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Pialat's Pointillist Pictures
by Donald Levit

Coming to professional moviemaking relatively late, from a desultory period of painting and odd jobs, Maurice Pialet started out with short films, one of which won a prize at Venice, then spent another decade with French television before doing a first feature -- supported by Truffaut and applauded at the 1968 New York Film Festival -- at the age of forty-three. A slow worker hobbled further by financial ups and downs, at the time of his death seventeen months ago, he had completed ten full, supposedly autobiographically tinged films. Only two of these had any commercial success, French criticism was divided and the public generally unaware of him.

The situation should be rectified by the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s July “Every Man for Himself: The Films of Maurice Pialat,” which includes the complete features, plus selected shorts and a miniseries for TV, in new prints updated by Gaumont and three of which have been made available for screening. Important for understanding the films, the director’s paintings will be exhibited, as well.

The problem is that, decrying the organizing selection of what Henry James called “slice of life,” Pialat opted for the raw jumble of experience, the whole loaf, as it were. Lacking a hard center and thus in need of pruning of tangential sequences, his films tend to go on and on like Texas, as Stephen Crane complained of Tolstoy’s novels. A good Pialat works by building outward through repetition, a superabundance of beautifully realized pictures in which characters know only that they do not know the “why” of their actions, and that they will continue in the same holding pattern.

In his third film, and the first to be shown theatrically in Britain and the U.S. -- as well as at the 1980 New York Film Festival -- Loulou’s young, sexy stars are Gérard Depardieu as the title figure and Isabelle Huppert, an uneasily married bourgeois woman who falls for his brash, innocent charm and non-stop prowess between the sheets. Scarcely thinking of today, let along tomorrow, Nelly leaves prissy, dull but dependable ad executive André (Guy Marchand) and moves in with the tattooed, motorcycle-jacketed, unemployed ex-con, who drops current girlfriend (Frederique Cerbonnet) for her but is seldom above an extracurricular romp when it offers. Contrary to reason, and caring not a whit, Nelly supports herself and lover “Louis” by continuing to work for the mooning André, even whimsically spending a night with that –ex. She blends into her new man’s world of low-end cafés, drifter chums who drop in to stay, a knifing over a woman, three in a bed, a robbery now and again.

The world is the two leads, others merely stepping in and out. In fine contrast to Depardieu’s looming physicality, freckled Huppert is more languid in her sexuality -- “I really want you, but I don’t feel like moving” -- than any of the director’s original choices, Dutch Sylvia Kristel, Algerian-German Isabelle Adjani or Miou-Miou. During a drawn-out but true-to-European-life rendering of a farmhouse dinner at Loulou’s big-hearted mother’s (Jacqueline Dufranne) -- Van Gogh features another -- her face at last shows the strain which anticipates her decisive act soon after.

Still together, their ending can be sad, but, that, too, is not certain. Numbers of films have dealt with men ruined by unscrupulous women, while those fewer that reverse the rôles often portray the abusing male as weak or else an out-and-out scoundrel, but Depardieu’s Loulou is a charmer, an incorrigible lout though not a bad sort.

In Van Gogh, Pialat once more offers up complexity via beautiful moments without any definite resolution such as audiences expect. Here, this pointillistic technique and the subject-figure in the director’s script are reinforced by cinematographers Gilles Henry and Emmanuel Machuel’s subtle Impressionist visuals: Manet/Seurat riverside excursions, a Degas woman at her toilette, girls at the piano and boatmen out of Renoir, Cézannesque yellow Provençal fields, towns from Pissarro, Toulouse-Lautrec’s demimonde and, of course, Vincent’s villagers and swirling landscapes.

The lean painter (Jacques Dutronc) is not wildly insane but, rather, a sensitive depressive who alters between generosity and egotism, loquacity and empty withdrawal, attraction to and abhorrence of women, confidence and despair, praise for others and jealousy of their success, teetotaling and bingeing. Famous but distracting episodes take place offstage and are beside the point--the self-mutilation is mentioned as having occurred, but both ears look fine and entire; the fatal gunshot wound turns out merely confusing; even the moment of death (in fact in younger brother Théo’s arms) is an unwitnessed turning to the wall.

Suggestedly more a hypochondriac than a real case, two months before his death Van Gogh arrives in rural Auvers-sur-Oise, near Camille Pissarro, to place himself in the care of M. Gachet (Gérard Séty), a homeopathic specialist, noted art collector and acquaintance of Paul Cézanne’s. Whether frantic overwork at his craft (not at all captured in the film) is behind the fits and melancholia, or whether the root is epilepsy, the slight, mustached thirty-seven-year-old is like Loulou, irresistible to the softer sex, from Gachet’s restless teenage daughter Marguerite (Alexandra London), to a pouty innkeeper’s daughter to Cathy (Elsa Zylberstein), a golden-hearted Parisian prostitute from his past. To syphilitic art dealer Théo’s (Bernard Le Coq) wife Jo (Carinne Bourdon), he is “the only one I feel close to,” and the women seem content, or at least resigned, to love and mother this difficult child.

This is not the vision of several other treatments, certainly not that of the Vincente Minnelli/Irving Stone/Kirk Douglas popularizing, nor yet quite of the more thoughtful Paul Cox/John Hurt documentary or Robert Altman/Julian Mitchell/Tim Roth European miniseries, Lust for Life, Vincent--The Life and Death of Vincent Van Gogh, Vincent & Theo, respectively. In scene after scene after scene, Pialat delights the eye, adds possible complexity, and along the way even offers some striking offhand observations, such as on the then-open mingling of polite and fringe society in the carriage-traveling Moulin Rouge troupe take and the overdone episode in that club itself.

But, again, which of so many directions are we to choose, wherein lies the center?

Once his point has been taken and the situation set up, Pialat does not know when to quit, and one begins to long for an end to the piling up of new/old lovers and friends in Loulou, to the reflections on artists and their personalities in a Van Gogh trimmed thirty minutes but still weighing in at two-and-a-half-hours-plus. Unfortunately, there is no necessary causal or even chronological connection in most cases, and bits could have been snipped anywhere, with no loss aside from the purely visual.

Attractive leads, unusual story approaches and, in the second film, striking cinematographic effects, outweigh the defects. In a third, however -- actually the sixth he made, and chronologically the middle of these three -- Pialat’s faults catch up. The shorter To Our Loves/À nos amours was once daring in its depiction of a hysterical family, and it may be that cinema and national reality have oversaturated us with dysfunctional dads, moms and kids, but whatever editing was done this time has left a confusing cast of characters and wild, unexplained swings.

When sad-faced Father (Maurice Pialat) suddenly slap-punches rebellious high-school daughter Suzanne (Sandrine Bonnaire, in her first film), it surprises, but soon the two engage in a heart-to-heart tête-à- tête. He has, she pines, previously been distant, but for reasons never seen she adores him, so when he and his dignity move out on the family and family business, the implication is that he is justified. Mother (Evelyne Ker) is nagging, half insane, overflowing with self-pity, and brother Robert (Dominique Besnehard) ambitious, effeminate, mother-obsessed and bullying; but then when Father bursts in much later, interrupting a party to show the up-for-lease apartment, he is totally disagreeable, and, insult to injury, the film stops while the director-as-actor delivers his personal diatribe. No explanation here, aside maybe from bad cutting, nor is there any preparation for an abrupt wife and brother-in-law for gay Robert.

Though the teen-looking-for-love is cinema cliché, in such a household Suzanne’s serial, not very joyful sleeping around might have elicited sympathy if the film had not surrounded her with supposedly typical but equally empty-headed friends and, more disastrous, if the daughter had not betrayed boyfriend Luc (Cyr Boitard) with a casual American pickup and then done the same to the nice-guy she marries (Cyril Collard, as Jean-Pierre).

Commentators have jumped on the autobiography bandwagon here, too. Father and daughter, in a script co-authored by the director and his then-companion Arlette Langmann, who was also the Loulou co-writer (from her own story) and whose casting-director brother is this film’s Robert. Searching out degrees of personal connection is of no help, however, for To Our Loves fails, not because of unpleasant characters but the unwarranted unpleasantness of the most promisingly admirable one. That Father sends daughter on her way, with his tactful blessing, ignores faithful young Jean-Pierre and the several others whose lives Father has participated in and helped to wreck.

Not his usual insufficient editing, but editing poorly done, may be the culprit. With inspired actors and an inspired subject or unusual viewpoint, Pialat’s unconventional narrative form, refusal to pigeonhole motivation, and uncut multi-scene method, combine to contribute to food-for-thought movies, even though they outstay their welcome by half-hours. Reduce his palette, on the other hand, and he winds up with disconnected, unsympathetic preachiness.

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