Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Police - Dossier: The Zebra's Stripes

Dossier: The Zebra's Stripes

Pialat on the set of Police in 1984.

The following originally appeared in the booklet for the 2008 Masters of Cinema UK DVD release of
Police [1985] which I co-produced.

Sometimes I think
Police might be Pialat's greatest film. But then there are all the other ones... Dan Sallitt's definitive essay on the film which appeared in the booklet (and which he considers one of his favorite pieces of his own writing) has just been posted at his blog, here.

I'm posting these Pialat pieces on the occasion of the retrospective of Maurice Pialat's complete features (and the Turkish shorts) that runs from October 16 till November 1 at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens.

Dan's 2010 MoC essay on
À nos amours. has just been posted on his blog here. A visual I made for the film along with my translation of the 1984 Le Monde conversation between Maurice Pialat and Jean-Luc Godard can be found here.

My essay on
Passe ton bac d'abord... — "The War of Art" — can be read here. A dossier of my translations of four interviews with Pialat around the film can be read here.


"The Zebra's Stripes: An Interview with Maurice Pialat"

Excerpt from an Interview by Alain Bergala and Serge Toubiana (1985)

Translated from the French by Craig Keller


What was your point of departure for Police?

A série noire book called À nos amours [the French title of Bodies Are Dust, P. J. Wolfson, 1931] that we tried adapting for several months. And then I let it go; there were problems of adaptation, but while we did have to sift through an enormous amount of plot-holes, we were still able to continue because the subject itself was a strong one. And when I finished Police, I said to myself that it would have been good to fill in the plot-holes, to reflect upon realism. I sort of understand those who say that my cinema doesn’t have any room to dream.

And how did the script come about?

We worked for a long time, into the normal period set aside for pre-production on a film. Here, you’re pushing me off into weird territory. I know that with [you at] Cahiers it’s not the same as the daily or weekly press, but I wouldn’t want to be shut up inside of realism — we’re going to jump back into the realm of [Raymond] Depardon, whom I find very interesting, but I don’t think that my film has anything to do with Faits divers [Lurid Stories, Raymond Depardon, 1983]; in any case, it especially doesn’t need to be situated on the same plane — naturalism, realism, all that opens the door up to misunderstandings.

Let’s come back to the script.

I began a collaboration with a couple partners who didn’t get very far, some rough-drafts, if you will. We took off on another track, involving high-level cops, and we couldn’t get anywhere past any of it. But we encountered some personalities who served as models — gangsters, cops, a lawyer — and by way of this big hodge-podge, we constructed a very simple story. A long time ago, I’d been tempted to direct scenes that were more violent, more spectacular, where cops got brought low, although in the end we gave up on it. But the starting-point for the script was Catherine Breillat, by way of the meetings she’d had, the people she had been observing afterwards. Then, she went off the rails, and contrary to what she pretends, she’s the one who left — I never fire anyone — in this big grand-guignol-esque manner, taking her scripts along with her, and so we finished with Jacques Fieschi and Sylvie Danton. I was shooting, I was just grinding away. Happily, the theme is simple and those disruptions that took place during production didn’t have much of an effect. This was very critical since William Karel, for example, who worked a few days on the set, made big pronouncements like, “This story’s not interesting, this wouldn’t even make five lines on the tenth page of a tabloid.” I responded saying that it wasn’t necessarily big headlines and spectacular events that make for a good subject. The important thing is getting to know the characters. Of course, the girl in the film, we never met her, but all the other characters exist in real-life, even the lawyer. By contrast, the character that Depardieu plays is a complete creation, a pure invention that he came up with during the shoot. We disagreed with Gérard, who didn’t want to study any cops for the sake of inspiration, not even their gestures, their way of being, working, speaking. In the end, he was the one who was right, we came back to tamping down on the verisimilitude — he’s the cop of that film. Anyway I didn’t seek out what would be the most realistic thing. Cops are all different — some I saw very little, others I was in close contact with for a pretty long time — don’t forget that we stayed in contact with them for three months non-stop. Here again, I’m censoring myself, and I wouldn’t want to say that there are any real cops in the film. Everything is entirely recomposed; it’s true, there are cops in the film, who are more visible than the ones that were in La balance [The Narc, Bob Swaim, 1982], where they were always seen from 20 meters behind, whereas here, they have some scenes, they talk, you’re seeing them, you confuse them with the actors. But having said that, I’m afraid it sounds like we’re making reference to documentary, we’re so hung up on that practice.

You filmed a large portion of the film on sets.

Yes, in the 20th arrondissement, rue des Pyrénées. It was a school for the handicapped, I think, that had been abandoned for a very long time, something like 1500 square meters. We reconstructed the whole thing, except for the restaurant. It was a very interesting experience. To the point that I had difficulty going back on-location. In the end I don’t like that — I don’t like it anymore.

Just to come back to documentary, the sets aren’t that realistic. It doesn’t really resemble a police station.

It’s not a police station, it’s a judiciary police barracks, which up until recent times had been called the “brigade territoriale” [“territorial squad”]. There were a dozen brigades that covered Paris and its perimeter. It doesn’t have anything to do with a police station, it’s not the same kind of work. I’m gonna say this again, because I know in advance that everyone’s gonna be going on about it. It’s not like in Les ripoux [The Crooked Cops, Claude Zidi, 1984]; it’s not a police station. There are commissioners inside of police stations who handle small business, but in principle the squads treat the more overarching stuff.

And in principle they don’t hold on to the people who get arrested — they transfer them really quickly?

They keep them for the custody-period, that’s all. And what I learned in the course of shooting, and what I respected, is the sequencing of time. You’d have to shoot over two days to understand who the “gardes-détenus” are, the ones who guard the detainees — old cops, but also guys who’ve been injured, who work the day-shift. At night, there are cops in uniform. And in theory, the people who are in custody — except of course when there are arrests, or nighttime interrogations, which are rare — are transferred in the evening to the 12th arrondissement. They don’t stay inside the barracks, nor the police stations.

Was this central idea of interrogation in the script?

Yes, in this film, there’s little improvisation, a word I don’t much care for; I’d say it’s automatic writing — in place of writing with a pen on paper, you write by making an imprint onto emulsion, but it’s the same thing; it’s improvisational, if you want to say that, but here it’s been shot in a pretty classical way, the way in which things are done or acted, but the text is still written. Sophie Marceau, at the beginning, really learned her lines for this one scene which, anyway, is no longer in the film. Afterwards, I forbade her from doing it, but she did what she wanted a little anyway, like every actor: you tell them not to learn it, but that’s not to say they’re not learning it, so long as they have their hands on a script.

It’s impossible that the dialogue in the interrogation could have been entirely memorized!

Yes, yes it was. Marceau has some very firm ideas, it’s part of her personality, along with some notions about the direction of actors. She took me for someone who wants nothing to do with actors. I always say: a film is best understood as a document, especially about what’s not being shown — and the finished film is less a document than all the rushes. For example, there was that first interrogation scene, where she wasn’t really at ease, and neither was I in any case — it was the first time we shot a scene together, and it was a very long one: six minutes when we shot it, but still it was Sophie Marceau pretty much how she actually is, how she acts. You go explain all this to her; I can’t. Maybe she’ll understand one day, I don’t know. But I think she could have been able to do better in the film; we didn’t have very warm relations, to say the least. We had a bad relationship, even worse because we almost didn’t have any connection whatsoever. In the end I like [Richard] Anconina better, who there was a three-day crisis with, which was beneficial in the end, since thanks to that he was good in the final scene. He’s worth more than all the people bickering, putting up their fronts, than any of those situations.

Could it be that from the onset she was resisting the role? That it made her afraid?

You know what kind of films she puts out, so on the contrary she should have found this one pretty tame. I told her, and I kept my word, that there wouldn’t be any ass in the film. I don’t want to criticize pictures she’s made, but in the last one — let’s call it by its name, L’amour braque [Love Takes Aim, Andrzej Żuławski, 1985] — you have to admit she’s not being respected within the physical shot, but was just asked to do something and she was all ready to up and do it. Whereas with me, if I had asked her... When Gérard and she are getting ready to fuck, we could have done it in a more trivial fashion, with her clothes going down to her knees, or her ankles. We could have shot it like that, but I think what you see there suffices.

It’s the length of the scene that’s erotic, but in an equal part we sense Gérard’s frustration, that is at once very seductive, very flirtatious, and, in fact, pretty suppressed.

Marceau, I’m not afraid to say, even if I come across as weak, is someone who impresses me, who intimidates me. Gérard understood her perfectly. All question of age aside, he says she’s intimidating. Gérard is a big, shy person. In fact, if she hadn’t said to him in the car, “Hold me,” I have the impression that he would have stayed put, there. She’s the one who took the initiative. It seems to me that here these two are, she’s doing it because she’s envious — I don’t know about those who think she’s a bald-faced liar from beginning to end; when she says, “Hold me,” she’s definitely being sincere. Maybe there was some calculation there because of course she needs protection from this guy, we’re obliged to think that — but at the moment she does so, any calculation fades away. And at Gérard’s place, there’s a very strong, sexually impulsive side, a timidity mixed with courage. That’s how it is for me, anyway.

Sophie Marceau’s character makes one think of a certain tradition in French cinema, certain films by Carné, by Renoir, with that fatality inside of and surrounding her, that leads her to betray those around her. We don’t find this anywhere else in today’s cinema.

Those are films that made such an impression on me when I was young... I had the advantage over you of having seen them at the age where they leave the biggest impression, and not in arthouse repertories or cinematheques, but in those fabulous theatres on Saturday night. The Carnés, La bête humaine [The Human Beast, Jean Renoir, 1938], I make films that keep those pictures in mind — at least I hope that’s what I’m doing, for my own sake.


Before we move on to speaking about the direction, there’s something that impressed me a great deal in the film — the Arabs. They’re very different from the image we’re shown in current French cinema.

In fact, I have that quality — I have to have some, after all — of treating everyone equally; the proof is in the pudding. Same thing with the cops, except with the obligation de réserve, they couldn’t go all the way with their roles, so we confined them to very short, very discreet parts.

What’s impressive is that when a character comes into the picture, his presence is very strong, and he has his backstory: how did you manage to get this out of the actors?

This has its drawbacks and its shortcomings; I think that it has to do with a way of shooting. It’s not by chance that on the second day of production, Marceau was hesitant. Gérard started to get into the habit, he had showed up full of goodwill, decided to be all buddy-buddy with me, and so was I with him. For a moment I even thought that this was dangerous, that it would have been more valuable to get on each other’s nerves a little because it was almost too idyllic. There’s the question of doing a film again together, and maybe pretty quickly even; I hope we move on to a new stage in our relationship. On Loulou, we really went back and forth from the one to the other. Gérard is someone I want to do something else with again. I know that we can still explore some things that aren’t in this latest film. In Loulou, the inexperienced actors, who were nevertheless very good in the preceding film (Passe ton bac d’abord... [Pass Your Bac First..., 1979]), let’s just say they were bowled over by Gérard. When there were group scenes they’d manage to pull it off, but if it was a scene with just him, it was all over, like when a boxer gets in the ring with a little amateur who doesn’t box so badly, but just can’t hold himself together. In Loulou, he wasn’t happy at all to find himself face to face with inexperienced actors, and there you don’t ever even notice it. It’s true that there are moments where he tends to “act the star”. It’s something he’s already heard me say before he reads this issue of Cahiers, and he’ll understand, but when he does a scene with someone who’s good, he has the impression, being the starring-role and all, that the other person is going to steal the scene from him, and right away he gives a typical reaction. Once, while shooting, I made the mistake of saying to him, about a scene that wasn’t working: “Clearly, you’re choking.” So, for two days, he said: “I’m choking, I’m choking.” I told him, he still wasn’t listening: “It’s just good common sense, if you’re in a scene with an unknown actor who’s really good, for the audience, the scene will still always be yours.” What’s absolutely astonishing is that he has such instincts that you can say, without flattery, he’s the most intelligent person on the set; he figures things out more quickly than anyone else, almost all the time. It often happens that my solution is different than his own, but the way he gets it across is always good — he’s rarely off. I have a rather pejorative take on actors in general: there they are, they don’t know what the fuck they’re doing, and they’re bored stiff all day long. Then you call upon them, and for a few minutes, they do their scene. Depardieu is his character completely, but he doesn’t piss anyone off by continuing to stay in character: “That’s it — I’m Mangin,” every time you meet him. It reminds me of Lucien Guitry, in particular that famous anecdote: that day he was onstage in the middle of cracking jokes, his back to the audience, spouting the dumbest shit as happens in theatre; then he turns back around, and when he does — his expression's all twisted-up, and it turns out it was supposed to be a dramatic scene the whole time. I think Gérard is someone in that vein. I don’t know why, I think more of Lucien Guitry than Raimu or the people he most often gets compared to. [...]


You hope you’ll have a big hit with Police?

I stay pretty grounded about it all, because I don’t think you can change anything: “A zebra can’t change its stripes,” as they say. But I’m too associated with art-cinema, the remnants of the Nouvelle Vague, of whom no trace remains, who don’t do anything anymore for the public... It’s often said: “If you make a good film, you can have a big success; but not if you make a very good film.” That said, I think that Police is a good film. So, maybe there’s some hope of having a hit. [...]


The images of the film are very carefully crafted.

I get along very well with [cinematographer Luciano] Tovoli. I don’t know why, we kept getting our lines crossed with one another on all the films that came before — he wasn’t ever free, and I pulled the plug on him at the last minute all the time. But ever since Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble [We Won't Grow Old Together, 1972], which we had already done together, I wanted to work with him again.

From the beginning, he gave his all: we were in this place that was very difficult to light; the light was coming in from the outside, we were on the fifth take, we couldn’t get things right with the spotlights. He found another system that involved neon tubes, which worked so well that almost the entire film is lit with these things — there are practically no spotlights at all. He built tube batteries that we could move around. So the light moved, which is very difficult to pull off because doing this can make it draw attention to itself, and if this is the case, it doesn’t work at all.

Can you describe the set-up of a shot, with one camera movement, that takes place in the police station for example? Do you start out by blocking the actors, and then move on to problems involving the camera?

It was hardly any different from what I usually do, except I had a bigger budget. If I’m taking the scene where Depardieu is interrogating Sophie Marceau (I’m talking about the part with the interrogation that takes place between only the two of them), there were two-and-a-half days of shooting; I shot from two angles, but never using two cameras. The problem that always crops up is knowing who you’re going to start on, Gérard or Marceau. We often start with the one who has the better odds of being seen, so we essentially sacrifice the one who’s out of frame, less present. It’s not from behind, or straight-on, but again this depends on the feel of the moment. “Here, in that scene, it would maybe be better to start on Gérard.” That was the case with the interrogation scene; we started on Gérard.

At the moment you show up to shoot this scene, have the actors already had their dialogue for a while?

Yes. They’ve learned it — they have it on hand, in any case. In the instance of the interrogation, which was very much suited for Gérard, he had files on him all the time, on top of the desk, at which he could sneak a look. As he’s pretty sly with this, you never notice him doing it, but he still had his “marks”. Marceau learned her lines a little better, spot-on. So it was a very laborious blocking process. The first shots, which actually often serve as rehearsals, get filmed nevertheless, and often nothing in them gets used, at least from the first one. But for example, when I was shooting Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble, the first take was almost always the one used. That’s rarely the case, because it’s maybe more refined.

Do you print every take?

Oh, no, we select which ones we want. On this film, we didn’t say to ourselves, “Here, we didn’t print such-and-such a take, but it might have been interesting.” Over time, I make myself do more rehearsals. What I force myself to do are purely technical rehearsals, where the people aren’t acting. But, little by little, as it so happens, I think that I’m going to end up shooting like everyone else. For the moment, let’s stay with this film: rehearsals have their advantages and their disadvantages: what risks getting erased is the blurriness — I mean, the blurriness of the text, not the blurriness of the image — the hesitations, the moments of tripping up, that I never call cut on. One of the big principles of the production is that I don’t call cut, because people often correct themselves. There are two or three passages in the film where the continuity across a cut isn’t quite right. I don’t bother too much with continuity but I still force myself not to cross the line too much, somehow going for a really graceful shot/reverse-shot set-up, and with some motion, with the camera dollying forward “inside of” the scene.

Is there a degree of inspiration that is allowed into the frame at that moment?

Ah yes, Jacques Loiseleux, who does the framing [as camera-operator], really knew his stuff, since this was our third movie together, and he brings an enormous amount to the table. Anyway, there was an operator for a few days, who wasn’t used to this way of working at all, and it didn’t pan out. He didn’t stick with the scene. Tovoli has a way of working that’s very graceful, and whenever he moved back to the other side for the reverse-shot, there was practically no need to tilt the lights; it went very quckly and we could just resume shooting — I’m not saying a few minutes later exactly, but without people having to go back to their dressing rooms. I also tried something, with two or three retakes, that I’d like to try and do more of — it’s what I call “getting back into the cabbage-patch” with the actors, not just acting over top of the depth-of-field, with the camera wisely planted in front of the scene, but advancing forward inside of the scene. I’d like to try to do this more systematically. I know that it will be difficult and that it will draw the time of the shoot out a lot more, because there, there’s a connection to be found between acting and the technical side — for one thing because if you’re set on going back inside of the scene, there are problems that are very hard to resolve. So, we can pretty much say that there will be even longer rehearsals. Anyway, it’s curious — you see it in Dallas, but rarely in a French film: people overtaking the camera, with the camera set up to move backwards and pick them back up again. In France, we generally shoot in wide-angles instead of doing any of this stuff with tracking-shots advancing inside of the scene — because it’s easier, and maybe because it’s a habit from the theatre that’s remained fixed in place.

Afterward, when you come to the editing — let’s say that Sophie Marceau is the focus in this particular scene — are you searching for one scene where she would be good pretty much all the way throughout, and this would serve as the foundation for your montage? Or rather do you move forward editing the scene by one small piece at a time, taking your shots from any given take?

A little of both. In that one sequence, there are actually two takes of Marceau, and there’s one in which she was all discombobulated, not up to the task: Gérard was teasing her, and you see that she had been crying. And then another one where, on the contrary, she’s very defiant: the passage from one take to the next happens just like that, without anything justifying it in the script. [...] And all of a sudden, she drops her defenses...


Maurice Pialat, from an Interview with City Limits (1986)

“[The title Police] is short, snappy, and commercial... probably the reason why it did so well in France. A pretty good title, really, but not for the film we made. You couldn’t really call it a proper policier — certainly by the second half it no longer qualifies. Lots of people must have felt cheated because what they saw can hardly have matched up to what they were expecting. ...

“Of course [it hurts being called names in the press by Sophie Marceau and other actors]. I went to a local restaurant for lunch and I’m greeted by the ordonnier with ‘Voilà, Pialat, who will shit on us with his bad character.’ And all these people criticizing me without ever having seen one of my films! Or Marceau going around telling everybody how much she’d been slapped in the film, as if I’d ordered the treatment myself. That was all up to Gérard. It’s not nice asking actors to be slapped, but you do ask them in advance, so they know what they’re getting themselves into. ...

“Maybe it’s true [that my films are misogynistic]. The men in my films tend to be more sympathetic than the women, so ultimately there must be misogyny in them. Alas, I don’t want that to be so. It’s not intentional. In my films it’s always the men who are rejected and the women who give them the boot. Just as has happened in my own life. It only needs to happen once to have an effect on you. It’s all a bit obsessional for me, with these women who quit the scene.”


Tuesday, October 06, 2015

À nos amours. - Dossier: The Pialat Code + Pialat/Godard

Acknowledging first the death of Chantal Akerman. June 6, 1950 – October 5, 2015. Her new film No Home Movie is set to screen tomorrow night as part of the New York Film Festival, and a Q&A with Akerman was to follow. RIP.


Dossier: The Pialat Code + Pialat/Godard

The following originally appeared in the booklet for the 2010 Masters of Cinema UK DVD release of À nos amours. [To Our Romance. / Here's to Love., 1983] which I co-produced.

Dan Sallitt's brilliant must-read essay on the film which appeared in the booklet has just been posted at his blog, here.

(One of the best disc supplements of all-time can be found on the Criterion DVD release of the film: Jean-Pierre Gorin speaking about the movie.)

I'm posting these Pialat pieces on the occasion of the retrospective of Maurice Pialat's complete features (and the Turkish shorts) that runs from October 16 till November 1 at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens.

My essay on
Passe ton bac d'abord... — "The War of Art" — can be read here. A dossier of my translations of four interviews with Pialat around the film can be read here.


The Pialat Code (2010)

by Craig Keller


Pialat/Godard (1984)

Translated from the French by Craig Keller

[This interview was published in its complete form in Le Monde on February 16, 1984. The editors’ note that prefaced this interview, excerpted in the special issue of the Cahiers du cinéma (no. 576) in February 2003 devoted to Pialat upon his death, read as follows:

“Recently, Jean-Luc Godard expressed the wish to do a remake of Jean Renoir’s La chienne [The Bitch, 1931], with Maurice Pialat in Michel Simon’s role. Not the first convergence between the two monuments. Early 1984, À nos amours. and Prénom Carmen [First Name Carmen, Jean-Luc Godard, 1983] have been released in theatres. Given that the films have a connection with one another, certain individuals wanted to see the men connect. And they’ve accepted, at the initiative of Alain Bergala taken up by Claude Davy, to have a discussion in Rolle at JLG’s home, without a “moderator” journalist. Excerpts from a three-hour conversation from these personalities who are as similar to one another as they are opposed. What is an ‘auteur’? What does it mean to be ‘unfair’? What is the connection to the ‘theme’?”]

JEAN-LUC GODARD: [...] I think what gets called an “auteur film” has been a real — in the end every catastrophe is beneficial, maybe — but has been a real catastrophe, and those who get called auteurs [authors] these days in movies, people wouldn’t dare call them auteurs in literature.

MAURICE PIALAT: [...] Wrong or right, those I recognise as having always had something like ambition, that gets closer to the auteur, but the auteur as he’s understood in theatre. In fact, what I have regrets about in all my films has to do sometimes with the absence of the scenario, and even when it’s there, it’s too diffuse, poorly put together, not worked out enough.

And when it comes right down to it, if I continue making films in a certain sphere, and since we’re condemned to intimist cinema due to a lack of access to funding, I’d essentially have to turn into a writer — whereas I don’t consider myself a writer — I have a lot of trouble writing — I’d end up writing a film the way one writes a theatrical play. I don’t think it’s what you yourself are looking to do; you’ve shown as much up to the present.

JEAN-LUC GODARD: Ah! there you have it, I’d really like to be able to — me, who started making films by writing dialogue. Even before the Cahiers du cinéma, I had a column in Arts; I remember a reproach I cast against the French cinema of the time. When someone dropped off a script, he always said: “I’m off.” Whereas I used to say, when you drop off a script, you should say: “I’ll be back.” This was the reality of it. I really liked dialogue. These days, I’d like to be like a theatre auteur [ / playwright], having neither technicians nor actors; just having the subject. And as you can see, I’m not getting there...

MAURICE PIALAT: Yes, but why not then? It’s a question I want to put to you.

JEAN-LUC GODARD: When “auteur” gets said, it conjures up what became of Duvivier, or even Carné in a sense... I mean: the subject was no longer there; you find it more in Guitry, Pagnol, or Cocteau, or in Renoir, who was accused of doing rush-jobs, and we said: No, he rushes things through in the name of a superior interest, and it’s much better, much more rigorous than a film like La symphonie pastorale [The Pastoral Symphony, Jean Delannoy, 1946]. This is what it was, this auteur notion. Today, the difficulty has to do with the relationship to the subject. What I had a problem with in À nos amours. — because one has to criticise himself, so I hope you’ll be just as mean — I think you’ve gotten pretty soft in the last two or three years, I don’t know if it’s the result of politics...


JEAN-LUC GODARD: ...or because it was in your self-interest, or out of fatigue, or out of going off and having a good time...

MAURICE PIALAT: Neither out of self-interest nor going off having a good time.

JEAN-LUC GODARD: It disturbs me: À nos amours. is much more of a rush-job than Passe ton bac d’abord.... Because of this hodgepodge, if I had to defend it in a piece of criticism, I’d defend Pialat, but I’d attack the film. What’s missing in À nos amours., and what eluded me in Prénom Carmen (maybe it can’t be spotted very well because there’s a subject that is there, in the title, which everyone’s familiar with [i.e., “Carmen”] ), is: What was the subject? We saw it better in Passe ton bac d’abord.... And it seems to me that, in real films, sometimes ones that are a little challenging, when the subjects are new they have a hard time coming across [i.e., via the titles and the films themselves]. La règle du jeu [The Rules of the Game, Jean Renoir, 1939], which was a subject more contemporary than La grande illusion [The Grand Illusion, Jean Renoir, 1937], has had a harder time getting itself across.

[...] Our two films resemble each other because they were made in the same era, but don’t resemble each other at all in their approach or the anxiety over the future that they might have, through the idea that they’re made out of cinema. I’d really just like to do dialogue for the theatre, but I’d be incapable of writing the first line, whereas when I think about a film, it quickly changes into something else, but I’ve barely ever written any sentence that leads right into another one. You’ve wanted to make theatre. Doesn’t that have something to do with the actors?

MAURICE PIALAT: To make filmed theatre, I’ll reiterate, due to budgetary matters. If you had a big budget, you wouldn’t make theatre, because what you want to capture doesn’t show up on a stage.

JEAN-LUC GODARD: [...] But you’ve spoken about unfairness, and that’s a feeling I’ve never had. I’ve always heard you say “it’s unfair”, and that you’d like to do something...

MAURICE PIALAT: I’d really like for once to have a budget that corresponds to the film I want to make.

JEAN-LUC GODARD: But are you being serious here?

MAURICE PIALAT: Oh, of course I am!

JEAN-LUC GODARD: Because for me, I realized that whenever I’d say that, actually, it wasn’t sincere. I said to myself: “I’d really like for once to shoot a film on the equivalent of the big soundstage at MGM, or have a big film to make every now and then.” [...] But I see that that wasn’t really me being sincere. Is it that if you had twelve billion [francs] to make Passe ton bac...

MAURICE PIALAT: But at that point I wouldn’t make Passe ton bac.

JEAN-LUC GODARD: Yes, but do you find it unfair to be making Passe ton bac? In the end it’s what you were meant to do, all the same.

MAURICE PIALAT: No it's not! I was forced to make Passe ton bac, because there was a problem with money with the CNC. I came to understand that I was already having problems in the course of production and it would be still more difficult afterward. With the nickels-and-dimes that were left over I’d have to shoot a film, in spite of what I’d been imagining, in place of Passe ton bac, to make something in the way of Le camion [The Truck, Marguerite Duras, 1977], which is to say, one evening, two people, a table, and a camera. I would have been able to.

JEAN-LUC GODARD: For us, that’s a rush-job, whereas for Duras, it’s not a rush-job.

MAURICE PIALAT: But it’s an issue that it gets to that point.

JEAN-LUC GODARD: On Passe ton bac, there’s no pun intended saying you were controlled, but I think it’s one of your most controlled films, too.

MAURICE PIALAT: I accept — and I’m in a better place knowing that it’s true — that À nos amours. is considered a rush-job. But Passe ton bac is much more of a rush-job than À nos amours.. I shot À nos amours. with even less enthusiasm, and surely you can feel it, but Passe ton bac really is a bad memory.

JEAN-LUC GODARD: Do you think you have more difficulties than others do?

MAURICE PIALAT: Yes. On the other hand, I’ve recognized for a little while now that I’m largely responsible for these difficulties. At the time of L’enfance-nue [Naked-Childhood, 1968] that irritated Truffaut, who was co-producer: it was always other people’s fault, I was always the one whining. I had my reasons, but actually it was my way of conducting myself too that made things turn out like that.

JEAN-LUC GODARD: But sometimes do you say to yourself: “Look, if I could have the budget of Fort Saganne [Alain Corneau, 1984]...”?

MAURICE PIALAT: Maybe not at this point. But yeah, I’ve wished for that before. I put a lot of time into mulling it over, and I continue to believe that you have to have a decent budget to shoot. I think the importance, the quality of the means at hand, exert their influence on the merit of the works produced. Not a little bit — a lot. After shooting Loulou [1980] I had the desire to write a book, as objectively as possible, which would have revisited the script pages, the notes in the margins. I let it go because I figured it would put people to sleep. But the shoot of the film had been exhausting. The three lead actors were no longer around at the end of the shoot, they’d all taken off. I had to wait one year before redoing continuity shots.

JEAN-LUC GODARD: This happens on almost every film. On Prénom Carmen, they checked out from the beginning of production, vanished into thin air. Okay, they’re gone, you stop, but that’s big stars for you. For Passion [1982], I didn’t have any. Hanna Schygulla, Isabelle Huppert, Jerzy Radziwiłowicz didn’t fulfill their contract. That said, they were placed in some conditions, difficult for them, and left waiting a very long time. [...] There was a dropping out right from the point of departure that there wouldn’t have been at one point in time, and you find yourself alone again. Especially if you don’t have the typical words, the typical utensils or typical behavior, to have the belief that there’s something that exists, that’s beautiful, that’s worth the pain of investment. My only real connection was with, I believe, the real creators: producer and director, it’s both of them together. But you have to try to do something else. I personally find the fact that you say, “It’s unfair,” unfair.

MAURICE PIALAT: In a certain way, ever since I’ve started making movies, I’ve never had producers, except on certain parts of La maison des bois [The House in the Woods, 1971], and I’m sure that’s apparent in the film. There were people behind me supporting me.

JEAN-LUC GODARD: Happily, I’ve known one or two who’ve helped me out in becoming a producer myself as well, so I wouldn’t be completely alone on a film. What’s lacking everywhere is the relation to the subject. [...] But this business of lacking funds isn’t true. Let’s take the premise “three people in a room”. These days three people in a room, if you have a million francs, you have what you need to pay them and make a beautiful film, as long as you’ve got beautiful ideas. “Lack of funding” always gets said in movies. A man of letters never complains about the fact that there are too few letters in the alphabet.

MAURICE PIALAT: I recognize (and the fact hasn’t escaped me) that I’ve always looked over at my neighbor’s plate if he had more than I did.

JEAN-LUC GODARD: More, but to do what with?

MAURICE PIALAT: Let’s take Loulou, an average budget, 7 million [francs]. The producer who would have allowed me to shoot with more money would have had the right to say: this scenario is too vague, not worked through enough. I’ll be the first to admit it.

JEAN-LUC GODARD: [...] That’s what’s missing these days, but even still it’s relating to the subject. So what do you call “subject”? I’d say that there’s no “object” instead, the object that the film is, like a piece of fruit — and you could say that the subject is the pit of the fruit, to take this comparison into a slightly stupid area. The only subjects are human beings. There are 400,000 tickets sold to grateful subjects, there are 20,000 tickets sold to dissatisfied subjects, as Rochefort once said. That’s all there is to it. I’d rather say: there’s no objective relationship with the subject. [...] I find that in the cinema, the film no longer ever gets spoken about.

MAURICE PIALAT: Yes, it’s amazing.

JEAN-LUC GODARD: When we started out, we were our own producers, if you will, insofar as when we spoke, there was the remembrance of one word coming after the other. And for me, the two or three good producers I had, they were people who at certain points would lob criticism, but there was a relationship. You can’t be alone in cinema, and the auteur is an ensemble. [...] Concerning yourself, it seems [...] that we’ve come to a non-relationship with the subject. In my case too, someone would have to analyze me, in one way or another, but given the nature of critiques, I’m in the role of the one analyzing you. Even the fact of playing the father in À nos amours., unconsciously, psychologically, it must have come from this place too, just like the fact that I acted a little in my film. To provide another piece, something we were missing. To have an excess of responsibility at a certain spot where you were thinking there wasn’t enough of something else.

It comes back to my idea, and you’re not buying it whatsoever. A film of three people in a room, it might cost a billion francs; it might cost 20 billion francs if Redford’s in it. But if it’s only got unknowns in it, and it’s made in five, six weeks... Everything depends on the films. [...] And today, I don’t understand, having seen video, the lighting techniques, a filmmaker would at least be able, if he has the subject, to provide a sampler of it, having the taste of guys like Rohmer, who made a lot of 16mm, but all by himself, and silent. Rohmer shot silent films because he had the desire to shoot them. He wrote because he needed to write.

You, for example, if you don’t have money to shoot, would you even make a film?

MAURICE PIALAT: After Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble [We Won't Grow Old Together, 1972], where I thought I’d brought more money in than I actually did, I told myself: I’m gonna buy a camera, which isn’t necessarily practical — you can always rent one — to finally have some equipment, and if one day a subject comes along, I won’t have to answer to anyone. I’m making a film. Like Reichenbach, at one time, I don’t know if he still does it, but he always had a camera in the trunk of his car. Fine, it’s Reichenbach, with all his shortcomings, but the method’s not bad.

I didn’t do it. It was probably one part laziness, and also the notion that when you go down a certain path, you can no longer come back along that path from the other direction. I don’t know why not, when it comes down to it. There’s this contradiction: how many times did I repeat that I’d like to shoot every day, all year long, on Monday, go to the set like you go to the office or the factory? Why didn’t I do it?

JEAN-LUC GODARD: Maybe we’re worn out by it; this is what you find unfair — we’d like it to be a little more comfortable.

MAURICE PIALAT: No, but at that point, I start making comparisons right away, I get jealous, I start telling myself: I’m an idiot — or rather I must be like one — to do this, and then, next thing you know, and as I found out this morning, some guy who doesn’t give a flying fuck gets tens of millions to make films with some washed-up actress.

JEAN-LUC GODARD: Well, that’s unfair then. Who are you talking about?

MAURICE PIALAT: There are a few examples like this... One day, I’d gone to see Renoir, it was after French Cancan [1955], or The River [1951], at a period when he wasn’t making a movie. He looked old to me, but not much more than I’m looking these days — anyway, it was Renoir, an idol of mine. I was really naïve: I went to him and asked him why he didn’t do anything in 16mm... He gave me a confused response; he got all flustered. Without having Renoir’s notoriety, which, without a doubt, I would never have, I realize that I’m the same way he was. With this difference [now]: I can understand why he reacted that way. I wouldn’t be able to do [16mm] again, I don't know, might be useful, having an encounter like that today...

JEAN-LUC GODARD: I haven’t ever done [16mm] either, but I think I’ve always considered it as a back-up; it’s still possible.

MAURICE PIALAT: I know ahead of time that I’m lazy too, but what stops me from picking up a camera, some 16mm film, and making a movie, is this: if the subject is good, I’d regret having made it under such modest conditions, because it’s worth the trouble of doing it with better means.

JEAN-LUC GODARD: But what is this idea that cinema only gets made with what’s called better means!

MAURICE PIALAT: I already said, between 16mm and 35mm... I personally don’t like 16mm.

JEAN-LUC GODARD: That’s the same as saying that a [Renault] R5 would be less good than a BMW. It’s less good for certain things, it’s better for others.

MAURICE PIALAT: I’m gonna contradict myself, but last night, I watched La femme du boulanger [The Baker’s Wife, Marcel Pagnol, 1938] again.

JEAN-LUC GODARD: That’s one with two people in a room, most of the time it’s just one person, and one set.

MAURICE PIALAT: There are two sets, some exteriors filmed maybe with some trees, some reflectors, whatever, there’s not a huge amount of equipment; and then a script by Pagnol, very literary, very theatrical, that no filmmaker would go through with using, and which requires great timing. That film, if it was budgeted today, made under the same technical conditions, you’d be surprised, in my opinion it wouldn’t cost more than 17 million. I’m not talking about the actors’ salaries. I don’t know how much Raimu cost...

JEAN-LUC GODARD: Proportionally speaking, he’d cost less...

MAURICE PIALAT: You’d be even more surprised if you were shooting — especially since I know how it was done — Partie de campagne [Country Outing, Jean Renoir, 1936]; that’s a film that wouldn’t cost a dime. If Partie de campagnes aren’t getting made today, it’s got nothing to do with budgetary issues.

JEAN-LUC GODARD: There was a real producer, and that was Pierre Braunberger. He produced Partie de campagne, just as much as Renoir did. [...] It’s not true that you have to have a lot of money, you can make films with small budgets, and they can be great films at that. On the other hand, there are certain films that can’t be made without a lot of money. [...] When you rewatch The Birth of a Nation [D. W. Griffith, 1915], or certain Russian films from the time where they had the entire army... You can no longer make a film about the army nowadays; you’d end up getting three soldiers and two tanks.

MAURICE PIALAT: If you want to do a cavalry charge, in France, I don’t know whether with the Republican Guard you’d get a few hundred horses... [...] From time to time maybe you’ll see them pass by a cannon... As usual, I put it poorly earlier on, that’s what I was trying to say. There’s an appreciable portion of the cinema that requires there to be a crowd. Because the crowd is always there.

If in an intimist film, people are in bed — scenes that increasingly abound in our films, and that’s not gonna change — they’re gonna get up, go to the bathroom, or into the kitchen. That’s okay. But if they go out into the street (unless it’s an abandoned village), there’s gonna be tens, hundreds of people. This doesn’t exist in an intimist film, people all over the place. Without speaking of subjects, let’s talk lyricism.

I’m not interested so much in social events, but I could very well include in a scenario conflicts like there were in Nanterre, for example. At one point, I would have thought: here, let’s go, we’re gonna assemble our actors into a cluster. We did things like that. You realize it’s insufficient, you just see the tops of their heads, you have to rearrange their positions.

Maybe [for one event] you’d have an assembly line: because auto factories run so poorly, it would suffice to wait till an assembly line jams up. But there are lots of stories like that, and at what a cost! And without it, you can’t make a film. You show things in fragments, the guy going to talk things over with the union representative at a bistro, two guys sitting behind them at the bar... And yet, that’s no good; if everything’s not there, it’s the same thing as with the battle of Waterloo.

JEAN-LUC GODARD: [...] If films like Papy fait de la résistance [Gramps Joins the Resistance, Jean-Marie Poiré, 1983], or certain American films, are successful, it’s because they just have the funds to reproduce the memory of the average film. Besides, it’s old men who go to see Papy fait de la résistance, to bring back memories. Whereas young people, they want punching in their films, not slapping like in your films — punches, and off-color situations, like it’s some kind of a dance, and it should barely last longer than a trailer for a film.


JEAN-LUC GODARD: You can no longer tell Madame Bovary [Gustave Flaubert, 1857], you’ve no longer got the money for it, in the way Duvivier [Duvivier directed Anna Karenina in 1948. —ed.] or Minnelli [Minnelli directed Madame Bovary in 1949. —ed.] would have told it at the time. That era is over.

MAURICE PIALAT: But that’s exactly it, the feeling of unfairness I’m talking about.

JEAN-LUC GODARD: Well fine then! The world is unfair! You can’t do a scene anymore where two people talk to one another in a bistro with forty extras for four hours, while, come noon at any little café in Paris, there are forty-five people. So, you need scenarios like only the Americans knew how to write. It forces us to think things over, to know what we want, and what we’re capable of doing: what we’re capable of giving up, and why we want to do something. And why do we want to spend our time doing it?


Monday, October 05, 2015

Sequence: Four Short Stories

One Under 30:
James Alexander Warren's 4-Short Anthology

James Alexander Warren's (aka Alex Warren's aka @alericanflag's) collection* is an anthology film, an extended-play, a slim volume — four short films adapted from four short stories written by Warren a couple years back. The title speaks to the sketch-like nature of the individual pieces and, simply, to the back-to-back linking of one 'sequence' to the next. It carries another suggestion: "Sequence: Four Short Stories" is the sort of title you might find attached to what's called an avant-garde or experimental film, and it invites the viewer both to identify elements common to the four sequences, or, what's more, to accept their sequencing as, to use a-g lingo, "chance".

What is the purpose of the short film? — which I'll propose as 'its own form' only on the basis that it's certainly considered such by the majority of global festivals when they're soliciting submissions or programming lineups. Is the short film — lasting, say, under 25 minutes — a calling-card? Neither Warren, nor his young-and-indie contemporary Dustin Guy Defa, wholly conceive it as such. Warren: Shorts can be assembled into a single collection. Defa, whose body of short work was just presented in sequence at a single screening in the New York Film Festival: "I make short films to figure out the kinds of features I want to make." Shorts can be financed discretely across time; can be slipped in at the front-end of a big-screen feature presentation; can be uploaded to online platforms that accommodate the bite-sized (pay-to-stream/DL, gratis embed); can be assembled sequentially into a feature-length or overt anthology and, provided no out-standing contractual obligations with the principals exist, can be sold to a distributor or distribution platform as a single license.

The stories of Sequence are set in and around Jackson, Mississippi, but don't belong to that category of U.S. Southern cinema a friend of mine told me he can't stand because so much of it "is about guys with their shirts off."

*Although Sequence has screened publicly at Cinefamily, Anthology, and seven other venues, Warren currently plans to present the stories separately.


I: Yazoo Women

The 'sketch'-est of the four stories, Yazoo Women involves three guys transporting a John Deere riding mower back to its owner from the yard where it underwent repair. They set out in daylight and arrive in the evening at the owner's house only to find the scene is a gals-only happy-divorce party. The host invites the guys inside, and a one-sided-awkward collision takes place between the three blue-collar/odd-job Gen-Y'ers-or-Millennials and the done-up blouse enthusiasts who gyrate beneath the pulsing party bulbs. A 180-degree pan reveals the yardbirds as wallflowers, before a few of the revelers coax them to engage, the music transforming from uptempo kitsch to a late-night soul-jam. Unforeseen couples embrace swaying in languid slow pans across turning torsos and chins nestled in shadows between heads and shoulders. The fluidity of the camerawork (operated by Azod Abedikichi and Robby Piantanida, who plays one of the guys alongside Arrmon Abedikichi and Dau Mabil) and sound-design (Chase Everett) sets a precedent for the other three stories: voice-over and sounds that lap over cuts (which at times can also, conversely, be dry, abrupt, and ironic), music tracks that mix one-into-the-other, ambient aural interludes between the sequences; most of the 'stories' can be apprehended with eyes closed, like radio- or podcast-plays à la Joe Frank...


II: Dreamscaping

As in all four of the shorts, another car-ride, another party. Jamie (Jamie Granato) and Roshada (Chasity Williams) lover-spat after the latter's ex, Jake (Jermaine Harden), ran into her at a grocery store and landed a lip-kiss. Jamie thinks Jake's purporting to play for the Harlem Globetrotters is bullshit. The couple head to Jake's house-party later that night, and Jamie confronts the 6'5" host. A coda finds a new-age therapist guiding Jamie through a lesson in "dreamscaping."

The lessons of Dreamscaping include economize totally, get in and get out, deliver a comic combination in every scene. Warren demonstrates himself a more than "capable" director of comedy, with more than "ample" gifts in timing the cuts and giving the actors their freedom to be funny. (Maybe in a few years we'll just shorthand him as JAW?) Jamie Granato's a more amped-up Kevin Corrigan, beleaguered and fearless. When he follows Jake through the crowd at the party, JAW's camera tracks from behind in a low-angle that ridiculously monumentalizes the Globetrotter; a high-angle in the ensuing shot-reverse-shot kitchen convo also brings much mirth. Ditto re: the copy of Cassavetes on Cassavetes in the background of (left jab) the therapist's office in this film which (right hook) does not aspire to replicate any po-faced Cassavetes stylistics. JAW's covered.


III: The Temperature of Father James Martin

"Temperature" as a slip for "Temptation" in this, the comic-dramatic crucible of the Sequence shorts, wherein Father Martin (David Aaron Baker, perfectly calibrating the character to every encounter), an Episcopal priest, hosts a dinner party for a group of friends on the occasion of dispersing the cremated ashes of deceased Robert. Father Martin chatting on his cell with his mother and father while practicing one-hand free-throws on the church basketball court (a single three- or four-minute shot with the camera craning from on high earthward before closing in on the character). Audio Japanese lessons in the car back from the liquor store before a suburban gang eggs the windshield. ("Pussy.") Swing between drunken emotions, reminiscences of the priest's and guests' dead friend, a chanced kiss, and a spine-tingling final shot.

A brilliant compact study, and the only modern American film to examine the priestly calling for what it so often is: a means of erecting defenses and mitigating the corporeal world.


IV: It's Never Cold in Vegas

Struggling actor Jeffrey (Thom Shelton) goes fuck-out for the role of a generic gangster at an audition inside a recording studio, while director Warren (credited as "Alan Warner") looks on from the booth and offers the suggestion: "Feel free to add your own spin to it." Afterward Jeffrey accompanies his wife Rayah (Akua Carson) to her gig as a party-clown at a children's library. (Nod of solidarity to Altman's Short Cuts [1993] and the Carver short-story source material.) One of the attending kids' dads chats Jeffrey up about what it's like to fuck his wife before a kid punches him in the dick. From there, it's off to a fundraising party for the film Jeffrey and his "beat-poet" friend Richard (Landon Whitton) are prepping to make, provisionally titled It's Never Cold in Vegas. In a full-circle to Yazoo Women Rayah and Jeffrey get drunk and slow-dance; Rayah blows across the lip of a beer bottle to make the sound of a ship's horn as waves lap at the soundtrack and the film cuts to their bathroom faucet. A grand tracking shot through the rooms of the couple's cavernous, labyrinthine life- and work-space/-loft suggests the internalized chambers of inspiration and experience within and by which art and life commingle. Jeffrey wheels a spotlight over and aims it at Rayah, regal at her decks, intones processed words over electronic hum. From a high shot, the camera pans upward. End-cut to black.

One senses It's Never Cold in Vegas as the most explicitly personal for Warren of the four works, and that in any case it's the one Richard Brody will praise most. Yet the sequence is the thing, and it grants us an early survey of the broad scope of Warren's concerns, proving the writer-director, moreover, talented enough to address the lot of them with eloquence and a cogency to match their complexity.


Sunday, October 04, 2015

Passe ton bac d'abord... — Dossier


The following originally appeared in the booklet for the 2009 Masters of Cinema UK DVD release of Passe ton bac d'abord... which I co-produced. As far as I'm aware these interviews had never appeared before in English translation. I've made some minor alterations in the translations presented here.

I'm posting these Pialat pieces on the occasion of the retrospective of Maurice Pialat's complete features (and the Turkish shorts) that runs from October 16 till November 1 at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens.

My essay on
Passe ton bac d'abord... — "The War of Art" — can be read here.

Pialat on the set of Passe ton bac d'abord...

From "Interview with Maurice Pialat": Excerpt from an Interview by Danièle Dubroux, Serge Le Peron, and Louis Skorecki (1979)

Translated from the French by Craig Keller

There are films like [Passe ton bac d’abord...], whereby the fact that it arrives by way of accidents does not damage the quality of the film — as though it were even supposed to arrive like that. La nuit du carrefour [Night at the Crossroads, Jean Renoir, 1932], for example, with its burned-up reel of which Mitry speaks, — it’s not clear that the film would have been better.

Yes, but it's got to be one of the films by Renoir that’s been seen the least. I have to tell you: I have many ideas in common with Daniel Toscan du Plantier — of course I’m kissing up to him since he produces me — he has information that I don’t have: for example, what he taught me about French cinema’s neo-Pétainism (which is not to speak of the Centre [National du cinématographe], which is a Vichy creation!). For example, when he says that the best films are the ones that do the best business. For him La grande illusion [The Grand Illusion, Jean Renoir, 1937] is better than La règle du jeu [The Rules of the Game, Jean Renoir, 1939] — for my part, these days, I haven’t spent any time thinking about it. I liked La règle du jeu when it was released, but I like it a lot less now.

You prefer La grande illusion?

Oh, no, I don’t like La grande illusion that much either... I like Renoir less than I used to, too...

That’s complicated!

What I mean to say is that an artist doesn’t have any fun making things less good, provided he has talent, when he has some money for it compared to when he’s making things in private. So the films that do good business are still the best films.

That’s completely untrue nowadays.

No it isn’t. The films that don’t do good business are rather less good than the films that do... for example, Claude Zidi is much better than Marguerite Duras.

Is he better than Eustache, for example?

Zidi? No, because that’s not what Zidi’s supposed to be. Zidi is versatile, whereas Eustache isn’t. And if Zidi or someone other than him was pressed by demanding producers, they’d take the risk of being very interesting. But when a producer takes a look at the rushes and accepts to show L’aile ou la cuisse [The Wing or the Thigh, Claude Zidi, 1976], you can’t hope for much more... What I’m saying doesn’t seem serious to you?

No, it’s enough to see the number of interesting films that end up with less than 10,000 ticket sales.

Take the year 1977 — the best film, for me, was L’hôtel de la plage [The Hotel on the Beach, Michel Lang]... well, it’s the one that did best at the box office.

That doesn't mean a thing!

Basically, it’s Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot [Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, Jacques Tati, 1953] made by a French reactionary who doesn’t have Tati’s talent, in 1976.

That's saying something!

I mean, of course it’s a shit film, but at least it has certain things that no-one does in France.

You are, in fact, dreaming of a production system that doesn’t exist anymore, and you’re talking like it did exist.

No, but I tell myself that maybe we’re coming to the end of an era that belonged to the cinephiles. You can't know what the cinema was like when you went into a neighborhood on a Saturday night and the curtain opened up and the whole theatre was in suspense (as much over whether it would be a turd of a film or something great). But when we create an ‘art et essai’ [‘arthouse’] category, everything goes downhill — I for one detest it. It’s elitism and snobbism, the worst... But maybe saying all of that’s not very original...

No, not very — it’s the discourse of all the right-wing has-beens who repeat that the cinema’s dead because of Duras.

No — I’d prefer to say it’s because the cinema’s dying that Duras is able to exist.

If the films effectively resemble one another, it’s certainly got nothing to do with cinephilia. It’s the result of a well-defined production-distribution system. And in any case, you yourself, you’re a total cinephile...

Of course. Everyone at one moment or another in his life (in his childhood, for example) is a cinephile, and I think that the film that sparked everything off for me was Renoir’s La bête humaine [The Human Beast, 1938], around the age of 13 or 14. I went to see it five, six times in a row (that’s cinephile behavior), but at that time everyone did that — typists went to see and see again the same film several times in a row. They’d get a hold of the script and photos from the film (there were popular magazines that would publish them). Today you make films at the cinema for people who have a certain culture and who love being an argumentative minority inside of a vaster majority — these are the people who have nothing to talk about and you can’t talk about anything with people who have nothing to talk about. A filmmaker is supposed to be like his audience, and I don’t feel like the actual audience for the cinema. Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble [We Won't Grow Old Together, Maurice Pialat, 1972] did well, I think, on the basis of a misunderstanding, and also because it was made to do well... Sometimes I say that ever since, I would have had to make ten films that would have been able to do as well, but it’s never certain — I wonder where I’d have been looking for them, ‘my audience’, as Jeanson would have put it. Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble is a film that pleased the older section of the audience.

That’s the segment of the audience that’s a bit less critical: the older audience members.

There’s also segments of the audience for Bruce Lee... For those films, there’s an audience that still exists, and then of course there’s one for pornos. They’ve got a certain purity. And what’s remarkable is that those films, more often than not made in three or four days, are technically pretty close to the level of the average French film. Ever since I’ve been watching porn films, I say to myself: All French films should cost as much as pornos. We should be capable of telling a story in the same amount of time it takes to shoot a porn film. It’s a little too fast for getting the acting down... but I’m sure there are amazing things that can be done with porn stars. Of course the big drawback with porn is the misogyny, and that’s unacceptable...!

These days, to say something to that audience (which includes immigrants, young people), you’d have to be able to do the actual equivalent of what was once a B-film, and that isn’t possible with the production-distribution system in France.

But it’s not impossible. Maybe if I were less isolated, I’d have been able to do it three or four years ago. You’d have to have a [Roger] Corman in France... and theatres would follow.

Let’s go back a bit to Passe ton bac d’abord... — it involves a group of young people, and yet the choice of each one is extremely precise, one doesn’t have any impression of a group that’s just been slung together: each character is completely singular. I’d like to find out how you chose these young people since a lot of them aren’t professional actors.

We started shooting the first script and we found different actors whom we needed to keep in mind, by way of a video recorder.

You use a video recorder to make tests?

Yes — before, I didn’t make tests, and I realized I was wrong not to. Not that video tests are any insurance, but all the same you find out a little bit about where you’re heading. This might last for a shorter time than it seems, though: I noticed this on Loulou [Maurice Pialat, 1980 – at the time of this interview Pialat had just completed the film], in which I hired people who made fantastic video tests, and who were very disappointing in the film.

For Passe ton bac d’abord..., I met a group within which almost every one of the young people was good. The selection went a little differently: those who were best had a longer role — that’s all there was to it. It was up to us to switch the scenes around. For example, this girl who replaced another who was introduced to us as being part of the gang, who just happened to be sitting in the café next door, was excellent and yet she was very bad in her tests.

It’s because a lot of elements have to be taken into account at the moment you’re shooting the scene that inevitably don’t crop up during the tests: primarily the interest in the scene, a certain emulation, or even a rivalry, a sort of confidence, that can come after a certain amount of time and which doesn’t pop up right away. Often when you have bad tests it’s because someone’s uncomfortable or they have the jitters — it usually doesn’t mean they’ll be bad on the set.

It’s very important, the contact established on the set with the actors. Afterwards too, I really like to follow the people I’ve made the movie with, the ones who stood out, to do something again with them. It’s no accident that the story that kicked off everything with Passe ton bac is something that happened to a girl who was in L’enfance-nue [Naked-Childhood, Maurice Pialat, 1968]. On Loulou too I reused some of the people from Passe ton bac. It’s because you always have the impression of knowing people well at the end of production, so you want to start again with them ‘in full knowledge of the facts’, if you can put it that way.

And basically it doesn’t have to do only with non-professionals. I think by the end of Loulou too, with [Isabelle] Huppert, we got to know each other well. And I think if we hadn’t, she wouldn’t have been as good as she is in the film. However, [Gérard] Depardieu cleared a path for himself on Loulou, as he does in all his films; he’s like [Philippe] Léotard or Macha Méril — it’s not that they’re bad, but that they’re not really there, and there’s no contact with them. Rocky, the boy who was the truck driver in Passe ton bac d’abord... and whom I used again on Loulou, is someone who completely blows away all preconceptions about professional vs. amateur. That kid, the first second he stepped in front of the camera he became an amazing professional. On the level of unbelievable details that aren’t always visible on the screen but which have a tremendous importance on the set: knowing how to shift his position while being conscious of the possibilities of the framing, of the requirements of the lighting, etc. On Loulou, he practically improvised the ending to a scene by shifting a millimeter closer to us. He’s really an exceptional actor. And then there was something very strong between us. This doesn’t happen all the time — Macha Méril or Léotard, whatever their qualities might be as actors, nothing interesting happens with them, and it shows in their films. There are things you can no longer ask to have actors say. In Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble, for example, Méril was supposed to say some naïve things, things a little girl would say, essentially. We shot those scenes, and she was impossible. We had to reshoot them with different dialogue. The original was no doubt too naïve for the cinema of now: those phrases, they were unspeakable, as my co-scenarist, Arlette Langmann, would have put it. And in the end Macha Méril created a female character of the present day, whom you think of as being less a character of the nineteenth century, than the one I wanted her to portray. You could no longer do La porteuse de pain [The Bread-Girl, Xavier de Montépin, 1884] these days; there’s no longer any place for melodrama, and that’s a shame. Jean Yanne also made a total switch-around of his character in the film. But there I expected as much; I knew him, and he wasn’t going to do a melodramatic role for me; there was no way he was going to be crying over a woman. Anyway, in the movies men aren’t supposed to cry — it’s what I had him say in Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble. Except in Ordet [The Word, Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1955].

Passe ton bac d’abord... was shot in 35mm?

Yes, and I can assure you that technically speaking it’s at the level of a film made for 3 million francs. [Earlier in the interview Pialat mentions that the film was made for 50 million francs. —ed.]

The color makes one think of the latest film by Godard for the cinema, Comment ça va [How’s It Going, Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville, 1976].

I don’t go to see his films anymore.


At the level of the writing, do you see a difference between Passe ton bac d’abord... and films like Rozier’s Adieu Philippine [1962] or Doillon’s Les doigts dans la téte [Fingers in the Head / Touched in the Head, 1974]? In Rozier it’s obviously more improvised, and in Doillon it’s written a lot like you. We could say of Passe ton bac: it’s Adieu Philippine ’79; this wouldn’t be off-base, and yet your film’s unique, different. What do you have to say about this?

I think in Adieu Philippine there are qualities missing from Passe ton bac d’abord.... You know, I personally think that Rozier is the only French filmmaker who has any talent. I’d like to produce Rozier, and I think we should be able to pull it off, even at this particular point in time.


From this point of view [that of coöperative/communal filmmaking] too Godard is interesting, as he’s staked out a relative autonomy with regard to production — he’s started up his own small enterprise Sonimage... Maybe you’d have some things to say about this; it’s a shame that you detest him so much.

I don't even want to look at him. It’s a shame he’s stronger than me, as he’s one of the rare people that I’d jump on top of if he walked into this room, right here right now. Unfortunately he’s pretty strong — he knows how to walk on his hands. He did it in front of everyone on Le mépris [Contempt, Jean-Luc Godard, 1963], in front of Bardot. In any case there’s something I can’t deny — it’s that his films age very poorly. A long time ago À bout de souffle [Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard, 1959] made me die of laughter, but I’m pretty sure that Pierrot le fou [Pierrot the Fool, Jean-Luc Godard, 1965], which I found middling, has also aged pretty quickly.

Godard becomes truly unique after Tout va bien [Everything’s Going Fine, Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin, 1972], and everything he’s made since then is really exciting.

This often happens: someone makes things that aren’t very good for ten years and then he starts making things that are good. That proves you don’t have to get discouraged! And then again, with him at least, he has imagination. You know, I wanted to be part of (I’ll say it clearly: I wanted to be part of) the Nouvelle Vague — it’s true and it’s thanks to him that I most wanted to be part of it, as he was the most interesting one of all the others combined. But I don’t like his Swiss spirit. And then there’s the fact that he’s someone who’s been copied a lot. It’s the opposite with me — I’m accused of plagiarism and have already been sentenced with regard to Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble, the only film I’ve made that did any business. I hope there'll be someone around when it goes up for appeal. What I had to shell out in the way of legal fees — 80,000 francs — was my pay for the film!


You’re never happy with your films, especially once they’ve been released. When Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble came out, you said it was your worst film. You say you’re not satisfied with Passe ton bac d’abord....

I think you should never say your latest film is the best — if you do, you’re dead. It’s more valuable to say it has no value. But in all seriousness, what I can say about Passe ton bac d’abord... is that if it had had the budget it required, we could have made a film on the level of I vitelloni [The Fellas, Federico Fellini, 1953]. And I’m furious at not having had the budget to do that (even if I don’t have enormous admiration for I vitelloni, at least it tells a story, and was able to define an entire era, and this film won’t do that because we hadn’t been able to engulf ourselves in the same way). And yet I think it’s better than La gueule ouverte [The Slack-Jawed Mug / The Open Trap / The Gaping Maw, Maurice Pialat, 1974] for example, a film I got a little burnt-out on...


Interview with Maurice Pialat: by Jacqueline Lajeunesse (1979)

Translated from the French by Craig Keller

You just finished Passe ton bac d’abord..., and now you’ve got another film in progress?

Loulou would have been released before Passe ton bac d’abord... but Isabelle Huppert was signed-on to work on something else, so we had to interrupt the shoot. The film will be finished a few weeks from now.

Did you use non-professional actors in Passe ton bac d’abord...?

Actually, the notion of ‘professional’ and ‘amateur’ is completely arbitrary; everything depends on the direction of the actors. In Passe ton bac d’abord..., there’s one family made up of professional actors, and another of people from the region and ‘amateurs’. Among the six professionals, four performed for me again in Loulou, and I had wanted to use one of the non-professional girls in a sequence with Depardieu — but the parents were opposed to it. Working like this, you come across some amazing people; if I could come back to the area, I’d make a film with them...

Rocky, in any case, the young husband, has a role in Loulou that’s much too small for my tastes, and the truck driver, a Northern kid, will be acting in the film I’m preparing which takes place in the Auvergne. So, what’s an amateur actor?

Why did you choose Lens as the setting of the film?

The North is a region well-known, and loved, by me. You speak well about what you love. The film could have been shot anywhere. But in a town like Lens, for the film’s preparation, for the production, affinities matter... In the Parisian suburbs, it would have been practically impossible; the people are evasive. Of course, ten years on in Lens (from the time of L’enfance-nue), people have changed, obviously, but there are still some interesting folks, who aren’t completely devoured by daily life. Half the actors are Polish; I love the Poles, immigrants, I’m no xenophobe... They’ve come here looking for something, they’ve tried to make a life for themselves; it’s interesting.

It seems that in Passe ton bac d’abord... the group takes precedence over individual characters?

It was done with sincerity; there’s authenticity there... maybe, even, it’s more a group than individuals. Given that there are so many of them, they’re more interesting. I would have been able to shoot for a longer time, I would have tried going further; the group is the kickoff to the whole thing, you don’t see them on their own — that’s the film; it was supposed to have a sequel... This isn’t a group that exists in real life; two or three of them know each other, but it’s a group put together as a function of the scenario, as a function of the film.

This isn’t cinéma-vérité. That doesn’t exist. Everything is always reconstituted. The only truth of the cinema is what’s filmed with sincerity; there’s authenticity there. The scenario was written with young people in mind, the dialogue was entirely scripted, but there’s a sort of interaction that brings about some alterations; the film ‘leans’ towards the group.

For the dialogue, at the last minute, a phrase can be modified. I chose their way of speaking instead of my own... But they both signify the same thing.

Why this theme: adolescents?

The kids in L’enfance-nue were supposed to act in a film whose scenario was written: Les filles du faubourg [The Girls of the Faubourg]. Is there any essential difference between adolescents in the Sixties and those of today? Adolescence is the age of telling lies, of mythomania. This is why you have to take them at face-value.

I have the feeling that the adolescents in Passe ton bac d’abord... are, in part, mired in a kind of lassitude, of disillusionment...

Yeah, but do you think they’re aware of it?... These are spoiled children, brought up like petits bourgeois. Bear in mind that in real life, some of them had come to Paris (when a film is finished, the relationships I’ve formed don’t really come to an end) — Patrick and Bernard. The room we found for them, they didn’t show up to move into it until three months later, completely astonished that we didn’t hold on to it for them. I took them out to dinner at a girlfriend’s place — the ride to La Défense seemed long and boring to them... They only took the white meat from the chicken that was served... And then they left again... They weren’t capable of dealing with life in Paris.

In the film, I never push — and I could have been harder about this — to show the ones puking all over the ones who slave away in a factory, “fight tooth-and-nail, hell, no need to study to get to do that.” And yet it was a pilot plant. There were people there who had left school, and done nothing else. Certain forms of leftism get unclogged when you’re pimping yourself out. They’re in total contradiction with themselves — Maoist, and rejecting all discipline...

There’s a general deficiency; familial ‘paternalism’ still exists in the region, but it’s been given a pounding by obligatory schooling — why go to school? Why get your bac? Our culture hasn’t appropriated life... What adolescent isn’t aware of his own worth? He receives a certain ‘off-hours’ education that belongs neither to the present era, nor to the past... This echoes inside of him: he’d like to do things, he’s ‘almost’ given the opportunity to do them, and, in fact, he’s more stripped away of potential than he was beforehand. Once, the maréchal-ferrant [‘blacksmith farrier’] for example, had his pride, he knew how to do something... But them, these young people, almost every worker’s son is privileged, and never has anything in his hands!

I’m clear about these matters, but I’m pessimistic — the truth of the production is to show authentic adolescents; you have to see things, people, like them. They were born into an era where they can’t be anything else. Our culture makes children fat — they’ll be eating through the others... slim pickings!

Which pertains to the construction of the film: there are very few close-ups.

Close-ups are interesting sometimes, even exciting — in Bergman, for example. But in certain instances they’re useless for ‘underlining the text with red ink’. Lumière filmed togetherness, that is, life. Ozu did it just as much. The sharp montage that belongs to me, the short sequences provide movement, life, and Pierre-William Glenn's brilliant, deep colors provide the warmth of that life.


From "Interview with Maurice Pialat": Excerpt from an Interview by Mireille Amiel and Dominique Rabourdin (1979)

Translated from the French by Craig Keller

Do you have a definition of realism?

That’s a pretty tough question. More often than not, realism gets confused with miserablism, or the picturesque, or else something gets called ‘realist’ because it’s shot with direct sound in improvised locations that haven’t been scouted out beforehand — but it’s only a question of budget, it’s not a question of conviction.

However, what can be called my ‘realism’, is the fact that I want to depict people, places, classes I’m familiar with, and depict them as sincerely as possible while taking off from a concrete reality.

You’ve been a painter — what sort of painting did you used to do, and has it got any relation to your cinematographic style?

I’m figurative. Abstract disgusts me. Even as an ‘amateur’, I’d be hard-pressed to move toward abstraction. The same with music, in any case. Serial music holds very little interest for me.

In cinema I detest what gets called ‘gorgeous photography’. Of course, Glenn or Almendros are talented cameramen. But my dream is an unnoticable photography.

What really matters is what you have to say, the story you’re telling. People everywhere have the tendency to talk about ‘tone’, to privilege this or that ‘tone’ — but tone isn’t everything...

Not very long ago you were very harsh about French cinema.

Oh, I haven’t changed my tune on that. It’s a bad cinema. Let’s be clear: I’m part of this whole mix. It would be too easy to critique and then to go and feel all nice and secure about yourself.

French cinema wasn’t always bad. I’d place its decline at the appearance of the Nouvelle Vague.

There are several reasons for this: all those auteurs were from the margins, people who loved the cinema but who didn’t know how to make it. The success of their very small-budgeted films did considerable harm to the French cinema.

I know I’m hardly going to please your team here, but I think Godard has done enormous harm to the French cinema.

Don’t you think that it’s the framework that the Nouvelle Vague gave birth to that has allowed the belief that anyone can make a movie?

Yes — I’m going to cite Renoir. Of course, it’s said that he became a reactionary toward the end of his life... It’s true that he lived in America, and even that he died there! Put crudely, I’d say: “If you have a nice bottle for six it’s a celebration; if you’ve got thirty, you serve liters and liters of water and nothing more than that.”

I wouldn’t want to be an elitist, and I’m not one in the choice of my subjects; I don’t want to prevent other people from expressing themselves either. But budgets aren’t indefinitely expensible. The government’s support (via the CNC) is divvied up into little packages to allow unknowns to make a movie.

At times I’d rather they give support to Clément or Franju, who know how to work.

I know it’s neither democratic nor socialist to make such a remark, but it’s a mistake to believe that everyone has the right to make a movie. Everyone has the right to express himself, of course, but not to squander public funding.

The people in the Nouvelle Vague never really had any power (I mean money; they never had big budgets); there was this gap between intimist cinema and the other kind.

Godard has sometimes had big budgets. Rarely, actually. But, for example, with Le mépris, he succeeded with the miracle of making an intimist film with a very big budget.


You have the reputation of being a man of the Right.

Oh! là là, where do I stand? I know, I’ve supported a certain list. I was wrong. And anyway, I should have minded my own business...

I’m on the Left. I’ve always voted Left (when I’ve voted) except for that mistake referenced above. But when I found out that the people on the Left could be as shit-sucking as the people on the Right, it was a hard truth to swallow...

You have to watch the films I make...

The newspapers are full of lovely declarations about the population. But there’s an anti-popular racism at play.

The reviews (especially the ones from newspapers on the Right) are bad for Passe ton bac. But it’s not me they’re attacking. It’s the film’s protagonists; they say they’re good-for-nothings, that they’re just hanging around, that their region is ugly... They’re attacking them, with maliciousness and stupidity.


From "20 Questions for Filmmakers" (1981)

Translated from the French by Craig Keller

[The June 1981 issue of Cahiers du cinéma, no. 325, contained the continuation to a series that posed a survey of twenty questions to a diverse array of French, and francophone, filmmakers. What follows are Maurice Pialat’s responses.]

1. François Truffaut recently said: “What makes me happy in movies is that it provides me with the best possible schedule.” Have you been happy with your schedule over these last ten years?

One may think François Truffaut only made movies to have the best schedule possible. Are you happy with your schedule (as a filmmaker) when you haven’t done anything for such a long time, or done so little?

2. How did you learn your craft as a filmmaker? What place do you give to technical know-how?

Like many others, in the movie theatres. Which means that when you’re making your first film you don’t know anything. This contributes to the degeneration of the cinema.

3. Do you have the feeling that one should conform to a model in the French cinema?


4. Are you the auteur of your films?

For the most part, always. 100%, sometimes.

5. Are you reaching your audience?

For ‘my audience’, I’ll send you to Henri Jeanson.

6. Do you think that critics have been fair towards French cinema over the last ten years?

Critics say every film is a masterpiece, and taken as a whole — they’re nothing.

7. Which French film since 1968 has left the biggest impression on you?

L’hôtel de la plage by [Michel] Lang.

8. What for you has been the event missing from the past decade?

Outside of movies, I guess the rise of Southeast Asia and what it had to give, for sure.

9. What part of your cinephilia has made it into your films?


10. At what moments do you most feel like a French filmmaker?

Never. You are one, you don’t feel it.

11. Which part of French cinema’s heritage do you feel you have the most in common with?

Lumière. Pagnol. Renoir.

12. Many filmmakers act in their own films. Do you?


13. Are there areas of film craft that you find particularly stimulating?

The studio. Dolby.

14. Are there any stories that French cinema could tell the rest of the world?

Stories of schmucks and cowards.

15. Are there any subjects inaccessible to French cinema?

Subjects that involve more than two extras.

16. Are there things you forbid yourself from filming?

Nick’s Movie. [aka Lightning Over Water — the 1980 film made by Wim Wenders with Nicholas Ray, chronicling Ray’s last days of life in 1979 as he was coping with terminal cancer. —ed.]

17. What represents today’s American cinema for you?

Italians, Jews, and special effects. Not much America.

18. What link do you see between your work in cinema and in television (if you’ve made anything there)?


19. What is your dream project?

The war in Vendée. A chronicle of a French family from ’36 to ’48.

20. Have actors changed?

They buy châteaux (the stars) and wine chez Nicolas in place of living, like before, like free spirits.