Notes, information, and remarks by Pialat on the director's short films, which span in their entirety 1951-1966, can be found here.
Adrian Martin's 2009 essay on La gueule ouverte, and my translation of remarks about the film, can be found at this blog here.
Dan Sallitt's 2008 essay on Police (which he considers one of his favorite pieces of his own writing) has just been posted at his blog, here. A dossier of my translations of interviews with Pialat about the film has been posted here.
Dan's 2010 MoC essay on À nos amours. has also been posted at 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.
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.
A Close Analysis of a Fragment from Sous le soleil de Satan
by Gabe Klinger (2010)
(The frames reproduced below, which refer to points made in Klinger's essay and were originally placed within the vicinity of the relevant text of the author's essay in the MoC booklet are here reproduced in facsimile-form from the greyscale booklet. Of course the film and original frames are in color, but were reproduced in the booklet, and here, purely for illustrative purposes. The color originals are somewhere on an external hard-drive in the course of my recent west-coast move.)
About twenty minutes into Sous le soleil de Satan, Mouchette (Sandrine Bonnaire), a teenager who has just left her family home to stay with an older man, the Marquis de Cadignan (Alain Artur), strolls leisurely into a room while biting into an apple. In an elliptical moment preceding this shot, it is suggested to us that Mouchette and her aristocratic lover have just been intimate. Hence Mouchette’s casual manner, which implies that she is already quite at ease with her new — albeit temporary — living situation. Distracted, Mouchette fixes her gaze on the Marquis’s shotgun, which sits on a table next to an ammunition belt. Mouchette sets her apple down and lifts the weapon into her two hands, gleefully aiming it into the air, and then setting it back down on the table. Still idly chewing, she decides she is not done with the shotgun, picking it up again. The camera pans into the adjacent room, where the Marquis is putting his clothes back on. In this unbroken shot, the camera follows the Marquis as he heads toward Mouchette (who remains offscreen). He looks at her and asks, calmly, that she put down the gun. There’s no sense of any impending danger from the inflection of his voice as he says to her “You’re a pain.” And yet, just as these words leave his mouth, we hear a blast.
Meditated act or pure misfortune? Without so much as a cut to black or moment of stillness, such as branches of a tree rustling in the wind, or water dripping from a faucet, or any number of other false gestures that would plant ambiguity into this story, or aid us in digesting such an abrupt action, Pialat moves us right into the next, even more devastating image (still the continuation of the same shot):
Mouchette, crying hysterically, continues to grasp the shotgun. She trembles and sets down the gun. In the next shot, she kneels around the Marquis’s body, snorts, and gets up. Cut. Mouchette, looking anxiously around, washes her bloodied slipper in a river. In roughly a minute and a half of screen-time, Pialat has opened up an entire world of associative images that would look and feel contrived in the work of nearly any other filmmaker. He has revealed to us again, with surprising tactile force, the cruel outcome of a random act. It’s the dagger in the wall in Pialat’s debut feature, L’enfance-nue [Naked-Childhood, 1968]; or the ferocity with which the character thrusts layers of paint onto a canvas in his penultimate film, Van Gogh . These images belong to the same world.
The objects of a still life: a shotgun and an apple; a candelabrum, a large vase. Mouchette ponders the objects, dances beside them. One gets the sense that these inanimate table items will, at any moment, be rendered active in the scene. There’s no close-up or over-emphasizing of any detail; in Pialat, it’s all about the way the actor chooses to interact with her environment. So while one might not think twice about the heavy thumping sound of the shotgun as Mouchette haphazardly places it back on the table, it is an important aspect of the scene for two reasons: first, as an indicator to the audience that this deadly tool does not alarm her; and second, it makes the ensuing discharge of the gun more palpable. This physicality comes from the sound, not from the silent movement of pointing and aiming. The power of the object comes entirely from this clank and the eventual blast.
These sounds may be invisible in Pialat, the same way the circling movement around the room is. The visual eloquence with which we return to the initial point of view of the start of the shot is partly what makes the image of a hysterical Mouchette so shocking. We depart from this...
.... and return to this:
Note the change in the way she holds the gun. The weight of the metal is carefully built into the composition.
In a scene from Pedro Costa’s Où gît votre sourire enfoui? [Where Does Your Smile Lie Buried? / Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?, 2001], the filmmakers Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub study a shot from their film Sicilia! . Freezing the shot on a flatbed, they observe how a woman supports her hand on her waist. They comment on the tension in her wrist. What is it about this tension, which may appear insignificant, that becomes so crucial to the character in that moment? No detail should be wasted, Huillet and Straub seem to suggest throughout the film. Pialat takes a similar approach, sacrificing immediate comprehension for a gesture that, to paraphrase the critic Dan Sallitt, emphasizes the contradictions of a moment. Mouchette goes from holding the gun proudly to barely being able to lift it in her hands. Does Mouchette’s swift change in body language actually relieve her of the suspicion that this was a meditated act? Pialat does not make the Marquis sympathetic enough for the audience to conclude otherwise. And he does not rush to make Mouchette coherent enough for the scene to be simply left alone. He propels us forward to a shady Mouchette occulting the evidence of her act in the woods. In the next scene, Mouchette is seen in the office of Dr. Gallet (Yann Dedet), with whom she is having an affair. It may as well be the same day or weeks since the killing, since the only visual indicator is Mouchette’s change from a white shirt with a bow to a buttoned-up embroidered shirt:
Pialat seems to create this confusion intentionally. He wishes for us to discover the temporal shift only when Mouchette confesses to Gallet several minutes later. After her lucid recounting of what the audience has witnessed in the earlier scene, Gallet shoots back that, true or false, the story might as well be a dream. Mouchette shrieks in desperation. Is it the refusal of her culpability that she cannot accept and finds so morally vile in Gallet’s character? Or is it that she needs to feel, the way the audience needs to feel that this character is real, that the clank of the gun is real, that her actions are real? Pialat decides to cut from Mouchette in mid-scream, leaving any questions that might surge in the audience’s mind intact despite having already learned that the character will likely not suffer any legal consequences for her actions. It’s a way of Pialat stripping the story from such predictable narrative problems and returning it to larger philosophical issues of the characters.
If only this ten minute fragment from Sous le soleil de Satan survived one hundred years from now, one would still be able to derive from it Pialat’s entire approach to filmmaking. A close look at these scenes reveals a complex strategy of accumulating violent eruptions and then burying them for long stretches of time while the film reveals other details. Few filmmakers are able to leave so much unresolved from scene to scene, moment to moment, without losing coherence. Pialat’s relationship with the audience is one of truth, and his deeply intuitive cinema achieves this by avoiding conclusions as much and as often as possible. •
Quotations from an Interview with Michèle Halberstadt (1987)
Translated from the French by Craig Keller
A film is always an egocentric thing. You can’t judge [whether the public will come see a film]. You can just ‘think something,’ that’s it... You sense it. L’enfance-nue, it was clear that, no, they wouldn’t turn out for it. Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble [We Won’t Grow Old Together, 1972], yes, we told ourselves they’re gonna turn out. La gueule ouverte [The Slack-Jawed Mug / The Open Trap / The Gaping Maw, aka "The Mouth Agape", 1974] was a no, and Sous le soleil de Satan is a yes. ....
The text is taken from Bernanos; he’s difficult at times. [...] Okay, maybe there’s one difficult passage: the one with Donissan’s meeting with the Devil. In the novel, the Devil is his double, he looks just like himself. It’s a little dumb, right... What does he see? Not his face, no — what he sees is his life, his own consciousness... Here I am criticizing the book, because that was a very hard sequence to film, and before doing it I said: ‘If we flub this, the film’s done for.’ We shoot it, and I say: ‘It’s flubbed, and the film’s done for...’ Anyway, I wasn’t there when they were editing it, I showed up later on. I took one look and... oof — saved! But we got through by the skin of our teeth. There was nothing else to use from any other takes... [...] It’s a vision he has, it’s subjective, so Donissan shouldn’t be in the shot, but I don’t think it could have been shot any other way. In any case, without this sequence, there’s no film. ....
At Cannes, I said I was an atheist, which makes no sense. The word ‘atheist’ means nothing to me. You can’t be against something you don’t believe in. No, although I’d been into religion up to 14, and had dabbled in and out of it afterwards. For young people, the patronages had two attractions: first, that’s where you went to have fun; second, you could put on amateur theatre. So I stayed close to all that till I was 19. So I mean... If you believe what psychoanalysis has to say, that these are the years that leave the biggest impression on you... Later on, there was rebellion. There’s no-one better than those in the know, for figuring out where you went wrong. I basked in the aforementioned spirituality, but it didn’t mean anything. At Cannes, at [television presenter Yves] Mourousi’s place, he’d invited l’Abbé Pierre [the esteemed priest Henri Marie Joseph Grouès], who’s very eloquent. He said: ‘This is love.’ I responded: ‘It’s a shame no-one ever said that to me before now.’ No, Sous le soleil is a film of resentment. I know the subject well. I don’t milk it, I hope I’m getting beyond it, with more imprecision, lack of foresight... For me, Evil is not the flesh. Donissan doesn’t proselytize, he doesn’t give a damn about knowing that Mouchette has lovers; he tells her: ‘You’re not guilty...’ You can approach the film, somewhat, as belonging to the type of subject where there’s a question, but no satisfactory answer. ....
Oh, the day when everyone understands that [Sandrine Bonnaire] is supremely gifted... Sandrine is always a pro but, at the same time, she changes with every take. She’s always the same, and always different. With her, I’ve always had the urge to keep everything, every take, to use everything. The scene with the doctor, which goes on for eight minutes, six takes were done — for no reason, since she was good from the very first one... Well, I’m not sure if what’s in the film is the best, because every take was a success. [....] She’s even more complete than Arletty. However, when she showed up on the set of Sous le soleil she was distorted by the others. The first take of the first scene didn’t work, she was no good. Which, for Sandrine, doesn’t mean she was bad, but just that she didn’t hit it... •
Excerpts from an Interview with Olivier Joyard (2003)
Translated from the French by Craig Keller
The following excerpts are from an interview conducted on January 18th, 2003, one week after Pialat’s death on January 11th, 2003.
[...] My father really liked Maurice.
Did they know each other well?
Before dying, my father told me: “My wish would be for you to make another film with Pialat.” This was before Sous le soleil de Satan. Their relationship was very strong; Pialat understood the bond between my father and me, something very tender, without its really being spoken. They met one another when my father came with me to the screen tests to find out who this guy was. Our family didn’t go to the movies; my parents never really knew how to speak with him.
You made screen tests with your two sisters.
Yes, at first Maurice wanted all of us together, he liked the way we squabbled in front of the camera. The screen tests went on for several weeks; I thought that my sister Corinne was going to get the role; I thought he was watching her very closely — anyway, it didn’t really bother me at all, that’s how I was. But he picked me, and asked me to make more tests with another girl, very skilled, from the Cours Florent. Then I was told I had the role. The location scouting began in Hyères; I took a plane for the first time. Maurice had brought binoculars — he would show me the countryside like I was his daughter.
Which shoot was the most unique?
Sous le soleil de Satan was the most unique as we weren’t allowed to improvise, at least with regard to the text. I remember these long, meticulous sequence-shots. I kept blanking out, especially once when I was shooting with Claude Berri (in the end re-takes [of those sequences] were made [with Yann Dedet in Berri’s part] ), who was unbearable with me. I had trouble concentrating, he was very annoying, sometimes he would tell Maurice the places he would put the camera, over his reverse-shots — he threw my way of acting into doubt... I was very bad, and I think that if we’d been shooting À nos amours. [To Our Romance. / Here’s to Love., 1983] or Police , Maurice would have used what happened to come out on-the-fly... But on that one he told me to shut myself away and to keep practicing my text. I wasn’t supposed to look for my words, I was supposed to let myself go and recite them naturally.
With regard to you in Sous le soleil de Satan, Pialat said: “I’ve never seen such joy in acting.”
I have the skill of immediate concentration, which relies on my interaction with others. He really liked that instinctive side, which I don’t really have anymore these days, because you can’t remain eternally inside of instinct. But I still think I’m not much of an actress. It’s not a craft that I’ve learned — I do it with the means at my disposal, and with a personal conviction.
Pialat wasn't gonna be the one to give you lessons.
Oh no! He doesn’t give lessons, he doesn’t ‘direct’ — he gives time and space to the actors. If I had made a film with him recently, I don’t know whether I’d have been capable of doing it. I’d have needed a certain amount of time to reacclimate. To accept doing nothing, for example, which isn’t obvious. I think Pialat, his way of directing the actor, is to strip away all their ego, all their pretensions. That’s the reason my two favorite films of his are Sous le soleil de Satan and Van Gogh.
You haven’t regretted having been absent for Van Gogh?
No. After I turned down the role he offered me, he talked about having me play the sister-in-law. But you had to be entirely at his disposal, and yet I’d already taken on a firm engagement for a film with Mastroianni [Verso sera / Towards Evening by Francesca Archibugi, 1991], and I stuck to it.
Did you ask for advice from Pialat when you were shooting with other filmmakers?
It was more like him giving me advice without my asking for it! When we started Sous le soleil de Satan, he told me: “[The projects] you’re getting involved with aren’t good — you’re developing tics, and you’re losing your integrity.” It was irritating to hear that, but not offensive. Because I think he was basically right: in movies, everything’s done to give you what you need, to put you in nice, agreeable conditions. It was the exact opposite with him. Right before a scene, or right after, he said some very rough things. I remember once, he reproached me for crying. The total opposite with À nos amours.. It was on Sous le soleil de Satan. He said: “Cut it out — it’s in Doillon’s films that people cry like that. You come here to make a film with me, but it’s amazing: you’re making a Doillon.” Five minutes later, I’d stopped crying... [...]
How did the ten years go, not working with him?
To begin, he said a lot of bad things about directors I worked with... As though by chance, the one he spoke the worst of was one of the greats: Rivette... In the [massive, career-spanning] interview for the Cahiers du cinéma in 2000, he said I wasn’t bad for two or three minutes in Jeanne d’Arc [Jeanne la pucelle / Jeanne the Maid, Jacques Rivette, 1994] — a six-hour long film! •
Excerpt from an Interview with Jacques Rivette by Frédéric Bonnaud (1998)
Translated from the French by Kent Jones
Pialat is a great filmmaker – imperfect, but then who isn’t? I don’t mean it as a reproach. And he had the genius to invent Sandrine – archeologically speaking – for À nos amours.. But I would put Van Gogh and La maison des bois [The House in the Woods, 1971] above all his other films. Because there he succeeded in filming the happiness, no doubt imaginary, of the pre-WWI world. Although the tone is very different, it’s as beautiful as Renoir.
But I really believe that Bernanos is unfilmable. Journal d'un curé de campagne [Diary of a Country Priest, Robert Bresson, 1950] remains an exception. In Sous le soleil de Satan, I like everything concerning Mouchette [Sandrine Bonnaire’s character], and Pialat acquits himself honorably. But it was insane to adapt the book in the first place since the core of the narrative, the encounter with Satan, happens at night – black night, absolute night. Only Duras could have filmed that.