This Classic French Film Is For (Just About) Everyone

By  · Published on September 7th, 2016

Sometimes you have to pick a movie at random and let it sweep you up.

In breaking with what’s become a weekly tradition of writing about some aspect or other of movie-related current events, this week I’d like to talk about the fine tradition of picking something to watch at random. In my case it wasn’t entirely random, as I’m on an ongoing and gradual quest to see as many canonical works by as many important filmmakers as I can in one lifetime (especially one squandered by occasionally doing things other than watching movies). And so, because I had never seen anything by Maurice Pialat (about whom Film Comment’s Kent Jones got my attention with the assessment “To say that Pialat marched to the beat of a different drummer is to put it mildly. In fact, he didn’t really march at all. He ambled, and fuck anybody who got it into their head that they’d like to amble along with him. Or behind him. Or ahead of him”), I watched his 1983 film À nos Amours.

As narrative, À nos Amours is a straightforward account of 16-year-old Suzanne discovering and indulging her sexual desires against the backdrop of her family’s splintering and collapse. What makes it such a remarkable work is its form. Pialat, through a variety of means including casting non-professional actors, abandoning the script midway through filming, and literally walking into the middle of scenes without warning, creates an ongoing present tense that makes the film feel vividly alive, like a thing observed rather than composed.

This is, as already alluded, a deception. The apparent spontaneity on display is the result of elaborate machination and extremely deliberate intent. In one of the featurettes accompanying the Criterion edition of À nos Amours Catherine Breillat talks about Pialat’s belief – that she shares – in a film as being a thing that metaphysically decides how it’s going to exist, and that directors must adapt to that rather than impose their pre-conceived ideas on it. Hence, tossing the script, Pialat taking the role of the family patriarch himself, and springing plot twists on the actors in the moment.

All of this theory and process would be (literally) academic if not for the lead performance by Sandrine Bonnaire, which is one of the great debut performances in the cinema. There’s no visible craft on display, just pure, unmolded talent, charisma, and presence. Pialat is clearly fascinated by her, and it is just as clear why. The difference between character and subject is blurry, and irrelevant; whether it’s Sandrine or Suzanne who possesses the inner light, the need to break free and go her own path, the point is the film is the entity that benefits from it and is given its life force by it.

This being 2016, one aspect, and possible reading, of Pialat’s fascination with Bonnaire that may bother some is the fact of his being almost sixty at the time of filming and her being only sixteen. What sex is actually depicted is either theatricalized or elided. There are some scenes of post-coital nudity, and of Suzanne changing clothes, but at no point does the camera leer. The sexuality is frank, and of a time and culture with looser social mores than début de siècle America. I only dwell on this to say, without judgment, that this film is not necessarily going to be for everyone, but nor is it a depraved wallow. It simply is.

À nos Amours was my first Pialat film, but I doubt very much that it will be my last. I’ve written before about the serendipity of finding particular movies at the right time, and there’s something about Pialat’s style – the long takes, the subtle manipulations within the ostensibly realistic action, the deep cut allusions to French literature (side by side with hilariously overblown dinner table conversations about Godard and Picasso) – that I respond to as if reunited with a long-lost part of myself. At the same time I think, although it may be different aspects of À nos Amours that strike this chord in others, that the film’s concerns are sufficiently universal, and the expertise of its craft sufficiently manifest, that it’s a movie I can recommend with no other caveats than in the previous paragraph to anyone looking for a good movie to watch.

Related Topics:

Columnist, Film School Rejects. Host, Minor Bowes podcast. Ce n’est pas grave, y’all