Maurice Pialat’s on-screen appearances were one of a kind. Recently, Adrian Martin and I did this audiovisual essay on the director, where we use part of the family dinner scene near the end of À nos amours (1983). This sequence is a prodigy in its entirety: for everything it concentrates, for how it unfolds, for its twists and surprises – the major one of which is the unexpected arrival of the father, played by Pialat himself. This eruption is a brutal mood-switcher that sends the scene in a completely new direction: he finds himself a seat at the table and, while candidly smiling and eating cake, starts settling accounts with the family he abandoned months ago.
It’s worth highlighting some particularities about this sequence. At this point of the shoot, the character of the father had disappeared from the film, but his fate had not yet been resolved (one of the possibilities being that he had died). Pialat decided to stage his comeback to the fiction without warning the actors, who had to adjust and improvise on the spot. Cinematographer Jacques Loiseleux – who beautifully describes his work in À nos amours: “One could say of me that I am ‘put at the temperature’ [mis à température]. I’m a kind of captor”  – had marked seven positions on the tracking rail built around the table; while filming the scene, he would tell his assistant where to move and, with hand gestures, give indications as to the speed. Except for a few shots that were later additions, the scene was captured in one single take that, afterwards, would be entirely reassembled in the editing room.
In our audiovisual essay, we point out how Pialat’s fictions often incorporate traces of the existing tensions between cast and crew members. When Pialat himself was in the scene, he would bring out details from the actors’ real lives, so that they felt personally addressed and triggered. In this sequence of À nos amours, Pialat accuses Robert (Dominique Besnehard), his son in the fiction, of having sold out to achieve success. And he accuses his son-in-law, Jacques (Jacques Fieschi), of dishonesty for having championed Robert in his magazine and, later, publishing a vicious article against him. As Alain Philippon has noted , there was more going on here for, in his diatribe, Pialat was alluding to a real-life incident: as an editor of Cinématographe magazine, Fieschi allowed the publication of an interview with Pierre-William Glenn, Pialat’s previous cinematographer – something of which, as this scene makes obvious, the director did not approve.
Their tense exchange escalates, giving rise to this amazing couple of minutes:
For its violence, for its power to affect, for its mixture of (as Fergus Daly has described Pialat’s scenes) “cringing awe and giddy empathy” , this is one of my favourite passages of the film.
Before becoming a director, Maurice Pialat had been a painter. In his youth, he adored Van Gogh. Later in life, he spent years imagining a project about the last months of the Dutch painter, culminating in his 1991 film, Van Gogh. Despite all this, in a 1992 interview, Pialat remarked: “Van Gogh was quite unlike me” .
Quite unlike him, but not so unlike him as to not cling onto his last words and hurl them against the people seated at this dinner table – his family in the fiction, but also his film family, his group of collaborators. It may have not been the first time that Pialat brought Van Gogh into a fraught conversation, for the mere mention of his name is met with instant objections. Objections that, nonetheless, will not put a halt to his spiel.
“The sadness will last forever” – before Pialat repeats these words for the second time, there’s a cut to a frontal shot of him. He goes on, explaining how he has come to understand this sentence: it doesn’t mean (as everybody believes, as he himself believed) that Van Gogh was a sad figure; rather, it means that everybody else is sad. Here, the intercutting that has dominated the scene is substituted by a pan across the family table, as Pialat utters the following words: “You are the sad ones, everything you do is sad”. We are startled (and the actors may have been, too) by the whip of that direct address. We can almost feel some relief when, as the pan closes on Robert and Suzanne (Sandrine Bonnaire), the monologue takes on a more concrete fictional reference.
One may find something heroic in Pialat’s ‘one against all’ attitude – after all, this is the man who, when booed at Cannes upon receiving the main prize for Under the Sun of Satan (1987), proudly howled at the audience: “If you don’t like me, I don’t like you either!” However, what I find most compelling about this sequence is that, even if we happen to agree with the values and viewpoint expressed here by Pialat, that’s never all we see. We see, as well, the childish fits and the strong resentment, the blows of violence and the pleasure taken in causing havoc, the dirty tricks with which he manoeuvres the uneasy friction between film and life, the unevenness of a combat over which he holds the reins. Yet, despite seeing all this, you also see him, Maurice Pialat, speaking the truth.
How these words attack the very dynamics of the scene preceding the father’s arrival! A parade of civilised disagreements, flimsy flirtations and pompous proclamations; the exhibition of a calculated perversity, and the theatricalisation of primal feelings; a stream of blabber that leaves no mark, that has no consequence, whose only purpose is to entertain the audience.
“And this, however delirious this statement may seem, is how modern life maintains its old atmosphere of debauchery, anarchy, disorder, delirium, derangement, chronic insanity, bourgeois inertia, psychic anomaly (for it is not man but the world that has become abnormal), deliberate dishonesty and extraordinary hypocrisy, filthy contempt for everything that shows breeding, insistence on an entire order based on the fulfilment of a primitive injustice, in short, of organised crime.” (Antonin Artaud, Van Gogh, the Man Suicided by Society, 1947)
Pialat was fond not only of spreading destabilisation; he was also a master at re-routing and making a scene advance by passing the turbulence from one actor to another. Here, when it seems all has been said, he turns to Suzanne/Bonnaire and, in a surprise move, asks her to choose a side. It is a harsh gesture on Pialat’s part – out of the blue, as the camera rolls – to subject both daughter and actress to this public test of loyalty. But that is the kind of gesture of which his cinema is made.
Are you with them (with this family that would rather not have me here, spitting my scorn in their faces)? Or are you with me (your father, whom you’ve been seeing in secret after he abandoned everybody else)? Before Suzanne can come up with her answer, she has to sense the problem. This is beyond agreeing or disagreeing with the father’s diagnosis; rather, this is about being forced to see with his eyes, about being hurt by his vision (“sadness will last forever”). In the seconds that follow, we can feel how the question carves its way through the body of the actress. For, whatever else this question may imply, she knows it also means this: are you taking the side of power, success, money? Are you perpetuating this sickness, this sadness? Or are you standing against it?
Being in a Pialat film is to feel exposed, threatened, in peril. Facing risks at each step. Sensing, at every moment, that something is at stake.
“Who are you with?” – insists Pialat – and, in a movement that is unique in this scene, the camera pans from him to her. As if this had always been the place where all the turmoil was headed: to this relay that is the embodiment of an authentic, even if uncomfortable, transmission from father to daughter.
 Alain Philippon, “Entretien avec Jacques Loiseleux”, À nos amours de Maurice Pialat, Editions Yellow Now, 1989.
 Alain Philippon, À nos amours de Maurice Pialat, Editions Yellow Now, 1989.
 Fergus Daly, “Maurice Pialat: A Cinema of Surrender“, Rouge, no. 1, 2003.
 Michel Ciment & Michel Sineux, “À propos de Van Gogh”, Petite planète cinématographique, Stock, 2003. See extracts of this interview in English here.