Sunday, April 28, 2013

À Nos Amours (To Our Loves)

À NOS AMOURS (TO OUR LOVES)                 A     
France  (102 mi)  1983

It’s as if my heart has run dry…                 —Suzanne (Sandrine Bonnaire)

Maurice Pialat is not a household name in America, though he is revered in France, instrumental in having a visible effect on the work of filmmakers such as André Téchiné, Olivier Assayas, and Arnaud Desplechin, three more internationally recognized French directors.  Despite being a contemporary of the French New Wave, he is never included with their names, though he is staunchly opposed to artificiality and convention in all forms, literally defying categorization and becoming a strict devotee of cinematic naturalism.  Following a different path to filmmaking, he studied painting and wrote a novel, the basis of his third feature We Won't Grow Old Together (Nous ne vieillirons pa... (1972), while also making several documentary and fictional shorts before making his first feature at the age of 35, reminiscent of Eric Rohmer who was nearly 40 when he made his first feature.  But in a culture dominated by cinéastes, Pialat stood out, an uncompromising and often abrasive man that seemed immune to the comfort of life’s illusions.  Making only eleven features in his lifetime, all of them are essential, as each is a testament to his own search for intelligence and gut-wrenching honesty.  Often compared to John Cassavetes, both violated the rules and rejected any needless beautification of the human condition, preferring instead to capture the messy and completely unpredictable aspects of life, always taking the most emotionally daring and risky path, allowing the emotional and psychological aspects of character to determine the rhythm and flow of their films, often appearing raw and unpolished to the uninitiated, but people with flaws intact represent a freer and truer picture of humanity.  With Pialat, he allows the use of script to evolve during shooting, especially this film where he decided at the last minute to play the role of the father himself, and then altered the plot midway through the film when that character was originally scheduled to die.  Not only does he keep him around, but he’s essential to the most unforgettable scene, reappearing out of the blue in a completely unscripted and spontaneous dinner sequence, becoming as much of a shock to the actors as the audience.  This fluid style of filmmaking defines his working method between the actors and their characters, carefully weaving between the reality of making a movie and the fiction being dramatized.  

Made after LOULOU (1980), this is another highly accomplished film which, among other things, introduces us to the radiant beauty of the incomparable Sandrine Bonnaire in her screen debut, who simply lights up the screen in a magical and electrifying performance, perhaps the best of her entire career as she is so central to the film.  Opening during a summer holiday, she is performing a classical play about the pain of betraying your beloved by placing one’s lips on another, while the ultra-dramatic, hauntingly beautiful opening theme “The Cold Song” Klaus Nomi - The Cold Song (film frag.) YouTube (1:04) from Purcell’s 300-year old opera King Arthur is magnificently performed by legendary counter tenor Klaus Nomi (who died the year of the film’s release, one of the first known artists to die of AIDS), music that sends chills down your spine, adding foundation and dramatic force to the otherwise youthful transgressions that we are about to witness.  This introduces us to a recurrent theme that will follow young Suzanne, played by a 15-year old Bonnaire, a confused and promiscuous teenager who is a man-magnet, attracting men like flies, who all seem to enjoy hovering around her and she is only too eager to accommodate their sexual appetites, using sex as a means of rebellion and escape.  Staying out late, sometimes for days on end, she constantly changes partners, leaving her family troubled.  Her father, brilliantly played by the director himself, is the real love of her life, and no one else can live up to her expectations.  In perhaps the most intimate moment in the film, the father speaks to her as she comes home late one night and remarks that she doesn’t smile as much any more before announcing very quietly that he will be moving out, that he can endure no more.  This is surprising, as the film has shown little reference for this marital split.  The flurry comes afterwards.

After the father moves out, all dysfunctional family hell breaks loose.  Her mother, the brilliant Evelyne Ker, (an actress Pialat first used 20 years earlier in his 1960 short film L’AMOUR EXISTE, and an actress who genuinely detested Bonnaire’s instant stardom, actually attacking her on the set, “And you really want to make movies?  Who do you think you are?”) pulls out the Blanche Dubois neurotic tears and grows to furiously detest Suzanne, throwing fists and insults as well as a feigned suicide attempt all in one breath.  Much of the story and its conflicts are based on the life of Arlette Langmann’s family, Pialat’s co-writer and live-in companion, where Suzanne’s overprotective older brother, the chubby Dominique Besnehard, is actually the casting director melodramatically playing the part of Langmann’s real brother, filmmaker Claude Berri, who tries to protect his mother before delivering a few fists of his own at Suzanne, turning home into a knock down, drag out slugfest, leaving her no place to go but back into the arms of another man.  “The only time I'm happy is when I'm with a guy,” she confesses, her only consolation, but she doesn’t pretend to experience love, only moments of peace.  What’s distinctive about the film is the physical and emotional cruelty inflicted by the dysfunctional family members on each other, reminiscent of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, where especially unique is Bonnaire’s performance, how utterly natural she feels, as it seems like she’s living her life onscreen, where none of it feels like a façade.  The revolving door of men come and go, drifting into the not so distant past, but she’s the real deal, one of the more explosive performances in recollection.  If one thinks of all her later performances where she’s older and more mature, she’s usually more reserved and intellectually calculating, where she has a habit of keeping things to herself.  Not so here, where she hides nothing, becoming as emotionally transparent as a character can get, which makes the film all the more intimately appealing and dramatically powerful.  

For reasons known only to her, perhaps thinking it will bring her peace, Suzanne actually marries a decent guy, and the family celebratory dinner is *the* sequence of the movie, as it is filled with so many spills and thrills and twisting turns that it resembles a roller-coaster ride, something akin to the legendary scenes of the last supper from VIRIDIANA (1961), or the son confronting the overbearing, incestuous father during the long, drawn-out dinner sequence of THE CELEBRATION (1998).  The dinner discussion is already a boastful dispute over art, as the various in-laws argue about the merits of Picasso and see things differently, where Suzanne departs from the more modernistic views of others and lays her claim to having a preference for the soft sensuality of Pierre Bonnard.  Add to this the now over-protective, foppish brother who sits next to Suzanne after smelling her, asking others to smell her as well, then places his odious arm around her and won’t let go with a look as if she’s carrying his incestuous child.  Enter the returning father, who incredibly enters the scene purely by accident, and starts measuring the premises with a prospective buyer. “”Don’t mind us.  You won’t even know we’re here,” he utters humorously a few moments before he sits down for dessert and challenges the pretentious nature of each and every person at the table.  Like director Mike Leigh entering his own improvisational rehearsal without any of the actor’s knowledge ahead of time, and without throwing a single blow, the table tension explodes into sparks flying fast and furious in every direction.  Pialat unflinchingly devastates his own set, laying waste to everything, clearing a dubious path for another one of his daughter’s classic exit scenes.  Her exit, like the rest of the film, is a thing of beauty.

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