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.
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.
by Craig Keller
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...
MAURICE PIALAT: No, no.
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  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 , 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 , or The River , 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.
MAURICE PIALAT: Exactly.
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? •