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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

I me mine: Pialat's We Won't Grow Old Together

Posted By on 09.18.12 at 12:28 PM

Marlene Jobert, in her own swimsuit
  • Marlene Jobert, in her own swimsuit
Maurice Pialat's We Won't Grow Old Together (1972) screens just two more times at the Gene Siskel Film Center before it leaves town, tonight at 6 PM and tomorrow at 8 PM, and I can't recommend it highly enough. An early feature by one of France's most important filmmakers, it ranks with Yilmaz Güney's The Friend (which screened at Doc Films in February) and Andrzej Zulawski's Possession (which screened at the Siskel in May) as one of the year's great rediscoveries. And like those other features, it seems to have lost none of its power in the decades since it was made. Pialat's purposely arhythmic storytelling—to say nothing of his characters' capacity for emotional violence—has a way of keeping spectators on edge.

The film's obsessively autobiographical nature is crucial to its impact. The painful central relationship, between a middle-aged documentarian and his much younger mistress (whom he routinely browbeats), comes directly from Pialat's own experience. Lead actress Marlene Jobert explains in an interview for the British DVD of the film that Pialat's compulsion to re-create his own relationship extended to even the smallest details. In a sequence depicting the couple on a seaside vacation, the director had his assistants search everywhere for the same bathing suit his real-life mistress (named Catherine, like Jobert's character) wore on a similar trip. They couldn't find the suit, and Jobert wore one of her own—much to actress's relief, she admits, since she didn't like the real Catherine's fashion sense anyway.

Sounds a bit like James Stewart dressing Kim Novak in the third act of Vertigo, doesn't it? Though it often feels improvised, We Won't Grow Old Together is in fact a meticulous re-creation of real events—an exploitation of cinema to dominate painful past experience. (Literature proved insufficient in this pursuit, apparently; Pialat had previously told this story in the form of a novel, but felt compelled to tell it again.) This would seem the most narcissistic thing a filmmaker can do, and yet Pialat's stand-in (Jean Yanne) is without doubt the film's least sympathetic character. Frequently overcome by self-pity, misanthropic rage, and feelings of chauvinistic entitlement, Jean is a pain to be around even when he's at his most conciliatory. And by most accounts, so was Pialat: for all his self-awareness, he stood fixed in his bitterness until his death in 2003, at the age of 77.

This contradiction points to Pialat's genius as a filmmaker. His movies demonstrate that even the most flawed human beings—among them Gerard Depardieu's petty thief in Loulou; Sandrine Bonnaire's reckless, promiscuous teenager in A Nos Amours; and Jacques Dutronc's exceedingly unstable Vincent Van Gogh—can experience life as fully and as passionately as anyone. To me, that's the logic underlying Pialat's singular editing patterns, which eliminate any moments in the lives of his characters that aren't euphoric or devastating in their impact.

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