Police (1985) – Two Faces, Neither of Them Real

Can art ever articulate the truth?  The films of Maurice Pialat display a grave ambivalence towards that question.  With his first film, L’Enfance Nue (1968) Pialat showed a real animosity towards not only traditional forms of cinematic story-telling, but the very conceit and artificiality of fiction itself.  Pialat is a director who wants to put the real world on the screen without the traditional intermediaries of editorial or narrative.  However, despite this hostility to the artificiality of artistic representation, Pialat never returned to his roots as a documentary film-maker.  Instead, he produced films such as Nous Ne Vieillirons Pas Ensemble (1972) and La Gueule Ouverte (1974).  Films that presented themselves as traditional dramas, but which were in fact elaborately dramatised autobiographical meditations upon his own life.

Police is a film that continues Pialat’s tradition of ontological uncertainty.  It is a work of genre by a film-maker who loathed fiction and a character study by a man who seemed to believe that there was no such thing as the self.  Unsurprisingly, Police is a film that exists under a permanent ontological fog.

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L’Enfance Nue (1968) – Truth beneath Theory

Back in the early 00s, I was studying the philosophy of science.  Studying philosophy is very similar to being one of the generals, comfy in a French chateau miles away from the front and seeing the world purely in terms of previous wars fought by previous generations.  I was taught the history of philosophy in terms of rationalism vs. empiricism rather than within a proper historical context (I did not truly understand the point of Leibniz’s philosophy until I read Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle).  Sometimes we would hear news of young South American Logicians doing wonderful things with multi-variant logical systems and the smarter kids had sensed a shift in academia’s prevailing winds and hitched their philosophical wagon to actual scientific research rather than debates held by angry young graduate students who were now port-soaked emeritus professors.  However, one battle I was all too eager to fight was the one between science and continental philosophy, part of the wider academic clash of empires known as the Science Wars.  In all the books, all the arguments and all the pages of incommensurable bickering that went on, I still remember someone pointing out that, for all the political anger of critical theorists, no member of the working class had ever actually benefited from a piece of critical theory.  This is something of a cheap shot as the suggestion is that, as academic debate is an irredeemably bourgeois activity, leftist critical theorists are all hypocrites of the highest order.  One might well quibble with this rather haughty and dismissive comment but it does seem to be close to the opinions held by Maurice Pialat.

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La Gueule Ouverte (1974) – Part of the Furniture

One of the things that is most fascinating about Pialat as a director is that though completely devoid of sentimentality, his work also shows a perpetual awareness of the temptations that it offers.  This lack of sentimentality applies abstractly to broad topics such as childhood but also, more concretely, to his own life.  It is said that The Mouth Agape is one of Pialat’s most ‘autobiographical’ works but this is not a particularly useful distinction to make with regards to Pialat’s work as so many of his films – including Nous Ne Vieillirons Pas Ensemble (1972) and Loulou (1980) – are effectively just dramatisations of real events from his own life.  A better way of thinking about La Gueule Ouverte is that it is one of his more intrusive works.  It shines a light into places where we would rather not look.  An unflattering and unsentimental light right onto the death of Pialat’s mother and the lives of both himself and his womanising father.  It is a film about death without being about loss and a film about grief without being about sadness.  It is, in a word, pitiless.

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Passe Ton Bac D’Abord (1979) – The Ordered Nature of Chaotic Lives

For his fifth feature film, Maurice Pialat returned to northern France to take a second look at the disaffected youth that inspired him to make his first full-length film L’Enfance Nue (1968).  A spiritual successor to that film, Graduate First initially comes across as a work that is almost free form.  A work that takes its pseudo-documentary, cinema verite stylings to their logical conclusion by refusing to place a coherent narrative onto the lives of Pialat’s characters.  However, as with Nous Ne Vieillirons Pas Ensemble (1972), Passe Ton Bac D’Abord is a film that draws upon a deep, narrative structure that suggests that, while the lives of these young people may seem chaotic and random, these are the kinds of lives that people have always lived.

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REVIEW – Nous Ne Vieillirons Pas Ensemble (1972)

Videovista has my review of Maurice Pialat’s splendid We Won’t Grow Old Together.

I absolutely adored this film, so much so that I went out and purchased the rest of the Pialat films that Masters of Cinema/Eureka have released.  Aside from the fantastic performances and the brutality of the relationship dynamic on display, I was also struck by how much Pialat’s style is reminiscent of that of Claude Chabrol.  Keep an eye out for more Pialat pieces in the near future.