Notes, information, and remarks by Pialat on the director's short films, which span in their entirety 1951-1966, can be found here.
Dan Sallitt's 2008 essay on Police (which he considers one of his favorite pieces of his own writing) has just been posted at his blog, here. A dossier of my translations of interviews with Pialat about the film has been posted here.
Dan's 2010 MoC essay on À nos amours. has also been posted at his blog here. A visual I made for the film along with my translation of the 1984 Le Monde conversation between Maurice Pialat and Jean-Luc Godard can be found here.
My essay on Passe ton bac d'abord... — "The War of Art" — can be read here. A dossier of my translations of four interviews with Pialat around the film can be read here.
I'm posting these Pialat pieces on the occasion of the retrospective of Maurice Pialat's complete features (and the Turkish shorts) that runs from October 16 till November 1 at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens.
by Adrian Martin (2009)
(The frames reproduced below, which refer to points made in Martin's essay and were originally placed within the vicinity of the relevant text of the author's essay in the MoC booklet are here reproduced in facsimile-form from the greyscale booklet. Of course the film and original frames are in color, but were reproduced in the booklet, and here, purely for illustrative purposes. The color originals are somewhere on an external hard-drive in the course of my recent west-coast move.)
A taxi driver once told me, in dry, dispassionate words, the tale of his most memorable moviegoing experience. He was a working class guy, and so the film and the venue in question were a little unexpected: Terence Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives , screened at a lush arthouse cinema in an affluent suburb of Melbourne, Australia. It turned out that a gang of his friends had taken him along to this movie he knew nothing about beforehand. He described watching the film — with its parade of domestic abuses and bad vibes, its unbearable family tensions and harsh silences — with a sort of calm indifference. The film did not bore him, but nor did it engage him particularly. As far as he was concerned, it was just a movie — a bit strange in comparison to the kind of films he normally watched, but still just a movie.
As the final credits rolled and the group strolled to the exit, one of the cabbie’s friends said to him, in a state of some emotional distress: “My god, how absolutely horrible for those people, living in that kind of world!” And then the taxi driver stopped dead still, suddenly plunged into deep thought, as the rest of the audience filed past him. At that moment, for the very first time in his life (this is exactly how he explained it to me), he realised something: his own upbringing had not been like everyone else’s. For what he had seen on the screen in Davies’ film was the exact mirror of what he had himself lived as a child; and he had always assumed — without even giving it a second thought — that everyone had grown up in that same way, in that sort of family and that sort of home. And so the film, in the time it took to watch it, struck him as simply banal: a kind of ordinary home movie. But when his friend alerted him to the fact that every other single member of the audience had been shocked, horrified and disturbed, this man finally felt himself to be different from the rest of the world, some kind of alien, who had suffered what (it seemed) few other people had suffered. In this moment of recognition, he was devastated.
The films of Maurice Pialat are regularly described, by reflecting critics and just-departing viewers alike, as devastating. It’s one of those words that comes easily to the tongue to account for the impact of emotionally intense works: everything from Ingmar Bergman to Ordinary People [Robert Redford, 1980], or John Cassavetes to Little Children [Todd Field, 2006], gets tagged, one time or another, as devastating. But the word fits Pialat in a very specific, very precise way. It is not simply that we appear to be in the presence of raw emotions (however masterfully scripted, rehearsed, performed, staged, edited and reworked they may be); it is not just that the drama (the melodrama, even) is often extreme. Rather, it is the case that Pialat’s films concern themselves, almost single-mindedly, with the fact, the process, the event of devastation. Slow, gradual, irremediable. Devastation of a relationship, a marriage, a family, a community, a way of life.
Pialat’s films lay waste to all of this — not in the spirit of critique (he is not a political filmmaker in that sense), but in the name of a realism, a profound sense that ‘this is just the way it is’. Every anchor, every support system goes, one by one. Characters are, by the end, left alone, bereft, inconsolable, untouchable. But what passionate, angry, violent, grumpy resistance in Pialat to this ‘fact of life’! We won’t grow old together — that is the emblem of the cry of every Pialat character, refusing to 'go with the flow' of irrevocable devastation. But undergoing it all the same. There is no escape from devastation for all in Pialat. Time destroys everything: the slogan rang a bit hollow at the end of Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible  — naturally enough, since the writer-director had rigged the whole backwards-show just to demonstrate his point — but it fits the work of Pialat like a glove. Not that there is any mystery to time, any philosophy of its workings, in his films. Pialat’s time is decidedly singular and brutally linear: many ellipses, but no flashbacks. Straight ahead, like a broken arrow, to its target. And the target is always something like solitude or death or a void.
Pialat’s films have been faulted — often in the past, less so now — for lacking plot, falling down on the storytelling craft skills. Today, when we observe the same artfully disorienting structures and techniques taken over by those artists whose lives and careers brushed directly against Pialat’s — such as Cyril Collard (1957-1993), Patrick Grandperret or Catherine Breillat — and many others besides, we know that he reinvented the business of narrative exactly as he needed to, as he was compelled to. But La gueule ouverte is the one film of Pialat’s whose plot ‘hook’ is so simple, so easily tellable, that it could almost count as the ‘high concept’ of his career. To wit: a woman (Monique, played by Monique Mélinand) goes in for a routine medical check-up, but the problem that is discovered leads to rapid deterioration and death. Meanwhile, every family member around her goes to pieces, handling it badly.
The hook can be boiled down even more purely and starkly, in the deliberately ugly terms of its title: Monique goes from a walking, talking person to a near-comatose or catatonic ‘mouth agape’ able to open only for the purposes of receiving food — except that ‘mouth agape’ is a rather polite and literary rendition of something that is more like a ‘slack-jawed mug’. This is the film in a nutshell: devastation of the human form, the human character, the human being — as concentrated in its most typically, iconically human feature, the face. In this regard, we need to think more along the lines of Georges Bataille or Francis Bacon to get a handle on the ‘figural economy’ of the film, rather than the integral, full-body humanism of Jean Renoir or Juliette Binoche.
How seriously does cinema take sickness? It remains among the last, great taboo topics in most cultures, certainly Western cultures. Most films (including some very good ones by fine directors) erase everything that is painful and awful, protracted and difficult, about the process of being sick, and of attending to the sick or the dying: we all know the facile shorthand film-rhetoric of wise, radiant, bedridden characters suddenly ‘expiring’ with the merest movement of their head or a gentle fall of their hand. There are, certainly, some documentaries, tending to the extreme and/or the experimental, that go in close to this topic — like Frederick Wiseman’s epic Near Death  and Stephen Dwoskin’s Intoxicated by My Illness  — but the fiction films of note are few: Todd Haynes’ Safe  and Tsai Ming-liang’s He liu [The River, 1997] rank among them. Actually, it is curious that these two films, just like La gueule ouverte, while painstakingly recording the physical symptoms, deliberately obscure the rational, clinical, purely medical side of illness and its treatment: the ‘disease’ itself (which seems to be cancerous in the Pialat case) remains unspoken, unspecified, somewhat mysterious; all that really matters is its effects as it gallops through and devastates the human system. As a result, La gueule ouverte manages to be at once realistic-specific and abstract-general, highly physical and implicitly metaphysical, in the same pitiless movement of devastation.
Although this is a film closely about sickness and dying, it is also, more generally as it creeps outwards, a film about malaise. Malaise is an absolute human condition for Pialat — as it is, slightly less absolutely, for Philippe Garrel or Bruno Dumont. In 1975, Patricia Patterson and the late Manny Farber wrote that the essence of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s work was “a nagging physical discomfort” the key to a malaise both spiritual and material; they could easily have been describing Pialat. Look closely at the movements of Pialat’s actor-characters, especially when they have to squeeze past each other to get in or out of a room or a chair or an interpersonal clinch: awkwardness, hesitancy, collision constitute the rule, not the exception. The harm is done with every entry into a kitchen, as Jean Narboni once observed. Every space (at home or work) is cramped, every gesture is pinched, strangled. Pialat seems to have gone out of his way to make nothing easy for his actors: every step involves the negotiation of some difficult gauntlet, whether it’s pulling on one’s pants or fastening one’s bra, lighting a cigarette, or just plain getting out the door. It is all, once again, in the name of a realism — an exacerbated, almost at times sadistic realism — which makes you realise how completely unreal most films (and plays) are at this very small, concrete, most basic floor-plan level of their mise en scène: usually, everyone has the room to move, unless the drama or comedy necessitates ritual, controlled, temporary compression of the spatial coördinates. Cassavetes — the soul-brother in so many ways to Pialat — is among the few directors bold enough to take this scaffolding away from his cast (and crew), to hem us all in with the nagging, niggling discomfort of the everyday world.
Naturally, what goes for the staging in Pialat goes also for the camera, and for what filmmakers call the ‘blocking’ of the scene: who goes where and when in a shot, and how will the recording apparatuses of vision and sound capture it live on the set or on location? One index of this entire process stands out in Pialat: the way he treats the co-existence in a shot or a scene of sitting and standing. This is, once again, normally something so ‘naturalised’, so smooth and flowing, that we rarely or never notice or ponder it in cinema. But it rates among the greatest pitfalls of filmmaking for every beginning, hopeful practitioner: once you have one character who stands and another who sits, together, at any point or stage of a scene, you have a potentially disastrous gaping dissymmetry that demands enormous attention. Attention to set design, to composition, to the choreography of the actors. How do you angle it, transition it, balance it? ‘Amateurish’ films advertise themselves as such through their inability to handle this very real problem of cinema craft. Great classical masters — such as Douglas Sirk and Otto Preminger — based their entire style on constantly working with and varying the dramatic dissymmetry between sitting and standing figures, always using such pictorial imbalance in the frame to arrive, dynamically, at an overall rhythm, form and balance. Others (Godard, Akerman) attacked the matter in their own, eccentric ways.
Pialat, on the other hand, not only refuses to hide this wound, but positively lets it gape. All the awkwardness, all the malaise of his cinema comes from his refusal to smooth out or repair the tear caused by the co-existence of those who sit and those who stand. It’s always a three-way (at least) spatial combat: between characters, and between the camera-eye of Pialat that frames them; no one ever wants to surrender their tiny bit of turf to anyone else. Pialat’s images frequently display the least pleasing ‘negative spaces’ of all cinema: a ragged corner or patch of a frame may sit there for some minutes before, finally, someone bumps out of their seat to fill it — and when they sit back down, that hole just doesn’t go away. Regard the justly famous pre-hospitalisation long-take scene of Monique and her surly adult son, Philippe (Philippe Léotard): of all the ways that Pialat might have shot and cut this remarkable scene, replete with its hundred and one details, tics, silences, instants of rapport — and remember that, according to editor Yann Dedet, Pialat (unlike so many today, he was no fetishist of the long take for its own sake) was always willing to completely restructure scenes in editing — he chose the most awkward and difficult aesthetic path imaginable. Furthermore, from shot to shot, one can observe a curious struggle going on between Pialat and his celebrated cinematographer, Nestor Almendros, noted for the supreme elegance and eloquence of his work with Truffaut or Malick: while control over framing seems to be surrendered to the severe parti pris of Pialat, Almendros takes command of the light, producing and intensifying effects of ultra-iridescence, and of an increasingly bleached-out quality that marks the escalating stations to the woman’s death — a type of effect we find nowhere else in Pialat’s oeuvre.
As the woman dies, everyone else falls apart. This rather bleak and morbid through-line of La gueule ouverte allows for many variations, many digressions, many little ‘folds’. Some are charming — the gruff father of this clan, Roger (Hubert Deschamps), with the proprietors of the local bar, who are obviously the non-actorly real deal — reminding us that Farber and Patterson also wrote, in their little taxonomy of Fassbinder’s ‘moves’, that the “shopkeepers of life [are] treated without condescension or impatience”; surely the same observation applies here, and to much of Pialat. Then there are the details which reveal an intriguingly widespread awareness of popular
psychoanalysis, even among the French working classes of the mid ‘70s: depression and ‘erectile dysfunction’ alike are breezily acknowledged and dealt with as psychosomatic symptoms by the characters. But, although Pialat is often paid homage to as a ‘tender’ artist of the everyday, overt tenderness is in short supply in this film, and indeed in much of his work. Let us return, for a second, to Monique’s mouth, and her face. What are the last comprehensible, discernible words that issue from this fast-disappearing ‘communication-hole’? They are words of marital abuse, the reflex bitterness of a woman (like the general run of Pialat women) who can neither forgive nor forget the philandering of their men, who keep this unfinished business inside them like a knot that can never be released, like some ache, some lump or tumour we need in order to function — in order, paradoxically, to live. That is the existential formula of devastation in Pialat.
In a way that is more neurotic than therapeutic, and deliberate on this plane, Pialat clearly used his films to massage and project his own ‘bad vibes’, on every conceivable level of life. In this regard, Roger is Pialat’s shameless alter ego: not only, in his dealings with customers, is he (from a 21st century viewpoint) a sexual harassment lawsuit waiting to happen, but his propensity for spouting nationalistic racisms exhibits the sort of intractable, fuck-you provocation with which Pialat (who, an inveterate critic-baiter in interviews, was never asked a question he didn’t take irritable issue with) often sprinkled his movies. Ultimately, this ethos is another aspect of the devastation in Pialat, or at least the entrenched gesture of resistance to it: remaining ensconced in one’s bad behaviour is another (somewhat perverse) way of yelling ‘no surrender’ to the ravages of time, and Pialat certainly built both his personal reputation and his professional art upon it.
A cliché of contemporary cinema – including the contemporary French cinema of Assayas (L’heure d’été [Summertime / Summer Hours, 2008]) and Desplechin (Un conte de Noël: Roubaix! [A Christmas Tale: Roubaix!, 2008]): ‘the house is a character’. Often, for a film to sign up for this cliché, it has to heavily mark the states, phases, seasonal conditions, the building, populating, renovating and destroying of said house; it’s all a bit mannered and overreaching, this drive for the estate-epiphany. But in La gueule ouverte, in a completely unmarked, unforced way, the central house that figures in the plot truly is a character. Pialat saturates (the word comes from Jean-Pierre Gorin) this crucial element of the film, showing it in (literally) so many different lights, subject to different uses and different moods, within, between and across its various spaces: shop and home, way-station on the Calvary of illness, uncomfortable guest-room for Philippe and his wife Nathalie (Nathalie Baye) in a difficult phase of their marriage... and, ultimately, the place that records, imprints, all manner of devastations.
The film’s final shots document two odd, beguiling movements or gestures that slowly withdraw us (with some small mercy) from the realm of the all-too-human: the first is the movement, recorded from out the back of a car, of travel away, far away, from this house, into the dark shrubbery along the road; and the second is the simple act of Roger turning off all the lights downstairs in the house. The clunky sounds, the invading (but not total) darkness: these graceless grace notes are perfect for La gueule ouverte, but remind us that Pialat’s legacy to French cinema, like Jean Eustache’s, is a very hard act to absorb and follow, a severe and even pitiless legacy, a non-negotiable gift: a realism that is quietly poetic but never grandly expressionistic, barring (like, again, Cassavetes) all manner of falsehoods and artifices, many (perhaps most) available tricks of filmic rhetoric. No dream sequences, no surrealist apparitions (on this count, Garrel or Brisseau must break off and forge their own path), and only a very attenuated, hard-won lyricism. To be a disciple of Pialat, in this day and age, is a tough, almost inevitably devastating business. •
A Brief Interview with Maurice Pialat (1973)
Translated from the French by Craig Keller
I don’t believe in ‘exploration’, I don’t believe in ‘the avant-garde’; those expressions, for me, are just the blazon of the middle-brow, and it seems scandalous that hundreds of millions [of francs] are disseminated each year in the form of advances-on-receipts to recidivist flop-makers whom we know perfectly well are incapable of making back the tiniest morsel of any of it.
Shooting a film these days is pretty much a desperate enterprise for a director. You have to be fighting on every front simultaneously. You’re wedged in; you never have the upper hand. The fact of being a producer on top of all that solves nothing — far from it.
When I made my first film, I told myself: “You’ve got talent... but no audience!” The second one did well... and yet I had to get up to my neck in debt to make the third one! Truth be told, people who have talent are condemned to make films that just get worse and worse. Example: those in the 'Nouvelle Vague.' They’re well aware of the fact, in any case... if they only dared to admit it, just once, everything could change. That passive mentality is all over our profession, and it’s reflected in the blind acceptance of the way things are done. La gueule ouverte is going to cost around 160 million old francs. If I were free, I would have been able to make it for 100 million... How are bureaucrats able to know how I shoot, and how many people I need in order to make a film?
I’m going to try and finish La gueule ouverte as best as possible... then I’ll wait for the public’s verdict. From experience, I know that certain things about what I’m making at that moment, which aren’t really sitting well with me, can come to take on a different significance once the film gets out there. It’s happened before that reactions from the public have lead me to look kindly upon certain characters that I couldn't stand at the outset. •