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.
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...
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  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...•
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.•
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.•
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.•