The following brilliant essay and accompanying pieces originally appeared in the booklet for the 2013 Masters of Cinema UK Blu-ray release of Van Gogh [Maurice Pialat, 1991] which I produced. This was our last Pialat release to-date, and the film is Pialat's penultimate feature, considered by many perhaps his greatest.
Kent Jones's 2008 essay on L'enfance-nue, and my translations of accompanying interviews with Pialat can be found at this blog here.
Emmanuel Burdeau's 2009 essay on Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble, and my translations of accompanying interviews with Pialat can be found at this blog here.
Gabe Klinger's 2010 essay on Sous le soleil de Satan, and my translation of a 1987 interview with Pialat, and a 2003 interview with Sandrine Bonnaire, can be found at this blog 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.
by Sabrina Marques (2013)
– Vincent van Gogh,
letter to his brother Théo about the painting “Bedroom in Arles”
In one of his famous art history books, Gombrich portrayed Van Gogh as an artist who crossed art by faith with a “sense of mission”. He fought with his brush, he battled until the last consequences. He remained a painter even when absorbed in a desperate loneliness. He kept his freedom as few like him had. He was a “society’s suicide”, as Artaud put it. He attacked conformism and conventions with “incendiary mixtures and atom bombs”, and he became an outcast. Madness? Or an active lucidity that any medicine might have helped? A clairvoyance that his time couldn’t understand, maybe?
By the end of May 1890, Van Gogh withdrew to Auvers-sur-Oise to consult Docteur Gachet. The three months that followed were his last. Those are the humble times in the south of France we watch through Pialat’s fiction. In fact, the director had always preserved a special interest for the Dutch painter. Almost thirty years before, he had already directed a documentary short-film named Van Gogh  included in the series Chroniques en France. And in À nos amours. [Here’s to Love. / To Our Romance., 1983], Pialat (playing the role of the father) quotes what’s assumed to have been Van Gogh’s last sentence – “La tristesse durera toujours” [“Sadness will go on forever”] – before commenting on it: “I thought Van Gogh was talking about himself, about his misery, but no. He was trying to say that the battle will last forever. It’s you who are sad.”
The simplicity of Van Gogh’s life is inscribed in the depurated surface of the film. Its main feat is its concision. Historical reconstitution has been wrested away from its usual elaboration. In fact, the accuracy of historical reconstruction doesn’t interest Pialat – we can see, for example, how the famous question of the chopped ear (even though it is mentioned in the film) is ignored by the physical characterization of Van Gogh. Pialat is focused on the presentation of a man and the battles within him apart from his name (thus, we rarely see his paintings and, even more rarely, his most iconic ones).
In spite of its apparent simplicity, the production difficulties grew and the diminutive budget of forty-five million francs was not enough. The shooting had to be interrupted. However, at the time of its première in 1991, the film was enthusiastically received both by critics and by the public. Pialat had surpassed himself and this was to be his masterpiece. And still a film of a painter about a painter.
A detailed attention to cinematography, a skillful mastery of perspective, and a regard to composition construct, in this film, images of a persistent beauty – both in episodes of immense genius and of immense squalor. But it isn’t Van Gogh’s vivid chromaticism that provides the film with its colors. Actually, Pialat is inspired by the incipient palette of the Impressionists, the sovereign canon in Van Gogh’s days. We therefore see his world as Van Gogh didn’t see it. We could never access with any exactitude his genius, his vision, his mind. This is one of Pialat’s triumphs, in permanent insurrection against academicism. The formal aspects of Van Gogh are a demonstration of this liberty. The shots bloom with fluidity. If in one moment, the studied fixity of the camera holds the actors’ movements, in the next zooms and pans it coordinates the speed of a chat at the table. Everything exists naturally. The characters exist within reality, they converse with a sincerity that is sometimes brutal. And the beauty is there, raw, inherent to the layers of life in pasty smudges of small precision.
This permanent sensation of Beauty – beautiful fields, beautiful colors, beautiful girls, beautiful songs – comes with an intoxicating monotony. This is Van Gogh’s portrait of inadaptation, he whose troubled personality couldn’t be contained within pleasant conventions. His painting doesn’t reproduce reality, it rather interprets it; it interprets itself. Sky and land are mixed up, water and sky are mixed up, detail is absent. He discovers the affectivity of solid colors, he relates forms and colors hoping to alter the world by altering the look of the things in it. The feverish energy of the brush continues. The noisy strength of the spatula attacks the canvas. The furious convulsions of the hand are intuitive. The strokes don’t detail. As the urge rises, the secret reality of the eyes is born in solid colors. The style is impulsive. The style is the message. As the “eye is a great heart that sends the camera hurtling” (Jean-Luc Godard, in his letter to Pialat), the fingers of the painter are his heart too. Van Gogh painted the world he wished others saw. In a letter to his brother, he describes his urge to cleanse form and color, “giving by its simplification a grander style to things”.
These paintings are raw wounds of color. Van Gogh had the vortical need to invent his own mirror. All is free there, all stands beyond the order of the visible. Expression is emotion. This rush carries the strength of life. One lives his life for art until one loses his life – but art remains. In the end, isn’t the overcoming of time the ultimate aspiration for any artist? And Van Gogh and Pialat arrived there through incomparably different paths.
Pialat’s state of struggle was of a different kind. Famous for his unstable posture, he has always interpolated the most prodigious moments with the most irascible words of resentment. Like Van Gogh, Pialat was an outsider, rambling among schools, movements, groups. Having dedicated himself to other arts such as painting (which he declared his favorite art of all) and theatre (admittedly without vocation in this field), it was through the cinema that he had formulated the deepest dialogue with himself. If with this Van Gogh the mastery of his cinematographic art overcomes itself, it is also here that the confrontation of the artist against incomprehension is portrayed, in the figure of a Van Gogh that is (also) Pialat.
To read the letters of Van Gogh to his good brother Théo, an art dealer, is to unveil the confessions of a spirit in doubt, which alternates a fierce faith in his own work with a profound disbelief held by a sense of failure, doubt, and guilt. In Pialat’s film, the painter never theorizes, debates, explains, or legitimizes his own art, contrary to what happens with Minnelli’s Van Gogh in Lust for Life . Dutronc encloses himself inside a body of permanent tension. He seems incarcerated in a mutism from which he frees himself only through excess: the rip of the brush, the verbal fury, the sexual promiscuity, the frenzy of the dance, the physical confrontation. One senses the ultimate abyss where, in desire for the absolute, his destruction will arrive. This rupture is inscribed in the simplicity of that moment of so much interpreted symbolism: Walking with Jo, Van Gogh throws himself suddenly into the river, noisily, staging a suicide. It is the calm perfection of the Impressionists that is shattered by the impetus of Van Gogh, at the same time that, in a cynical and almost burlesque tone, it foreshadows what is to happen. Art is not splendour, art is not dazzle – art is something else. It exists in the soul alongside brutality.
This is a film about a slow end, almost voiceless. Loss is everywhere. It is the process of a body untying from itself, falling into a secret madness and letting go at the mercy of a mind without sovereignty, in the margins of society. He belongs nowhere, he belongs to a time that hasn’t arrived yet (and that he won’t live to experience).
We will remember the sore sight of madness in that mute and dry body folding inside itself. This Van Gogh with his “eyes fixed in the land and never in the sky,” as Serge Toubiana wrote in “Il s’appelle Van Gogh et il n’en a rien à foutre” [“His Name Is Van Gogh and He Doesn’t Give a Damn About Anything”], constantly alternates between contention and emotional outburst. Jacques Dutronc knows how to depict the calm intensity of that sadness, in a virtuous interpretation that deserved the César.
Maybe the social inadequacy of Van Gogh, who has failed in his plan to create a brotherhood of artists in Auvers-sur-Oise is in the first place inflicted by the successive exclusions among his peers. In deep disbelief, he carries his sorrow into all the other worlds he passes by. A blockade, he rejects everything and everybody. Van Gogh is the extreme personification of that old idea (very recurrent in Pialat’s heroes) that we are ultimately utterly alone and forsaken. There is not a person in the film who doesn’t feel incomplete or betrayed. Not even the couple, apparently happy at first.
Pialat’s camera accompanies the fading of hope. Pialat is the filmmaker of solitude but never leaving behind the quiet dream of integration. Even under a melancholic shade, hope doesn’t cease its flow, close to life. The film is crossed by the torrent of an overwhelming energy. And in these moments of ephemerality, all evil seems to be overcome. A brief instant... A cheerful lunch with the Gachet family, where everybody has fun without fearing the ridicule of contributing somehow to the general laughter... An improvised song at an outdoor ball... The relief of frenzied dances in pairs... And the most remarkable of all moments: that frantic collective dance in the brothel, an organic whole wonderfully filmed and choreographed, reminding us of John Ford or Jean Renoir.
The idea that, in Pialat’s Cinema, women are “positive heroes” (the exact expression is by Laurence Giavarini in her article “Hommes et femmes” [“Men and Women”], Cahiers du cinéma, no. 449, November 1991) is crucial to this movie. There’s the old hostess and her teenage daughter with their motherly attention; there’s the red dress dancer-prostitute ready to love him one day without any money being involved; but the most relevant of all the characters is Marguerite (Alexandra London), the bored young bourgeoise who is fascinated with the distinct personality of Van Gogh. Introduced as a soft, candid being, she will evolve into his antagonist. She will affirm that he can’t paint (after he paints her portrait), she will insist that life is more important than art, she will accept and love him as he is. Van Gogh would obviously dedicate himself as a whole to his art (in his last letter to Théo, unmailed, he would write "my own work, I am risking my life for it and my reason has half-foundered because of it..."), admirably trusting his destiny to art until the end. He resists; he carries on painting even when nobody, not even his own brother, believed in it, even when not having sold more than one painting in his entire life.
Away from romanticism, both Marguerite and Vincent travel a transformative path. Marguerite initiates a ritual of emancipation, against the conventions of her own class, against the feminine privations, against the patriarchal authority, against what she used to be. In spite of the hours spent with Marguerite in light and company, Vincent’s tension confines him as the resistance vanishes. And in that memorable close-up in the final scene, when Marguerite assumes that Van Gogh used to be a close friend of hers, in her triumphant face the apprenticeship she owes him is complete. She recognizes him now as, more than an intermittent lover, a unique being who she had the privilege of meeting and, somehow, understanding. The artist stayed alive.
Pialat and Van Gogh: How many eyes don’t owe them their fortunate corruption? •
by Jean-Luc Godard (1991)
Translated from the French by Craig Keller
My dear Maurice, your film is astonishing, totally astonishing; far beyond the cinematographic horizon covered up until now by our wretched gaze. Your eye is a great heart that sends the camera hurtling among girls, boys, spaces, moments in time, and colors, like childish tantrums. The ensemble is miraculous; the details, sparks of light within this miracle; we see the big sky fall and rise from this poor and simple earth. All of my thanks, to you and yours, for this success – warm, incomparable, quivering.
– Jean-Luc Godard •
excerpts translated from the French – of Pialat in conversation with Michel Ciment and Michel Sineux – by Pierre Hodgson (1992)
What happened on this film is what happens on all my films. I don’t like always being the scapegoat, but it keeps happening. It was the same on this film, but I suppose someone had to take the brunt – it’s symptomatic of today’s cinema. The film was halted because it was costing too much, because it was under-budgeted. Some of the costs could have been avoided totally, and others reduced. It should have cost about 40 million francs, whereas we spent over 60 million francs. About 15 or 20 million went up in smoke, spent on sets, things we didn’t even use. As a result the film was stopped, to save 3 million francs and three weeks of shooting. It’s not very logical, saving 3 million on a film that’s costing 60 million. The 3 million that were then found, and now represent three quarters of an hour of the film. I am partly responsible, but it all seems odd, I didn’t believe it was going to stop and leave everyone in limbo, with no one making any decisions, least of all the decision to put a halt to the enormous sums of money being swallowed up in set designs that were finally never used. We even had to finish the film twice. We resumed filming knowing that we couldn’t go through to the end, and then filmed again a month later. All this enabled people like Dutronc to claim that we filmed for eight months, although in fact it was only four, which was already a lot. He said other things as well, while claiming it was nothing to do with him. I realized that, out of the ten films I’d made, five have been stopped during filming, one of which, Loulou , was stopped for over a year. Can you imagine making a film, all the time knowing that you’re almost bound not to finish it? With Loulou, it wasn’t my fault. Isabelle Huppert left for a year to go rollerskating with [director Michael] Cimino [in the scene in Heaven’s Gate (1980)]. Then the producers went bankrupt, so for months we screened the film with chunks missing. So, all in all, ten films, five of which were filmed in two parts. You must admit that it’s sod’s law that it always falls on me, who has a reputation for causing trouble. Do you believe that for one minute? It’s masochism, it doesn’t make sense. Right from the start I had problems, as I was up against the wall, I felt like a reject. One day, when I’m calm, I should write all this down like a police report, objective and without bitterness. [...]
A team of set decorators spent a month doing nothing. Twenty people being paid. Did you notice that you don’t see any exteriors in the film? That’s another thing, critics who know everything. Like at school, when you did something, and then someone, who was usually ignorant, took your hand and told you what you were trying to do. For instance, I was told it was intentional that you saw nothing of Auvers. Or that you don’t see Van Gogh painting. In fact, I had no choice in these matters. But I cracked it. I work best when everything is going wrong. [...]
[The film] shouldn’t be as it is, there’s so much missing. It’s okay, but you don’t see all that should be in it, and isn’t there. [...]
[In the film] I cut some shots in which he was simply holding a paintbrush, not even painting. I find it all so false. Sadly, in some scenes, such as when Marguerite is posing for him at the piano, we see him painting outside. It’s dreadful. Resorting to using the hand of a real painter is awful too. To make it credible you need a look, a feel. I just had to let the piano scene ride, I was so stunned by the child’s performance, and I thought that if I said “Cut!”, she would think that she wasn’t doing it right. Anyway, no one sees anything. I could have put in some link shots, but putting separate shots into a sequence like this is very unsuccessful.
[Regarding most people only seeing a film once and not noticing the worrisome details, that’s] something interesting about movies. It’s worth thinking about. There is no reason why people shouldn’t see films several times, but fewer and fewer people are really capable of, or interested in, discovering things. Those who have this awareness and knowledge, this desire, and who go back again and again to see a film – these are the people we should primarily be making films for. [...]
When I started to paint, I was twenty years old, I adored Van Gogh. I grew to like him less and less. A long time ago, I wanted to make a film about him, not out of admiration but because the story his sister put together was good raw material. Otherwise, I’m more interested in, say, Seurat’s last year. Just as, other things being equal, if I was going to adapt Bernanos, I’d have been better off doing L’imposture [The Fake, 1927] than Sous le soleil de Satan [Under the Sun of Satan, 1926, which Pialat adapted into a film in 1987]. To return to Van Gogh, I’ve just mentioned Seurat. What beginners like about Van Gogh, is the ease with which he works. You couldn’t buy pictures like that at the time, it would have been unimaginable. [...]
In the first place, it would have been hard to find an actor to play Seurat. [...]
Listen, [producer Daniel] Toscan du Plantier has many failings, but he’ll do anything. The proof is Sous le soleil de Satan. That was looney. You’re probably going to say I’m obsessed with the box office, but Seurat would have sold thirty thousand tickets, no more. Anyway, films about painters never work. Though, for the first three weeks, we had a feeling Van Gogh was going to do well. [Editor’s note: Van Gogh sold 1.4 million tickets in France.] I am disappointed in that I expect a great deal of my audiences, I am too demanding. People are facile. Like it or not, cinema needs commercial success. [...]
In 1964, I made a short I could show you. It lasted six minutes. At the time, I was making Chroniques en France for television, short programs for French-language broadcasts worldwide, not shown in France. I made about ten of these bread-and-butter projects. One of them was a little film called Auvers [i.e., the 1965 Van Gogh], which was not just about Van Gogh but about Daubigny too; there were landscape shots of the area, a little rostrum work, not much, in black-and-white. [...]
[The actor Daniel Auteuil] met Bernard-Henri Lévy and wanted to shoot his Baudelaire [Lévy’s 1988 novel Les derniers jours de Charles Baudelaire, or The Last Days of Charles Baudelaire]. [...] I started to read the thing, but I didn’t get to the end. I couldn’t see myself doing a period piece with all those top hats. I didn’t feel like doing another costume drama, even if I did end up doing exactly that with Van Gogh, though in this instance we were fairly restrained. The exception is the two dance-hall scenes, which were a bit hasty, a bit “let’s get it in the can”.
I’m giving you a psychoanalytic interpretation here, though it may not seem like that. You’re the one on the couch, but I’m the one suffering. This is how I make a film. I meet a nice guy who commissions me, but doesn’t put money on the table. He does bring a bit in though, because with his name someone like me can get a bigger budget. So I say, “I’ve got something I want to do.” [...]
[Opening the film with a shot of Van Gogh painting, and the hand actually being my own, is] an admission that something is missing. There’s so little painting in the film, we had to start with that.
[Regarding costume and dialogue, and focusing on the most concrete aspects of everyday life so that there is nothing anachronistic] – As far as the dialogue is concerned, the reason is really simple: I didn’t think about it. The language is not really contemporary. What people forget when they make museum films, the huge anachronism, is that people never speak old-French. I believe that if you start using period terminology, you might as well give up. As far as the costumes are concerned, things are even simpler. There are plenty of photographic records of the period and it would have been easy to use them. But I wanted to avoid stiff collars and top hats. I was haunted by that. We had some made in London, which were okay but – surprise, surprise – they're not in the final cut. But the really ridiculous things – the ones we rented – do appear a couple of times. [...]
This may sound immodest, but I think one of my talents is turning fuck-ups to my own advantage. Which isn’t to say I seek them out. When something goes wrong – and this is part of my theory that the real true moment in filmmaking is the shoot itself because what counts is what’s in the can – then I always find a way out. I believe I steered the film towards those comic moments, to the extent of my ability to do so. I’ve been wanting to make a comedy for a long time now, but I wouldn’t know how to write it, I have neither the wit nor the sense of dialogue to write the screenplay. People like Woody Allen, even Audiard, know how to do that. I’d need to shoot someone else’s writing, though with that person’s permission, I’d have to stick my nose into his work. It’s true that this is one dimension of Van Gogh, but then the expectation is of something heavy and dramatic. I wanted to inject some humor, some fantasy, without – I hope – being too heavy-handed. [...] I steered the movie in that direction to make it more fun to watch. Basically, the natural audience for Van Gogh are the people who never went to see it. Anyway, I don’t think life is all that dramatic. We’ve all seen people die. Well, to the very end, life hangs on in there. Just because someone’s a painter, it doesn’t mean they have to go around with this inspired, affected expression on their face. Painting is technical, you do it as well as you can.
I do think that Van Gogh was more driven than my depiction allows. That’s a weakness in the acting. Just think of all he managed to paint in those seventy days! I read in [Stefan] Zweig’s bad book about Nietzsche [Nietzsche, 1925] – it could only be bad, given what Zweig is like – that Van Gogh painted really fast. That sounds right, I’m sure it’s true. Actually, it’s something he could be criticized for. The idea that painting is about gesture came later. It’s in a different class. Some of his contemporaries, like Seurat, went on preparing their canvases and meditating. Cézanne needed up to sixty sittings for a portrait and redid the picture from start to finish at each sitting. In terms of portraiture, the result is not always as good as Van Gogh’s portraits, even if purely in terms of pictorial achievement there is more to it. Van Gogh, on the other hand, could do up to three pictures a day. [...]
I may express opinions through the character [of Van Gogh]’s mouth but he's quite unlike me. I exercised restraint in the remarks about critics, I could have gone much further. As far as I’m concerned, the best pieces are demolition jobs. I prefer negative criticism of my own work. When someone who is reasonably silly and not very well-educated – I mean critics in general – decides to lay into a film, he turns quite nasty, he seeks out the flaws and often gets it right. Whereas praise... [...]
Perhaps I had to wait till I reached an advanced age before I could show men and women in a relaxed relationship. Before now, I've just depicted the bitches I've come across in my life. [...]
We had a meal in a good restaurant that recently closed, unfortunately. One of the waiters had seen Van Gogh, like quite a few people who know me personally. Well, there was one thing he didn’t really get and that was the death scene. He wasn’t sure if he’d followed it properly or not, but he thought that the prostitute had sent one of the men to kill him out of jealousy. When you hear that, you know he’s right. Audiences that know nothing about Van Gogh are accustomed, because they watch TV series, to know exactly who kills whom. And if there’s a mystery, it’s always solved at the end. The funny thing is that I was going to call the film Who Killed Van Gogh?. I also liked Dr. Gachet’s Daughter. It wouldn’t have made much difference. [...]
I’ve got a cuttings book from the [1991 Cannes] festival. The press is bad, which is incredibly unfair. I don’t mind telling you that by the end of the edit, I thought Van Gogh was the best film in France since the war. When a film is released, you need to believe in it and the fact is that, to an extent, Van Gogh was up to my expectations. But now I know it’s not good enough. If I were the only judge, but I'm not. There are lots of reasons why no one can make the best film in France since the war. In any case, those kinds of competitions are a bit like the Tour de France. I don’t care much for them. I really feel that you can’t let the kind of press coverage that we had at Cannes pass — it’s unforgivable. Editors should fire critics for writing that kind of article; that’s assuming editors are any better than their journalists, which is often not the case. Usually they’re worse since they have to play the watchdog. I hear that one female journalist got canned, but I don’t think that was the reason. [...]
When we stood up for the applause [at the Cannes screening], at the end, I knew there were a few alterations that needed doing, childish little things. We went up to the actors, kissed them, shook their hands. That way, you get the clapping to last a bit longer, there are always people timing these things, though the timings they get are always off. I like playing that sort of trick. I’m a bit of a ham, really. A big ham. •