Download as PDF Download PDF

Mouths Agape

Fragmentary Realism in Seventies Pialat


Maurice Pialat (born in 1925) is a director often associated with post-New Wave filmmakers like Philippe Garrel, Jean Eustache, Catherine Breillat and Jacques Doillon, but he was older than many of the Nouvelle vague directors whose work he countered. It is as though a trick of history demanded that, though he happened to be born before Godard, Truffaut and Chabrol, his feature work needed to come afterwards, and it is in keeping with the belligerence of both Pialat’s personality and his oeuvre that he had to be against something. This however wasn’t at all the Oedipal tussle that one saw in some of the New Wave directors’ films and writings, evident most obviously in Truffaut’s famed ‘A Certain Tendency in Cinema’, with its attack on a tradition of quality that Truffaut nicknamed ‘cinema du papa’.  Inevitably the films the New Wave directors would then make would be by the sons of the fathers. Their admiration for the occasional forefather (Bresson, Renoir, Tati) never negated their need to usurp the older generation. Pialat’s mythological struggle was more fraternal than generational: a Cain and Abel scenario with Pialat the unloved brother. Even as late as 1987, he was still the misfit. As the New York Times noted on his death: “At the award ceremony [winning the Palme d’Or for Under Satan’s Sky], the audience whistled and booed. In his acceptance speech, Mr. Pialat retorted: ““Above all I’m happy about the boos and the whistling. If you don’t like me, I can tell you I don’t like you either.””

It is a quality that is central to Pialat’s work; a certain indifference to an audience, and it might be worth looking at this aspect through the three films Pialat made in the seventies: We Won’t Grow Old Together, The Mouth Agape and Graduate First. Whether it happens to be in the absence of non-diegetic music, the deliberate coarseness of the cutting that undermines clear continuity, characters presented unsympathetically, or narratives that seem to be going nowhere and are held together by no more than the passage of time, Pialat makes films that are belligerently organized; a kind of aesthetic roughing up. In The Mouth Agape, for example, Pialat shows the husband, Roger, looking after his dying wife, but he also shows us the same man groping a young woman in his shop. It is one thing to show a character who feels sexually frustrated having sex with another woman while his wife lies ill in bed elsewhere; it is another to have the woman he is coming on to showing ambivalence in the encounter as she is a much younger woman with an older man pestering her. It is a fine example in Pialat’s work of the tautologically unsympathetic, a moment that doesn’t only show a character situationally out of order, but existentially out of order also.

What do we mean by this exactly? Imagine if the character has an affair behind his dying wife’s back but that the affair is played out judiciously, with the husband feeling guilty, the lover close to his own age, and maybe having lost a husband of her own, then the leading character would be existentially troubled but situationally justified. This would be a woman who clearly wants him in her bed, and it is the off-screen fact of his dying wife that is the problem. However, in the scene with the young woman, if we put aside that his wife is dying, there is in the scene itself a queasy sense of a man who cannot leave young women alone, and harasses them into sexual encounters. They aren’t completely reluctant (Pialat is no easy moralist), but the assignation seems uncomfortable, an attempt by an older man to get what he wants and a younger woman to get what she can: it isn’t an encounter, more a transaction as she gets a free tee-shirt and tights out of the exchange while he proposes meeting her later for a proper fling.

In Graduate First, the owner of the local hotel chats up a teenage girl and it come not long after he has thrown a group of the kids out of one of his hotel rooms for smoking pot. As he comes on moralistically in the hotel room scene, so he comes across oleaginous in the bar. Yet adding to this act of hypocrisy (moralizing one moment; oily the next) is the simple fact that he is a married man. It is another moment of the tautologically unsympathetic. Here is someone lecturing the kids as a grown-up one moment and dropping the father-figure role when it suits him to play the seducer. All the while we may have in mind that there is a wife who might well be wondering what he is up to. As in The Mouth Agape, there is the situational and the existential. The situational consists of a character appearing unsympathetically as he is both fatherly and sleazy by turns; where the existential makes us wonder much more about his character generally. The off-screen presence of the wife, as in The Mouth Agape, becomes a hovering one as we see a man not only acting ‘badly’ in the situation, but also more broadly as we muse over the added problem of a man cheating on his spouse.

Describing such situations on the page gives the impression that Pialat is a moralist, but, taking into account our idea that he is interested in both situational and existential ethics, we could better describe him as a situational existentialist, as a director interested in situations and asking us to wonder about the characters beyond those situations. Frequently when we are in a position to judge a character it is because one feels the entire situation has been revealed, and the character’s motives categorical. When Michael Corleone lies to his sister in The Godfather (1972), we are aware of the truth, and privy to Corleone’s motives, no matter how abhorrent. The situational lie and the existential nature of the character come together smoothly. Pialat is a director who refuses this smoothness as he forestalls the moral arcs the scenes would ostensibly seem to demand. In The Mouth Agape, Roger cries after his wife has passed away, but we should not take this to mean that he feels guilty about his philandering whilst she was alive. To assume so would be to counter the very editing strategies Pialat has created: it would allow us to put the fractured ethical universe Pialat offers back together again, as if the moral mosaic was merely a game. Why he cries we don’t quite know, but why shouldn’t he if he has spent thirty odd years of his life with a woman he will never again see. It needn’t be guilt that is moving him; more a simple and unequivocal loss. Now if Pialat had made more of the scene earlier between Roger and the girl in the shop, and cut away immediately afterwards to the wife lying ill in bed, and then later at the funeral someone said he shouldn’t so often have cheated on his wife, then the notions of moral tears might have possessed some validity. But Pialat instead fragments the situational and the existential to create worlds that are not at all fragmented in any narrative sense of ellipsis, but instead generate curious psychological epistemological vacuums.

Again, what do we mean by this? Think of the scenes in Graduate First where the group of kids go off on holiday together by the coast. Amongst them is none other than the hotelier, without his wife and still trying to hit on the girls. We might wonder what his wife makes of this, if she knows where he is, and whether she is annoyed at his disappearance. Yet Pialat doesn’t so much elide these questions as ignore them altogether, leaving us to make of this character what we will, but as a filmmaker happy to ignore the questions one might have concerning the hotelier and his wife’s relationship. Equally, in The Mouth Agape, the central character, Philippe, played by Philippe Leotard, picks up a young woman and can’t perform. Pialat doesn’t set it up as a failure to get an erection on the basis of guilt – that he is cheating on his wife; just that he happens to be unable to get aroused in the hotel room at this given moment. Pialat makes it all the more inexplicable by playing up the woman’s attractiveness as she walks around naked in the shot, but some preoccupation in Philippe’s mind seems to be getting in the way of the occupation of getting down to some sexual business. If there are some filmmakers who try to remove symbolic import from their films (and more on that later), Pialat often removes the characterisational and the narrational too. While a filmmaker might bristle at the schematically symbolic reading applied to a film, then few filmmakers would deny that they want meaning on the level of narrative cause and effect and character motivation. Even Pialat claims this scene in the hotel room with the young woman could have been removed from the film because he didn’t feel it was strong enough in terms of narrative purpose and motivated by character. In an interview available at the website Cinemasparagus, with Stéphane Lévy-Klein and Olivier Eyquem, Pialat says “But all this is so weakly connected to what I wanted to do. We don’t understand why this guy all of a sudden has sexual problems, whereas in the original scenario these scenes have a precise sense: he’d been involved in several fiascoes and he quickly evolved because his mother was coming to her end. He wasn’t really a cad, spending his time fucking, etc.” Yet is it not this absence of a ‘precise sense’ that makes Pialat’s work so interesting? Just as there are filmmakers who insist that the symbolic meaning must be elusive rather than categorical, Pialat seems more than almost any other filmmaker a director who works with the elusive over the precise in story and character. A scene might seem irrelevant by conventional dramatic standards, but possess a quality of ambiguity that opens the film up to its implicit dimensions rather than its narrative coordinates. If Philippe’s father was crying out of guilt for the way he had philandered while his wife was ill, this would have given the film a dramatic arc as we see a man coming not so much to his senses as a state of sensitivity, but this would have denied the possibilities in the scene for the categorical dramatic dimension. Equally, when Philippe can’t go through with his assignation, the scene becomes inexplicable not because it is a failed moment of narrative, but a fresh moment of inferred meaning.

It perhaps seems especially odd that Pialat dismisses this scene when much of his work resides in moments not unlike it – in scenes where we might wonder exactly what is going on either in the heads of the characters or in the nature of the situation. There are moments in We Won’t Grow Old Together, where the parents of the central character, Jean’s (Jean Yanne) ex-girlfriend, Catherine (Marlène Jobert), may or may not be shielding information – they may or may not know where their daughter is when after they have split up filmmaker Jean comes looking for her, though they claim they don’t. It wouldn’t have been difficult for Pialat to insert a scene showing Catherine discussing with her parents that they mustn’t tell Jean where she has gone. After all, Catherine has been badly treated by Jean on numerous occasions and her parents know enough about the pain he has caused their daughter to be likely to comply. But instead Pialat plays with the possibility that they don’t know, as they show surprising touches of empathic feeling that indicates they might well have told him if they knew. It gives to the moments that inferential tension Pialat works so well, and that is both a variation, and an extension, of, a realist aesthetic without relying on Bazinian notions of dramatic dissolution within careful point. This difference is evident when the great realist critic André Bazin says of Bicycle Thieves in What is Cinema? Vol. 1:  “Though this mise-en-scene aims at negating itself, at being transparent to the reality it reveals, it would be naive to conclude that it does not exist. Few films have been more carefully put together, more pondered over, more meticulously elaborated, but all this labor by De Sica tends to give the illusion of chance, to result in giving dramatic necessity the character of something contingent.” Pialat is more inclined towards dramatic expectation within dramatic slackness. As we are left wondering what exactly the parents know, so we also wonder whether Jean will suddenly offer an outburst as he might assume they know more than they are willing to tell. He is a character who will explode at a hint of a slight, evidenced earlier in the film when Catherine and  Jean take a holiday and, as Jean moves towards making love to Catherine in their hotel room, she says she isn’t in the mood and he attacks her and walks out. In another scene, as they film together, Jean starts abusing her in front of various people in the street. We’re half-cued for Jean to go off half-cocked without much of an excuse, and here with the parents he seems to have motive enough. Where Bazin will talk of dramatic form contained, allowing for a realism consistent with the contingent, Pialat gives us the dramatically dispersed, with the tension he provides not an issue of the craftsmanship Bazin invokes, but of the looseness Pialat himself appears to condemn.

If one thinks of the scene in Bicycle Thieves where the bike is stolen, it is a set-piece sequence in several ways. Firstly within the overall dramatic arc of the story we know this bike is important. It is post-war Italy, with the opening sequence showing workers desperate for a job, and our central character getting work if he has his own bike. The family pawns the sheets in return for the bike he had earlier pawned, and he starts employment putting up posters. One day while he is working, a couple of guys steal the bike in a carefully managed operation and De Sica even offers a brief chase sequence. The sequence of the theft is well-orchestrated within the context of a well-arced story: the missing bike will impact on the rest of the film. In We Won’t Grow Old Together, scenes are given a very different type of dramatic force. When for example there is a scene with Jean in a flat with his ex-wife, she talks of spending time in Russia, and we may wonder what exactly their relationships happens to be. They talk about themselves in the past tense and yet at moments act as if the relationship exists in the present tense: they’re sitting around on the couch in what looks like both Jean and his wife’s apartment, but he is now with Catherine as they talk about their own past time together, with Jean inevitably insulting his ex, a scene echoed later in the film where the two of them sit in the kitchen together as his ex prepares lunch. One watches the scenes without at all the epistemological confidence evident in the Bicycle Thieves theft sequence. For all our despair over the stolen bike, our feelings are unequivocal as De Sica’s realism segues into special pleading for the poor. The narrative form and ideological content come together smoothly and the music glues them in place: in a score that generates much sympathy for the central character and his family. In We Won’t Grow Old Together, the narrative and the ideological remain separate, and Pialat refuses the possibilities in joining them together by a non-diegetic score except at the very end of the film: our sympathy for Jean is always tempered by his behaviour and by the film’s observant yet emotionally aloof approach to his character. This is realism by very different means: fragmentary realism as opposed to De Sica’s coherent realism that is consistent with Bazin’s claims. By contrast to Bazin, Pialat’s work allows for what Dave Kehr in Film Comment calls “Violent rupture”, a violence in this case  which “is followed by casual reconciliation, and after one of Pialat’s unmarked ellipses—a jump cut in a Pialat film can cover five seconds or five months, and there is little in the narration to tell us which—the couple is together again. No explanation necessary”.

However, just because Pialat doesn’t allow for coherent development, this doesn’t mean he refuses the dramatic. It’s more that the drama isn’t developed outside of the characters but inside them. This is central to Pialat’s fragmentary realism, and one of the main reversals in relation to the neo-realists. Even the young boy in Germany Year Zero, who eventually and suicidally takes responsibility for the death of his father, kills him through the persuasiveness of a former Nazi, and, once again, the film is dramatically worked through rather than personally inexplicable. When Jean tears strips off Catherine in the car in We Won’t Grow Old Together, the film provides no motivating factor for the situation, no reasonable reason for his behaviour, and this seems to be consistent with the editing strategy Kehr invokes. If Jean explains with no reason, then surely the best editing approach would be one that acknowledges the arbitrariness. When Antonio steals the bike near the end of Bicycle Thieves we know exactly why he is doing so, and so the film’s editing works to emphasize the inevitability of his action based on the desperation of his position. There is a stern narrative logic where a man needs a bike for work and, after having it stolen, fails to find it and thus must steal someone else’s if he is to return to employment. This is the crux of the story and De Sica edits it accordingly. In talking of We Won’t Grow Old Together, though, Pialat has invoked not narrative reasoning but musical repetition. In an interview with Marc Esposito in French Premiere, Pialat compared the film to Ravel’s Bolero.  “A lot of people who saw the film and liked it asked themselves how I could have sustained something so slight: a guy drives a girl crazy who finally leaves him. So it’s necessarily the same scenes that come back again and again.” Rather than the inexorable narrative logic that builds, Pialat’s work swells and subsides.

What he searches for are moments which capture tensions that haven’t been developed because there are two strains at work where most films have one, and where the underlying strain is stronger than the ostensible. What is interesting in film is that though it has been preoccupied with characters it has rarely been interested in bodies, the bodies that contain characters. Of course actors play these characters and they inevitably have bodies, but these are often no more than embodied figures. Pialat’s interest in embodying characters, though, concerns giving them a nervous system more complex than excitation and response, so that the characters sometimes react without an event cuing why they feel the way they do. It is true that when Jean gets angry with Catherine it’s that she won’t sleep with him, but what is registered is not his reaction but his over-reaction, as if there is some event that we have not been privy to, or some irritation in his body that he is using Catherine to take that irritation out on. Now if the film worked chiefly with causes and effects, excitation and response, we might also expect explanation and apology contained within concrete periods of time. When Kehr talks of these radical cuts where no explanation is necessary, they lie in Pialat’s notion of character that incorporates the nervous system of the individuals and not only the narrative system of the film.

To explain further, let us return to The Mouth Agape, and how the scene with the father and the girl in the shop could have worked in terms of a narrative system. The father may have been sexually frustrated by his wife’s obvious and understandable inability to meet her conjugal demands, and he is forced to find pleasure elsewhere. He would go out and find it, but then feel guilty about his actions and return to his wife and treat her with especial care and tenderness in the wake of his transgression. Here we would have a smooth cinema of transitions based on characters that are motivated narrative beings more than driven nervous systems. Any aspect of sexual need would be contained within the demands of the story’s arc, and that the underlying strain is there merely to serve the ostensible expectation of narrative form. Pialat, breaking with this expectation, also breaks with the notion of the arc, of shaping the story around cause and effect, however complex, for nervous excitation, that must remain obscure. When Pialat self-lacerates over the scene with Philippe and the woman he picks up in The Mouth Agape, he oddly assumes an arc that his work consistently defies and is all the better for its eschewal. One says this not to admire Pialat’s generally contrarian aesthetic nature; more to see that he brings a new inner excitation into cinema, an excitation that isn’t about aloof cause and effect, but about embodied, naive, reaction.

One uses naive here as Maurice Merleau-Ponty uses it in The Structure of Behavior, “naive consciousness does not see in the soul the cause of the movements of the body nor does it put the soul in the body as the pilot in his ship. This way of thinking belongs to philosophy; it is not implied in immediate experience.” Merleau-Ponty’s comment about philosophy might also apply to much cinema: how does one escape from assuming that our experiences are piloted, when they are instead often impulsive? When Merleau Ponty adds, later, “Since an injury to the eyes is sufficient to eliminate vision, we must then see through the body. Since an illness is sufficient to modify the phenomenal world, it must be then that the body forms a screen between us and things”, we can see Pialat asks us to view the events through the body as screen, but not necessarily because of illness, but rather simply because it is a body. Equally, when Fergus Daly in Rouge mentions that Pialat was sympathetic to Nabokov’s take on Freud – that he was the Viennese charlatan – this surely resides in the director’s unwillingness to assume that mood and temperament can be located in case history. When we think of numerous films of the forties influenced by Freud, it interestingly coincided with Hollywood’s love of flashback, so films like Secret Beyond the Door and Spellbound work with Freudian explanation as the films utilise flashback justification. Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock are of course masterful filmmakers of the past, but how does one become a master of the present by calling into question such utilisations? Where Lang and Hitchcock bolster psychology through their montage; Pialat obliterates it with his. Could a flashback explain Philippe’s interest in picking up girls, in Jean’s outbursts, or for that matter a young womanizer’s actions in Graduate First, or the teenage girl intrigued by her philosophy teacher who is still more intrigued by her in the same film? A flashback might if Pialat wanted to suggest young Bernard (Bernard Tronczyk) sleeps his way through the town because of some psychological problems, or Elizabeth (Sabine Haudepin) is fascinated by the philosophy teacher because she lacks fatherly encouragement, but this would reflect a facile need for biographical and narrative certainty, rather than playing fair with the complexity of the milieu Pialat creates.

As Glenn Kenny says on, “One of the glorious mysteries of Pialat is how his seemingly straightforward-to-the-point-of-plainness approach—the mise-en-scène is quite deliberately un-pretty, always—can yield works that are so essentially enigmatic, that contain such riches to plumb.” One should not too readily rush to narrative judgement when there is a density of mise-en-scene to be explored. Whether it is the scene of the kids talking amongst themselves in the cafe in Graduate First, or the scene after the funeral in The Mouth Agape, Pialat defies ready comprehension of the scene. In Graduate First, Elisabeth walks into the bar and goes and kisses what looks like her boyfriend as she offers the others at the table some chips. Then the film cuts to another group of kids, and in the middle of the scene Elisabeth and her friend introduce themselves before Bernard goes over and announces to his girlfriend that he is finishing with her. Just after this, Elisabeth starts to come on to one of the other boys (who actually looks a little like Bernard) before then going over to Bernard’s friend and lets her hand rub against his as he plays pinball. This scene which comes early in the film is bewilderingly complex if one tries to follow closely the interconnections between the characters as the director refuses us a place in the scene by refusing to allow any character within it to become prominent. Rather than creating a central character and a central point to the scene which could have been Elisabeth’s flirtatiousness which leads to Bernard splitting with his girlfriend so that he can take up with Elisabeth, instead we have four of five different events taking place simultaneously. For example, at one moment that evening after Bernard gets back from the football game he looks as if he might be about to get off with Elisabeth’s friend, while earlier on, before his soon-to-be-ex shows up, we might assume his girlfriend is the one whom he has his arm around. After Elisabeth’s father drives back home, he sees in their garden, caught in his car’s headlights, Elisabeth and a youth having sex. It is a youth who happens to be not the person we saw her with initially, nor Bernard or one his friends, but another person entirely. If Pialat proposes the impossibility of motive, he adds to this the complexity of mise-en-scene that makes any attempt at searching out motive beside the point. Finding our bearings in the scene is hard enough, let alone feeling we can plumb the depths of character.

Now the mise-en-scene isn’t always so complex, yet even in such more straightforward instances mysteries remain. In The Mouth Agape, the funeral and its aftermath isn’t so dense, yet it has moments of surprise. We might note that Philippe’s wife (Nathalie Baye) is dressed in a manner maybe more appropriate for a nightclub than for a funeral, and changes out of her shoes into a pair of provocative boots when the characters go for a walk after the funeral lunch. Equally, in a lengthy shot as the characters sit around after the funeral, the emotional centre of the scene, Roger, is visually on the periphery of it. Even when he gets up and walks through to the bar, Pialat stays with the group shot for a moment before cutting to Roger going into the bar, before cutting again as he takes a drink.

Yet just as there are moments in the three films we are talking about where meaning is difficult because of density of information or obscurity of motive through the body’s primacy, sometimes this difficulty of meaning seems to go beyond the immediacy of the characters and the mise-en-scene, and hints at a broader existence without falling into the conventions of the symbolic. What are we to make of the framing device in Graduate First, which opens on the philosophy teacher talking to the pupils, while the camera shows us a close-up of a desk with graffiti all over it as the opening credits appear? At the end of the film, the same remarks will be made, with the film’s most central character, Elisabeth pregnant. The penultimate shot in The Mouth Agape shows Philippe and his wife’s car pulling away from the father’s house, and we get the view of the house, the street and the town disappearing as the camera positions itself like a person looking out the back window. The end of We Won’t Grow Old Together is a flashback to Catherine playing in the sea. In each case, Pialat draws attention to an aspect that seems to remove us from the immediate and places us in the reflective. Where Wead and Lellis in Film: Form and Function see functional symbolism running through many films and notice how it possesses a secondary purpose smoothly incorporated into the story, Pialat forces upon us a question. What are we to make of the young woman back at school again with a child in her belly, and are the teacher’s remarks comments he makes every year, or should we take the beginning of the film also to be its end: that the film has anticipated its own conclusion over the opening credits? At the end of We Won’t Grow Old Together, the flashback makes us wonder what exactly we are watching. Is it a flashback from Jean’s regretful point of view, or the film’s perspective on the relationship? Equally, we might wonder whether the penultimate shot in The Mouth Agape is Philippe’s feelings as he leaves his father, or the film’s quizzical musing. And how should we situate the scene at the beginning of Graduate First: is this the desk that young Elisabeth is sitting at during the sequence at the end of the film, or is it the film’s own reflections on the school system? Of course it needn’t be an either/or, but it does indicate that Pialat’s immediacy contains within it a meditative, ambiguous dimension that isn’t readily symbolic, but is certainly more than direct realism.

What Pialat refuses to do is build his films on arced assumptions of story, character, easily discernible mise-en-scene and symbolism, and instead looks for combining an immediacy of feeling enclosed within a more pressing question. There is a sense that though the mouth agape refers to the mother’s death near the end of the film of that title, so often in Pialat’s films there is a feeling that one’s mouth is agape watching the situations the director generates. This includes the examples we’ve given of the tautologically unsympathetic, but other moments might leave the mouth agape also: that moment in Graduate First where the father pulls into the drive after watching a football game and sees his daughter and a guy having sex. After she comes in he sits looking in front of him as says simply that it won’t help her pass her exams. At the beginning of We Won’t Grow Old Together, as Catherine and Jean lie in bed, Catherine casually comments on the blandness of Jean’s apartment, while at the funeral in The Mouth Agape we’ve observed how Philippe’s wife dresses more sexily than might seem appropriate for the occasion.

There is no melodrama to these moments, but the more we think about them the more shocking or surprising they might seem to be, as they tell us much about the dynamics within the given relationships. The moments are potentially repercussive more than symbolic. Yet there is also this idea of the mouth agape as death, as a world much bigger than the pettiness of our individual lives, but rather than seeking portent in symbols, Pialat seeks it in the quotidian, in the everyday hell of other people constantly getting on each other’s nerves. It is a nervous excitation meeting broader metaphysical questions that will be present in later Pialat films including Loulou and To Our Loves, films as great as his seventies work. Here he would continue exploring a certain character common enough in life, perhaps, but too rarely show on screen. Gilles Deleuze (in Cinema 1: The Time Image) and Pasolini (in Heretical Empiricism) may have said of that fraternal rival for the audiences’ disaffections, Godard, that he had given birth to a “new anthropological type”, but it is as if Pialat put an old anthropological type on the screen for perhaps the first time. His fragmentary realism might not be as radical as Godard’s assault on assumed form, but he is an aesthetic brother in arms,  no matter if he might have preferred to have held the members of the New Wave in a collective headlock.


©Tony McKibbin