Hidden in plain sight, the films of Maurice Pialat (1925 – 2003) may have eluded the international fame bestowed upon the works of his Nouvelle Vague or neorealist contemporaries, yet his particular form of emotional realism continues to ring timelessly throughout cinema—so much so that he bears more in common with some independent filmmakers today than those of his time. Like the man himself—who was outspoken, passionate and sometimes antagonistic both on and off set—his films followed no distinct movement or style. Incorporating both documentary and narrative aspects, his uncompromising visions followed their own organic rules as productions unfolded. With intense psychological force, disconcertingly disjunctive editing and an uncomfortable focus on the economic, social and psychological margins, Pialat’s films look their audiences straight in the eye with a fearless, respectful challenge. Indeed, he developed quite a fractious relationship with fellow French filmmakers and filmgoers, which culminated in the infamous Cannes incident in 1987. Receiving the coveted Palme d’or for Under the Sun of Satan to a jeering chorus, Pialat raised his fist in victory and quipped “if you do not like me, I can say that I do not like you either.” The prickly ambivalence was mutual; despite his less-than-iconic status, French filmgoers attended more of his films than those of all the New Wave directors combined, his films received regular critical accolades, and today he is one of the most frequently cited influences among French filmmakers.
Pialat’s relatively limited output may not have bolstered his legacy; yet, perhaps, a director so complexly immersed in his work could not survive that many painfully personal films over the course of a single lifetime. Pialat seemed to be perpetually replaying his life and exorcising his own demons through his films (with the exception of his late 80s feature Police). If the script were not already autobiographical, it became so over the course of a production through impromptu revisions and improvisations. And beyond merely telling the story of his family and love relationships, Pialat relived them through the difficult, familial bonds he either formed on the set or brought into the productions by frequently involving former and current romantic partners in his work. For Pialat, the act of filmmaking was inherently personal, and his close and often difficult relationships with cast and crew seemed to ignite and stoke his creative flames. By bringing actors’ offscreen lives into the narrative, ceasing to film actors who no longer interested him, and airing his resentments toward his collaborators via the script, Pialat steeped his films in a bracingly honest emotional truth. Notorious for his sadistic treatment of actors, collaborators and himself, Pialat orchestrated the eruption of emotionally spontaneous moments where the actors were prodded into accessing much deeper emotions and triggering the startling naturalism that seems to reach his viewers intravenously.
Bornin the provinces to middle-class, financially troubled parents who left him for long periods of time with his grandparents, Pialat accused them of abandoning him at an early age (the origins of his first feature Naked Childhood). As a young man, he turned to art, yet struggled to make a living as a painter and, after a period of deep depression, took sales positions. His first films, in fact, were comic shorts for a company party at Olivetti. Noticed by the producer Pierre Braunberger, he received financing and encouragement to make the short documentary L’Amourexiste, which won many awards and eventually enabled him—after years of television shorts and government film work—to secure the funds to complete Naked Childhood at the age of forty-four.
With the startling Naked Childhood, he introduced many recurring elements: the autobiographical aspect, the provincial setting, the mix of professional actors with non-actors within an ambiguously semi-documentarian realm, the sense of eternal loss and displacement expressed both through the story and the structure, and the breakdown of the family, the patriarchy, history and tradition. Without judgment or fanfare, his lost souls fight irrevocable forces often through unpredictable, paradoxical, self-destructive behavior that itself seems uncontrollable. Betrayed, resentful figures who cannot quite articulate their feelings nor change them—like Suzanne and her father in To Those We Love or the couple in We Will Not Grow Old Together—they connect most deeply just as they push away.
Forgoing the common buttresses of narrative storytelling—establishing shots, suspense, mood music, transitions, backstory, reaction shots, special effects, gratuitous violence or sex—Pialat’s cinema simply shows what needs to be shown without feeling cool or underdressed. Grounded in the vitality and transience of the present moment, the true drama of life does not need underscoring or any assistance and, in fact, may suddenly transform into poetic rhapsody despite itself. From this place, his films seem to move within their own time, a time that always feels palpably present—regardless of the era in which the film is set—and wrenchingly emotional. With no distinct arc or center to grasp onto, and the audience is placed in the same confusing, chaotic, abandoned space as the characters, having to sometimes feel their way through a scene as if they too are players in Pialat’s parallel reality. With the gaps that naturally occur in Pialat’s translation of time, there is a sense of occasionally missing out, of having to deduce who someone is or what they are talking about from other clues or, finally, realizing it does not matter, because to Pialat—whose characters often talk over each other, mumble or use heavy slang—it is that fleeting, complex expression or silent gesture that communicates the unaffected, inarticulate depths. In his words, Pialat’s ideal cinema is one “where time would no longer exist, where you would go deeply into what you had to say and really say it.”
Even when working with a script, Pialat operated in an open, instinctive way toward his productions, charting a brave new path each time. Always prepared for necessary changes and thriving on obstacle, limitation and accident, Pialat had to have been as electrically present as his cinema. His films do not seem to age because, for him, it was a living cinema, one locked in an endless, emotional present, alive with a freshness and vitality, and captured as if still in motion by his exacting eye. Pialat agreed with film critic François Chevassu’s comment that his cinema creates and records its own life: “Realism, after all, is filming the scene that we are in the act of living.”
The Harvard Film Archive proudly presents all of Pialat’s features with a selection of short films for a rare retrospective of this uniquely masterful force of cinema and life. – Brittany Gravely
This retrospective is presented in association with the Cultural Services of the French Embassy and the Institut Français.
Special thanks: David Schwartz, Aliza Ma—Museum of the Moving Image, New York; Amélie Garin-Davet—Film Department, Cultural Services of the French Embassy, New York; Eric Jausseran, Emmanuelle Marchand—Consulate of France, Boston.
Directed by Maurice Pialat. With Michel Tarrazon, Marie-Louise Thierry, René Thierry
France 1969, 35mm, color, 82 min. French with English subtitles
In certain ways resembling The 400 Blows by François Truffaut, who helped finance Pialat’s first picture, Naked Childhood departs from its predecessor in the fragmented, documentary approach toward a mischievous orphan as he is shuffled from one foster home to the next. Preternaturally portrayed by Michel Tarrazon, the boy remains contradictory and puzzling, committing as many bafflingly perverse acts as sensitive, sweet ones. Pialat quietly challenges assumption and expectation, populating the story with characters who elude easy empathy or quick criticism, whose actions are neither explained nor judged. Featuring scenes that allow many of his non-actors to spontaneously and poignantly tell their stories onscreen, Pialat creates the sensation of reality unfolding, capturing moments that feel unrehearsed and unacted, sacred in their ordinariness and authenticity. In between, he places narrative gaps that are only apparent during suddenly jarring scenes, exposing the fact that the viewer is not seeing everything. Of course, the viewer is never seeing everything, yet Pialat does not pretend or overdramatize; he lays bare a raw view of humanity and its natural, if painful, lyricism.
Directed by Maurice Pialat. With Marlène Jobert, Jean Yanne, Macha Méril
France 1972, 35mm, color, 107 min. French with English subtitles
Based on his own autobiographical novel, Pialat paints an unflattering portrait of himself in Jean Yanne’s insecure, abusive, overbearing lover who maintains a platonic partnership with his wife while carrying on a torturous affair with a younger woman. Boiling the relationship down to its splintered skeleton, Pialat presents the couple within transitory, confined spaces such as the car, the hotel, the doorstep—perpetually on the verge of departure. Falling into a painful rhythm, their repetition of the act of breaking up almost imperceptibly switches the seat of power in the relationship and eventually erodes the fragile union. Always breaking up also means they are always reuniting—as if constantly attempting to recreate the moment when they were first in love—and exposing the near-primal, simultaneous push and pull toward and away from one another. Despite the dissonance of Pialat’s waves, his couple’s water treading resonated deeply with modern audiences who flocked to what would be the director’s greatest popular success.
Directed by Maurice Pialat. With Gérard Depardieu, Sandrine Bonnaire, Maurice Pialat
France 1987, 35mm, color, 113 min. French with English subtitles
Boldly taking on the first novel by Georges Bernanos, writer of the Bresson-adapted novels Mouchette and The Diary of a Country Priest, Pialat enters into a bit of terra incognita with dense, lyrical prose and a story steeped in the spiritual and supernatural. Though Pialat does rise to the occasion with striking, otherworldly light and swirling theological debates, his metaphysics remain rooted in a seamless, subtle realism so that the supernatural does not astonish: it uncannily surfaces within the ordinary. A startlingly vulnerable Depardieu earnestly fills the role of the priest Donissan, who is tormented by miraculous powers and their questionable source. When the story of Sandrine Bonnaire’s possessed, fiery Mouchette violently ruptures the narrative and Donissan’s anguished hold on his faith, Pialat’s masterful traversing of time and space enters into another dimension altogether. The filmmaker pulls his finely textured rug out from under the audience with uncanny sleight-of-hand and hypnotic force. Also playing Donissan’s superior with complex shades, the secular Pialat crafts a potent tale of the soul that crawls beneath the flesh and bone while firmly inhabiting it.
Directed by Maurice Pialat. With Sandrine Bonnaire, Dominique Besnehard, Maurice Pialat
France 1983, 35mm, color, 102 min. French with English subtitles
Overlayed and intertwined with aspects of Pialat’s personal life, Arlette Langmann’s original autobiographical script was moved from the 60s to the 80s and narrowed to focus on the character of Suzanne. The striking debut of fifteen-year-old Sandrine Bonnaire, À nos amours also features Pialat himself in the role of her father, who abruptly abandons the family and sets the beautifully constructed narrative violently drifting and bobbing, leaving behind large cavities and open lacerations. On the surface, Suzanne seems the epitome of youthful beauty and carefree independence, yet hidden behind her sexual escapades and disarming smile are confusion, loss and opposing drives—exposed most discernibly through Pialat’s discordant storytelling, jarring editing and agitated camera. The breath of every inexpressibly compassionate moment—most often between father and daughter—seems continually threatened by its emotional adversary, most viciously manifested in the dinner scene in which Pialat decides to both settle personal scores with actors and catch them off guard by suddenly appearing on the set to capture the stunned reactions of those he may actually love. Print courtesy of Institut français.
Directed by Maurice Pialat. With Sabine Haudepin, Philippe Marlaud, Annick Alane
France 1979, 35mm, color, 85 min. French with English subtitles
After two false starts and a large part of the budget spent, Pialat reworked the concept and the script for the third time, assembling a few professional teenage actors and filling in the rest of the cast with amateurs culled from Lens, the same province of Naked Childhood. While much of the wandering narrative was scripted as they shot—often from the teenagers’ actual conversations of the day before—at other times the actors would just be hanging out and not realize they were being filmed. Pass Your Exams First follows no single character or primary focus, as if, like its confused subjects teetering on the edge of maturity and responsibility, it is experimenting with various paths without knowing quite where any of them will lead. The most comic entry in Pialat’s oeuvre, the film follows the group’s antics in school, at home and on holiday, and at the only hot spot, the town’s actual café. With limited options at a time of shifting traditions and economies, they engage in fleeting couplings, contradictory opinions, vague dreams and their own false starts. Presciently inscribed by the hand of Pialat, their lives remain a series of question marks … awkwardly, ambivalently, precisely rendered question marks. Print courtesy of Institut français.
Directed by Maurice Pialat. With Isabelle Huppert, Gérard Depardieu, Guy Marchand
France 1980, 35mm, color, 110 min. French with English subtitles
Like the enigmatic, unexpected behavior of its characters, the nonchalant unfolding of Loulou nearly cloaks its dense understory of class difference, deep insecurities and irreconcilable wounds. Arlette Langmann—who also makes an appearance in the film—based the script on the affair she had that ended her relationship with Pialat. Isabelle Huppert plays her counterpart, Nelly, who suddenly leaves her bourgeois husband and life for Depardieu’s hulking Loulou, an independent rogue and occasional thief who skirts the edges of civility and responsibility. Their very physical, headlong romance reveals a convincing bond mixed with confusion and distrust as Nelly adjusts to the darker vagaries of Loulou’s life. In the midst of intentionally overlapping conversations, inaudible dialogue and disjunctive cutting, Pialat’s camera keeps rolling when Depardieu accidentally breaks the bed frame, as well as when an older woman walks onto the set to scold Loulou and André for fighting—she is not an actor and did not realize it was a film. In Pialat’s ambiguous spaces of voluntary and involuntary naturalism, his audience and collaborators frequently find themselves in that position as well. Print courtesy of Institut français.
Directed by Maurice Pialat. With Hubert Deschamps, Monique Mélinand, Philippe Léotard
France 1974, DCP, color, 85 min. French with English subtitles
Pialat places the horror and sadness of a dying parent within a placid palette and the natural light of Auvergne, only barely softening the edges of the uneasy struggle between eros and thanatos. Based on his own marriage and mother’s death, Pialat’s film portrays not simply the grueling physicality of one death, but a family of deeply wounded people who all seem to be waiting for some kind of release from the interminable emotional violence of their lives. Pialat’s equivalent in the film, Philippe and his parents are forced into a reunion of sorts within Philippe’s childhood home, where his mother must retreat after an unspecified, terminal diagnosis. Like his father, Philippe responds to his existential despair through sexual liaisons, continuing to hurt his wife as she wounds him verbally. The expressionless, open eyes and mouth of the dying woman communicate a larger, unarticulated sadness and anger that no one is able to directly acknowledge or repair. Pialat’s deep silences, precisely placed sounds, and patient camerawork—including a few striking, intense long takes that are as uncomfortable as they are tender—culminate in a surprising final shot that is moving, in both senses of the word, and, as with much of Pialat, derives its intense emotional complexity from an overwhelming, aching simplicity. DCP courtesy of the Cohen Film Collection.
Directed by Maurice Pialat. With Gérard Depardieu, Sophie Marceau, Richard Anconina
France 1985, 35mm, color, 113 min. French with English subtitles
Pialat originally hired Catherine Breillat to adapt an American detective novel (the French-translated title of which would be placed on a completely different film, À nos amours), yet differences between the two led to a dramatic fallout. What remains of Breillat’s contribution is her thorough research into the world of French undercover police. She maintains that all of the officers’ dialogue is taken verbatim from actual conversations and interrogations. Only Gérard Depardieu’s character Mangin is a complete creation; the rest of the cast is either based on or played by actual police officers and gangsters. Thus, despite Pialat taking on an impersonal genre picture along with the star power of Depardieu and Sophie Marceau, Police remains a Pialat film in its patient half-documentary realism, its dislocating sense of time, its aversion toward narrative convention and its incestuous “family” of police, lawyers and criminals—many of whom work both sides and seem morally confused about their fluid identities and loyalties. When an unexpected love story erupts from this commingling, it creates a momentarily liberating space—disconcerting to both officer and “criminal,” who are used to role playing—and leads to a decision by Mangin to jeopardize himself professionally with unpredictable, quietly stated results that run defiantly and tenderly against the violent expectations of the noir and the polar. Print courtesy of Institut français.
Directed by Maurice Pialat. With Jacques Dutronc, Alexandra London, Gérard Séty
France 1991, 35mm, color, 158 min. French with English subtitles
Pialat’s portrait of the famously impassioned painter dials back both the visionary genius and crazed madman portrayals to render a more lucid, lower-key artist who internalizes his brooding except for the occasional violent outburst. Former French pop singer Jacques Dutronc plays Van Gogh with a depressive, disgruntled charm during the last, prolific months of the artist’s life spent primarily in Auvers with Dr. Gachet and his family. Depicted as neither hero nor martyr, his truculence here is somewhat justified by the hypocritical, inconsistent treatment he receives at the hands of Gachet, his brother Théo and the wealthy, trendy art patrons. Pialat illuminates his portrait with both banality and brightness: highlighting how the less-poetic components of classism, sexism and economics figure into the canon of art and artistic creation while naturalistically recreating scenes of landscapes, picnics, drinking and dancing made famous by his contemporary Renoir. Pialat also develops a sweet, turbulent and most likely fictive romance between Van Gogh and Gachet’s young daughter Marguerite, one of three women in the film who provide affection and even adoration to the neglected, difficult artist whose fame would reach exorbitant heights many decades after his death. Print courtesy of Institut français.
Directed by Maurice Pialat. With Pierre Doris, Jacqueline Dufranne, Agathe Natanson
France 1970-71, digital video, color, (7 episodes, 52 min each). French with English subtitles
In a commission for French television, Pialat was given the time to fully stretch his wings over the course of six hours. The director’s emotional meticulousness and astonishing naturalism is fully explored through many disrupted lives in the French countryside during World War I. Focusing on Hervé—one of a few children sent to the provinces from a war-torn Paris to stay with a rural couple on their farm—the series is child-centric; the toll of the war is expressed through the antics and reactions of its youth, including Michel Tarrazon from Naked Childhood. The immersive details of the opening build the foundation from which a freer, more improvisational and even fanciful Pialat takes flight, where—as Joel Magny from Cahiers du Cinéma notes—“hidden or manifested suffering alternates with an astonishing happiness to be alive.”
The House in the Woods will be presented with an hour-long break after Episode 4 (at approx. 7:15pm) but no other intermissions. The screening will end at approx. 11:15pm.
Directed by Maurice Pialat. With Gérard Depardieu, Géraldine Pailhas, Antoine Pialat
France 1995, 35mm, color, 102 min. French with English subtitles
With his four-year-old son, Antoine, the crux of the film and his wife the co-writer, The Son of… brings the autobiographical simulacra of Pialat’s work to uneasy closure. Filming in his own home and surrounds, the director employs his most recurrent actor, Gérard Depardieu, to play the Pialat counterpart as well as perhaps a bit of Depardieu (he is named Gérard and Depardieu’s wife at the time, Elizabeth, plays Gérard’s ex-wife, who is named Micheline, the name of Pialat’s ex-wife). At the center of the troubled, yet tenacious, web of connections within Pialat’s imperceptibly time-shifting mirror world lies the painfully complicated father-son relationship within which Gérard’s affections are by turns grandiose, jealous, unpredictable and controlling; his primary obstacle to maintaining a bond with his wife and son remains himself. The title actually refers not to Antoine, but to Gérard’s father, to whom his wife Sophie, rather than he, has formed an affectionate attachment. Amid the shards of Pialat’s wounded creating more wounds, a new, stable household for Antoine may actually be forming, which is a first in Pialat’s cinematic family album. Print courtesy of Cinematheque française.
Directed by Maurice Pialat
France 1961, 35mm, b/w, 21 min. French with English subtitles
Print courtesy of Institut français.