Perhaps the most significant scene in Maurice Pialat's Loulou comes near the end of the film, a lengthy sequence where the middle-class Nelly (Isabelle Huppert) goes with her 'layabout' boyfriend Loulou (Gerard Depardieu) to visit friends and family of the latter outside Paris. Nelly is pregnant with Loulou's child; she is still employed at her ex-boyfriend's advertising company, and still occasionally relies on Andr (Guy Marchand) for a bit of affection and understanding, even if he happens to remain woundingly in love with her. In the scene Huppert is not at all the dramatic centre of the sequence but she is unequivocally its emotional core, without Pialat signposting this centrality. The dramatic aspect increasingly concerns a jealous partner, who eventually threatens various characters with a rifle, but Pialat manages to keep the emotional pertinence elsewhere. A filmmaker more given to manipulation of point of view and condescension of perspective would perhaps have acknowledged the emotional centre to the detriment of the dramatic sequence, and this might have been achieved by strong cutaways to Nelly clearly appalled at the mess of house, the vulgarity of the characters, the madness of the jealous partner. However, Pialat is careful to make Nelly simply part of the milieu and not especially an observer of it. Yet when in the next scene Nelly goes to have an abortion, we might assume vital to that decision is an alienation she felt when with Loulou's family and friends.
Why might Pialat risk this potential lack of focus where another director would make clear exactly Nelly's feelings and the viewer aware of these reservations? There are at least three reasons one can think of. The first and most obvious one concerns dramatic subtlety, the second socio-political judiciousness, and the third an interest in characterisation that can all the better capture emotional nuance through apparently ignoring it. Dramatic subtlety in Pialat's work (including, L'Enfance Nue, A Nos Amours and Police), rarely takes the form of understatement. His films are full of bickering, confrontations and fights, with a character's mood jumping swiftly from one state to another. In an early scene in a nightclub here, Andr slaps Nelly and she suddenly bursts out laughing. Later, after Nelly and Andr have split up and she's going out with Loulou, Pialat cuts from Nelly and Andr conversing civilly on the street to Andr pushing and slapping her in the car. There are similar scenes in other Pialat films. In A Nos Amours, the father suddenly slaps his daughter for actions not very different from those he seemed to approve of earlier in the film. In Police, Depardieu's cop often acts as much with personal irritation as professional righteousness. In Pialat's work there is the appropriately social mode of behaviour often obliterated by the personal mood of the character. Pialat seeks dramatic subtlety not through subtlety of human behaviour; more from the humanly inexplicable. This makes his work often dramatically enigmatic but not at all understated. By focusing on Nelly's disdain and distance from what she sees, Pialat would have arrived at the unsubtlety of the dramatically explicable;when what he wants instead is categorical action but the motivation behind these actions to remain unclear.
The second reason rests in the socio-political. To show the dinner party sequence from Nelly's disdainful and aghast point of view would reduce the environment to no more than Nelly's perspective of an event, rather like Jon Avnet showing Michelle Pfeiffer's character in Up Close and Personal returning to her trailer park past and seeing how far she has left it behind and how important that rejection has been. Trailer park existence serves as no more than cautionary: this is where she came from and this is where she definitely doesn't want to return. The socio-political context is completely absorbed into the psychological viewpoint of Pfeiffer's Tally Atwater. The trailer park does not exist beyond that viewpoint. Pialat, on the other hand, is interested in the milieu in and of itself. While we can safely assume that Nelly's emotions are vital to the scene, they aren't at all exclusive to it. With the sequence there are moments hinting at some half a dozen other characters' thoughts and feelings. At one moment we hear that the gun-toting partner is jealous of one of Loulou's friends; moments later he is jealous of Loulou's womanizing buddy; all the while Loulou's mum seems happy to be there, a dog chases a chicken, and the jealous partner's spouse shows immense affection towards her kids. When in the DVD extras Isabelle Huppert comments on the making of the film she mentions this scene, saying "there's a profound connection woven. There's a very strong bond created in those moments between the camera...a bond between Pialat and us that's connected via the camera." Could the same be said of Atwater's return in Up Close and Personal? While Huppert admits that Pialat's films are hardly cinema verit - he is more interested in "compressing or crushing" reality in the editing suite, she believes, than the extended observational take - he wants nevertheless to capture the real in its unfolding. Too preconceived, too narratively subjective, a notion of social class would destroy that sense of the real.
In the third instance, Nelly perhaps doesn't quite know what she is feeling in this scene. She seems lost, preoccupied, absent from the situation - but that doesn't mean because she is removed from the dinner that she is present precisely somewhere else. If the film too obviously concentrated on her reservations about Loulou and his milieu, the sense of her being lost would be replaced by a new type of assurance. She would have moved from her earlier romantic attachment to Loulou's working class adventurousness, to a bourgeois disapproval of his recklessness and coarseness. Pialat wants more ambivalence in the character than that.
This isn't to say Pialat is a director who wants an openness of form simply because he withholds certain conventional modes of judgement. Huppert mentions in the DVD extras that Pialat was very interested in letting life flood the frame, sometimes catching her and Depardieu in conversation and then suddenly turning the camera on as the actors would move from casual chat as themselves, to becoming the characters and playing the scripted scene. But we should remember also that Pialat was for many years a painter, someone who came relatively late to cinema, directing his first feature film at the age of forty in 1968, L'enfance nue. He has often been fascinated with colour, pushing the naturalism not at all into abstraction but at least towards an inquiry into the real. The apartments in L'enfance nue and the reds and greens of railings and doors in the film appear so garish in the former instance, and so newly painted in the latter, that they seem hardly accidental. Pialat did of course late in his career direct a film on Van Gogh, and Huppert talks of how angry he got on Loulou when a wall wasn't the grey he asked for. In one scene just before the end of Loulou there is a shot of a street that could almost come out of Antonioni's Red Desert or Melville's Un Flic: all the cars are shades of grey or beige, muting the scene beyond the conventions of naturalism.
Huppert talks of how often cinema is brutal; that the director says cut and the actor who is lost in the emotional intensity of the moment gets thrown back into reality. Pialat's method was never to shout action or cut; allowing the actors to feel freer within the performance than simply to play the scripted role. Yet few directors would edit their films with such abruptness, such a sense of violence in the movement from one scene to the next. One needn't see this at all as a paradox: the lack of a cut on set leaves the scene freer and looser. It serves the emotional specificity of performance, and means the director cuts more openly in the editing suite. Like Cassavetes, like Von Trier in The Idiots and Breaking the Waves, the Dardennes' generally, Pialat is a great director of the hard cut, of transitional abruptness that is truer to the performance and the scene than narrative continuity. A great example comes in the nightclub early on. After Andr, at this moment still her partner, arrives at the club Nelly goes over and talks to him and asks how his dinner was, while Andr starts showing signs of jealousy concerning the guy she was dancing with, namely Loulou. Loulou comes over and asks Andr if he can dance with his wife, and Nelly replies no, that she is tired. After he goes Andr again quizzes her, and Nelly walks off irritated. As she does so she turns to face the dance-floor, and sees Loulou dancing with someone else. After this shot Andr follows her and slaps her in the corridor. The continuity here is less important than the emotional focus. Do the shots really match? When Loulou goes off he seems to be moving in a direction other than the one we find him in when moments later he is on the dance floor. Is Nelly's look a reaction, has she been looking at Loulou's dancing? The shot follows Nelly's gaze, but there is no following reaction shot to confirm it. The shot afterwards is instead of Andr jealously going after Nelly and finding her in the corridor where he gives her the slap. Another filmmaker might establish the motivation more clearly, conventionally, by making it unequivocal that Nelly was looking longingly at Loulou, and that Andr caught that look.
Instead it is as though the hard cutting emphasises a certain undercurrent instead of current of emotion: the editing serves the emotional undercurrent of the characters' behavioural drives. The current of emotion would be the emotional force contained by narrative direction. The jealousy a character offers, the anger he shows, the fear he possesses, all offering currents of behaviour that can develop story and character. When Hollywood talks so frequently of arcs - moral arcs, character arcs, narrative arcs - this is in our terms behavioural currents carefully contained. But if a filmmaker is interested more in undercurrents than currents, how does he achieve this but by searching out not narrative event but emotional precision?
Now numerous films are well-arced but emotionally imprecise and vague, creating scenes that work in terms of pushing the story along and creating surprises, but consequently resulting, in the terms we're offering, superficial characterisation: they have currents but no undercurrents. The flow of narrative event means that there is little room for nuances of inexplicable behaviour that will slow down or redirect the film. A recent example like Up in The Air cannot countenance the motives of one of its leading characters because it would alter the arced focus on central character George Clooney. Here is a man who thinks he can remain untouched by the rest of the world as he jets around the States hired to fire people with a human touch which is not so human that he loses any sleep over the sackings. But it seems one fellow high-flier gets to him emotionally, and yet to create an abrupt emotional realization on Clooney's part, the film sacrifices the nuanced possibilities of her character. It turns out she is married, yet certain actions consequently make little sense; including going to Clooney's sister's wedding, and offering the sort of looks and gestures that indicate she may just want to spend the rest of her life with Clooney, and not simply be indulging in a casual affair she later claims was all she was looking for. We sense character complexity giving way to the emotional arcing necessary for Clooney's character, and so she becomes a cipher.
This brief digression can hopefully draw out Pialat's antithetical aesthetic, where he refuses arcs for moments that offer complex truths rather than ostensible coherence. Superficially Up in the Air makes sense: it is only if one digresses slightly from the film's narrative thrust for the nuances of character that problems arise. If we stay with Clooney's character as the film generally does, then the lover's motives become subsidiary and therefore relatively irrelevant. Pialat however is a filmmaker who refuses the irrelevance of the subsidiary, which is why the scene over the dinner near the conclusion is so significant, and we can compare it to the great club sequence at the beginning of the film. They are both marvellous scenes of mutually incompatible perspectives, with characters obviously lost in their own worlds or true to their own moods and feelings. In the club scene, Loulou is drunkenly enjoying himself, Nelly flirting with him, Andr ferociously jealous and there is also an ex-lover of Loulou's floating around tender with rejection. Each character has their own world that comes into contact with the other characters, but this seems quite different from the narrative one where character subjectivity contributes chiefly to the narrative development. Would a more narratively oriented filmmaker not firm up the narrative motives and weaken the characterisation? Would we muse over what action might result from the rejected girl, since she is presented as a little unstable; or from Andr, since he is so given to jealous violence?
If we talk rather schematically of character versus narrative it is to show that Pialat doesn't want the viewer second guessing the narrative motives of his characters, but to muse over the immediacy of their emotional states. The characters possess impulses over motives, and thus jealousy isn't a motivated feeling, more an impulsive one. In the scene where Andr starts pushing and slapping Nelly in the car, this wouldn't have been intentional: he probably wanted to meet up and talk calmly. Even in the dinner scene where Nelly appears aloof to the situation, we shouldn't assume that she is categorically thinking of the abortion she will have, but rather of the alienated feeling. Something in the situation doesn't agree with her. Often Pialat's characters react in relation to events as one's stomach might to a bad meal. We don't look for motives when someone vomits after food poisoning. In Pialat's films, like in Cassavetes' work, people appear to be going through life more than through narrative hoops, reacting to events with immediate responses rather than arced emotions.
The film's superficial messiness - the hardness of its cuts, the unmotivated behaviour of its characters, the lack of story development - contains within it however a far greater sense of inner coherence than many a movie. Pialat offers less a story than a vision. It is a way of looking at the world that respects the pro-filmic - the actual world from which the film comes - as much as where it is going to: into the making of a hundred minute feature. Now the pro-filmic dimension to cinema has been endlessly analysed, with no critic exploring the relationship between film and reality more succinctly and intelligently than Andr Bazin. Yet even neo-realist films like Bicycle Thieves and Germany Year Zero have motivated stories: for all their pro-filmic ideals, they have a clear through-line - the missing bicycle that needs to be found; the sick father who is a burden to the family and would perhaps be better eliminated. Pialat's pro-filmic interest also includes making the moment true not only, nor even especially (taking into account his interest in manipulating colour in the mise-en-scene), to the filmed reality, but true to the behaviour of the moment.
It is finally this fascination with the behaviour of the moment more than his interest in the pro-filmic element that makes Pialat one of the great realists as he searches out the undercurrents in our lives. Many filmmakers would be as resolutely fair to the cinematic spaces he films, perhaps even fairer taking into account Pialat's painterly side where he likes to impose a mise-en-scene on the locations he uses. But few filmmakers more than Pialat capture a sort of peripheral realism, a sense that what is in the corner of the frame could be as readily at the centre; where a crisis we happen to follow could have been another one altogether.
To conclude, we might think of the scene halfway through the film where Loulou gets stabbed in a bar. As Pialat trains a long lens on Loulou and his friend, so he keeps off screen except for a brief moment at the very beginning of it the characters that will shortly become central. The friend asks him about Nelly and he says that he doesn't really know why Nelly's with him. The friend says she loves him, and Loulou replies that she is in love with his cock. After Loulou makes his way to the toilet and someone whispers to her friend that it is him, some men push Loulou out of the bar and stab him in the side. We have no idea what night the girl is referring to, whether it was before his relationship with Nelly or during it, and what exactly he has done. Now earlier we mentioned the motivational versus the moment. Pialat could have created motive here by including an earlier scene where Loulou comes on to someone's partner, and then cut to the cafe scene where we notice, but Loulou does not, that the woman, her partner and some friends are in the bar also. We would have shared the motive that Pialat has cinematically laid out. Even in the dinner scene near the end, though Pialat makes it clear that the character who will threaten others with the gun is jealous, he manages to avoid making that information predictive; he stops us from second guessing motive.
It is the capacity to withhold motive and acknowledge the moment that makes Pialat's realism of especial interest. He does so by making the event inexplicable without arriving at the implausible: we might not see the situation coming, but that doesn't make it improbable when it does. The scene in Up in the Air where Clooney finds out that his lover is married with kids we might not have seen coming either, but that it surely because it is implausibly surprising. Everything the woman has done becomes perversely irrational when we find out that she is married, without the film at all acknowledging that perversity. It's as if we are supposed to forget completely her earlier actions because we are so completely focused on Clooney's forlorn figure and his various through-lines. Often the opposite is the case in Loulou. The peripheral characters may remain completely tangential but not at all superficial. Whether it is characters narratively off centre, like Andr and one of Loulou's exes, or marginal, like the character who stabs Loulou and the jealous partner who threatens people with a gun, they are not at all implausible characters; merely ones who happen to remain peripheral to the film's already loose focus. It is partly because they needn't serve any plot function (unlike the woman in Up in the Air), become a product of someone's decision making (as the trailer park folk in Up Close and Personal) or generate viewing guessing games, as we find in many a film that wants to push the story along by making us guess how things might turn out. Pialat is a realist fascinated in the unfathomability of people, yet paradoxically understands them from that place. This is realism indeed, a type of realism many of us practice in our own lives as people remain unknown to us and yet with whom we must nevertheless make contact as we try to attend to their undercurrents and not merely their currents.
© Tony McKibbin