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Maurice Pialat
A Cinema of Surrender

Fergus Daly

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  We have often heard that the work of Maurice Pialat (1925-2003) is defined by its realism, that he was a master at laying bare reality. But real in what sense? Clearly Pialat’s realism isn’t the same as Martin Scorsese’s or John Cassavetes’, even Roberto Rossellini’s or Jean Renoir’s, although it shares something with all these filmmakers. It involves retaining the intensity of the shoot, the situational power play amongst cast and crew, within the final product.  

1. Serge Daney, ‘Pialat dans l’oeil du cyclone’, Libération (16 Novembre 1983).


2. Pascal Mérigeau, Maurice Pialat, l’imprécateur (Paris: Grasset, 2003). See also the testimonies and tributes gathered in Cahiers du cinéma no. 576 (February 2003).
  For Serge Daney, Pialat’s realism involved a specific movement that the filmmaker was able to orchestrate on film, like an atmospheric disturbance leading the spectator into and out of the eye of the cyclone. (1) Pascal Mérigeau’s superb biography, which appeared a few months before the director’s death, details the incredible struggles, within himself and with everyone he worked with, lying behind the finished product of each film. The accounts of the shoots are priceless: often hilarious stories of Pialat’s relentless recourse to cruel bullying, strategies of psychological torture, physical threats – we’re given the portrait of a man’s life-long existence on the edge of a precipice, barely able to prevent matters from hurtling totally out of control, in both his life and his work. (2)  


  Pialat made this element of chaos or catastrophe work for him; it formed the basis of his mise en scène. He allowed for an inordinate margin of error or accident in his scenes, but not in any careless way. Instead, his genius was to peg the desire for the accident, the ‘first time’, to a rigid, largely intuitive concern for emotional exactitude. This led to scenes that provoke a mixture of cringing awe and giddy empathy.  


  The scene which best illustrates Pialat’s hunt for reality is undoubtedly the famous dinner sequence (almost fifteen minutes long) towards the end of A nos amours (1983), when the father (Pialat himself), presumed dead, arrives at the family home to disrupt the celebrations. It’s a scene where all the best strands of Pialat’s cinema come together, and above all where he lays bare in its purest form his philosophy of life, inseparable from ideas of rancour and resentment.  


3. Mérigeau, p. 220.

  The battle has commenced before the father’s arrival – as if he is invoked, his spirit summoned by the bilious exchanges between his son and daughter and the various in-laws and friends present. The actors’ improvisational techniques – which led to the exchange of real blows on camera – reveal the resentments that had grown up during the shoot. This is verified by Mérigeau, who concludes: ‘Pialat uses the set like a theatre where he settles accounts with his inferiors’. (3) But isn’t it rather that the father’s return turns his workshop-home into a group therapy session?  


  Pialat brings such energy to the scene; it’s as if he repotentialises it, redistributes its forces, drains it of its actuality, its ‘moment-ness’. One is reminded of what Mouchette (Sandrine Bonnaire) says to Abbé Donissan (Gérard Depardieu) in Sous le soleil de Satan (Under Satan’s Sun, 1987): ‘You don’t know what I’m capable of’. What the father in A nos amours is capable of is not so much expressing his own wound, as revealing everyone else’s. (Remember Donissan’s reply to Mouchette: ‘I see you as no other creature was ever seen. Now you can never escape me’.)  


  The father’s entry weaves a spider’s web around the situation. He waits for a sign – a seemingly innocuous comment is enough to set his web trembling. In a lightning strike he settles accounts, launches interrogations, calls for support and scuffles with his wife, before finally launching into his now famous explication of Van Gogh’s dying words (‘sadness will last forever’), which in Pialat’s interpretation becomes the combative ‘You are the sad ones, everything you do is sad …’  

4. Maurice Pialat, interviewed in Cahiers du cinéma (Oct 2000).
  Pialat always tied the question of realism to his fear of and fascination with the cinematic apparatus: ‘What I understand by realism goes beyond reality … (in Lumière) men and women are captured by a machine they’re unaware of, surrendering an instant of their lives, which is what every actor has been doing ever since … Did Lumière film reality? I don’t think so. Lumière is a more fantastic filmmaker than Méliès. The cinema transforms what is sordid into something marvellous, it makes the ordinary exceptional’. (4) It’s fascinating that Pialat takes it as given that life is sordid. This is his ontology: we have a universal ground of sordidness that cinema sometimes transforms into a realism.  

5. C.f., Alain Bergala, ‘The Other Side of the Bouquet’, in Raymond Bellour & Mary Lea Bandy (eds.), Godard: Son + Image 1974-1991 (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1992), pp. 57-73.


  Aesthetically, we can invoke Alain Bergala’s division of a shot set-up into composition (the moment when the director arranges his figures in space) and attack (the moment when the director decides how, from what precise angle, he wants to film that arrangement). (5) The great filmmakers are sometimes those who treat these processes separately, where finding the angle of attack takes priority. In Pialat’s case we could almost believe that there is no composition at all, only pure attack. It’s his way of ridding the scene of any transcendent determination such as compositional or storytelling requirements, or demands for verisimilitude. Only immanent, not pre-programmed criteria can determine the scene’s logic, its detection of a force field, its probing of reactions.  


  What truly matters in a scene is the reaction. For the Sunday lunch at the family home in Loulou (1980), cameraman Jacques Loiseleux filmed the reverse-field without cutting – a Pialat speciality. Typically in a Pialat long take (on average, nine minutes), you begin to ask: what am I supposed to be perceiving here, these expressionless faces, these banal words? But then it hits you and you catch your breath. It isn’t something that’s actual, nor is it what’s possible or ideal, but something in the given, the genetic element of the given, the forces of life beneath what we can ordinarily perceive.  


  To get there requires a powerful force. Pialat’s genius was to combine fiction and personal temperament in a unique way, rancour being his means, his strength. As the father-director, it is only through creating the worst-case scenario, through apportioning blame, that he can create the psychoanalytical session that brings the unconscious into play – to force those who live less to create ‘more life’ and, by way of this internal dynamic, to allow something to creep into the scene as it progresses. Something we call reality.  


  The genius of Pialat is to diagnose resentment as the driving force of even the most everyday modes of behaviour. The forces of resentment are at work under many guises:  

6. Joël Magny, Maurice Pialat (Paris: Editions de l’etoile, 1992).   1. Even the best sentiments add to our suffering. As Joël Magny puts it: ‘It’s as if every gesture of affection can only return us to our fundamental wound’. (6)  


  2. In the case of couples, there is a predominant will to hurt oneself by hurting the other. One partner will be self-tormenting, usually asking questions of the other that can only cause him pain. Where can the question asked by Marchand to Huppert in Loulou – ‘You like wiggling your ass, eh?’ – lead except to his torment, and the violent scene that was clearly the goal of the question in the first place?  


  3. Resignation is merely one more figure of resentment. This is exemplified in the astonishingly blasé response of Sabine Haudepin’s father to seeing his daughter involved in a particularly pathetic sex act: ‘Will that get you a diploma?’ Similarly, even the saintly, hair-shirted Donissan in Sous le soleil de Satan is internally riven by doubts about his vocation.  



7. Pascal Bonitzer, ‘C’est vous qui etes tristes’‚ Cahiers du cinéma no. 354 (December 1983).

  Pascal Bonitzer’s Nietzschean reading of A nos amours isolates three kinds of sad character in the film and in Pialat’s work in general. Firstly, there are those without mystery, those who are purely creatures of resentment. Secondly, the fragile victims who have succumbed to a personal crisis. Thirdly, the principal characters, unhappy but struggling, ‘struggling with something that’s difficult to understand … these are the mysterious ones’. These characters carry wounds without origin. Bonitzer’s superb insight is this: there’s a form of interesting resentment common to Nietzsche and Pialat, one that doesn’t need to be concerned with seeking an origin for wounds. (7)  


  Even in Pialat’s first feature, L’Enfance nue (1969), what is striking is the anti-psychoanalytical nature of the boy’s schizoid, behavioural idiosyncrasies, and the film’s disregard for identifying any originary trauma to account for his behaviour. This is why Pialat once praised Vladimir Nabokov for calling Sigmund Freud the ‘Viennese charlatan’. There is no primal scene that can account for the actions and reactions of his principal characters – which doesn’t mean that there is no unconscious. Pialat takes psychoanalysis but without Oedipus. (This is what divides Pialat from that other great filmmaker of seething bile, Ingmar Bergman, the Frenchman clearly holding no truck with all those talking cure scenes, confessions and declamations of failed lives).  


  It is useful, as a point of comparison, to invoke the figure of Joe Pesci in Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1996). His typical character is the most extreme example of someone whose acts have no justifiable basis. His response to a situation is completely inappropriate. His violence is always greatly disproportionate to the offence committed against him. And Scorsese is great at emphasising the effect on the faces of the others who have witnessed Pesci’s psychotic act. The reaction shot in a sense contains the inexplicability of the major shot. This is what genuinely terrifying about the stylishness of these sequences. There must always be a witness or witnesses, but never one who will ask: what kind of childhood did he have? The only question in response to Pesci is: where’s the mop and bucket? You deal with the effects, you don’t even consider the causes.  

8. Jean Narboni, ‘The Harm is Done’, in Cahiers du cinéma 1951-1991 (Melbourne: Australian Film Institute, 1994), pp. 34-5.   There’s something similar, if clearly on a much less violently melodramatic scale, taking place in Pialat. As Jean Narboni once put it: nobody leaves a Pialat shot the same as when they entered it – the harm is done, even if no one yet realises it. (8) And it’s in the reaction shots that Pialat engages in his ethical battle against resentment. If, in the past (as Godard used to say) the travelling shot was a question of morality, now the reaction shot has become a question of ethics. Pialat’s manner of setting reaction against itself is his way of stripping resentment of its force, on occasion even creating a margin of freedom for his characters.  


  Pialat’s philosophy seems to be: if everyone has their inexpressible wound which no other can share or comfort, then the only communal force, social adhesive, that which binds and separates people, that which dictates relationships, is a form of resentment that operates by way of displaced or deferred sentiments in a system of debit and credit. And since everything is seen from the viewpoint of suffering and resentment, and therefore from the point of view of how characters infect each other, and since relations have priority over individuals, there can be no singularly good characters. Good or evil, you’ll get yours in the end, a philosophy emblematised in the Farrelly-esque gag in Passe ton bac d’abord (Get Your Diploma First, 1979) where the local lecher, trolley-tailing a beauty at the supermarket, ends up getting his hands on nothing but a wheelchair-bound old dame. Every desire must be paid for in this economy of just desserts!  


  It’s as if the ontological fate of homo pialatus is less placelessness than eternal trespassing, affectively as well as physically or socially. Which is why Pialat’s characters take each feeling, aggressive or tender (it matters little), as an affront – they have no right to feel anything or even to be there, in their own home or in life.  


9. Emmanuel Burdeau, ‘Les aléas de l’indirect’‚ in Jean-Michel Frodon (ed.), Hou Hsiao-hsien (Paris: Cahiers du Cinéma, 1999), p. 39.
  Violence and cruelty, although often conflated, are independent forces in Pialat’s cinema. Real cruelty comes in a peculiarly double form. This is exemplified in La Gueule ouverte (The Gaping Mouth, 1974), ‘not in the fact that Monique accuses Roger, in a hateful tone, of reeking of wine and still trying to pick up women - but that she says it to him as she lays dying’. (9) Similarly, in L’Enfance nue the most shocking aspect of Francois’ deliberate spilling of soup over his ‘brother’ is the smile on his face as his foster mother admonishes him; or in Passe ton bac d’abord, the guy breaking up with his girlfriend but also smiling back at his mates as he does it.  


  This doubled cruelty is something that Pialat has in common with Kenji Mizoguchi, Luis Buñuel and Hou Hsiao-hsien. They are all filmmakers who have pursued a principle of uncertainty as to the origin or location – but never the existence – of evil.  

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© Fergus Daly and Rouge June 2003. Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors of Rouge.
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