The following originally appeared in the booklet for the 2008 Masters of Cinema UK DVD release of Police  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.
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... •
“[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.”