Director Maurice Pialat is as French as a packet of filter-less Gitanes and some good old Vin de Table. Often considered the heir to French cinema, Pialat has developed a reputation of being difficult to work with, probably due in part to his approach to filmmaking and to the subject matter he chooses. His films are unforgiving explorations and articulations of French society and family, as well as powerful meditations on the consequences of personal choice. With themes of promiscuity, faith — both religious and emotional — and human corruption, it is Pialat’s capacity to illicit powerful and convincing performances from his actors that is a testament to his commitment as a filmmaker.
This week at the Pacific Cinematheque is the Pialat retrospective, and if you are serious about big “C” cinema, you should go see some of these films. While his films are serious works, they offer a unique opportunity for viewers to immerse themselves in the cultural concerns of a country that helped shape cinema and taught us smoking after sex was cool.
A Nos Amours (1983)
In only her second on-screen appearance the young and sensual Sandrine Bonnaire plays 15-year-old Suzanne in this painfully honest and provocative coming of age film. Here Pialat traces the emotional effects of sex and family as we follow Suzanne through her development into a dispassionately promiscuous young woman, seeking the attention of men in order to replace a failing connection with her father. The film is sincere and realistic in its portrayal of young love and heartache as Suzanne takes on lovers and rejects the one boy who genuinely loves her. But where the film and actors really hit their mark is in the depiction of Suzanne’s crumbling family life. After years of bitter and destructive tolerance, Suzanne’s father moves out. Left to deal with their increasingly neurotic mother, Suzanne’s brother takes on the role of Patriarch, and while disturbingly attracted to his sister he ultimately becomes physically abusive towards her. Bonnaire brings a real depth and honesty to the role as a girl caught in the strange trap of looking for love and having no model for it, and both she and director Pialat refuse any simple answers. Suzanne is aware of the emotional consequences of her actions and she knows what she is doing, she just doesn’t know why.
Under the Sun of Satan (1987)
One of Pialat’s most philosophical works, this film is an emotional and religious descent into the theme of self-hatred. The film combines two disparate stories and winds them slowly together, until they ultimately become one. Beginning with a priest, played by Gerard Depardieu, the first part follows Father Donnisson as he flays himself for his failure in making a difference. After a lengthy and deeply personal conversation with the head priest, Donnisson is sent to a small town to work a service. He never arrives. Along the way he becomes mysteriously lost and meets a stranger by the road. They walk together and then that night the stranger reveals himself to be Satan. Tempted and touched by the Devil, Donnisson believes himself marked, but is also, at the same time saved by the Grace of God. He emerges from that night with the capacity to see though sinners’ souls. Here the second story ties in as a rural teenage mistress (again played by Sandrine Bonnaire) lingers in the woods reliving the places she occupied with the lover she has accidentally murdered. Upon meeting the woman, Father Donnisson confronts her and sees her sins without her saying a word. While he sees this as a divine blessing, his visions haunt her and ultimately drive her to cut her own throat. Accused of blasphemy and with breaking religious protocol he is faced with the ultimate conflict of faith. Was this gift of insight the work of God or the mark of the Devil?