Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The House in the Woods (La Maison des Bois)

THE HOUSE IN THE WOODS (La Maison des Bois) – made for TV       A                      
7 Episodes, 53 min, 47 min, 40 min, 53 min, 53 min, 56 min, 58 min
France  (360 mi)  1971  d:  Maurice Pialat 

If I had to choose the one film that best allows the viewer to penetrate into Maurice Pialat's universe, I would unhesitatingly choose THE HOUSE IN THE WOODS. This series happily combines a profound naturalism and a strange sense of fantasy, a liberty in its tone where hidden or manifested suffering alternates with an astonishing happiness to be alive.

—Joel Magny from Cahiers du Cinéma, May/June 2004

While much admired by Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, Pialat was considered a problematic director, difficult to work with on a set, claiming as many detractors as fans.  “I don’t like you either,” he allegedly snarled at a Cannes Film Festival audience in 1987 when his film UNDER SATAN’S SUN was an unpopular winner.  After a failed career as a painter, Pialat dabbled in theater and documentary filmmaking, making his first notable short, L’AMOUR EXISTE, in 1960 at the age of 35.  He was 43 when he made his first feature, after the fervor of the New Wave had waned.  He appeared as a hard-nosed teacher in Jean Eustache’s 1974 film MES PETITES AMOUREUSES, a director who shared his pessimistic, dire, and bleak worldview.  He used long takes and handheld cameras to sharply reproduce the psychological tensions between characters, producing films that are unsentimental, defiant, deeply personal and sexually bold.  His honest and raw portraits of family life, sexual warfare, and emotional abandonment have had a tremendous influence on contemporary French cinema. 

A volatile realist who’s often compared to John Cassavetes, though their works have very different tones and effects, both share a tendency to observe extreme behavior with an objective, realistic eye.  According to Film Comment editor-at-large Kent Jones: “Where the breaks in a Cassavetes film are strictly behavior-oriented, getting at the essential unpredictability of people...Pialat’s often feel like the exquisite agony of the moment, which must always come to an end, the transience of experience, eternally invigorating and just as frustrating—few filmmakers have ever come as close to capturing it on film…Of his 11 features, three — WE WON'T GROW OLD TOGETHER (1972), À NOS AMOURS (1983), and VAN GOGH (1991) — are among the finest films made in France or any other country in the last half century, and the rest aren't far behind.” 

To which I would add this film, as easily my favorite Pialat film is this expansive six-hour film made for French television, 7 episodes of 52 minutes each, where the length of the film allows the director to meticulously detail the rhythms of small-town life in the countryside during WWI, from 1914 to 1918, completely absent any sentimentality, building interest and emotion through time and through the presentation of the smallest details, by observing ordinary family life, much like Olmi’s THE TREE OF WOODEN CLOGS (1978), but less spiritual and more realistic, utilizing a series of vignettes to paint a large, impressionistic portrait of a community, ultimately revealing a remarkable view of humanity.  The film, written by René Wheeler, then re-written by Pialat and Arlette Langmann, who also co-edits the film, follows young, rambunctious all-male schoolchildren and the close scrutiny provided by their teacher, played by the director himself, the Catholic priest and the goings-on behind the scenes with the altar boys stealing a bit of the Father’s wine, a rotund gamekeeper (Pierre Doris) and his nurturing wife (Jacqueline Dufranne), along with their sensitive teenage son (Henri Puff) and strikingly beautiful daughter (Agathe Natanson), who take in two young Parisian boys left abandoned during the war, their fathers called up to the front, whose mothers write regularly and come to visit bearing gifts every Sunday, as well as another troubled child, Hervé (Hervé Levy), who was dropped on their doorstep, who hates the visiting mothers, as he has no family contact or visits of his own, yet his warmth and spontaneity infectiously draws us and others to him, the leading character in the film, as most of the action is seen through his eyes.

Using plenty of character development and charming personality, always utilizing humor by revealing the idiosyncrasies of everyone involved, especially among the playful and mischievous boys, whose authentic realism is simply phenomenal in this film, who curiously want to see the arrival of ambulances bringing wounded soldiers, or the aristocratic Marquis (Fernand Gravey) who lives on a gigantic estate continuing to live a life of refinement as if there is no war on, whose wife is killed early on in a suspicious roadside fatality, or a grumpy socialist barkeeper who is filled with cynical suspicions of the Marquis, or the frail postman on his bike who regularly delivers letters to the family while muttering nonsense to himself, or the visiting Parisian mothers, who may as well be tottering fools, so out of place are they in the country wearing their flamboyant, feathered hats, or a local airman and his girlfriend who befriend Hervé and even allow him up in the air to fly, not to mention pastoral picnics in the countryside filled with languid moments where time, and the war, seem to drift away entirely. 

All of this layered backdrop sets up who lives in the town so that we grow to know and care about its inhabitants.  This is especially significant by the fourth episode, which brings the war and its ramifications to the door of this sleepy country town, opening with a long line of soldiers walking slowly through the countryside, where the kids run and greet them and ask for photographs and other mementos before the young men from the town are enlisted themselves, including the gamekeeper’s son.  This is an exquisitely filmed episode, including an aerial sequence between a German and a French plane, balancing the loneliness and the quiet of the soldiers against the mothers and families hugging and kissing their young sons goodbye.  Of course, many never return.  The cost of war is shown in painfully intimate detail, not by any graphic war imagery or disfigurement, but in the mayor’s arrival at the gamekeeper’s doorstep to report the death of their son, which sets off an agonizing chain reaction which is stunning in its emotional range from screams to silence, where we can feel the weight of the world hanging on their shoulders.  When the Armistice is signed, the town weeps in a joyous celebration of flag-waving and relief as the soldiers return home.  There’s an interesting juxtaposition of the town’s quiet memorial tribute with the teacher reminding the schoolchildren of the human price paid for freedom. 

When the war is over, the children are rounded up by their families and returned to Paris, even Hervé’s father arrives with his step-mother and step-sister, leaving the gamekeeper’s residence suddenly empty and alone.  In Paris, Hervé’s new parents throw a welcome home party, where one women sings several soprano arias to the slightly off-tune piano, but eventually, the unspoken grief from the loss of their original spouses becomes painfully evident, and they fight and argue with each other.  So after hearing that the gamekeeper’s wife is seriously ill, Hervé runs away back to the countryside.  His quiet return to their home, and in particular, the unspoken emotions created by reducing the images strictly to the essentials has a profound effect, literally inducing a transforming religious experience without anyone ever mentioning the name of God, something out of the transcendent poetry of Bresson (Introduction to Bresson).  But as his family arrives to bring him back to the city, we are left with the ravishing beauty of the country home, with its life force abruptly removed once again.  The use of music, the dark voice of the soprano in Ravel’s “Trois Beaux Oiseaux du Paradis”  3 Beaux Oiseaux du Paradis , Ravel - YouTube (3:21) is also extremely well chosen, usually opening and closing each episode in a wordless still image of haunting beauty.

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