Arts Review, Movies
Maurice Pialat is the auteur who got away. A strikingly original director and writer, he rose to fame in France with Naked Childhood, a very personal film about childhood, make in 1968, the most overtly political year during that period in Europe. Although he’s about the same age as the acclaimed the directors of the French New Wave, he didn’t benefit from the international publicity garnered for Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer and Rivette, who, in general, had hits in the early ‘60s.
Pialat compounded his unfortunate timing by being resolutely grouchy about most of his fellow French filmmakers with the exception of Bresson and to some extent, Renoir. Infamously, the French film crowd jeered him when he finally received the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film festival for Under the Sign of Satan.
So why is TIFF’s highly respected film curator James Quandt mounting a retrospective of Pialat’s work? Because he made some of the finest films in world cinema during the latter part of the 20th century and it’s high time people know it. Some of Pialat’s finest films have already screened in this retrospective: Loulou (a truly sensual film). Naked Childhood, Under the Sign of Satan, The Mouth Agape (a melancholy confrontation with death) and A Nos Amours (a harsh, passionate look at a dysfunctional father-daughter relationship.)
But there are many more films to come: Van Gogh, Graduate First, Police, The House in the Woods and Le Garcu amongst them. They’re all worth seeing. Just to concentrate on two: Van Gogh is one of the finest films ever made about an artist and Police turns a thriller on its head, eventually turning into a compelling film noir. Both show the director at the height of his powers.
In Van Gogh, Pialat offers an almost documentary look at the last days of the great painter’s life. Set in Auvers-sur-Oise, where Van Gogh actually spent his final months, the film is sexy, upsetting and surprisingly realistic. We see the painter as a real man, somewhat unhinged but fully capable of being a romantic figure, a brother and a highly driven artist. Jacques Dutronc won the Cesar (the French Oscars) for his sympathetic portrayal of Van Gogh and his fellow performers Alexandra London, Bernard Le Coq and Gerard Sety are wonderful.
While Van Gogh has a gorgeous, pastoral feeling to it, Police is a tough thriller that eventually begins to look like a noir. Gerard Depardieu won the Best Actor award at the Venice film festival for his portrayal of the conflicted cop Mangin, who gradually falls in love with Sophie Marceau’s Noria, who is mixed up with a drug ring. The film achieves a true sense of lost romance by its conclusion.
Maurice Pialat’s body of work is full of gems. Seek them out before they disappear again.
Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus
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