Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Her Wilderness

"In the sound of a few leaves"

I came away from my first viewing of Frank Mosley's 2014 feature Her Wilderness nonplussed, questioning whether its tack wasn't to formulate clichéd (albeit good-faith) provocations à la recent 'experimental' microbudget cinema. I expressed my frustrations to Frank, and he responded with a spirited, articulate defense of his picture. And why shouldn't he? Every film should speak for itself, but when a director gets put on the spot, he should be able to stand his ground, say, "Think what you will, and take what you will from my telling you this was my impetus — ..." After that I watched it twice more: which is all it took — both times I thought it was a terrific film. I asked him why he chose to describe the picture as an experimental narrative, that wasn't he only pigeon-holing himself or leading the potential audience, or rather potentially drawing only a certain sort of audience. He replied that if anything, it was more of a way to pre-emptively alert festival programmers screening the submission that they shouldn't dismiss it from having a place in their series.

For me, one of the most impressive aspects of the movie has to be the sound design and mix. It's as though all the voices in the film exist as their own entity, as though sonically the film registers as 3D in 2D: voices as an element of a foreground plane: existing at once in a vacuum but also liberated: body and soul disassociated, and in this separation, a clarity of their unity. You might think of Her Wilderness as a Joe Frank radio episode playing on top of the images, or, indeed, set to images.

The vibe of the movie and, I think, its general theme share an affinity with one of my favorite R.E.M. lyrics: "Whispered with calm, calm: 'Belong.'"

Vignettes interact: late at night or early in the morning a woman teases electrocution suicide in a bathtub after calling a male co-worker she's obsessed with, waking him up from sleep next to his pregnant wife. Her mother slips off a ladder propped against a house while she argues on her cell with the man she left a first husband for. All throughout, a little girl wanders lost in a labyrinth of trees that at last opens onto presumably the same lake shore that borders the older woman's property. A lightning storm erupts; this has been the weather of late: a fuse blew the lights out in the married couple's home.

The child is the avatar —

Water, suicide, birth, death, blood-pressure, yoga, sleep, coffee, eggs, flip-phones, electricity. Rain falls, shadows play on the wall, tree leaves dapple the sun, candlelight flickers on the ceiling above the tub, as soft light flickers cross the face of a wife. An extraordinary opening credits sequence streams for five minutes as letters slowly emerge upon stark white leader as though embossed — the full list of participants atypically placed at the front of the film so at the picture's end all that remains is a cut to white and a fade to black.


Like so many others, I'm really excited about the theatrical release of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens on Thursday/Friday, and I've got my tickets for Friday afternoon. I even tuned in for the live feed of the red carpet premiere in Los Angeles on Monday evening at It was fun, but there were strange technical difficulties beyond buffering that made what seemed to be an already awkward interview with George Lucas just that much more bizarre. (If viewing from a computer, click to view on YouTube, as Blogger technology is ten-years outdated and won't scale the embedded-version to the content area.)


Friday, December 11, 2015

Au revoir Chantal: Philippe Garrel Remembers Chantal Akerman

The following is my translation from the original French of a piece that appeared in the November 2015 issue of the Cahiers du cinéma. Thank you to Gabe Klinger, who is finishing his first feature in Paris now, for the heads-up. And thank you to Jean-Philippe Tessé, co-editor-in-chief of the Cahiers, for allowing me to print this translation here. Please check out the December issue for, among other highlights, its potent cover image by Luz.

"It was in New York, the morning of the New York Film Festival screening of
L'ombre des femmes, that Philippe Garrel learned of the death of Chantal Akerman. The same evening, he presented his film to the New York audience with a few moving words for she who was among the five filmmakers of her generation that had come together in Les ministères de l'art [1988]. It was also in New York that he discovered No Home Movie, her final film. The next day, Philippe Garrel granted us a long interview, during which he quickly revealed at which point his life and his work are inextricable from those of his friend Chantal. The title of this interview is his. —Nicholas Elliott"

The Underground

The first time I met Chantal was at Frédéric Mitterrand's Olympic cinema. She came down the stairs that led from the booth in wooden clogs. She was very young. I saw right away that this was a girl of extraordinary intelligence. For Chantal and me, and whenever we got together you could tell, the greatest pleasure in life was intelligence. Nothing can stop someone from thinking, such are the conditions of freedom, and thinking is something that is extremely exciting. But for people who look at the world only as a mirror for intelligence, it's also a form of solitude. When you connect on that level, inevitably there's a kind of attraction. That's why we had Godard as our master. Not because he was the most talented of the Nouvelle Vague. Truffaut had as much talent as him, but for us Godard was the most intelligent. We looked at Godard as the greatest modern filmmaker.

We're the only two to have started out as teenagers. We were the youngest two filmmakers out of anyone. This was a source of great pride. It created a tremendous bond between us. When I saw Saute ma ville, I thought it was extraordinary. It was in 35, in black and white; it was exactly like the twin of Les enfants désaccordés. That's typical: if someone's making films at 16 or 18 years old, he has an outlook on the world that's incapable of imitating someone who's 25-30 years old. On that point Chantal and I connected immediately. We weren't trying to make our way in cinema. We just wanted to make cinema in a different way. We're the only two inside the post-Nouvelle Vague movement to have belonged to the counterculture.

So what binds Chantal and me together isn't just the generation — Doillon, Eustache, Téchiné, Jacquot — it's that we're the only two to have belonged during a decade in the underground. Chantal was an underground filmmaker, but that wasn't our aim when we were making Saute ma ville or Les enfants désaccordés. It's '68 that put us in the underground. Your generation has to understand that it's not because we were forced into the underground, it's because after '68 we didn't want to show our films to a mass audience. We thought that was a vulgar job, as a matter of critiquing the society of the spectacle. We joined up with a movement whose idea was circulation purely by word-of-mouth. It was a really peculiar thing, with an elitism that didn't belong to the bourgeoisie, nor to social success, nor even to the conquest of any run-of-the-mill power structure. We tried to remain a secret. It didn't last just for one film; we were all committed with the idea of staying that way for the rest of our lives. Even Jeanne Dielman is the story of a star, Delphine Seyrig, accepting to work for an underground filmmaker, just as Jean Seberg accepted working with me in the same period for Les hautes solitudes. In the underground, if there was ever a get-together, the well-known people weren't the stars of the party; on the contrary, they were slightly ashamed. An artist as unknown as they were known was superior, by very virtue of the fact. Chantal was in this category. When we were known by only a few people, as was the case with Chantal, famous people were deferential to us, as though we were pure. And as though they had already watered down their wine. So we weren't frustrated at being unknown, because on top of that we managed to construct a work at home. It's a movement of refusal, the underground — it's not a movement of compensation.

The Industrial Cinema

Afterwards there's another person who contacted us — Hubert Bals, the creator of the Rotterdam Festival. He invited all the marginal and underground filmmakers. He had a hotel-boat for the invitees, a building with several movie theaters, and a live closed-circuit television where there'd always be the image of a filmmaker talking. And filmmakers from around the world, but underground. Chantal and I were at every festival. There was also Fassbinder and Godard, who always arrived like the Grand Manitou.

When we leave the underground, it's around the time I make L'enfant secret in '79 and I get the Vigo in '81, and Chantal manages to sign with Gaumont for Les rendez-vous d'Anna thanks to the cultural success of Jeanne Dielman. That's where we emerged from the underground and afterwards, bang, in the '80s, we enter the ordinary, classical cinema, but as we're still greatly influenced by the avant-garde, it remains completely abstruse to people. Even still, afterwards we had a little bit of nostalgia for self-produced films. Her most beautiful film of the '70s is News from Home — that's one of the self-produced films. For me, there's Les hautes solitudes. We told each other that still, it's not making the same kind of films when we're produced. At that point, Chantal and I had even more of a bond as industrial directors — industrial and avant-gardist, mixed. I made Les ministères de l'art, in which I made the synthesis of our generation. After that we met Marco Müller, who became the director of Venice. He came looking for me in my editing suite when I was making Les baisers de secours, and then he went looking for Chantal. It's a little as if we'd had the same people helping us out — Langlois, who screened Chantal at the Cinémathèque, then Marco Müller. There'd been a period in which we made films for Venice and we'd cross paths down there. We only ran into one another with finished films, not in the factory. It was always one film under our arms, one new film under our arms.

We weren't at all jealous of one another; just the opposite. I was laughing, saying if Chantal hadn't liked women, I would have married her. I thought she was an extraordinary woman.

We made the anthology film Paris vu par... 20 ans après. Frédéric Mitterrand calls me up after '81 — it's almost certain, since he has the same name as the president, that he can just go to a bank and say he wants to make a film — he tells me he's going to make an omnibus film, very quickly, and that there will be me and Chantal. As soon as he says Chantal, I say okay, and I get moving. What was fun was racing against Chantal. I love competition. He explained to us that he was going to do it like Barbet Schroeder did with Paris vu par..., that we were going to make the film in blown-up color 16mm, and that each of us was going to choose a neighborhood. I'm making Rue Fontaine, I'm in my editing suite, and I'm told Chantal has left the project: "Oh, you know, she finally got to shoot in 35 black-and-white." "Oh shit, I'm finished!" And that's the truth: J'ai faim, j'ai froid is one of her masterpieces. The films of hers I love are Les rendez-vous d'Anna, Jeanne Dielman, News from Home, Saute ma ville, La captive, and J'ai faim, j'ai froid. And No Home Movie. She won. Very strong, Chantal. It's magnificent. J'ai faim, j'ai froid. The two girls in the street saying: "There's no work."

A Loss for Art

If again we take Les ministères de l'art, between Jean [Eustache] who committed suicide in 1981 and her in 2015, it's strange, this kind of distress. And then there's me, who makes four films with people who kill themselves in fiction. I don't know why this is. I'm not suicidal at all. I think one has the right, that's all. But it really makes you think, the fact that among the six, the first two mentioned would go by their own hand. It's something that didn't exist in the Nouvelle Vague. All this is very complicated. Deleuze would still have to be among us to say alright, we'll try and write about this.

When I made Les ministères de l'art, it really had to do with Eustache, I already told that story. In May '81 I had him on the phone, and I told him things were going to change, that he was going to have more money. He was in despair, he was living in a shoebox, he no longer had any money after the failure of Petites amoureuses. Because Jean didn't come from the underground, he hadn't started out invisible. He always found a way into theaters. To try and draw a moral, I read him what I wrote for Les ministères: "Jean Eustache is a genius. La maman et la putain is the Règle du jeu of our generation." Now you'd have to write a Ministères de l'art Part Two: "Chantal Akerman was the most intelligent among us and the sole female."

I think she did this according to a private plan, having no regard for us. But it's also a loss for art. It's a loss for art because the people who are very nonconformist from the time they're children — Chantal was at the head of the class, but a bit apart, just like me — all the people who are incapable of being satisfied with life such as it is, it's art that is their saving grace. I for one was saved when I was given a sheet of Canson big as the table, and some gouache, and I had the right to do what I wanted and if I got myself messy it didn't matter... It's like in Saute ma ville, when she polishes her shoes and doesn't care that there's polish everywhere, before turning on the gas... The fact that art could be freedom to act saved people like me and her. And normally it saves them on the scale of existence. It might even be more than that. Now like I'm involved in the field of cinema studies, if someone told me you have three years left, I'd think that I'd have a reason for occupying them with cinema. It's a field in which life gets short by relation to the complexity of what it is, art; it's at once having the right to express oneself and to translate the world...

It's a loss for art in the sense that there's considerably enough work for a lifetime's worth, in the sense of an exciting kind of work, not as an obligation. Jean Eustache's suicide, same thing — it's a defeat. But what one really has to see — and here one can make a critique — it's that art is incredibly useful to our civilization but doesn't receive enough support. You have to know that Adieu au langage cost 400,000 euros, while the average film here costs 2 million. How is it that the greatest filmmaker in the world has the smallest budget in his native country? As Chantal demonstrated with films like News from Home, you always have to work with the budget found and which is granted to us, but to almost always experience an absence of budget, even if Chantal managed to survive and was no longer completely flush, the fact that she didn't have the budget to make a film, that's a joke. It's a place we're looked at from. Compared to Eustache, after Mes petites amoureuses, he makes Une sale histoire. It's made for next to nothing. It's like with Chantal. These are films made on the scale of a private life. But if Chantal still made those kind of films, it was no longer a matter of choice, as the underground no longer exists; it was really because she couldn't do otherwise.

Doing Otherwise

What's brilliant in Chantal — it's there too in Duras with India Song, is how she truly invents a cinema on the cheap: silent, with a voice-over, as in News from Home. Sync-sound slows down the creation of a film a great deal and is extremely expensive. It's not just multiplied by two — you can do a silent movie all on your own. When I made Les hautes solitudes, there were no technicians. If you make a movie all by yourself, you can be in the room sleeping with the actress and you're making the film. You can't bring a crew over to people's house. Chantal made films like that. Even in No Home Movie, she has her camera, with digital sound — she takes care of everything by herself. That's what makes a different cinema. The others of the post-Nouvelle Vague never practiced that kind of cinema. There's only Chantal and me. We thought it was very interesting because it never existed before then. When we had problems, all we did was downscale. Better shooting alone with professional material, which was the case with Chantal. The evidence is that the majority of the others remained stymied for several years because they didn't find a producer, whereas we had to keep on a roll or we'd be tanked once again — but we never stopped shooting. Chantal made forty films. It's mindboggling. I think I've made twenty-eight or twenty-nine. If we waited to have them properly produced, we never would have made them. For Chantal, she managed to exist within the D-system, but truly the D-system, while inventing a way of making films in a different way. That her last film should be as it is, that she'd made it all on her own... voilà, quoi.

The Cinema According to Mama

Inbetween our running into each other at the Olympic and the point I see her over and over again at Rotterdam, I remember I was at my mother's house. The TV was on and Chantal came on to speak about Jeanne Dielman. My mother says: "This woman, she's something, Philippe." For me, that was the cinema according to mama. With respect to the fact that you have to make a humanist cinema — it's not everything just to have talent.

Yesterday seeing No Home Movie, the whole time I thought about my mother's death. What was extraordinary in Chantal's cinema is that she proves that we're all the same, we all live through the same thing. It's much stronger than "I don't think the same way as you do." You need people who say this when they're young, but No Home Movie is: "we all live through the same thing." Our parents' agony, the love that's capable of bonding us to them. All the discussions between Chantal and her mama, her mother's attitude, even her advanced stage of decrepitude, is exactly what I just saw my mother in a year and a half ago before starting production on Les ombres des femmes. She was dead five days before shooting began, and as this is an industry I had to go to the set. It's as though Chantal lived everything I lived: the chaise-lounge, the mama who wants to sleep because she's exhausted, the mama who's very proud, the connection of love... What's very strong in Chantal is that she draws from a modern tradition to tell us that we're all from the same stream, we're alive here, and she makes it so by way of art. People criticized the fact that Delphine Seyrig peeled potatoes and did the dishes in Jeanne Dielman. But we all peel potatoes — we all do the dishes — and Chantal introduced the idea of making a work of art out of this, all while speaking with talent.

Chantal had two arts: cinema and literature. Her first novel, Ma mère rit, is the major work of the last part of her life. Fantastic. The year before the release of her book, Chantal was reading it at the Châtelet during the Nuit Blanche. People came by at 1 in the morning. She was alone on the stage in the middle of reading Ma mère rit. When I was there I felt she had again become an artiste maudite, doing a performance, all by herself. Afterwards, I read Ma mère rit and I was cut into two. I gave the book to my mother. It's the last book she read.

She's something else, Chantal... For me, there were very few people like her. There's Leos. There's Godard. There's Jacques Doillon. It's become emotional; it's not just artistic. It's a little like the beginning of my own end. I tell myself I really only have twenty more years to make films. And her death will be like Eustache's death. A decisive moment that shows that the cinema too is a drama.


From The New York Times, November 8, 2015:

"Spectre, the latest James Bond thriller, took in about $73 million in ticket sales at domestic theaters over the weekend, giving Hollywood one of its biggest openings of the year, even though sales were down sharply from those for Skyfall, the previous Bond movie. Spectre, the most expensive 007 installment ever, costing Sony Pictures Entertainment, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Eon Productions roughly $400 million to make and market, has taken in an additional $223 million overseas, breaking records."

From The New York Times, November 8, 2015:

"Filming the movie version of the novel Room, in which Joy Newsome, played by Brie Larson, and her son, Jack, played by Jacob Tremblay, are held captive in a small garden shed, was a challenge.

"About 70 crew members worked for 22 days in and around a box that was no more than 150 square feet that precisely duplicated the Newsomes’ fictional prison, somewhere in the American Midwest, right down to a working version of the bathroom plumbing.

"“Yeah, I got sick of it,” the film’s director, Lenny Abrahamson, said of the space."


Tuesday, December 01, 2015

The Winds That Scatter

Escape Song

The indifference of reality, of the universe, to existence: that is one of the themes of Christopher Jason Bell's 2015 US feature The Winds That Scatter, the depiction of a Syrian refugee, Ahmad Chahrour, in search of odd jobs in the area of northern Jersey that circles Newark.

"They did not spare anyone. They killed people and destroyed the place. They killed all that walks": the words spoken by one of the men in a suburban living room get-together as he shares iPhone footage of the aftermath-carnage in Aleppo, Damascus, any town in Syria. Bashar al-Assad and Daesh have scattered Syria's sons and daughters, relegated them to lives lived inbetween: murdered at home, adrift and unwanted abroad, where only the lucky few will find the means to hashtag: NoNotAllArabs.

Small resonances of 9/11 abound in The Winds That Scatter. As Bell explained in a statement to IndieWire: "I didn't want to make yet another white male-centric film as those are quite prominent in both Hollywood and independent film. At the same time I thought it was important to portray Muslims and Arabic people in a positive light given the atmosphere in post-9/11 America. Collaboration was the key to avoiding not only the typical portrayal (terrorists) but also Orientalism.
" — Resultingly, images challenge images: "a gathering of Muslim men in a suburban house" vs. "a cell"; "a public protest denouncing Bashar" vs. Trump's "thousands celebrating"; the wreckage of what appears to be an airliner in the middle of the woods...

Then reverse the power, consider the here-and-elsewhere. Here: the demolition of buildings to make way for luxury condominiums aligned with contiguous market values. There: structures razed by continuous shelling and pell-mell catapulted barrel-bombs. In either instance only façades remain.

Two inflections then of the Mechanical. One pertains to death from sideways and above, and the ensuing flight-instinct. The other involves capital, labor, and the automaton. (This aspect of The Winds That Scatter calls to mind for me another great and politically-made film I saw recently: Abel Ferrara's Welcome to New York and its post-prologue overture of money-making at the U.S. Mint.)

The old advice given to artists is: "Write what you know." Bell chooses: "Write what you don't know" instead, that is, this white male prefers the route of exploration. There are two authors of the film, then: Bell, and Chahrour or, by extension, Chahrour's Syrian expat community. So a merging of impulses occurs: Not only to merely document the daily routines of the dispossessed, but to get inside, to live it, to understand that the small quotidian defeats cumulatively brutalize: you can't smoke in here; this trade's too complicated for you to learn the ropes...

As is already too clear at the time of this writing in December 2015, and as The Winds That Scatter further elucidates, for much of the Syrian nation and the wider Arabic population enforced diaspora is still no guarantee of escape.


Tuesday, November 03, 2015

FAS: My New Short

written directed and edited by Craig Keller
starring and narrated by Stephen Gurewitz
also featuring Eliana Ceniceroz and Dan Mele
additional camerawork by Britni West and Eliana Ceniceroz
poster art by Eliana Ceniceroz and design/art-direction by Craig Keller
16 minutes / 1.78:1 (16x9) aspect ratio

ADVISORY: NSFW — Contains Mature Content & Themes

Please view in full-screen mode or at the Vimeo page itself — and feel free to share. Thanks!

FAS from Craig Keller on Vimeo.


Wednesday, October 21, 2015

In Memoriam: Ron Benson (17 October 1943 – 19 October 2015)

Marion and Ron Benson, photo via Eureka & the Benson Family.

My boss and friend Ron Benson passed away on early Monday morning after a long struggle with cancer and ensuing complications. I'm grateful to have last heard from him by email this past Thursday, and to have spoken to him on the Thursday prior over Skype. We had a nice chat. Although he was speaking from his hospital room, he was in good spirits and sounded lively.

Some very brief remarks: For the nearly ten years I knew Ron, after being brought in by Nick Wrigley to work on The Masters of Cinema Series in early 2006, I was ceaselessly gob-smacked by his individuality, which zig-zagged over the course of years, months, a single given day: one half of a 10-year conversation that found room for more hilarity, warmth, exasperation, agreement and disagreement, football club updates, industry gossip, gut-instinct green-lights and red-lights, and filthy jokes goyishe/yidishe than any collaboration should rightfully anticipate. I will treasure the many trips we made together to do business at the Cannes and Berlin Film Festivals, the excellent meals we shared, and the time that friends and I were able to have spent with him and his wife Marion when the couple visited New York. To have witnessed, and often been the recipient of, his extreme loyalty, empathy, generosity, and general kindness: I'll never forget this.

Rest in peace Lord Benson.


The following is the eulogy read at Ron's funeral by his daughters Denise and Ruth, and reprinted at a JustGiving fundraising page set up in Ron's name to help raise awareness and money for his favorite charity, the Teenage Cancer Trust, here.


Ronald, Ron, Ronny, RB, Dad, Grandpa, Bubbie and of course Lord R. Benson born in Bishop Stortford 17 October 1943 was a people person and took his personality into both business and home life. Dad could light up any room and would speak to anyone in any company at any time – and was ‘definitely’ more than happy to have an argument with anybody at any time about anything – but as everybody in this room will agree, Dad often made up, argued some more but managed to maintain friendships over many decades. He was generous in spirit and was at his happiest when he could do things to help people including his dedication to charity work in particular the Teenage Cancer Trust.

Dad was literally a self-made man from beginnings that were not that advantageous. Dad’s parents came into this country as immigrants escaping war and persecution.

From difficult beginnings Dad built a successful career, qualifying as an electrician and then running his own businesses. Always forward thinking and aware of what was happening in the world – after reading an article in the FT, he got very excited and with his passion for film he started up the video rental business (Mr Benson’s Video Collection). He was then one of the first people to enter the mail-order business (Mr Benson’s World of Home Entertainment which later became Bensonsworld), building a successful company working with all the main studios and distributors. Being the forward thinking man he saw ahead and moved on to owning intellectual properties (Eureka Entertainment) whether it be the amazing cult classics or the unseen wonders!

Although Dad’s body was riddled with cancer he put on a brave fight. Right up to the end he was determined to keep working and running his business, every second always on his phone, checking his emails, organising everyone.

Family was always very important to Dad; he would do anything for his wife of 49 years - Marion, children Denise and Ruth, his six grandchildren James, Nicole, Samuel, Matthew, Anthony, Adam and his sister Eva.

Dad was always a strong man both physically and mentally as proved by running a number of London marathons. Whether it was medical science or sheer will power – with only three months to live he managed to keep going for another year to attend and enjoy and dance his way at his Grandson Sam’s Bar Mitzva.

To sum up our Dad – A quote from an email we received yesterday from his consultant:

"It was a privilege to be Ron’s doctor - what a character! I shall never forget him. His humour shone through right to the very end. I will also treasure the copy of iPlot he gave me..."

He will always be remembered in our hearts and will never be forgotten.


Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Van Gogh (Pialat) - Essay by Sabrina Marques + Words from Pialat + Godard's Letter to Pialat About the Film

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.

Notes, information, and remarks by Pialat on the director's short films, which span in their entirety 1951-1966, can be found here.

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.


Pialat & Van Gogh: Fellow Outsiders

by Sabrina Marques (2013)

“To look at the picture ought to rest the brain or rather the imagination.”
– 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 [1965] 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 [1956]. 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?


Letter to Pialat

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.

Cordially yours,

– Jean-Luc Godard


Words from Pialat

excerpts translated from the French – of Pialat in conversation with Michel Ciment and Michel Sineux – by Pierre Hodgson (1992)

Maurice Pialat on the set of Van Gogh.

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 [1980], 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.


The film's original French one-sheet.



Sunday, October 18, 2015

L'enfance-nue (Pialat) - Essay by Kent Jones + Interview with Maurice Pialat

The following essay and interviews originally appeared in the booklet for the 2008 Masters of Cinema UK DVD release of L'enfance-nue [Naked-Childhood, Maurice Pialat, 1968] which I co-produced. This was our first Pialat release, and the film is Pialat's first feature, but not his first film. He made 14 films before L'enfance-nue.

Notes, information, and remarks by Pialat on the director's short films, which span in their entirety 1951-1966, can be found 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 Kent Jones (2008)

(The frames reproduced below, which refer to points made in Jones'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.)


French cinema has had a lengthy and fruitful relationship with children, particularly those with tumultuous inner lives, from Forbidden Games [Jeux interdits, René Clément, 1952] through Jacques Doillon’s Ponette [1996] and Le jeune Werther [Young Werther, 1993]. But few filmmakers anywhere have looked at childhood in quite the way that Maurice Pialat did in his feature debut, made when he was 43 years old. Michel Terrazon’s 10-year-old François in L’enfance-nue is no repository for an adult’s poetic dreams of freedom, nor is he a sociological case study or a psychological knot to be therapeutically untangled. In fact, the title of Pialat’s film could be said to address such absences. Of course, it is François’ childhood that is exposed to the brutal elements of an unforgiving world, deprived of the shelter of loving parents; but it is also childhood in general, yours, mine, and of course Pialat’s, given to us for once without fancy alibis, strategies, or hooks. Pialat’s is a remarkable achievement, and by all rights L’enfance-nue should be counted as one of the greatest debuts in cinema, on par with Citizen Kane [Orson Welles, 1941], À bout de souffle [Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard, 1959], Badlands [Terrence Malick, 1973] or The Four Hundred Blows [Les quatre cents coups, François Truffaut, 1959]. That it is not is indicative of nothing more than the overvaluation of progress. Which, as Philippe Garrel, another underappreciated French filmmaker, once noted, has no place in the arts.

Pialat, much more than Michael Bay or Tsui Hark, was an action director. Which is to say that his films give us the actions of his characters within their environments, without any discernible master idea governing their every move. In each Pialat film, and L’enfance-nue is no exception, continuity as we know it is deliberately and continually thwarted if not smashed, in order to expunge just such master-planning. One never knows when a scene will end, or indeed what will constitute a scene, and our tracking of time as some kind of guide (an unconscious procedure in any movie) is thrown out the window — as in a Terrence Malick film, any given scene could be taking place minutes, hours, days, or months after the preceding scene, and crucial moments occur off-camera. There is no time for the film to build up any sort of thematic repository to which the viewer can return for psychic re-orientation, beyond the on-going specifics of these people, as they are seen in this place at this time of year under these skies, and in this light. This is what gives Pialat’s best work its existential pull: there is so little evidence of aesthetic attitudinizing or strategizing that we become genuinely attuned to the film as a series of precious moments, passing before our eyes at 24 frames per second. Many filmmakers before and after Pialat tried to reach this level of absolute proximity between fiction and documentary, actor and character, setting and place. For most, it happened only fitfully. Only Pialat, with his mixture of sublime sensitivity, brute force, and a furious resentment that kept his creative machinery perpetually stoked, was able to sustain such a balance throughout an entire film.

More than any other narrative filmmaker since the early days of the medium, more even than Malick or Cassavetes, Pialat built his films from the life of his footage. And when he was at his absolute best, as he was here and in À nos amours. [To Our Romance. / Here's to Love, 1983] and Van Gogh [1991], he found what was essentially a gestural continuity that, outside of the final section of Rossellini’s Paisà [1946], remains unparalleled. Pialat once said that L’enfance-nue was made under the sign of Lumière, by which I take him to mean that as he was filming, he did not think of a shot as a unit but as an event in time and space observed from a closer distance than in the average film and grounded in an extremely class-specific form of portraiture (this is as true of the soundtrack as of the visuals — few movies are so thrillingly grounded in working class speech). In an appreciation of the movie published in Film Comment, Jean-Pierre Gorin beautifully describes Pialat’s steadfast adherence to an aesthetic form in which the “shapes and looks of bodies and faces, the accents and tones are perfect. And yes, a strong sense of class fuses the whole thing together.” Of course, there are many films that attempt a just portrayal of the working class, but precious few of them are made with Pialat’s sense of solidarity. Gorin notes that M. and Mme. Thierry, the film’s extremely touching old couple for whom François is one in a series of “problem” children to find temporary solace under their roof, were “obviously listened to, patiently and carefully. And then they were asked to gently go through it again for the camera.” The same is undoubtedly true of the child-care workers traveling with a band of orphans by train, of the young bride who leads her wedding party in a song, or the bartender who sells François a pack of Gauloises near the beginning of the film. Film criticism as commonly practiced is ill-equipped to measure, let alone describe, such moments. The bartender obviously feels comfortable “playing” himself, executing what are for him everyday gestures, addressing François with each sentence as “jeune homme” in a manner that is at once affectionate and removed, engaged in a rhythm that is social and business-like at the same time. There is no sign of any overriding judgment-call about the working class — nothing is feigned or professed or proclaimed, thus setting L’enfance-nue immediately apart from the bulk of French cinema in the year 1968. There is nothing but solidarity, of which respect is a constituent part. To understand the importance of Pialat’s achievement, imagine another filmmaker with a more elevated sense of his/her own mission, without the time for such patience, asking the same of the bartender. One can easily imagine the same gestures and words, perhaps even the same fluidity of motion. But one can also just as easily imagine parody slithering into view, the hawklike face, the sweater and carefully knotted tie, the fresh haircut and pencil moustache, presenting opportunities for a chuckle, or a guarantee of sociological authenticity. Of course, there are both sociological versimilitude and aesthetic sophistication at work here, but they take a back seat to the aforementioned solidarity. Again, one has to go back to early cinema, to the Griffith of The Musketeers of Pig Alley [1912] or the Walsh of Regeneration [1915], for an equally formidable vision.

Pialat’s painterly eye is, of course, the other side of his genius. I’ve seen many of his canvasses, and I must say that not one of them is equal to a single shot from L’enfance-nue or Van Gogh. Like Griffith and very few filmmakers after him (Godard, Cassavetes, Scorsese), Pialat had an intimately scaled yet totalizing stereo vision that enabled him to work from the immediacy of documentary yet with the greatest visual precision. As Gorin points out, one can indeed see traces of Cézanne and Courbet in the Thierrys’ kitchen, with its retina-burning blues and yellows (not to mention the wonderfully grey, damp exteriors, which have the weathered severity of Courbet’s A Burial at Ornans [Un enterrement à Ornans, 1849-50]. Let’s be clear, though: these are not homages, but sophisticated cinematographic moves that are a natural extension of the same painterly tradition, in which the artist stays at ground level with his subject, interpreting and filtering his own sensations and impressions and painstakingly synthesizing them as he goes. Pialat films from the same social stance as a painter of an earlier era, observing from up close rather than afar, reserving his inevitable distance from the milieu for the ultimate refinement of the work rather than the strategizing that precedes it. To insist on putting Raoul Billerey in a dark striped blue shirt against a light blue-tiled background isn’t just merely to be artful — it is taking what is already present and rearranging it into a visually comprehensible event in time and space, just insistent enough in its observation of working class life without tipping into oppressive encapsulation.

Pialat is also doing another kind of work here, transforming his material into a dramatically unified whole. As I said, L’enfance-nue does not follow any familiar dramatic progression. There is no “explanation” for François’ violent outbursts, which come at odd and wholly unpredictable intervals. When he sends a black cat plunging several stories to a concrete floor, kicks in the bottom panel of the door to his room in the Thierrys’ house, or throws a railroad tie through the window of an oncoming car, we are taken unawares. There is no cause and effect here of the type that one sees in most dramas about “problem” kids. Nurturing does not place François on the road to understanding and sensitivity toward his fellow man. As with Scorsese’s Jake La Motta or Cassavetes’ Myrtle, there are a million reasons for his behavior; as we acclimate ourselves to the film’s closely observed viewpoint, we come to understand that identifying those reasons is less important than the ongoing spectacle of François’ body language and facial expressions (alternately attentive, reserved, impulsive, sly, skittish), and the vocabulary of movement and voice within the warm, overdecorated enclosure of the Thierry household, with its tiny papered rooms filled with mementos and photographs. Strictly speaking, the film’s emotional climax comes with the smashing of the windshield with the railroad tie and Mme. Thierry’s breathless interview with the childcare worker (“You know, he’s hard, but he has heart!”). But Pialat sees the drama in every scene, the rising and falling of human aggression and affection, the momentary grace of mutual recognition, the poignant sight of an emotionally insatiable boy among genuinely caring adults. How to describe the excitement generated by this film, by the careworn distress on Linda Gutemberg’s face as she watches François leave her home, or the miraculous harmony of the scene where the Thierrys tell the story of their marriage to François and Raoul as if it were an old legend, as Madame sits on Monsieur’s lap drinking her coffee. Or François’ sudden kiss on M. Thierry’s cheek, tenderly reciprocated only after the old man removes his hand-rolled cigarette stub from his mouth. Or the wariness on François’ face as he sits up in bed in his striped pajamas, images of action heroes pinned over the flower-print wallpaper behind him, trying to interpret the clamor coming from downstairs. Few films before or since have been quite as alive to the tangible beauty of life, in all its cruelty and all its tenderness, amidst the unstoppable flow of time.


From "Interview with Maurice Pialat"

Excerpt from an Interview by Dominique Maillet (1972)

Translated from the French by Craig Keller

Maurice Pialat in 1969.

[...] Where and how would you situate yourself in relation to cinéma-vérité and neorealism?

Although I like Jean Rouch a lot (since he’s the one that set the definition for cinéma-vérité), I don’t agree with your inference at all, and I completely reject cinéma-vérité. There are some very beautiful things in Rouch, some African films that I love — I have an enormous amount of affection for him, and he was definitely an influence for me, but it’s not just that I think I’m going against his cinéma-vérité... I hope I am.

As for neorealism, it depends on what you mean. If you’re referring to the first films of Rossellini, I agree there’s a relationship; if you’re referring to the ones that come afterward, not at all — because for me, it’s retrograde-cinema — for one thing, by the fact that it’s silent, and I don’t support silent cinema... By silent, I mean post-synchronized. To me, it seems difficult to talk about realism when you’re resorting to post-synchronization. And don’t come back to me and say, “Yes, but it’s a technique, because actually you’re still out there in the street, doing real things...” — I don’t buy that at all.

Would you be able to come up with great dialogue in one of your films for some character or other, without knowing exactly who the performer is — without having talked things over with him, having gotten to know what he’s like, what his universe is like, without having studied his reactions, how he carries himself...

Yes — not only can I come up with it but, if there’s no research involved, it’s almost how I want it to be, if anything: to remain undisclosed all the way up to the present, but during that present moment, passing over into helping me come up with better things, and do a better job directing.

I haven’t seen his films — he seems very interesting — but people have compared certain sections of L’enfance-nue with the films of [Pierre] Perrault. I understand very well why, because, basically, in L’enfance-nue I still had to do a lot of preparatory work with the people who were acting in it and, in a certain way, subconsciously, I studied them in the same way Perrault does for his films. But it was really the conditions of pre-production and shooting that brought me to do this. It wasn’t a goal of mine at all, because in reality I prefer a good deal of “jumping into things” straightaway, not getting to know the people, and discovering them while filming. That’s what I hope for the most.

How much of your films are planned out before the shoot? How much is improvisation?

This is a very delicate subject to talk about. Let’s take Godard for example: his films, very literary ones at that, seem very written and pre-conceived. What I mean to say is (and this happens to me, too), he shot while saying: “Okay... alright, the street-corner, there, that’s good. There’s no need to go any farther than that...” — It’s real, but it’s still a choice being made. I’m speaking here of art-direction, but in writing things out, it’s still the same thing. “Improvisation” — this doesn’t mean anything. What you’ve got in your mind, unformulated, is much more precise than you’d think. In any case, there’s a very distinct thing, and I think that hardly anyone will be able to contradict me on this: it’s when, after having made a certain number of films, we reflect upon how what’s bad about them on paper — the things which one hasn’t really thought through enough — are what are least good when you’re shooting, the least good when you’re editing, and what remain the weak aspect of the film once it’s finished. [...]

What are your relationships like with your actors while shooting?

They’re inevitably very difficult because trained actors have a hard time accepting my way of working — that is, allowing themselves to be completely free. Anyway, relationships are always difficult with the crew, and I’ve had the chance to witness this happening even in this latest film [Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble (We Won’t Grow Old Together, 1972)], where even though I had an excellent team, they had a certain “hands-off” approach as there was this impression I didn’t care what was happening, when in reality, this wasn’t the case at all.

But as for actors, they’re completely done-in by all this, and it always goes very badly — the first few weeks are really difficult. So I don’t need to tell you that in the case of stars, this all gets multiplied... by the increase in paycheck, we might say.


[...] In [two of your relatively recent films], L’enfance-nue along with La maison des bois [The House in the Woods, 1971] it’s ... a question of children in direct and concrete opposition with the environment that they belong to, an environment which, more than provoking their reactions, imposes itself onto them — it’s therefore the case of the juvenile delinquent of L’enfance-nue who needs to lash out against his foster family, and it’s also the case of the young actor in La maison des bois, the child who’s lonely amidst all his friends, who is visited by their mother, and who experiences, even if he doesn’t belong to them, a certain familial atmosphere... How do you explain this?

Really, it’s difficult for me to respond. L’enfance-nue was my own choice; the second one was a subject imposed upon me that, in any case, I obviously revised... Maybe I’m obsessed with the theme of abandonment... I think that, deep-down, that’s what ends up making me choose, or accept, those subjects.


When you did your first television film [La maison des bois], did you go about things differently than with L’enfance-nue — that is, taking into consideration, for example, the use of what was essentially a TV look?

Not at all, because this doesn’t ever concern me. The only things involved with a “TV look” are the framing and eventually the choice of lenses; after a little while, I stop paying attention to all that. Indeed, on La maison des bois I had two cameramen, of which one, the one that was less good, kept saying to me: “Pay attention to the TV frame... Pay attention to the TV frame...” Well whatever, he was the one who made sure that the desired image sometimes wouldn’t end up inside the frame at all. Likewise, in La maison des bois, I tried to film people from closer-up, because in L’enfance-nue you’d notice that people were filmed from pretty far back: but I gave up on this pretty quickly too.

I heard that you’re preparing a project for television based on Balzac...

Yes, but I don’t know if that’s going to happen any time soon.


From "Three Encounters with Maurice Pialat"

Excerpt from an Interview by Stéphane Lévy-Klein and Olivier Eyquem (1973)

Translated from the French by Craig Keller

Maurice Pialat in 1969.

Can you talk a little about your early works?

I came to the cinema by way of short films and theatre. In the capacity of director for the former, and as an actor for the latter. Since I have to talk about it, let’s start with the better one. I kind of like Janine [1961], which I directed in collaboration with Claude Berri. The script was Claude’s, the distribution too, and he acted in it. The shoot took place under really bad conditions, over the course of a few hours every night for four nights straight. But this short film already contained, in 1961, everything that’s good in L’enfance-nue. Unfortunately, I gave in to my mania: the woe that is “editing”. I patch up, I revise, I cut. When Janine was all done, the photography was grubby, the sound inaudible but, with background music, the film was presentable nonetheless. Originally, it was around 25 minutes long; once I was done with it, it was no more than 17. After that, I did something that was even more discouraging: made a short film on commission without any money. It was artisanal, actually. I took on the camerawork, the sound, and the editing. In Turkey, I made five or six short films under horrendous conditions. The production kept requiring me to film mosques and tourist sites, whereas I wanted to remake L’amour existe [Love Exists, 1960] in the streets of Istanbul. I shot a short film there with a commission from the prime-minister of Saudi Arabia, but instead of having directed a propaganda film, as had been expected, I showed all the misery I was seeing. After that, for Pathé, I filmed some real-life chronicles about everyday Paris. I remember in one short about Pigalle a long stationary shot of a police raid, in the early morning hours. I would shoot from right in the midst of all the passers-by, with their tacit or explicit agreement — never without authorization. I miss this way of shooting. I’ve always wanted to pick it back up again, but I’ve never gone back out with the 16 and the Nagra. I hope this is laziness, and not a sign of old-age...

One can find this concern with realism in L’amour existe.

L’amour existe suffers from vulgarity and naïveté. [Pialat later revised this comment before publication: “An excessive remark. This is what you always end up saying when it’s over and done with. But I stand by everything else.”] I made it after spending ten years in a depressing job: traveling salesman. The narration, in particular, is absolutely unbearable. Even before getting to the mixing, I already thought it was bad, but I didn’t have the money to do it over. Today, I don’t want to change it. You don’t remake a film. L’amour existe is a crazy film that’s got a few grand truths. [NOTE: This last sentence has been reprinted in a few sources as ‘un film flou’, as opposed to ‘un film fou’ as it appears in this interview — that is, as ‘a hazy/vague film’, as opposed to ‘a crazy film’. –ed.]

And your career as an actor?

It was short-lived. It wasn’t an end, but a means for getting into movies. I put on a few plays in a couple of factories — amateur theatre. In 1955, I wanted to go professional, but my career was cut short because I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin. For an actor, it’s important to be in tune with yourself, even though acting is also being on the lookout for what you’re missing. A failure, then, but one which I don’t hold any big grudge over. These days I act competently enough in simple roles, like that of the teacher in the mini-series La maison des bois. My performance as the police commissioner in Que la bête meure [Let the Beast Die, Claude Chabrol, 1969] is pretty insipid. I don’t know why I thought it was a good idea.

Before making movies, did you write and, today, do you write?

No, I don’t like to write. I’m a filmmaker. I hope never to be reduced to turning into a hack. My scripts are short, just a few lines thrown down on a piece of paper in a frenzy. Later, during production, the first thing to do is forget the text. With Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble I had to shoot, in the strict sense of the word, what I had written. That’s why I don’t like that film. I’ve never had film-school training. I only know a single trade: painting.

Painters turned filmmakers often prefer aestheticism to simplicity. Yet this isn’t the case with you.

Let’s just say I’m a realist painter. As a result, I like the photography in L’enfance-nue for its ugliness and its hardness. I refused to turn this film into a big brown placard getting waved around. I let the walls be what they were: yellow, because it burns the retina. Here again, Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble is something of a failure, because its photography is too aestheticized.

A shoot is a moment I try to hold on to. In the course of it, something is supposed to take place, without which the film is a failure. L’enfance-nue became what it is two weeks in, on the same set, smack in the middle of the shoot. At one point, I’d had enough, and I decided to slap the camera down right in front of the actors. A deeply felt scene is a successful scene; no matter what, you just have to shoot it, right away, with no heed paid to the formal beauty of the frame or the harmony of the colors. Whenever I make artistic gestures, it’s to take my mind off things, because it’s not going well. On La maison des bois I showed up in the morning without knowing too much about what I was going to shoot that day. Finding myself facing a problem with Fernand Gravey one day, I took refuge in the loveliness of a tracking-shot, which is usually carried out based on the instructions of the “master” and actually executed by the hands of the technicians. It was very beautiful; everyone liked it, myself included. [Pialat added before publication: “I don’t take refuge in aestheticism. Let’s say I got rid of an annoying problem, of little interest, working on some technical movements that needed some time to be figured out, which I don’t do anymore these days.”]

L’enfance-nue had a subject that was very difficult to adapt.

I’ve often made big pronouncements that I’ve taken a lot of flack over L’enfance-nue. This isn’t exactly the case. I didn’t really defend the film, because I didn’t believe in it too much. It was made in large part thanks to the assistance of François Truffaut; without him, I would only have made it one or two years later.

The film was saved by the people that I came into contact with; or, rather, there was, around me, this subconscious idea that I was incapable of succeeding, and yet there was so much willpower inside of me that the film was able to become whatever it is now. I realized that the old couple was more interesting than my hero — which is to say myself — which I hated. It’s why I chose them; they represent my grandparents a little bit, the safe-haven of my childhood. The parts they’re not in are less good.

L’enfance-nue springboarded from some research I undertook, in the course of which I was struck by certain specific details. Hence the way those children are portrayed in the film. I did a follow-up afterwards, and I came away pretty upset by what I found, but I didn’t show any of it because it would have reduced the film, and would have made me look dishonest with regard to Social Assistance, thanks to which L’enfance-nue was able to have been made.

The backing for making a social film is important!

It’s a shame that L’enfance-nue should be considered a social film. It’s because it’s lacking something that it’s turned into a social film. Without all that, it would have been twice as great. I didn’t want to make films engagés; I reject Manichaeism. In real life, not everything is in black and white; why would you want it to be that way in the movies? I say without any shame: I’m a man of the Right. The victory of the Left in the most recent elections would have brought about a catastrophic, socialistico-communist tsunami. The program of the Left, applied to the cinema, would have thrown open the doors of mediocrity that were already pretty much ajar. In order for our cinema to change, you need a revolution — but not that one.

I said it on TV, and I’ll say it again today: if L’enfance-nue had been made by someone else, I wouldn’t have gone to see it. We’re lying when we say we’re concerned by other people’s distress and that we’re not concerned only with ourselves in a difficult time.

In fact, it’s the subject that’s important! When you’re filming, this is what rears its head, and creates a kind of music for the text. I’ve always had the impression of being a composer making an opera based on some libretto. When the libretto is undeniably bad, as it is in the case of La maison des bois, it doesn’t matter too much. Also, directing commissioned subjects doesn’t bother me.

During the sequence on the train, is there a critical distance with regard to Social Assistance?

No, because that scene was run past some other people who hadn’t been involved. The film, at the outset, was divided into two sections. At the end of twenty minutes or so, — of which only one part still remains, today — I set forth a pretty didactic explanation of the problem. Maybe all that disequilibrium that was happening in those days makes it seem like a critique, but it’s just an explanation. All the more reason that this sequence that’s too demonstrative isn’t realistic at all. That “tour guide” was only a ruse for addressing certain questions in a rapid manner. It was dangerous, and I understand your criticism very well.

You say that realism was important to you. Doesn’t this aesthetic forcibly cast an eye upon society?

What I mean by realism goes beyond reality. A little before going into production on L’enfance-nue, I watched some of Louis Lumière’s films. They were a revelation. This cinema that existed for a brief moment before quickly dying, suppressed by the commercial constraints of show-business, should once again have its day.

It’s not being modest to say that L’enfance-nue was directed under the influence of Lumière. But that’s exactly how it was. While shooting L’enfance-nue, I was thinking of Repas de Bébé [Baby’s Meal, Louis Lumière, 1895]. Did Lumière film reality? I don’t think so. In his films, men and women, captured by a machine they know nothing about, gave up a moment in their lives, and, ever since, every actor has been doing the same thing. In the “fantastic” shot, Lumière outstrips Méliès. Those people, without knowing it, are watching their lives take place. All of cinema is there, in this seizing of existence, in this exorcism of death. This is dream-like cinema. The exiting from the Lumière factories hurls back into the distance the coarse stupidities of someone like Fellini. This aesthetic provides the definition of cinema: an alchemy, a transformation of the sordid into the marvelous, of the common into the exceptional, of the filmed subject into the very moment of its extinction. This is what realism is for me. Put simply, I’d say: “Cheap oneirism: I know nothing about it. The simple event of pushing a button on the camera is oneiric.”

But oneirism, fantasy, etc., are pretty precise genres practiced with talent by directors like Fellini.

Fellini is afraid of reality because he hasn’t got the strength to confront it, which, artistically, is a sort of impotency and vulgarity. Fellini betrayed Rossellini, his master. Dishonest direction in films is that which stages what’s technically unrealizable. In the scene in the metro in Roma [Federico Fellini, 1972], the camera is placed such that you think it incapable of having recorded what it is the spectator is seeing. In the cinema, one has every right, except that of being an impostor.


Un enterrement à Ornans by Gustave Courbet, 1849-50.