(I wrote this in 2009 for the booklet accompanying The Masters of Cinema Series' UK DVD release, which I also co-produced, designed, and edited. The original booklet pages are interspersed with greyscale versions of frames from this film and others which illustrate points raised in my text. I'm posting this here 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.)
Although it's a color film, the frame reproductions below, taken from the MoC booklet, appear in greyscale.
Watching a film by Maurice Pialat can be a pleasurable experience. That this should be so might depend on whether you’ve seen the picture once or twice before, on which film it is, on whether you’re at a stable point in your life and the threat of What’s Depicted — in Pialat, total emotional warfare — no longer lurks immediately beyond the edges of the frame (as far as one is ever aware). We can be honest here: art is not always enjoyable business. It’s a channel for emotions’ mess; a magnification on life’s buckminsterian braid; that which precipitates the recognition of another intelligence. This last definition explains why one might keep coming back to Pialat — at first the compulsion for recognition, then recognition alone — esteem for the organising Articulator, and the familiarity that allows one to cross the phantomed bridge of admiration over to the realm of gratification. Recognition, familiarity. La (re)connaissance. Watch the films more than once. Get to know them, when you’re able.
Multiple viewings will neutralize the pain of a particular Pialat movie — one might say, will detonate the mines — but they’ll do nothing to rectify the scarring of the landscape. For me, L’enfance-nue [Naked-Childhood, 1968] has been declared secure territory — also À nos amours. [To Our Romance. / Here’s to Love., 1983], and even La gueule ouverte [The Slack-Jawed Mug / The Open Trap / The Gaping Maw, aka The Mouth Agape, 1974]. Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble [We Won’t Grow Old Together, 1972] is still too dangerous. Passe ton bac d’abord... [Pass Your Bac First..., aka Graduate First, 1979] — I was at war for some time with the film...
It’s unwieldy, jagged, at initial glance seems a little free-form — later viewings will reveal its elasticity and its order. You read an article once that cites the fact thirteen editors worked on the film and you grumbled: “This explains everything.” You saw the film twice and the same fact explained nothing. At first you wrote the kids off as bastards, because they’re kids, as opposed to the adults of Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble, or of Loulou  — or to Léotard and his ‘behavior’ in La gueule ouverte. You saw the film twice and the kids came across as natal elements, the conditions of themselves as (Pialatian?) adults. Always these indirect challenges, in Pialat’s films. A challenge to the spectator, this push against the normal contours of dramaturgy, that nevertheless retains a classicism — the mystery of the novelistic approach. A challenge to the acceptance of ‘behavior’ as cut-or-dry, and thus a provocation and a wake-up call to the viewer — some way to suss out the short-sightedness of his or her moralities, to bring attention to the boundaries and limits of his or her own conception of the world while also, mysteriously, emphasizing and pleading for a morality by example, by acceptance, by forgiveness. An expiation, then — moreso than in most cinema (or any) art. Trial by fire.
We learn things about life from Pialat’s movies — we see it treated with a documentary precision or, we might venture, a psychological precision — and in saying such we’ll emphasize (and not only for the sake of saving the revenant Pialat from chafing, spinning on the final shrink’s couch in the Final Session) that it’s documentary without the vérité trappings; that it’s psychology preceding nomenclature and psychiatric dogmas and the infrastructure of rationalizations and, fundamentally, control.
When Passe ton bac was still my enemy, I had it out for those kids. They behave like bastards and whores. (Another challenge of Pialat, a trap even — his provocation of daring the viewer to overlap ‘behavior’ with class, as in: the behavior ‘expected’ from a class, from a ‘certain’ social subset — a danger that extends as near into the present as the narratives of indolence in gangsta-genre American movies, or the Fontaínhas films of Pedro Costa). Of course the problem was my own, one reinforced by recognition: that the boys wear facial hair again like in the current era... — that most if not all the wardrobes of Passe ton bac have equivalents in present-day styles... So there in Bernard was the bad-mannered son-of-a-bitch of any age who seduced away from me the pretty girl I knew once but only from afar. There in Elisabeth, the Twittering fille of weak identity in thrall to corruptibility. Fictional examples, I have to admit and, therefore, doubly extraneous, but they serve to highlight one more Pialat-devised challenge — the test of going beyond writing the film’s characters off, or denouncing them only because they’re young, knowable, easy to feel superior over with their motives so been-there-done-that... maybe as a counterweight to some envy. But nestled in Pialat’s gambit lies a paradox: the freedom evident in the kids’ ‘lifestyle’ neighbors an acknowledgement, on the director’s part, of the looming obstacles erected by Such Behavior and by, yes, the prevalent Social Conditions. Back to square one: right’s inextricable from wrong. Let’s borrow a formulation from 2009 and call Pialat post-ideological: “That’s just the way it is” — understood here as the Natural Order of Things. How we ‘feel’ about this is, ultimately, our own problem — and our own individuality. For Pialat, as for Renoir, art is a mirror, and the inner content’s created, realized, only by that which stands before it — it, in turn, stands in indifference.
And still more content gets produced by way of an imposition upon the artwork. Let’s return again to the notion of the group in the film as lacking a clear sense of the future, but now by virtue of their position at the tail-end of a generation who have not yet witnessed, before their very eyes, the completed aging of their ‘freest’ paragons — those pop-cultural icons that mixed up ‘sex’ and ‘death’ and ‘cool’. I recently saw the film that struck me as the companion piece to Passe ton bac — Andy Warhol’s Screen Test: Lou Reed , the one with Lou drinking a bottle of Coke. Here he is, 24 or so, at mass-media’s break of dawn — not knowing, clueless in the moment, that he belongs to the first generation of whom we, any members of the future-present youth culture (something like ages 15 to 45 in 2009 years), will see at once in his 1966 image the resemblance to we-ourselves (same get-up, haircut, carriage pitched to ‘cool’ and bluffing poise), and from which we will be able to extrapolate the full feeling of senescence. For we in 2009 see this shot — of ‘ourselves’ — with the image already present in mind of what Lou Reed has become — physically, artistically. And the shock’s like a thunderbolt: WE WILL GROW OLD TOGETHER. The lark of youth is a delusion; the destiny of our media recordings (films, digital photos, YouTube clips), no matter their clarity, is one of artifacts. And it’s all there on the screen, and the gestures of ‘cool’ and youth will only make the viewing of these records at some future point all the more more painful. Lou with his dumb shades, pivoting the Coke bottle so we can better eye the label (his gestures reading as: “See? How it’s a product? You dig? Check me out acknowledging it — I’m too cool to be unaware of the fact”). With his talon-nails... — appropriate flourish now that they signal time’s latent vampirage. Nosferatu ’66 morphs into Nosferatu ’21. Warhol’s movie ultimately became, and becomes, the baggage time and the spectator drop before it: and the film now says there’s no more power, no more cool, in ‘waiting for your man’ — you’re just a kid.
And your freedom is a performance. And time will have its revenge. Passe ton bac became my friend when I realized Pialat, granting the kids their libertinage, already knew all of this (of course he did). He was making a movie that would meet its latter-day on-disc featurettes. It took Warhol’s film, and seeing Pialat’s more than once, for me to feel at last the intelligence of Passe ton bac, its muteness, its neutrality, and to accept it, at last, as my neutralized object.
All this is present, dormant, in Shot One. For the film’s characters there’s no future — indicated by one of the movie’s temporal markers: the Sex Pistols — because there’s only an ever-unfurling present-with-a-past. Can this history even be read? The signs are there: hence the carvings on the desks in the opening shots, made by all the students of philosophy bac-prep classes past, presented by dissolves-in-montage — Pialat films the carvings, the graffiti, as hieroglyphs. They’re the testimony of preceding generations, of groups, loves, stories, events, boredoms. How to interpret this cosmos, this web, this complex tangle? The voiceover that sounds across the sequence essays order — is at once at complete odds with the chaotic marks, and a key to the crazy-code in front of our eyes, a kind of god’s-eye assurance or avowal (the very authority of which will, later on in the film, be subverted — but more on this later). The teacher’s voice intones: “The problem with philosophy is you all come with preconceived ideas about it. That’s what bothers me. Lots of things, including literature, inculcate you with ideas and you come here with ready-made notions. I think our first task in these philosophy classes will involve unlearning, forgetting everything you’ve been told. That’s the best way to proceed. The other thing I want to say to you is that, particularly in philosophy, if there is no real need, no real desire for philosophy existing between us, between me and every one of you, nothing will happen.” The words essentially represent the thesis, or the moral, of the film; of course the kids we’ll meet in the next 80 minutes will prove to have no discernible familiarity with any governing system of Philosophy or canon of Literature — in place of these terms, as used in the teacher’s speech, we understand we have to substitute the word “Life”, or some other clichéd, but all-encompassing, analogue. The speech registers like moral mandate, or activation key that might have brought the desk-artists to the point of progress. But the movement is forwards and backwards, temporal flux, and there resides in this same sequence a hidden ‘structuring’ of history, one we, the spectator, as cinephile, or as someone who buys into the continuities prescribed by terms like Philosophy and Literature, might already know, from a familiarity with the previous work of Pialat: the film takes place in the town of Lens, in Pas de Calais — the same region in which the director set his debut feature, L’enfance-nue. There’s a history ‘off’ (off-screen, off-film) — and the two films, superimposed in memory, resolve into a line of pedagogical questioning directed at Passe ton bac’s protagonists: Did you see what happened? Was this you? If so, have you made good on the previous lessons? If you haven’t, do you recognize you’re caught in a present just like the one before? Against the outset’s relief of linearity, of logic’s entreaties, the film will unreel over the next 80-odd minutes into more uncertainity, and resolutions indiscernible. Rudimentary presents, only. No future.*
[*But no nihilism either. In contrast to L’enfance-nue, with its dropped cats and daggers brandished. In Passe ton bac d’abord..., emotions get hurt — not bodies. If the Golden Rule doesn’t apply, it’s because the kids barely care what happens to themselves emotionally.]
The prevailing motif of the film isn’t chaos so much as constant flux, dialectic like promordial goo. Look closely at two of the initial cuts in the picture. #1: From the desktop-hieroglyphs to the gym-class handball match. The color palettes of the frames in both sequences ‘rhyme’; the wooden materiality of each makes a second match. And although existing on an opposite track, we might count a third rhyme in the pairing of the desktop close-ups’ shallow frontality with the deep-space vortex of the handball court. Fourth rhyme: two teacher-figures declaim instruction. (On a first viewing the temporal vicinity of the philo and gym teachers might lead us to expect a heavy indoctrinational quality in the proceedings — maybe some ‘rougher’ version of a dead-poets society — but, with the exception of the philo teacher’s ritorno near the end of the picture, theirs remain the only two instructional voices in the film.) #2: From the handball court to the Caron café’s interior. No surface-rhymes whatsoever in this instance — but look more deeply and discern shared notions of opposing sides, of switched alliances, of boundaries and their transgressions, of diagonal advance, of ‘victory’ as an arbitrary demarcation. Pialat moves our emotional response like a game-piece, taking us from the adjacent spaces of the workdesks and the gleaming court into the farther reaches of a café milieu like a Bosch painting — garden of earthly delights. (A painting that Jean Eustache, incidentally, would investigate brilliantly on film the same year as the release of Passe ton bac.)
Pialat’s great talent was that he could aestheticize anything, even if it was already, documentarily, there in the world — and he did so purely by cutting. In the football scene that succeeds the infernal café, one experiences a sense of exaltation purely by re-discovering, by way of the cinematographic miracle, that the colors of the spectators’ hats, dispersed at random among the heads in the crowd, match the colors of the home-team’s uniform. Of course they do! We all know that you go to a sporting event, and you flaunt your team-spirit — with apparel, jerseys, hats, whatever. But Pialat shows us something new: in his cutting from the pitch to the stands, the colors carry over across the shots to make a link between the two elements, thus shifting the drama from the action of the match (word now infused with double-meaning) to the rapport between the spectators and the players: harmony, brotherhood, sympathy for the ensemble. And yet (incessant dialectics)... it’s shortly after this scene that the film begins to fix upon Elisabeth (whose actress Sabine Haudepin is, in any case, listed first in the opening credits) as a central locus — both a structural anchoring point and (in the elaboration of her relationship with Philippe) a dramaturgic mechanism. Correspondingly, the editing-schema develops in the manner of a musical work, or prosodic arrangement: Group / Elisabeth / Group / Elisabeth ( A / B / A / B ), and so on.
What started out as a random hook-up solidifies into something regular and familially acceptable. We’ve already seen Elisabeth, following the opening café scene (where she can be observed making out with a boy who, in the context of the film, will never progress beyond the status of an extra) getting fucked from behind by Patrick in the backyard of her house — an iteration of the old ‘caught-in-the-headlights’ saw, upended by Pialat when he has the girl walk into the house right afterward to greet without timidity the father who spotted her. Her dad’s only remark: that that’s not gonna help her pass her bac. Mere minutes later in the film’s running-time, she has moved on to Philippe — who, nearly as quickly in the playback, has ‘graduated’ from walking into Elisabeth’s parents’ house for the first time with his hair snow-wet, to being told by Elisabeth’s mother in the family dining room (Elisabeth’s not even around) that she’ll help him find a job with the deputy mayor. As of this moment (which precedes a scene of Philippe helping Elisabeth’s father muck about with a busted appliance), it’s clear that some kind of destiny — or throughline — is being arranged.
Appropriate, then, that the wedding of Agnès and Rocky should trigger the rupture between Elisabeth and her mother — or rather, reinforce the larger generational divide. The sequence starts with Elisabeth’s father singing at full-throat on-stage — a ‘coming out’ for the man whom, before the appearance of Philippe, we’d only witnessed inside his own household as a relatively reticent figure. As the central set-piece of the picture, the wedding-reception solidifies the motifs of community (and P.S.: note the size of the community here: it would appear that all of the friends’ parents are also friends or acquaintances), of the ensemble, of the universal in the specific, and, most acutely, of continuity. In another resonance with L’enfance-nue, Pialat presents a wedding-party as the place where families at last converge, and ceremony and tradition allow them, if only temporarily, to set aside their mutual grievances. (Listen closely in Passe ton bac to hear strains of “La java bleue”, so movingly performed during the party scene in L’enfance-nue.) Young and old meet on square terms — a conference that makes possible one of the most powerful, most touching moments in the movie, as a few of the young people at the reception question an older gentleman, seated next to his wife, about his own marriage. “Were there any others after you got married?” — “Too many.” — “Did you love them?” — “Never. Oh no. No. Never.” Yet the gulf between the generations is never far off — in one respect is located, ironically, at the level of the music performed at the event, seemingly chosen purely for the enjoyment of the older attendees and completely out of synch with the kids’ and newlyweds’ sensibilities... which gravitate (as the film informs us later on) more towards Pink Floyd, Bob Marley, and electro-pop. (Savor that magnificent scene further on in the picture when the caddish Caron proprietor — the overt comic presence of Passe ton bac and, in his total tonal disjunction with the rest of the film [trademark Pialat grace-note, in harmony with the film’s discordances], the embodiment of the ‘sore-thumb’ — attempts to ingratiate himself with the group on their holiday by joining in on the impromptu dance-session at the restaurant. Here’s the precursor to the late-night trance bash in which Charlotte Rampling haltingly participates in François Ozon’s rather less-than-masterful Swimming Pool .)
On a dramatic level — that is, in its function of igniting the blow-up between Elisabeth and her mother — the wedding scene might appear to exist primarily to get all parties sozzled, then to move Elisabeth into Bernard’s arms, and Philippe and Bernard toward blows with one another. A crux moment of the film, to be sure, but I would propose that the most important element of this section is perhaps Elisabeth’s dress. The dress — a bizarrely out-of-place, almost rustic, or (more insidiously) cultic piece — habit-like — prepares us for the outcome of the film (and I’ll return to this a little further down) as much as the fight prepares us ‘naturally’ for the next scene: the dining-room confrontation between Elisabeth and her mother. On the surface, the fight erupts because Elisabeth has behaved like ‘a whore’ at the wedding with her shameless dancefloor nuzzling of Bernard. But of course neither this, nor the undercurrent of impropriety in such a sacred, tradition-governed space, can account entirely for her mother’s rage. The shame is her mother’s shame because her daughter has, effectively, been carrying out the role of the proxy lover of Philippe whom she herself cannot have. The complacency her mother shows toward her daughter’s future — and the attention she lavishes on Philippe — say as much about the mother’s ‘expectations’ as her desires and vicarious wish-fulfillment — Elisabeth has fucked up everything. Why else dissolve into tears and desperately grasp at downing a bottle of pills after an event that would seem, away from any context, somewhat less than consequential to the immediate mental bearing of the parent of a confused teen? It’s in this same dining room, by the way, that we recall Elsabeth’s mother first ‘propositioning’ Philippe with the offer of a job at the deputy mayor’s, whereupon she notes rather intimately: “[Elisabeth]’s had plenty of guys — before you, I mean... My husband doesn’t say much... It’s not his style to show his feelings... Now you’re here, he’s happy...”
The fact of the matter is that between Elisabeth and her mother, there exists a compact — spiritual, sexual, magickal — the initiation of which is observable at the moment the young girl first brings her new boyfriend home, his hair snow-wet. Look at the kiss, from nowhere, that Elisabeth plants on her cheek, and then at the smile and the glance that signals a complicity which might only be fully understood in hindsight, though its ‘uncanniness’ is immediately apprehensible; the ley-lines of bloodline are stronger than we or she might have consciously supposed. By the time of the final scene, and the kiss that bookends the initial one and seems to indicate the pact’s completion (‘Our destiny is made’), the pregnant Elisabeth, looking dazed, enchanted — the smile having drifted across to the face of the mother scissoring wedding preparations — has been revealed as a vessel in a kind of rite, or movement. Her pregnancy-smock — habit-like as her dress at the wedding, which can now be understood as a preliminary signal on the magickal throughline, and/or like something out of Dreyer — telegraphs the completion. These garments have been chosen for her — she who shows little resistance by the end, who lies ragdoll-flopped on an armchair, clutching a textbook titled Enterprise and Men, adrift as a blanker Ophelia. And who knows whose baby it really is, this child of a child-bride-to-be.
Elisabeth like forest-spousal nymphet contrasts with Frédérique — she whom Bernard essentially ‘picks up’ exiting a church, and who shares roughly the same age as Elisabeth but whose bourgeoise upbringing has cultivated in her an aggression not so much id-resplendent as ego-clear. She’s got her leopard-face one-piece swimsuit ‘at the ready’ beneath her clothes, beast’s maw stamped across her genitals with its eyes emblazoning her little breasts. Leonine totem and reward — promised and captured by King Bernard. And to continue hollering the hallali, we’d note another predatory parallel in the philosophy teacher who displays a fascination for elfin Elisabeth (and which actor we learn was Sabine Haudepin’s real boyfriend at the time of the shoot). Passe ton bac reminds us that in the case of Men v. Women, age difference can be used like a gavel. When the teacher next appears in the film after his attempted seduction of Elisabeth (whose eyes are open and corruptible) and their brief encounter in the supermarket, it’s when Elisabeth, by now pregnant, sits in his prep class: all is rote repetition. He intones the same speech we took in during the opening credits, which now has been uncovered not so much as the articulation of some wise ethos as a stump speech — (Endless repetition of presents.) — while his pronouncement of “congratulations” at Elisabeth descends like the most bitter and summary judgment. — (No future.)
And that’s the cinema. Films play back the same way every time. We return to them over and over again, even when they reveal unpleasant truths — or pose insolent questions, the answers to which it’s up to us to formulate (not regurgitate), to construct with our own battered material. The movies are mentors: we keep coming back out of admiration for their moxie. They’re a conversation, a sitting for a self-examination. The ‘characters’ don’t have a destiny because they don't need one. We do. For better or for worse, we are the cinema.