Thursday, May 12, 2016

Blu-ray/DVDebut: Cohen Film Collection releases The Films of Maurice Pialat: Volume 1

The late French filmmaker Maurice Pialat is probably best known to American arthouse audiences as the man who gave us À nos amours, the film that introduced Sandrine Bonnaire to the U.S. and the world (though I remember seeing his earlier Naked Childhood at one of the early New York Film Festivals). His films resolutely resist sentimentality and instead appear to offer an unvar-nished look at their characters and through them at life itself. This is most likely why Pialat (shown below) never found a wide audience here in America.

Another reason might be that those films tend to plod a bit, particularly for folk who prefer event above character. And yet, in their quiet rather careful way, they are often full of things happening. In any case, we now have with us three of this filmmaker's relatively early work (he also made a lot of docs and shorts that may never see the light of day on these shores):

THE MOUTH AGAPE (1974, 87 minutes), which deals with the death of a late-middle-aged mother and wife, and the family that gathers around her;

GRADUATE FIRST (1978, 85 minutes), which looks in on a bevy of French high-school students, along with some of their parents and teachers, as the kids topple gracelessly into young adulthood;

and the most famous of the three, LOULOU (1980, 105 minutes), which, while offering the star power of Gérard Depardieu, Isabelle Huppert and Guy Marchand, also proves in some ways, to be the least of the three. (I remember seeing this one around the time of its original release and wondering what all the fuss was about. Seeing it again, some 35 years later, I'm wondering still.

TrustMovies did a binge watch of this new release -- available on both DVD and Blu-ray -- viewing one after another of the films. This was edifying in some ways because it definitely brought out certain characteristics of this filmmaker that I might not have noticed so thoroughly, had I put more space between the viewings. In Pialat's movies, the men are mostly pigs and the women docile tag-alongs who weep a lot and do not seem to enjoy sex all that much, though they partake in it often, due to the male prerogative.

This was/is no doubt true enough in its time and may remain so in some instances today, but given the rise in feminism over the 1960s and 70s, you might have thought this had reached France. Not so much, evidently, in Pialat's world. His movies are said to be life-affirming, but one must wonder after viewing: What kind of life do they affirm?

Still, performances are adept and real, and particularly in The Mouth Agape. The moments of life are both carefully observed and seemingly off-the-cuff (this is a hallmark of Pialat, I think).  And how good it is to see French actor Philippe Léotard (above) again, alongside a Nathalie Baye (above, top) who appears here as young as I have ever seen her. Overall, the filmmaker's choice of moments and scenes come together to produce an end-of-life tale that must have seemed new and daring in its day, and remains so even now. Only Stéphane Brizé's A Few Hours of Spring has done anything like this in terms of the death of a parent on film that I have witnessed.

Ditto the life of the kids in Graduate First, which Pialat makes seem both full of energy but not much promise. In the adults he shows us, we again see lives thwarted and cut off. School, family and work life, even married life for these kids, seems of questionable value. The centerpiece of the movie is a wedding celebration during which so much bubbles to the surface. The males, whether adult or kids, all seem horny as hell, and the French penchant for philosophy -- at least in school studies -- is viewed by the filmmaker with a gimlet eye.

As for Loulou, yes, we get the young and luscious Depardieu and Huppert, as well as a surprisingly unclothed Marchand, who proves quite the "bear." Behavior is shoddy, albeit lifelike, all round, with betrayal rampant, while growing up, at least for its title character (Depardieu's Loulou), proves a very difficult thing.

Loulou is supposed to represent, I am guessing, the life force, and while the actor is as charming as he usually was in his younger days, he is just as often a rude bore. Huppert exhibits her patented here-but-not-here quality -- is there an actress better at this? I doubt it. She raises being non-committal to an art form -- and the two performers let their odd chemistry engage quite well. But for all the sturm-und-drang on view, I much prefer the two older, less showy films to this one.

From Cohen Film Collection's Classics of French Cinema series, the three-disc package in one box features Graduate First and The Mouth Agape on one disc, Loulou on another, and all the multitudinous extras on the third.  The Films of Maurice Pialat, Volume 1 (this augurs well for more to come) arrives on DVD and Blu-ray -- with the Blu-ray transfer are pretty good for each film -- this coming Tuesday, May 17, for purchase, and I hope, rental, too. The series would seem a must for Pialat fans, and a good introduction to those who've yet to discover his work. (The mother/daughter confrontation above is from Graduate First.)

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