Two more Pialats

Two more Pialats May 12, 2005

Caught a couple more Maurice Pialat films last night. We Will Not Grow Old Together (1972) and The Mouth Agape (1974) were his second and third feature films, and if the theme a couple nights ago was women embarking on illicit sexual relationships against the wills of their menfolk, then the theme last night was the intimacy of marriage and other long-term relationships.

I say “other” because We Will Not Grow Old Together is about the gradual dissolution of a six-year relationship between a man and his mistress; his actual wife is still living with him, when she isn’t having affairs of her own, but she isn’t the main focus. As a newly married man myself — it’ll be three months tomorrow — I frequently recognized the casual intimacies that pass between the two main characters, but I totally did not recognize the violent outbursts or the bitter ways the two characters put each other down. Interestingly, the frank and almost obsessive put-downs prompted a few people at the back of the theatre to laugh every now and then, and while there was something a little absurd about the relationship depicted in this film, I also sympathized with the guy sitting some ways to my left who looked over his shoulder, about an hour into the film, and asked, “What’s so funny?” Before he asked that, I had already wondered how I might have reacted to this film if I had been watching it alone, on video (not that it’s even available on video, but never mind…). One last note: the use of classical music over the titles of this and at least one of Pialat’s other films reminds me of the similar use of music in Denys Arcand’s films.

The Mouth Agape also had some recognizable moments of casual intimacy, this time mainly (but hardly exclusively) between characters who are actually married to each other. But I liked this film better, partly because it isn’t just about sexual relationships; it also deals with a middle-aged woman’s death from cancer, and the effect that her prognosis has on her and her family. There is a remarkable scene early on, which I think is done completely in one take, where the woman and her son have a casual conversation about their family and the various infidelities they have all committed, and then the son puts on some music and they just sit and listen to it, and then the phone rings with a job offer for the son. The scene starts on a note of intimate familiarty, then moves into something resembling transcendence as the characters try to “treasure this moment”, and then suddenly the banality of everyday life takes over — or is it, rather, the banality of everyday death?

Pialat’s use of nudity in this film is quite remarkable; at first, when the woman’s son visits a prostitute or spends time with his wife, it may seem like just another case of sexual titillation, but when the woman herself dies and her body is undressed, as part of its preparation for burial, you sense something else going on. It may be significant that Pialat spends more time on the aftermath of sexual encounters than he does on the encounters themselves; in sex as in life in general, perhaps we spend more time dealing with the results of any given moment than we do experiencing the moment itself. The Cinematheque’s program quotes Jonathan Rosenbaum to the effect that Pialat “has ideas about how emotions involving sex and death are intimately related and about the clarity and lack of it they shed on everything else,” and this, I think, is an aspect of the film I would like to explore further.

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