Monday, July 21, 2008

À nos amours

Superficially and thematically Maurice Pialat's A nos amours resembles any number of French films which explore the sexual awakening of precocious young women. In fact it is such a recurring subject that it almost seems like an entire subgenre of french cinema itself. Contrary to what one normally expects (in line with "teen movies" that Hollywood makes) these are not youthful films at all - they don't look forward into the future with a sense of possibilities, possibilities of adventures and knowledge that comes from sexual experience. Rather, the tone in these films is almost Miltonic - sexual knowledge leading to the fall and the despair resulting from the loss of the prelapsarian paradise. I don't want to imply that these are conservative films or in any way support social conservatism or taboos. In most of the cases they are extremely frank and sometimes downright brutal and direct, as in this case. Sex in these films is seen as a source of psychological alienation - the mind-body problem that is one of the keys to the human condition. Erich Rohmer is probably the most accomplished thinker and director on this subject in french cinema. His "Moral Tales" (specifically Claire's Knee, My Night at Maud's and The Collector) explore almost every aspect of this subject and feel like making almost the final statement on it.

More recently, Catherine Breillat has used the same prototype to deliver assaults on the institution of heterosexual relationship. She sees sexual awakening not as a loss of innocence and the feeling of "one-ness" but rather an intiation of women into a world of brutality, exploitation and nothingness which to her are intrinsic elements of any female experience of heterosexual romance. Daft, of course, but an interesting view nevertheless. Specially when you see scenes like one in which her lead actress mournfully intones "I'm a hole", all the time holding her lover's organ in her hands. I do think she is quite an interesting fimmaker even if much too often, she is too intellectual, too doctrinaire and too strident to be taken really seriously. Though I think Fat Girl is a major masterpiece, one of the key texts of feminist cinema. Interestingly the criterion DVD of A nos amours contains a brief appreciative interview of Breillat, who was actually one of Pialat's protegees. (She worked as one of co-screenwriters and directorial assistant in one of his films).

Coming back to the film, it does lend itself to all these readings but ultimately the film still feels very elusive. The simple plot is about an adolescent girl, played by an astonishingly good (and maddeningly sexy) Sandrine Bonnaire, who goes on a sexual rampage in order to escape from her dysfunctional family. There is something perverse in the way Pialat shows her relationship with her family members, not just her father, played by Pialat himself, but also her mother and her elder brother who all seem to be jealous of her, because of her budding sexuality and often react with abrupt violence. She in turn refuses to have sex with the nice-looking, if rather effete, boy who she is in love with and arbitrarily breaks-up with him. She then promiscuously sleeps with any number of boys, who are all much more macho-looking, who come in her way. In a memorable and actually pretty disturbing scene she responds to the "thank you" of one of those boys by saying "You're welcome. It's free." The film sustains this tone of bitterness for its entire length, ending with a haunting freeze frame (again a recurring feature in french films). She feels certain that she will never be happy anymore in her life and her last chance of happiness was the time she spent with her boyfriend in the alps (before all the sex stuff came in between) again invoking that Miltonic theme. In fact the title of the film also underscores the same. (It means "for our loves" in English.)

The family scenes are shot in a very naturalistic style, without any hint of dramatisation, because of which the sudden eruption of violence feel all the more painful. Pialat has been compared to Cassavetes and it is easy to see why. I can understand the motivation of using this style of film-making and the immediacy and unmediated intensity it brings but still I personally feel a bit remote from this school of film making. I would much rather have Bergman (Scenes from a Marriage) or Fassbinder. I don't agree that dramatizing devices necessarily distance the viewers and lessen the emotional impact of a scene. In fact they give viewers space where they can think for themselves and then feel. Most of the interviews and commentaries on the disc emphasise the fact that the film was highly improvised and one of the main intentions of Pialat was to dissolve the artificial barrier between the actor as a person and the character that he or she plays in the film. The scene where the father talks about the "missing dimple" was not in the script and the talk genuinely seems to have taken Bonnaire by surprise and it shows in the scene. There is something mysterious in that scene which wouldn't have been there if it were pre-planned and rehearsed - the idea of the unique and unrepeatable moment that still photographers and even documentary film makers always try to capture on film.

As I said, Sandrine Bonnaire is extraordinary in the film. In fact I was feeling jealous myself all the time too! I had seen her in Claude Chabrol's La Ceremonie before and she was excellent in that as well (though probably eclipsed by Isabelle Huppert who has the more flambuoyant part in it) but really she is in a class of her own in this film. I was actually shocked to learn that she was only 15 when she did it. I mean she doesn't really look 15 from any angle but more than that it is difficult to imagine such a young actor having access to such complexities of inner life with all its difficult and mysterious emotions. She doesn't really try too hard and as a matter of fact more credit goes to Pialat and her style of film making that makes it look all so effortless and natural but it is still impossible to imagine the film without her presence. She reminded me of young Sissy Spacek, who was probably much older but looked very young, when she acted those classic 70s films with Mallick, De Palma and Altman. And also, of course, of young Isabelle Huppert but the film wouldn't have been the same with any of these actresses. It is impossible to describe in words what really happens on her face, as she sizes up and down a good looking boy through her gaze or stares into the space mysteriously. You just have to see it yourself.

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