I think people know what Mulholland Drive is to them, but they don’t trust it.
SOME FILMS YOU LOVE, some you hate; most you forget. If you’re lucky, one will have the power to completely derange you.
I first saw David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive shortly before midnight on October 7, 2001, the same day that airstrikes began in Afghanistan—the commencement of our nation’s own seemingly endless unraveling. Hours later, I would return to the same theater in Chelsea to watch the movie again; over the next six months that Mulholland Drive continued to play in New York, I would revisit it at least twenty more times. My screening companion for these compulsive viewings was always my then girlfriend, each of us narcotized by the film’s impossible romance.
Mulholland Drive, like earlier Lynch projects on screens large (1997’s Lost Highway) and small (1990–91’s Twin Peaks), unfolds with a plot that is simultaneously intricate and open-ended; doublings and mirrorings abound. Blonde sunny actress-hopeful Betty Elms (Naomi Watts), who rescues and becomes enamored with—are the terms redundant?—the beautiful, raven-haired amnesiac Rita (Laura Elena Harring), may or may not be the dreamed-of, ideal self of the abject character who replaces her in the film’s final thirty minutes: Diane Selwyn (also Watts), so undone by her breakup with Camilla Rhodes (Harring again) that she hires someone to kill her. Yet any attempt to “solve” Mulholland Drive’s many puzzles has always struck me as misguided; as sharply pointed out by Chris Rodley, whose 2005 revised edition of Lynch on Lynch is excerpted in the booklet accompanying Criterion’s Blu-ray and DVD release of Mulholland Drive, “[W]ords are the movie’s enemy.…”
Most, but not all, words, that is. In his eloquent, astute study David Lynch: The Man from Another Place, Dennis Lim writes that the film might be thought of “as a reflection on the pleasures and risks of believing in an illusion, be it movies or love.” For the sapphic viewer hopelessly (and equally) besotted by both cinema and women, Mulholland Drive ignites twin passions. References to other movies proliferate: Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) and Robert Altman’s 3 Women (1977), among others, titles that, like Mulholland Drive, revolve around a central female dyad, the dynamics of which are protean and radically altered by a destabilizing love. And yet for as magnificent as those predecessors are, only in Lynch’s incomparable movie, following a logic that is at once elusively oneiric and emotionally intelligible, is a whole shadow history of Hollywood—that of actresses who loved other actresses, of the shame and humiliation so many of them endured both professionally and personally—tenderly and tragically excavated.
Rebekah Del Rio sings “Llorando” in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001).
“I’m in love with you,” Betty whispers to Rita in between slow, steamy kisses. The line, one of many in Mulholland Drive that are repeated at least twice, is soon followed by Rita’s doubly uttered imperative, perhaps the most romantic command of all: “Go with me somewhere.” Their destination is Club Silencio, where the key mystery of cinema is painfully, almost unbearably laid bare during Rebekah Del Rio’s a cappella performance of “Llorando,” a Spanish-language version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying.” The women begin to weep, perhaps sensing that the wild, dangerous adventure they’ve been on—in other words, their love affair—for the past two days is also about to be exposed as a mirage. I can never watch that scene without tearing up, too devastated at having my own illusions shattered. But then as now, I know what will console me: watching the film again, whether a day or years later.
Mulholland Drive is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection. Dennis Lim’s David Lynch: The Man from Another Place, part of New Harvest’s “Icons” series, will be published on November 3.
Steven Soderbergh, The Knick, 2014–, HD video, color, sound. Dr. Bertram Chickering Jr. and Dr. Algernon Edwards (Michael Angarano and André Holland).
THE MEN ARE FUCKED UP and the women fucked over. The dynamics of patriarchal power are even more devastatingly etched in the second season of Steven Soderbergh’s The Knick than in the first. As the series becomes less focused on the Knick’s two brilliant, driven surgeons, John Thackery (Clive Owen) and Algernon Edwards (André Holland), the women, subordinated by the institutions of medicine, the family, and the church, assert their desires and beliefs and attempt to turn the direction of the action, of which there is an abundance.
This observation is based on the first four episodes of what is again a ten-week season. Last year I managed to see the entire series before it was cablecast. This year, HBO was less generous or I didn’t push hard enough. Which is a pity, because The Knick deserves the option of marathon viewing. Indeed, the first season (tardily available on Blu-ray and DVD and also on iTunes nearly a year after it premiered) easily stands up to such long-form films as Jacques Rivette’s 1971 eight-chapter OUT 1: Noli me Tangere (at BAM November 4–19) and Louis Feuillade’s 1915–16 serial Les Vampires (1915, at Anthology Film Archives, October 25 at 1 PM). Immersive long-form cinema is having a moment in theaters as well as on TV. But as it did the first season, HBO is again using The Knick to attract subscribers to its struggling sibling Cinemax, which for now is the only place you are able to see it, and only one episode a week through December 18.
Reestablishing at least a dozen characters and a thicket of story lines makes the first episode pretty choppy. It’s still 1901, and downtown New York’s Knickerbocker Hospital remains the center of the action. Dr. Thackery, whom we last saw in a sanatorium about to have his coke addiction treated with medical heroin (a product of Bayer, which just months before had begun to market the wonder drug aspirin) is still rehabbing, but now he’s strung out on both substances. In his absence, Dr. Edwards has become acting head of surgery and is bidding to make the appointment permanent, refusing to admit that even the most liberal board members would never countenance a “colored” head. Indeed, Dr. Everett Gallinger (Eric Johnson), Ivy League racist that he is, finds the prospect of taking orders from Edwards so galling that he kidnaps Thackery and forces him to go cold turkey on his sailboat. The unlikely location provides Soderbergh—who not only directs but is the cinematographer and editor for the entire second season, as he was for the first—with a brilliant expanse of clear blue sky and water, a relief from the dark, claustrophobic Victorian interior of the Knick, the grim Lower East Side streets, and even the luxuriously appointed, red and gold kerosene–lit apartments of the city’s upper-class, the Belle Epoque saloons where Thackery scores sex and drugs, and the Harlem dance hall where Edwards can cautiously let down his guard.
When Thackery returns, with hands too shaky for surgery, he embarks upon two research projects: to find a cure for addiction (his brain stimulated by the speedballs he cooks up in his office) and a cure for syphilis, almost as personal a quest. Abby (Jennifer Ferrin), Thackery’s former love, is in the last stages of the latter disease, which she caught from her husband. The hypocrisy of powerful men, largely but not entirely around sexuality, ties several plot strands together. Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour, superbly conflicted), nursing nun at the Knick, is on trial for secretly having performed abortions on women, rich and poor, who desperately needed to terminate. The judge—anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic—promises to throw the book at her to show the followers of the great Satan in Rome what real Americans will do to them all. But in The Knick 2’s most satisfying moment thus far, Tom Cleary (Chris Sullivan), the hospital ambulance driver and Sister Harriet’s admirer and ally, rallies the prostitutes she has helped to tell their rich johns to pressure the judge to drop the case, lest the honest nun be moved to name names. In working-class solidarity there is strength.
Steven Soderbergh, The Knick, 2014–, HD video, color, sound. Lucy Elkins (Eve Hewson).
Soderbergh remains synced to Thackery’s rhythms. The show’s signature serpentine tracking shots through the Knick’s corridors, their darkness punctuated by brief glimpses of windows totally suffused in white light, not only describe a place, they also suggest an inner life—the sudden moments of insight that gifted practitioners of the arts and the sciences both share. The same can be said of the canted angles and off-balance compositions in the shots where the handheld camera is seemingly at rest, but never completely. And of Clive Martinez’s pulsating electronic score, which underscores the adrenaline rush of high stakes surgery and of Soderbergh’s virtuoso, high-speed DIY filmmaking. Adrenalin, not incidentally, is the substance that Dr. Bertram Chickering Jr. (Michael Angarano) is investigating in his new position as third surgeon at “Mount Sinai Jew Hospital,” where, unlike at the Knick, procedures are done by the book.
Complementing the nervous, probing camera, Soderbergh’s editing is abrupt, often associative, and occasionally reflexive in sending up both the show and the audience’s reactions. At one point there is a cut from yellow pus gushing from a huge abscess that a surgeon has “cut to the bone”—one of three Grand Guignol surgeries in the first episode alone—to two intact brown eggs a plate. If Thackery were to break open one of the eggs—his rehab dinner—their yolks would resemble the pus. Why are we revolted by one and not the other? What makes the joke so dry-witted is that Thackery doesn’t crack open the eggs. It’s left to us to imagine the comparison.
Soderbergh’s restless, inventive visual style provides an expressive subtext for the mouthfuls of on-the-nose expository dialogue in Jack Amiel and Michael Begler’s script. What’s terrific in the writing, however, is the abundance of references to economic and social issues specific to 1900 that are also utterly contemporary. Notwithstanding the rapid progress in all the sciences, racism, sexism, the gap between rich and poor, the scapegoating of immigrants, and corruption in all government institutions are still with us today. Mr. Edison’s electric lights and electric cars are a threat to the oil barons, who can’t keep the population from jettisoning their kerosene lamps but find a new use for black gold in automobile engines. Soon it will be bye-bye to the electric car, which Cleary naively has championed to prove that the Knick has truly modern ambulances.
Soderbergh thrives on dramatic ironies, which is the primary reason he likes to keep his camera on listeners rather than talkers. Thus we watch Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance), now Mrs. Philip Showalter, as her usually unassertive husband rages against the sin of abortion, and we know what Cornelia is thinking—that she had an abortion because she could not bring herself to marry the black man she still loves, Dr. Edwards. Soderbergh also exploits the drama and the comedy in triangles: Nurse Lucy Elkins (Eve Hewson) introducing Thackery, her former lover, to her father, a phony evangelical preacher, who we and Thackery suspect of sexual abuse; or Dr. Edwards, forced to introduce Cornelia to the black wife he failed to mention to anyone in the first series.
It is Soderbergh’s propensity for showing us the listeners rather than the talkers that brings the women of the series to the fore. If the second season of The Knick remains as compelling for all ten episodes as was the first, it’s because we care about the inchoate desires of Cornelia, Lucy, and Sister Harriet. “These men who are supposed to show us how to live our lives. It doesn’t make any sense and I’m sick of it,” says Lucy toward the end of the fourth episode, just when Cornelia takes a walk alone at night to investigate the death of the health inspector who, she suspects, has been murdered to cover up a possible epidemic of bubonic plague. As the neurotic ego trips of Thackery and Edwards begin to wear thin, The Knick gambles on the women to take charge of the future.
The second season of The Knick is currently playing Fridays at 10 PM on Cinemax.
Laurie Anderson, Heart of a Dog, 2015, digital video and 8 mm, color, sound, 75 minutes. Lolabelle.
ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING once extolled her pets as “love without speech.” At one point in Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog, a film that starts out as a paean to her rat terrier Lolabelle but evolves into disquisitions on many other subjects, the polymath artist imagines what her treasured animal companion (and other hounds) might say if granted this faculty. Giving voice is a specialty of Anderson’s, and Heart of a Dog abounds with her talent for voluble free association.
Anderson’s narration is read over disparate imagery consisting primarily of her own animation and drawings, footage (sometimes distressed) shot with small digital cameras, and 8-mm home movies that were sourced from the filmmaker’s siblings. I must confess that at the outset, I found the trademark voice Anderson uses to deliver her text—a lilting deadpan made aggravatingly overblown by her pronounced pauses between words (“And we would never…be…going……back”)—close to intolerable; for as much sympathy as I, a superfan of the four-footed, had for her project, I struggled in the first fifteen minutes to enter it. But so absorbing, and apposite, are Anderson’s digressions in this wide-ranging documentary that I eventually accustomed myself to these vocal tics.
Anderson seems to have taken her cue from J. R. Ackerley, whose 1956 memoir about his recalcitrant German shepherd, My Dog Tulip, remains one of the finest chronicles about interspecies devotion and who wrote of this relationship, “[I]t is not she herself but her effect upon me that I find interesting.” A resident of one of the posher west-side neighborhoods south of Fourteenth Street, Lolabelle was a highly indulged little creature; after the dog goes blind, a trainer teaches her how to paint and play the piano. When the pooch becomes very ill, Anderson, who up to the film’s halfway mark had been using I in her voice-over, switches to the first-person-plural pronoun: “We took her to the hospital.” Never named, the other person ministering to the pet is, of course, Anderson’s husband, Lou Reed, whose death, in 2013, followed Lolabelle’s by two years.
“Every love story is a ghost story,” says Anderson, citing David Foster Wallace, and her decision to keep Reed a phantom presence—he is seen fleetingly just three times in the film, which ends with his “Turning Time Around” playing over the closing credits—only underscores how much Heart of a Dog is poignantly structured by absences. Nearly all the detours that Anderson pursues in the movie, touching on topics as varied as the post-9/11 surveillance state, the Buddhist concept of bardo, Gordon Matta-Clark, and phosphenes, yield a fresh, off-kilter observation. But what gives the film its strongest emotional resonance is the director’s recollection of two near-fatal childhood accidents (one that befell her, the other her twin younger brothers), traumas in which Anderson, when recapitulating them at earlier times in her life, elided certain events. In filling in those gaps here, she gently points to another, more complicated specter floating through the film: her mother. A testament to Anderson’s magnanimity, Heart of a Dog salutes not only those who gave her the greatest happiness but also those who long ago stopped bringing her joy.
Heart of a Dog is now playing at Film Forum through November 3.
ONE OF CINEMA’S GREATEST CROSS-POLLINATORS, Agnès Varda has been destabilizing the borders of fact and fiction ever since her first feature, La Pointe Courte, a key precursor to the Nouvelle Vague, premiered sixty years ago. Recently restored by Cinelicious Pics, the little-seen Varda films Jane B. par Agnès V. and Kung-Fu Master!, companion pieces that were shot in 1987 and released the following year, playfully dismantle ostensible polarities: middle-age and adolescence, celebrity and anonymity, reality and reverie.
The B. in the first title stands for Birkin, the gap-toothed Swinging London paragon whose whispery, endearingly Brit-accented French gained worldwide renown in “Je t’aime…moi non plus,” her lubricious duet from 1969 with Serge Gainsbourg—with whom she made not just this and other records and films but, in their most magnificent collaborative act, a daughter, Charlotte, born in 1971. Varda, who knew Birkin casually, had the idea to make an oblique chronicle—“an imaginary biopic,” as the auteur calls it—of the actress and singer after she confessed to the filmmaker, eighteen years her senior, her fears about her imminent fortieth birthday. “A film shows twenty-four portraits per second,” Varda, tweaking Godard’s maxim about cinema, says at one point to her subject in Jane B. par Agnès V., a precept demonstrated by the multiple fantasias that Birkin enacts throughout the movie. Often cloying, these whimsical set pieces—which include Birkin in a noirish art-heist plot and in a riff on Laurel and Hardy—are thankfully followed by more straightforward episodes that feature the performer recapitulating her past. During her reminiscences, Birkin is candid, occasionally self-deprecating, and unfailingly charming, never more so than when she delivers this self-assessment with a mischievous smile: “No exceptional talents but I’m here.”
Kung-Fu Master! grew out of an idea that Birkin had for a short story, one that she sketches out in Jane B. par Agnès V., about a woman, “whose life is devoid of love,” falling for a barely teenage boy. Varda quickly wrote a script based on this concept; the resulting film fascinates not for its tale of scandalous intergenerational infatuation—aspects of which are, admittedly, quite poignant—but for being a stealth documentary about the young actors cast, who just happen to be Varda’s and Birkin’s own offspring. Charlotte Gainsbourg and her real-life younger half-sister Lou Doillon play, respectively, Lucy and Lou, the daughters of Birkin’s Mary-Jane, a lonely single mother who is seduced by Julien (Mathieu Demy, Varda’s son with Jacques Demy), Lucy’s fourteen-year-old classmate.
Kung-Fu Master!—the title refers to the name of Julien’s favorite arcade game—was not the first family film venture for either Charlotte or Mathieu. In 1986, the former acted opposite her father in Charlotte for Ever, a movie about an inappropriately attached dad and daughter that Serge also wrote and directed. (Two years earlier, a twelve-year-old Charlotte, wearing only a blue oxford and panties, lounged on a mattress with her shirtless père for his video of their duet “Lemon Incest.”) At the age of eight, Mathieu starred in his mother’s Los Angeles–set Documenteur (1981), a wrenching fictionalized account of Varda’s temporary separation from Jacques Demy. In Kung-Fu Master!, these young veterans of intensely personal projects—dramas that required them to reflect and refract not just their parents’ reality but their own—are all the more touching for the delight they seem to take, especially in their scenes together, at having the chance to play regular kids—even if ones advancing a highly unorthodox story. Unburdened by less overt autobiography, these enchanting adolescent actors, each the sole child of a legendary union, paradoxically appear most themselves.
Jane B. par Agnès V. and Kung-Fu Master! are now playing at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York.
Lenny Abrahamson, Room, 2015, color, sound, 118 minutes. Jack and Ma (Jacob Tremblay and Brie Larson).
THE STANDARD COMPLAINT about page-to-screen transfers is that the film version, which invariably must compress chronology and jettison subplots, can never hope to match the source text. Lenny Abrahamson’s adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s highly regarded 2010 novel, Room, however, proves how much can be gained when something is lost.
A study of parent-child attachment in extremis, Donoghue’s book concerns a five-year-old named Jack and his twenty-something mother, known as Ma, who are imprisoned by a middle-aged sociopath in a suburban shed measuring ten by ten feet; the story is told exclusively from the boy’s point of view. For this reader, having to endure the first-person voice of a precocious, linguistically creative kid in a horrific situation (“I count one hundred cereal and waterfall the milk that’s nearly the same white as the bowls, no splashing, we thank Baby Jesus”) for more than three hundred pages became its own kind of cloying immurement. Abrahamson’s film—the screenplay for which, significantly, was written by Donoghue, her first for a feature-length project—still hews closely to Jack’s perspective and occasionally incorporates his voice-over observations. But the very nature of the medium demands that the movie open up, shifting from claustrophobic first-person to third-.
While Jack on the page exhausted me, I was amazed by the actor who plays him, Jacob Tremblay. The critic Nicolas Rapold has astutely noted of child performers, particularly those in films with harrowing subject matter, that “[a]s audience surrogates they offer an artificially heightened sense of point of view, seeing everything new, with untutored intensity.” This is especially true in Room, which, in its second half, without giving too much away, finds Jack encountering much that is unfamiliar to him. Tremblay, who is now nine years old, is extraordinarily at ease and loose in a part that requires wild vacillations between docility and ferocity, between rabid curiosity and abject terror. More than once, I wasn’t certain whether some of the responses of Room’s tiny protagonist were those of Tremblay as Jack or Tremblay as Tremblay, a grade-schooler from Vancouver.
That slippage between role and real (if still not fully formed) person, acting and being brings a vital tension and uncertainty to the interactions between Tremblay and his primary scene partner, Brie Larson, who plays Ma. Jack, we learn, was born in captivity—specifically, two years after Ma was kidnapped, at age seventeen (nineteen in the book), by a man she has dubbed Old Nick (Sean Bridgers), who has raped her nearly every night for the past seven years. Whey-skinned and hollowed-out, Larson expertly grasps her character’s conflicting instincts: to withdraw deeper inward as a way of numbing herself against unspeakable daily horrors or to act as an ebullient role model and teacher to a being for whom she is, quite literally, the whole world.
Donoghue’s book was partly inspired by the 2008 case of Austrian Elisabeth Fritzl, held prisoner by her father for twenty-four years in the family basement, where she raised four of the seven children that resulted from Papa’s regular raping. Since the publication of Room, at least one other similarly gruesome incident, from 2013, has made the news: the kidnapping and sexual enslavement of three women who had been locked away by Ariel Castro in his Cleveland home. Beyond the contemporaneous real-life atrocities that each iteration of Room reflects, both the book and the film fascinatingly foreground some of the key tenets of psychoanalytic theory. In an exchange that surely would have delighted D. W. Winnicott, Jack’s mother, succumbing to depression, laments to her child, “I’m not a good-enough ma.” The boy responds with the ultimate absolution: “But you’re Ma.”
Room opens in New York and Los Angeles on October 16 and expands nationwide on November 6.
Maurice Pialat, Van Gogh, 1991, 35 mm, color, sound, 158 minutes. Van Gogh (Jacques Dutronc).
THE WORK of the French director Maurice Pialat belongs to that category of films for and by the walking wounded, films that touch on the insoluble outrages of existence—the fact of our impermanence and our embarrassing inability to face up to it, the mortifying discrepancy between what we say and what we do. These disheveled, glowering movies are unreconciled to the world, and in their cussed opposition there is a measure of consolation. Brusque and bracing, Pialat’s films aren’t so much clean “slices” of life as ragged, gouged-out fistfuls of the stuff.
The Museum of the Moving Image’s Pialat retrospective includes the ten feature films that the late-bloomer director completed before the end of his life, all playing on 35 mm, as well as a handful of his early documentary shorts and what is probably—at least outside of France—his least-known major work, La Maison des bois (1971), a seven-part television miniseries that takes place in a rural village during the years of the Great War, sensitive to the faint tremors of that distant conflict which reach the home front. It is the most complete retrospective of Pialat’s work to appear in New York City since a program at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in 2004, a year after the filmmaker’s death, a series which this author saw while in his early twenties, a period marked by fathomless depression, and which helped him to see himself better than most any artwork encountered before or since.
The FSLC retro also included a gallery show of Pialat’s early canvases, bearing the stamp of his favorite Post-Impressionists, Pierre Bonnard and Paul Cézanne. He began as a painter—information that may give you the wrong idea about the films that he would go on to make, which are not the sort of things usually described as “painterly.” Jacques Dutronc, who starred in Pialat’s Van Gogh (1991) as the most dyspeptic version of the titular Dutchman ever put on screen, described his director’s works as “moving paintings, not quite dry.” Pialat was born in 1925 in Cunlhat, Puy-de-Dôme, in the central French region of Auvergne. His father, like the horny, handsy dad played by Hubert Deschamps in La Guele ouverte (1974), was a small business owner, though when Maurice was two the father moved the family to the Parisian suburb of Courbevoie—earlier the home turf of another unmannerly Frenchman, Louis-Ferdinand Céline—and took a job as a truck driver. The boy would ever after self-identify with the working class, and among whatever other virtues his films have, they are documentaries about working-class home decor, the eye-searing wallpaper and the rusticated, homey touches.
Maurice Pialat, We Won't Grow Old Together, 1972, 35 mm, color, sound, 110 minutes. Catherine and Jean (Marlène Jobert and Jean Yanne).
Pialat left school early, like the teenage protagonists of his Passe ton bac d’abord (1979), then later enrolled in L’Ecole des Arts Decoratifs. Failing to support himself as a painter, he took sales jobs to support his young wife, and then started having a bit of trouble as a husband as well, carrying on a six-year affair which would provide the raw material for his mercilessly self-critical relationship autopsy We Won’t Grow Old Together (1972). As depicted in that film, Pialat made a series of short subject documentaries while trying to launch himself as a filmmaker—a batch of these, shot in Turkey, will play MoMI—and in 1969, in his early forties, he finished his debut fiction feature, L’Enfance nue, which aligns itself closely with the inner emotional life of a child, Francois (Michel Terrazon), bouncing around in the French foster care system before landing in the care of an older couple in the northern mining town of Lens (also the setting for Passe ton bac).
As the preceding suggests, Pialat’s films drew extensively from his own life experience—and given his relatively tardy start as a filmmaker, something which he never stopped bemoaning although this extended gestation was very likely essential in giving his work the quality that it has, this experience was significant. This streak of autobiography continued all the way to his final movie, Le Garçu (1995), a film that describes the inchoate feeling of encroaching obsolescence developing in a man who has become, like Pialat, a father for the first time in middle age. (Pialat’s widow, Sophie, who has gone on to a successful career as a producer of such films as last year’s Timbuktu, will be visiting MoMI for the retro.) However, Pialat also produced a period biopic (Van Gogh), an idiosyncratic take on the policier genre film (1985’s Police), two movies concerned explicitly with female desire (Loulou  and A Nos Amours , the latter of which introduced Sandrine Bonnaire to the world), and a one-off literary adaptation, from the work of the Catholic novelist Georges Bernanos (Sous le Soleil de Satan ). Though these went well beyond the range of Pialat’s actual experience, they never went beyond his grip as a filmmaker or his capacity for empathy with his subjects—an empathy which is all the more radical in that it makes no recourse to mollycoddling or glossing over.
Le Garçu was the fourth collaboration between Pialat and Gérard Depardieu, who played the film’s lead, and who once memorably described his director as “a son of Auvergne with a bull’s neck and blacksmith’s hands.” Often in the market for on-screen alter egos, Pialat preferred performers with rugby pitch–ready physiques like his own—a Depardieu or We Won’t Grow Old’s Jean Yanne, for example. Pialat even appeared as an actor in a few of his own films, as well as those of other directors—for example Mes Petites Amoureuses (1974) by Jean Eustache, a filmmaker whose project of conflating life and art came closest to Pialat’s own. On-screen, Pialat gave the simultaneous impression of a rude, burly power and a certain delicacy of manner, a seemingly contradictory combination that is also evident in his films.
Maurice Pialat, Police, 1985, 35 mm, color, sound, 113 minutes. Inspector Mangin and Noria (Gérard Depardieu and Sophie Marceau).
To call Pialat a “realist” is helpful inasmuch as it gives some idea of what his films are like to someone who has never seen one. There is much in his filmography, however, that bridles under this label—Sous le Soleil de Satan features the performance of an honest-to-God miracle, while Van Gogh contains passages that belong to a musical extravaganza. These exceptions notwithstanding, Pialat sought always to capture moments of unvarnished authenticity, often working with the barest outline of a script—as on Passe ton bac—or doing away with what script he had as he saw fit—as in the nearly fifteen-minute family dinner scene in A Nos Amours where the long-absent patriarch, played by Pialat, returns to the table to wreak emotional havoc, a scene whose palpable tension is explained by the fact that the actor-director actually ambushed his unprepared cast on-set. Scenes which failed to capture lightning in a bottle were left on the cutting-room floor, regardless of what essential story-advancing information they might have contained, meaning that Pialat’s storytelling is by necessity elliptical in the extreme, often lurching past months and significant life events with a single unceremonious cut.
Given Pialat’s late start, his struggles with financing, and his anguished, combative working method, we are fortunate to have gotten to the final tally of ten films and a TV miniseries. L’Enfance nue is the emotional sequel to The 400 Blows (1959), whose director, François Truffaut, here acted as Pialat’s producer. La Maison de bois, better than any work I know, establishes the sentimental idea of patrie that was behind World War I. We Won’t Grow Old Together and La Guele ouverte are two of the most devastating portrayals of loss—the first of a lover, the second of a parent—in cinema, anchored by perfect closing shots. Passe ton bac is a detail-perfect portrayal of dead-end teenage life in the crap late 1970s, shiny with black pleather and pomme frites grease. A Nos Amours depicts female promiscuity not as a problem to be solved but as a viable, if exhausting, lifestyle. Police is a perverse exercise in an artist working against his own strengths, but Depardieu has never been so moving as in the moment where he confesses his love for Sophie Marceau, and turns the movie on its head. Van Gogh is as much an evocation of the belle epoque as a portrait of the artist who produced Sunflowers, and is, with Sous le Soleil de Satan, a lacerating portrayal of ascetic self-destruction. Like any artist worth the name, Pialat was defined by his contradictions: He was an antiromantic to whom love was paramount, a prototypical blue-collar tough guy with a soft spot for arty pop, as evident in the use of Klaus Nomi’s “Cold Song” in A Nos Amours, or when the camera tracks to the dance floor filling with Electric Sliders while a Björk track comes on in Le Garçu. “There’s definitely, definitely, definitely no logic / To human behavior,” the singer delicately enunciates over hectic jungle drums, offering a crisp summary of Maurice Pialat’s obstinate, messy, utterly thrilling cinema.
A retrospective of the films of Maurice Pialat runs through November 1 at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, New York. The retrospective travels to the TIFF Cinematheque in Toronto from October 22–December 5.