theatre feeling superior to the foibles and insanity of the characters. Furthermore, she points to John Cassavetes’ Minnie & Moskowitz as representational of where modern screen romance stood, claiming its disorganized, improvised approach (“letting it all out”) was a poor substitute for the way an old Hollywood master (e.g. Howard Hawks) created order and understanding out of the chaos of relationships.
If Cassavetes was synonymous with what drove the culture wars of the 1970’s, then what do we make of his supposed compatriots and kindred spirits, particularly Maurice Pialat, the one labelled by many as “The French Cassavetes”? To ask Pialat to cope to some demands of classicism or modernism — or, rather, the respective order and chaos — would be to betray him. In delineating him from Cassavetes, one might make a case for the “openness” of the latter — the degree to which Cassavetes welcomed improvisation and the input of his actors — while the former seems, at least in comparison, like one who leaves people and characters to the mercy of his trademark “elliptical” storytelling. This would seem to implicate Pialat as cruel or sanctimonious. But to counter this, just look at two bold, conflicting declarations that he used for titles: Love Exists and We Won’t Grow Old Together, and if the former is fit for the title of the Toronto retrospective that’s begun today, we have to take very seriously the idea that his films are in fact, not just *about* that four letter word, but of it. Yes, “Pialat the romantic” is likely to induce chuckles from most cinephiles, but if his films are of characters chasing love, albeit fruitlessly, either trying to recapture a high or make something that’s simply not meant to be work, that doesn’t discredit their pulsing hearts.
No one comes out of a Pialat picture feeling superior to its characters, despite their occasionally heinous behaviour. The notion of “truthful” within his filmography isn’t simply a satisfaction with acknowledging our flaws, but a confrontation — even an acceptance. Being that many of his films use an autobiographical framework, he’s aware that he won’t and can’t appeal to everyone. And this means more than ever now, when living in a culture seemingly hinged on the currency of “relatability” and the misguided belief that we can live in a liberal utopia of positivity and pacifism that Pialat, ever the good sport, would bluntly tell to fuck right off.
Yet even if they’re intensely personal, it’s still likely to see in his films a kind of universal tension, the point when we realize that the pressures and contradictions of adult life almost constantly give us the desire to punch a hole in a wall. Furthermore, though, we can’t really suppress the feeling, and we simply have to wake up every morning and deal with it. Thus the beauty of Pialat: the vertical line.
We Won’t Grow Old Together
If one needed a Pialat title that most exemplifies a sense of perpetual motion — or, in other words, the march of time — look no further than his 1972 feature, which sees a couple, Catherine and Jean, go through the painful cycle of fighting, apologizing, taking up other lovers, and returning to each other. Yet for a film about people stuck in a circle, the film is vertical to the extreme, with the span of time between scenes almost never being clear (the narrative seems to cover about six years) and only offering glimpses of the relationship’s “plateaus.”
This doesn’t employ the clunky, obvious strategy of contrasting highs and lows that a somewhat similarly themed film (e.g. Blue Valentine) would plainly sell to you. Our couple isn’t even the typical doomed romance, for Catherine is Jean’s much-younger mistress. He’s distant from his wife, Francoise — who remains a presence throughout, despite it being almost impossible to imagine them actually married — and it feels as if we shouldn’t even be “rooting” for them to stay together at any point.
One doesn’t have to go to great lengths to read autobiography into this picture, as there’s the initial tip of Jean Yanne’s ape-like physicality (Catherine even lovingly refers to him as a “bear”) carrying a striking similarity to Pialat’s own intimidating frame. The writer-director had earlier encounters with artistic failure during his painting days, eventually and successfully turned to documentary, and then, later, narrative filmmaking, but this no doubt left a mark on his personality, particularly his famed temperament. Jean, as a documentary director — someone stuck in a medium dependent on collaboration — makes sure to take out his frustration on Catherine, whom he employs on his films, through means such as striking her when she has trouble with recording sound.
He also frequently insults her appearance, despite a blatant attraction to her, and comments on the supposed disability of her “rat legs” or the facial features that would prevent her from being a model – everything somehow tied to labor and money, and subsequently Jean’s own self-loathing regarding them. Outside of work, however, the idea of her as an item of his takes hold. Jean frequently grabs Catherine, as if not just striking out of anger but a need to possess her, to never let her go. A variation on when the kisses turn to bites, so to speak, with the “bear” not able to mediate his affection because of an inability to see past himself.
While the overwhelming perspective of Jean, and thus Pialat’s own battles with masculinity, hangs over the film, it’s directly challenged in one key scene: following an argument over sex, Jean quickly storms out of the bedroom, slamming the door (a gender-reversed spin on the conclusion to Ibsen’s “A Doll House”), only not cutting to the outside — and thus preventing the enabling of Jean’s temper tantrum — but actually hanging on to the master shot as the gust of air brushes through Catherine’s hair. Given the film’s final image of a solitary Catherine swimming, albeit against the tide, we can purport that “love exists”: Pialat doesn’t just look at her with sympathy because she survived multiple years with him, but with the grandest amount of affection for those few moments of harmony.
The Mouth Agape
Built on an inevitably, like the one that Jean and Catherine will in fact not grow old together, The Mouth Agape charts the terminal illness of a middle-class French family’s matriarch, Monique. With a married, grown son, Phillipe, and a blatantly unfaithful shop-owner husband, Roger, impending doom hangs over them.
Phillipe, while married to the beautiful and understanding Nathalie, cheats on her with prostitutes, because… well, he simply can’t help it. And Roger, even with knowledge of his wife’s passing, still fondles the much-younger girls that come into his shop. This film’s idea of lineage — the father passing on to the son undesirable qualities of infidelity — brings up an essential dramatic question: can a person change?
One often feels that if they were to get a peek at the insides of a Pialat character, they could only imagine the violent thrashing about — a collision of desire and logic, love and hate, apathy and sympathy. This is quite clear from his first feature, The Naked Childhood, which took on the shell of the “reformed child” narrative only to end on utter uncertainty as to if the young boy’s violent tendencies will ever disappear. Even in a recent film, Josh Mond’s excellent and most definitely The Mouth Agape-inspired debut James White, which, near its end contains an elongated sequence where the title character temporarily lets go of his narcissism while in the throes of his mother’s dying moments, it’s easy to imagine Pialat filming a scene like that, then throwing it out in the editing room, as it would tip a character, and furthermore the dramaturgy, too much to one side.
Yet he manages to make completely clear the central tragedy: the gradual removal of the voice of a woman who we see at the beginning of the film with plenty to say (including chiding her son for cheating on his wife) being chipped away to a pale ghost. Once she dies, Roger blurts out a devastatingly simple declaration of “It’s over,” followed by the almost surreally blunt sight of her quickly loaded into a coffin, as if it had been in preparation for ages, the wheels already in motion to move on.
And life will indeed keep going on. Even if Roger eventual spills tears at the funeral, they’ll dry and he’ll keep on with his routine. But the family attic, which Philippe and Nathalie visit earlier in the film, still holds memories, and it’s up to them if they want to revisit or not.
If one needs suggestion of how complicated the interspersing of life and art was for Pialat, just look at the credits of his 1980 feature, which, based on his own experience with infidelity, bears the co-writing input of Arlette Langmann, his wife who briefly left him for a relationship with another man; their working relationship continued despite this (and onto his next, and best, À Nos Amours).
The mark of his collaborators continues, particularly the introduction of two movie stars. Gerard Depardieu, an actor of even more dominating physicality than Jean Yanne, at a period when he was still ruggedly handsome and sexy, before transforming into the grunting, planet-sized Universal Studios monster seen most vividly and recently in Abel Ferrara’s Welcome to New York. Then there’s Isabelle Huppert before the Huppert persona had been quite formed, within a span of a year more commonly asked to oscillate between Ice Queen object of director’s affection (Godard’s Every Man for Himself) and expert comedienne (Tavernier’s Coup de torchon).
Huppert plays the supposed Langmann surrogate, Nelly, who’s married to a milquetoast bourgeois, Andre — we can assume Pialat, despite the lanky appearance and somewhat depressingly read his advertising boss position as synonymous with the art film industry’s own class implications — who seemingly only comes alive through jealousy and self-pity. (He’s of course equally as abusive as We Won’t Grow Old Together’s Jean.) Out dancing one night (nailing the dance hall as a pressure cooker rather than recreational release for couples), Nelly meets Depardieu’s Loulou, to whom she’s quickly attracted to, and out and out makes note of her desire to sleep with — if only for, she claims, the satisfaction of irritating the childish, possessive Andre.
In Pialat fashion, Loulou and Nelly are briskly in bed and, furthermore, a couple. Yet this isn’t simply her beginning a new relationship, but rather forming a rupture in French society. Loulou’s unemployment and natural cool straddles the fine line between “loser” and the classic tradition of the “bad boy.” Of course, there’s the degree to which modern men will still claim to “identify” with him: consider the contemporary influence in John Magary’s The Mend, with Josh Lucas’s manic, also-leather-jacket-adorned Gen X slacker still undeniably magnetic as he remains homeless and aimless.
Loulou manages to make a living off the generosity of others, with both his mother and Nelly paying for his various pads. His and Nelly’s multiple living spaces are practically a revolving door of friends, many of whom serve multiple uses for Loulou, whether literal partner in crime or even additional lover. Yet, like in We Won’t Grow Old Together, Nelly still finds herself in Andre’s orbit, either because she needs the money or maybe she’s just accustomed to his (lack of) charms. And thus the film doesn’t become another case of “the lower class make the upper class see the REAL joy of life!,” but, again, the battle that rages inside.
Once Nelly becomes pregnant with Loulou’s child, perhaps the ultimate dragging burden of adult life, and a decision to abort is made off screen, one thinks she may be leaning back towards her husband. Yet the film ends with her and Loulou stumbling together: she may be losing patience with him, but she’s still there. This sharing of an opposition’s view and the beauty and charisma of actors represents one of Pialat’s many miracles, where the ugliest emotions are reconfigured into something beyond even the label of “bittersweet.” So let’s repeat it for the umpteenth time: “L’amour existe.”
Love Exists: The Films of Maurice Pialat begins today at TIFF Cinematheque and runs through December 5th.