Monday, 15 August 2016

Two films by Maurice Pialat - Nous ne Vieillirons pas Ensemble (1972) and La Gueule Ouverte (1974)

(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2009)

’These two people are honest, they do not lie to themselves, nor do they try to deceive each other.’ This may seem a strange way of thinking about Jean and Catherine, the tortured central couple of Nous ne Vieillirons pas Ensemble (We Won’t Grow Old Together), a couple always on the verge of parting, but unable either to leave or to make their peace, but there it is.

If you have ever walked away from someone, knowing you need to leave, but also knowing how futile the attempt is to do so, with your bodies still belonging to one another, drawn to each other over and again by each other's taste and scent, then Nous ne Vieillirons pas Ensemble will resonate strongly. It is a film that recalls the feeling of parting, in the full knowledge you are so vitally and so hopelessly intertwined that to pull apart would cause real, raw damage, as much as staying together will continue the needling pain.

To watch Nous ne Vieillirons pas Ensemble it is to share in the feeling of being abandoned in some way; a feeling of needing to go home but no longer having a home to go to. Much of the film takes place in awkward, gut-gnawing times of uncertainty: that blank space of waiting for a train to leave after you have said your goodbyes, the time of waiting in bed for your lover to come home and then waking to an empty bed at dawn with the first birdsong after a fitful half-sleep; it takes place after the slam of a door, or after you have been grossly insulted but – having nowhere to warm yourself except from stinging nettle words – you remain still and try to warm yourself from their heat. It takes place in the time of waiting while a lover reads a letter of apology you have written for her, the time of waiting for a phone call that should have come an hour ago. It takes place in the time of leaving, and waiting to be called back.

Likewise, the film is shot in transitional places – a street, a car, a station, a bedroom, on a bench, on a beach, in the sea, where Jean and Catherine are shown together in scenes of love, rejection and frustration. Pialat trained as a painter, and this shows in his way of picturing his characters together, held by their tension and their mutual reliance.

The leavetaking in Pialat’s third feature, La Gueule Ouverte (The Gaping Mouth), allows no second or third chances. The very opening scene takes place in a hospital, where a scan reveals the need for radiation treatment on a woman’s spine. Thereafter, the film follows the time of Monique’s dying as she rapidly becomes bed-bound and wholly reliant on others for her care. ‘There’s no point in our keeping her here’ says a Doctor to her son, Philippe, and she is taken home, where, to the discomfiture of her husband and her son, now confronted with the sour tang of sickness and the sound of laboured breathing in the couple’s Auvergne home, she becomes little more than a mouth – hence the title – an automaton winding down, in one scene even a grotesque mockery of a chick needing to be fed, and which is fed and cared for.

This is a chamber drama of beds and doorways – often seen in the same shot. Even when Philippe and his wife Nathalie return to the car through vines after making love outdoors, Monique’s bed seems to be superimposed upon the scene, an unseen but keenly felt presence of immobility reduced to a body’s primary needs, a sort of ghastly chick whose death will not come. Her presence lends anger, or urgency, or off-handedness, or devil-may-care lecherousness to people’s actions.

It has been said that the family members behave despicably during Monique’s death. I don't see that so much as family members coping in their rough and ready ways with the death of a woman who was a lover to one, a mother to another. There are no rules for such times, and given that it is a situation that most people only face a very few times in their life, each time, and each death is different. How does one deal with the indignity of death?

Nathalie’s non-committal blankness when told by Philippe that her mother-in-law has only a few months left is honest – there’s that word again. People generally do not know how to react to news of impending death. As much as anything, her reaction – which is not ‘so what’ or ‘why should I care’ but a refusal to fake emotion for the sake of it, sets the tone of the film early on. She will be on hand for support, but this is a woman who has never cared much for her, so she will remain at a distance.

In one lengthy scene – I was going to call it a ‘central’ scene but this would be to wrongly characterise it;  all of these Pialat films progress in a continual, urgent present, in which no one scene takes precedence over another – Monique, her pallor increasingly deathly, lies in bed, the bedside lamp shaded with the local newspaper, while her husband and son, wander to and from the room, both listening to the sound of her laboured breath, breath that sounds like distant waves on a shingle beach. They need something to do, a way to be helpful, but apart from covering up a shoulder, they are impotent. ‘In the cinema, one has every right, except that of being an imposter.’ said Pialat in a 1973 interview. Remarkably, even in such scenes as this, one doesn’t feel like an imposter.

As with Nous ne Vieillirons pas Ensemble, the colour scheme of La Gueule Ouverte appears offhand, but is actually precise. The film’s opening titles are printed in a sickly yellow that seems leached of vitality, with the colour recurring throughout the film on nightgowns, dresses, walls and window frames. indeed, the film’s palette is suffused with the muted, pastel tones of interior colours, and shaded rooms; there is nothing brash here. Indeed, it’s only with the small-talk about geraniums and red petunias after the funeral that a splash of virtual colour comes in, but even this is tainted by the context of avoidance and the presence of the desolate Monsieur Roger at the table.

After watching the film, details stayed in my mind. I recognised the combination of the forbidden and the futile in Philippe, as he looks through his mother’s personal possessions, object that no longer animate a person’s life, leafing through photographs in a chest of drawers while she lies motionless and unaware nearby. I found myself wishing that Philippe had held his mother’s hand that was just waiting to be touched at the kitchen table in an early scene, but grateful for the tenderness that Roger shows as he rubs her feet. It is a film that makes us keenly aware of such opportunities, both missed and taken, in our own lives. After watching it, and Nous ne Vieillirons pas Ensemble, you can’t help but approach people with a little more understanding, and with ready judgements held in reserve.

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