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À nos amours
Director: Maurice Pialat
Screenplay: Arlette Langmann & Maurice Pialat
Stars: Sandrine Bonnaire (Suzanne), Evelyne Ker (The Mother), Dominique Besnehard (Robert), Maurice Pialat (The Father), Anne-Sophie Maillé (Anne), Maïté Maillé (Martine), Christophe Odent (Michel), Pierre-Loup Rajot (Bernard), Cyr Boitard (Luc), Cyril Collard (Jean-Pierre), Jacques Fieschi (Jacques), Valérie Schlumberger (Marie-France)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1983
Country: France
À nos amours: Criterion Collection DVD
À nos amours Writer/director Maurice Pialat became a filmmaker late in life. He began making shorts and documentaries in his mid-30s, but he was 43 before he directed his first feature-length film, 1968’s L’enfance nue. Prior to that, he was a painter, but interestingly enough, there is nothing particularly “painterly” about his cinema. The films by most painters-turned-filmmakers (think of Derek Jarman, Peter Greenaway, Julian Schnabel) tend to have a particular visual quality that suggests the merging of the two artforms. Watching one of Pialat’s films, you would think that he began life as a journalist or perhaps a psychologist.

Pialat has been frequently compared to American independent auteur John Cassavetes, although their styles are actually quite different. Where Cassavetes always went in for the close-up to get the most intimate view of the human face he could, Pialat often keeps his camera back, observing the scene and giving the viewer the undeniable sense of being in the same space with the characters. What they have in common, though, is a fascination with humanity and how it is embodied or destroyed in human relationships. Both filmmakers tend to privilege emotion over plot and story; their characters are frequently tortured and unhappy, grasping at that which constantly eludes them.

À nos amours is one of Pialat’s most celebrated films, and it bears all of his strengths and weaknesses as a filmmaker. It is the story of a girl on the cusp of womanhood and its attendant sexuality, which in and of itself is a remarkably simplistic French cliché, especially in the early 1980s. If there is anything truly great about À nos amours, it is the way in which Pialat transcends the formulaic nature of his subject matter to get at something deeper, darker, and more meaningful (although the opening credits sequence, which plays against a soft-focus image of the teenage protagonist facing away at the bow of a cruising boat with her symbolic white dress fluttering provocatively in the wind, has the aura of David Hamilton-esqe soft core).

The film’s emotional success would not have been possible without the fierce and memorable central performance by Sandrine Bonnaire in her film debut. Bonnaire, who was only 15 at the time the film was shot, plays Suzanne, a fiery, intelligent, and absolutely inscrutable teenager negotiating the various pitfalls of adolescence. The central theme of the film is Suzanne’s search for happiness and fulfillment, which she finds only when she is in a man’s bed. Pop Freudians will immediately link this to her relationship with her father (well played by Pialat himself), a bear of a man who is both her salvation and her damnation. It is of crucial importance that film’s only truly tender scene takes place between Suzanne and her father, yet his leaving the family is the catalyst that eventually sends it into complete chaos.

Throughout the film, Suzanne skips from lover to lover, often with no explanation or justification. In an early scene, she rejects the obvious desires of her young boyfriend Luc (Cyr Boitard), who clearly loves her and will continue to love her; a few scenes later, she inexplicably loses her virginity to a crass young American she meets one night at a dance. “I didn’t know what I was doing,” she tearfully tells her friend the next morning, and her statement conveys a double meaning in terms of both her physical inexperience and her inability to understand her own actions. Such motivational cloudiness haunts every frame of the film, making it all but impossible to know why Suzanne (or any other character for that matter) does what she does. Suzanne’s promiscuity seems less a matter of conscious decision than the sexual equivalent of a leaf floating on the wind; she goes where life takes her.

Like many of Pialat’s films, À nos amours deals heavily in confrontation. There are several scenes in the film that have a charge of stinging emotional violence that is so acute that it breaks into the physical. When characters slap each other (which they do with alarming frequency), it is rushed, clumsy, and--most of all--bitterly angry. There is nothing crisp and severe about the violence the way old Hollywood melodramas would have it; rather, the violence is a physical manifestation of the characters’ own inscrutability.

Unfortunately, this ultimately emerges as one of the film’s primary weaknesses, in that Pialat allows the scenes of emotional and physical rage to become so high-pitched that they begin to border on the ludicrous. This is particularly true of virtually every scene involving Suzanne’s unstable mother (Evelyne Ker), whose emotional breakdowns are so furious and regular that they become like bad notes in an otherwise good song. The same could arguably be said about Robert (Dominique Besnehard), Suzanne’s older brother who fills the void left by their father with a combination of outsized violence and an infantile desire to protect his mother.

Yet, even with this glaring weakness, À nos amours is a frequently powerful drama that presents some of the uglier realities of life without blinking an eye. The film is filled with unmarked temporal leaps of increasing length, dropped plotlines, and unexplained actions, all of which underscores the importance of present experience over narrative. If a scene worked emotionally, Pialat kept it in; if it didn’t, he dropped it, narrative coherence be damned.

Pialat’s approach to his subject matter is frank and deliberate, and the improvisational nature of many of the scenes engenders in them a raw urgency, never so much as in a scene late in the film when the father, who has been presumed dead, suddenly appears at a dinner of extended family members. The actors were not expecting this development, and Pialat’s sudden presence at the head of the table creates a palpable discomfort that he maliciously twists and pinches into genuine pain as both character and director. It’s a disarming and effective moment that, in many ways, summarizes the film as a whole.

À nos amours Criterion Collection Two-Disc Special Edition DVD

Aspect Ratio1.66:1
AnamorphicYes
Audio French Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
Subtitles English
Supplements
  • The Human Eye, a 1999 documentary on the film
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • 2003 video interview with actor Sandrine Bonnaire
  • New video interview with Catherine Breillat
  • New video interview with Jean-Pierre Gorin
  • Archival interview with Maurice Pialat on the set
  • Actor auditions
  • Insert booklet featuring essays by critics Molly Haskell and Kent Jones and reprinted interviews with Pialat and cinematographer Jacques Loiseleux
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$39.95
    Release DateJune 6, 2006

    VIDEO & AUDIO
    Criterion’s digitally restored, high-definition transfer was taken from the original camera negative, and it looks fantastic. The image is strong and clear with great color and a superb, filmlike appearance that maintains just the slightest hints of the original grain structure. A first-rate effort. The French Dolby Digital monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from the 35mm magnetic tracks and digitally restored, sounds excellent, as well.
    SUPPLEMENTS
    Admirers of Maurice Pialat’s films will have much to enjoy in this two-disc special edition, whose supplements deepen and enrich the experience of the film and broaden the understanding of Pialat as a filmmaker. The viewer will be greatly rewarded by watching The Human Eye, a 1999 documentary by Xavier Giannoli that critically explores the film and its implications through interviews with critic Jean-Michel Frodon, screenwriter Arlette Langmann, and actors Sandrine Bonnaire, Dominique Besnehard, and Jacques Fieschi. The film is further illuminated via a trio of video interviews. There is a nearly 20-minute interview with Sandrine Bonnaire, which was recorded in 2003, in which she discusses working on the film and, most crucially, her father/daughter-like relationship with Pialat. There is also a 10-minute interview with filmmaker Catherine Breillat, who wrote the script for Pialat’s 1985 film Police, and an interview with Jean-Luc Godard collaborator and current University of California at San Diego professor Jean-Pierre Gorin. Both Breillat and Gorin have a great deal of respect for Pialat, but neither shies away from discussing his difficult personality and sometimes tyrannical behavior on the set. Pialat himself appears in a 12-minute excerpt from a French television show Étoiles et toiles, which shows him working on the set of À nos amours and also sitting down for an interview to discuss his working methods. Finally, the disc includes 21 minutes of video auditions of five principal actors: Sandrine Bonnaire (who also appears in an audition with Pialat), Dominique Besnehard, Cyr Boitard, Cyril Collard, and Pierre-Loup Rajot. The 37-page insert booklet features essays by critics Molly Haskell and Kent Jones and reprinted interviews with Pialat and cinematographer Jacques Loiseleux.

    Overall Rating: (3)

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection


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