Depardieu-Pialat: a partnerships in film history
Gérard Depardieu and Maurice Pialat rank among the greatest partnerships in film history. Four superb films together, an extraordinary artistic collaboration and friendship, which we wanted to celebrate this year at Locarno, because we admire the work of Maurice Pialat, because we miss him, and because Gérard Depardieu, French cinema’s superstar, is still around to keep surprising us.
Depardieu and Pialat worked together for the first time in 1980 on Loulou, an autobiographically inspired story in which the filmmaker dramatised a painful episode in his own life. A man, André, is cuckolded by his partner, Nelly, who leaves him to live with a very likeable petty delinquent, Loulou. Nelly gets pregnant, has an abortion and ends up leaving Loulou and returning to André. A straightforward story, in the same vein as Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble, once again locating isssues of class in the context of a love affair.
André and Nelly belong to the well-heeled and intellectual class, while Loulou is unemployed, living off petty theft, a working-class miscreant. The attraction between Nelly and Loulou is purely sexual; it will go nowhere and end in failure. Pialat chose Guy Marchand to play André (a cinematic transposition of the filmmaker himself), Isabelle Huppert and Gérard Depardieu, rising stars in French cinema at the time, were Nelly and Loulou.
On the shoot, Pialat and Depardieu did not get on. The director gave the actor a rough ride accusing him of laziness and being unprofessional. Depardieu gave the impression he wasn’t really acting, of really being Loulou, with that appearance of naturalness seen in the non-professional actors Pialat so often liked to employ. Fortunately, Depardieu forgave Pialat’s aggression (the latter did not spare himself either, in making a film about the his beloved wife’s lover). Five years later they worked together again on Police, and their mutual admiration was sealed.
Led by a star cast, (who were also French box office leaders: Depardieu, Sophie Marceau, Richard Anconina), Police was a film intended to widen Maurice Pialat’s audience, and succeeded in doing so. It was to prove the filmmaker’s greatest commercial success. The cop film is indeed a relatively safe bet, and one regularly essayed by most of the best French auteurs (from Renoir to Melville, and including Nouvelle Vague directors). And yet, as one might expect, Maurice Pialat’s Police is not a conventional thriller, even if it respects some of the genre’s conventions.
The first part is articulated around a series of interrogation scenes, that show the routine, everyday violence of the cop’s life, and the power relationships between suspects and policemen, shot through with brutality and lies. Depardieu is magnificent as Mangin. It is one of his most subtle performances. Initially boorish, sure of himself, he gradually reveals an unsuspected complexity, when the film focuses on his life outside the police station, and discloses a vulnerability and deeply moving loneliness (see his expression in the film’s final shot, when he has been betrayed by Noria, the young woman with whom he has had the weakness to fall in love).
Sous le soleil de Satan was the first period film (leaving aside the television series La Maison des bois) and the first literary adaptation in Maurice Pialat’s filmography. In deciding to make a screen version of the Georges Bernanos novel, perhaps Pialat hoped that, following the critical and commercial success of À nos amours and Police, he would achieve a definitive kind of professional recognition. Beyond the artist’s pride in going beyond his usual sources of inspiration (autobiography, the realistic depiction of everyday life, the couple), and for the first time dealing with risky and unfamiliar areas (historical reconstruction, religious matters, Bernanos), Pialat does not deviate from his quest for truth and is seeking something deeper than a change of scene or ennoblement.
Is it not a matter of a filmmaker who has often portrayed destruction, catastrophe and misfortune, from an everyday perspective, now using a major literary work to arrive at the roots of his concerns? Notwithstanding his atheism, Pialat shares Bernanos’ very dark vision of a humanity that is corroded by sin and evil. Already, in Police, he had recounted the story of a fall and a slow progression towards Grace.
A filmmaker of real life, Pialat here takes the risk of squaring up to transcendence, the holy, the fantastic, but also to two filmmakers he admired (they are few in number): Dreyer and Bresson. Yet Sous le soleil de Satan does not follow the narrow pathway Bresson marked out. Pialat severely pruned while editing, and considered excluding Donissan’s encounter with the Devil. The scene did eventually feature in the film, and was both sublime and jarring. Inclined here to minimalism, Pialat however did not abandon his favourite actor, Gérard Depardieu, who achieves an astonishing and entirely credible performance as a haunted country priest.
As usual, he films a star and an actress of his own invention, the incandescent Sandrine Bonnaire, surrounded by non-professional or sometime actors (the editor Yann Dedet), to admirable effect. Sous le soleil de Satan does not contain those little true-to-life details, mangled language or narrative digressions so dear to the fans of cinematic naturalism. The film is composed of concentrated blocks, the dialogue ranks as some of the finest – and most literary – in contemporary French cinema. Pialat gets rid of the anecdotal and chisels out a black sun whose radical pessimism – that of Bernanos, his own – illuminates and outshines the earlier films.
The filmmaker, through his role as Menou-Segret, Donissan’s mentor, expresses his personal feelings, the fear of old age, a distrust of wisdom ("an old man’s vice"), the ultimate, terrible expectation of death. Sous le soleil de Satan won the Palme d’or at the Cannes Festival in 1987. Pialat made Van Gogh in 1991, with Jacques Dutronc in the title role. In 1995 Pialat worked with Depardieu for the fourth and last time, on Le Garçu. He asked him to be his cinematic double, something new in their relationship.
A philandering husband leaves his young wife, but cannot manage to completely detach himself, because he loves his five year-old son, always trying to find ways to see him. Le Garçu signalled Pialat’s return to the more autobiographical strain in his work, reminiscent of Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble in this respect. Pialat’s protagonists are now well off, and spend their money ostentatiously, but human relationships are just as conflicted and painful. Paternal hysteria now supplements the search for pleasure, the difficulties of sharing a life. The film ends with the death of the « garçu », the father played by Gérard Depardieu, echoing the mother’s death throes in La Gueule ouverte.
The film, almost devoid of any dramatic development, is composed of a succession of scenes from the protagonists’ lives, shot with great sensitivity. On its release, this solemn and insightful film, heart-rending at times, was not popular with audiences who doubtless felt such naked honesty was too much: such a mistaken reaction. Pialat is not trying to shock, but he does touch on real truths. In filming his own son Antoine, perhaps feeling his own end drawing near (this was to be his last film, he died on January 11, 2003), Pialat is, essentially, going back to the origins of cinema, the Lumière brothers.
Our warmest thanks go to Sylvie Pialat, Maurice Pialat’s wife, screenwriter and assistant before she became a producer, and who has made possible Gérard Depardieu’s first visit to the Festival del film Locarno. An introduction to the Depardieu-Pialat tribute will take place on the Piazza Grande on Monday August 8, and a discussion about the work of one of the greatest of French filmmakers, between Gérard Depardieu, Sylvie Pialat and the festival audience, will be held the day after, at 12h15 at the Forum,.Olivier Père