Maurice Pialat — the retrospective begins

Maurice Pialat — the retrospective begins May 10, 2005

I can never say his name without feeling like the victim of an “I was born on a pirate ship” style schoolyard prank, but anyway…

The Cinematheque is running a retrospective on the films of Maurice Pialat right now, and since he produced only ten feature films and one TV mini-series (plus a handful of short films that are not on view), it shouldn’t be too hard to catch most of his works before this month is over.

I knew nothing about him before this series came to town, though I had heard about Under the Sun of Satan (1987), mainly because it is based on a book by the same author who wrote the books on which Robert Bresson’s Mouchette (1967) and Diary of a Country Priest (1951) were based. But when I read the Cinematheque’s description of Pialat and his gritty, naturalistic style as a sort of bridge between Bresson and more recent filmmakers like Bruno Dumont, the Dardennes (whose The Son made my top ten for 2003), and Erick Zonca (whose Dreamlife of Angels, my review, was my favorite film of 1999), I figured I had to check him out.

So, I have caught three of his films so far.

The first, Naked Childhood (1968), was a perfect way to start the series. It concerns Francois, an abandoned child who is shuttled from one foster home to another, and whose slide into delinquency — dropping family pets down stairwells, throwing knives at other children, tossing bricks at moving cars from a bridge, and so on — is both a result of his situation and a cause of it; the instability in his life fuels his anti-social behaviour, but if he didn’t keep getting into trouble, his foster parents might not be inclined to give up on him so readily.

I’m a sucker for films about friendships across the generations, and Pialat — who was already 43 years old when he produced this, his first feature! — shows a remarkable affinity for the children as well as the much older characters. The second family with whom Francois lives includes a couple in late middle age who have several grown children and grandchildren by their previous marriages but no children by their present marriage, so they look after her elderly mother and a couple of foster kids, Francois among them. There is a remarkably gentle and affectionate feel to this family; the husband and wife are clearly still in love, in a contented rather than passionate way, and “Granny” is amused when Francois asks if she has ever been a man’s mistress.

Francois, alas, is still a troubled boy, but these people do have a calming effect on him; he seems drawn to Granny in particular. There is one nicely underplayed but still suspenseful scene where Granny can’t find the money that ought to be in her purse, and the other boy accuses Francois of stealing it, and you realize that you believe that other boy, and you are genuinely dismayed that, oh no, perhaps Francois has betrayed her trust, too.

I then caught a double-bill of Loulou (1980) and A Nos Amour (1983), and I have to say I wasn’t as impressed. Both films concern women who embark on dangerous sexual relationships — one against the wishes of her husband, who slaps her around a bit, and the other against the wishes of her brother, who slaps her around a fair bit more — and I have to say that, as dramatic as they can be, stories of sexual self-destruction and psychotic family members have never interested me all that much.

I do like the way Sandrine Bonnaire, who was only 15 or 16 when Pialat “discovered” her for the latter movie, seems all mature and alluring and womanly when she’s picking up guys, but gets all giggly and girlish when she’s talking to her father (played by Pialat himself); and I am similarly impressed by the performances of Isabelle Huppert and Gerard Depardieu in the earlier movie. But like I say, these kinds of films don’t quite do the trick for me.

Nevertheless, I am still curious to see his other films. I want to see Under the Sun of Satan in particular, natch, and I’ll probably catch a couple others as well, as time and circumstances permit.

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