Maurice Pialat

Translated by Inge Pruks

Maurice Pialat and John Cassavetes are both modern directors whose art reached its maturity during the years that followed the French New Wave. This chronological proximity is no doubt their first point in common. In coming after the Italian experience of Neo Realism, the New Wave directors had understood that films could be made differently. During the 1970s, Pialat and Cassavetes seemed to be amongst those who pursued this idea. They do not discard it, nor do they flounder in ever-increasing extremist experiments on the outer limits of narrativity. In a way they might belong to those who choose a third option, which is, quite simply, to carry on, to continue straight ahead, even though they keep their distance from their respective mainstream systems.

This distance from the mainstream seems to be another of their points in common. However, these two directors cannot be placed on the same outer limits. John Cassavetes keeps his distance from the Hollywood studio system after having conducted a sterile experiment within it. He traces a strict parallel alongside it. For Pialat, the mainstream “system” would paradoxically be the one formed by his New Wave contemporaries. Even though Pialat belongs to the generation of François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Demy, Claude Chabrol or Jacques Rivette, he misses the train called the New Wave, which pulled out in 1958–60, leaving him stranded on the platform. He will need a further ten years before he too can make his début with L’enfance nue. And after that, even if Pialat ends up asserting himself at the centre of French cinema, he still remains outside of it. In contrast to Cassavetes, who occupies fringes that are “parallel” to the system, Pialat is to be found on a fringe placed at its centre.

Through motifs common to the films of John Cassavetes and Maurice Pialat (body to body, the theatrical staging, postural rhymes, the absence of the body …), it seems interesting to broach the question of how the body in movement is represented. In this present study which deals with the films L’enfance nue (1969), À nos amours (1972), Faces (1968) and A Woman Under the Influence (1974), the way the two directors film their material will be the subject of ongoing comparison. Filming bodies in movement poses a certain number of questions. What role is attributed to the actor in the French director’s mise en scène, and in the work of his American counterpart? To what extent does the actor’s body control the frame, or does the frame control the actor? How are one, two or several bodies fitted into the frame? How is a relationship of attraction, opposition or intrusion between several bodies shown on screen? How is the dominance of one body over others translated, its silent presence, or else its disappearance? Does the unspoken contract established between director and spectator force the viewer into taking sides, into a somewhat contemplative or even “ethnographic” position? These questions will be asked throughout the dissertation, which is constructed around two lines of inquiry: the relationship between the director and his actors; and the presence of the body within the frame. These two themes make up the two parts of the investigation.

I. The relationship between the director and his actors

À nos amours opens in a matter-of-fact and rather brusque manner with a shot of Suzanne (Sandrine Bonnaire), motionless, silent, her face closed. The actress then begins to recite a passage from Alfred de Musset’s On ne badine pas avec l’amour. This sudden leap into the story gives an impression of material as yet unprocessed, of matter in its “raw state”. The character’s intonation and delivery seem so bad that they express something rather irritating. However, this portrait-shot captures and etches onto film the last childhood moments of a young girl called either Suzanne or Sandrine Bonnaire. There is no difference here. This first shot tells us: “Here is the young girl. If we ask her to act, it’ll be a failure. Here is the piece of coal from which I’m going to extract a diamond. This is my raw material, the body at the wellsprings of the work.” Pialat no doubt feels that he has to do this portrait and put it at the beginning of the film, because this meeting between actress and director is placed at the exact moment where her childhood ends and adolescence begins. In this shot, she is still a child. After this, she will be less and less so. This shot shows the emerging of a woman as well as the emerging of an actress: Sandrine Bonnaire.

At this early point in the film, Suzanne’s time at the holiday camp is no doubt the last vacation, the young girl’s last moments of happiness and innocence. This is very similar to the situation of Michel (Jean Claude Aimini) at the Club Med in Corsica, before he goes off to war in Algeria, in Jacques Rozier’s film, Adieu Philippine (1962). Also, the same idea of “the first time” can be found in the opening credits of Rozier’s film, where each actor’s name is preceded by the phrase “For the first time on screen”. This idea of raw material is continued in À nos amours and L’enfance nue. Whether it be the very mediocre poem “Noël” recited by François (Michel Tarrazon), or the passage from On ne badine pas avec l’amour, there is this desire in Pialat to make an individual recite a text without the pretence of a mise en scène, without the disguise of a fiction. These fixed-shot sequences on their neutral background are very much like shots taken for a screen test, where the director is still at the stage of choosing his “raw material”, the bodies which will flesh out his fiction. In both cases the task required of the actor – to recite a text – is largely a failure, but it reveals the presence of a body. Pialat thus inserts into the very core of his fiction this idea of the actor’s body, “primary material” in its raw state, yet to be chiselled into shape by the director.

Actually, here it seems quite difficult to justify the choice of actor by anything other than the simple fact that he was chosen because he was “the” right one. Otherwise, it is easy to fall into generalities of the type: Maurice Pialat choses professional actors as well as absolute beginners for his films in order to rattle the former, or to have the latter bring along their so-called freshness, their spark of innocence. It is perhaps true, in a general way, but a screen test is very much the opposite of anything “general”. It is in effect, a case of choosing, not a generality, but a particular individual. Beyond all theorising, the reasons for the choice will always remain a mystery. Furthermore, as Pierre Gras notes in ‘From L’enfance nue to Nos amours‘:

To believe that Pialat is drawn to the natural qualities of an actor would be to ignore the fact that he often films the act of lying or else the roles which his characters play out in fiction […] as for the child in L’enfance nue and Suzanne in À nos amours, they are both sincerely evasive and at the same time anxious to preserve their independence through lies and through being unpredictable.

It thus seems tempting to search within the film itself for the element that is one of the reasons – or perhaps the reason—for the choice of a body. It may as well be said that the few lines that follow don’t lay claim to any exact scientific basis.

Michel Tarrazon’s defiant smile of anger, when he is smoking cigarettes with friends under a bridge, seems almost to belong “off screen”. His bitter and savage smile is perhaps one of the reasons why Maurice Pialat chose Michel Tarrazon for the part of François. Let’s note furthermore – and it’s probably not just pure chance – that this same angry mimicry, the “bared teeth”, can be found in Suzanne when her brother Robert (Dominique Besnehard) pushes her up against a wall during the fight.

But Michel Tarrazon’s smile complies with another important point in the choice of actor: the idea of potentiality. It’s a smile that appears only once in the film, but we can feel that it forms a part of this actor’s very nature. Michel Tarrazon “knows” how to smile in this way, even if he does it only once. The actor doesn’t do it, but he could do it. This idea of potentiality gives a strong presence to a body. In another sense, when François throws metal bolts onto cars passing by on the freeway under the bridge, his body movements are minimal, but we are aware of a strong potentiality. The actor’s bent-over body is tense, ready to spring. Or, rather, you feel that this body could spring. Just like Travis Bickle (Robert de Niro) when faced with the pimp (Harvey Keitel), in Taxi Driver (1976) by Martin Scorsese, or like Mabel Longhetti (Gena Rowlands) in A Woman Under the Influence, motionless but ready to spring, ready to attack when she feels menaced by Nick (Peter Falk) and Dr Zepp (Eddie Shaw) who has come to take her away.

A Woman Under the Influence

In fact, John Cassavetes seems to be faced with somewhat of a problem in that scene: the lack of potentiality in the actress Katherine Cassavetes. In her overpowering fit of anger, Nick’s mother, Mama Longhetti (Katherine Cassavetes), does dominate the soundtrack, but it seems “manufactured”, or, in other words, we do not get the impression that she could become even angrier. We lose the idea of any higher possible level, or the potentiality of a higher state which ought to accompany the extreme emotion so that the viewer is not left with the impression that the actor is “stretched” to her limits. In contrast, Gena Rowlands does not drown in a sea of hysteria, and we are definitely given the impression of potentiality in her. It could be added here that Katherine Cassavetes’ anger is not translated through her face. The expression on the mask stays almost the same, whatever the emotions played by the actress. In this regard, John Cassavetes is careful to hide Katherine Cassavetes’ face as much as possible (she is often filmed with her face turned away; all we are shown is her mass of hair), or else he replaces the mother’s face with that of Gena Rowlands. In fact, we only have the shot of Mabel’s face, which registers reactions to words spoken by Mama Longhetti, without a reverse angle shot of the latter. The face of Gena Rowlands becomes a repository for Katherine Cassavetes’ violent remarks, allowing us to see the raw emotions that flow through the actress’s body. Consequently, Nick’s reply to Mabel, “One, you’re acting crazy”, gives rise to a double meaning. First, almost literally, to act as a woman who is “mad” (which is what Gena Rowlands is doing), but also to act in an incoherent manner, without real skill (which is what Katherine Cassavetes is doing).

To come back to less intuitive, more tangible things, Michel Tarrazon’s performance in L’enfance nue is particularly accurate and convincing, during the scene in the train depicting the dialogue between himself and the woman from Welfare. During this conversation, which becomes an interrogation, François reverts to his stubbornness, waiting for something that is being refused, and at the same time replying to the woman’s aggressive questions, where “sparks of performance” burst through, and express so much more than mere words could do: the discomfort experienced when told that he “is not part of the convoy”, the slightly defensive smile when he says he has no brother, the light twitch of his face when the woman, without warning, points out “So you’re all alone?”, the way he rolls his eyes when the woman talks to him about school as François is still smarting from the previous blow. These perhaps are the more concrete reasons for choosing Michel Tarrazon.

We will not delve into the role of improvisation in the actor’s repertoire because this notion seems a vast grab-bag whose depths would be difficult to define. Indeed, improvisation is a part of every film shoot, to varying degrees, and to declare where it begins and where it ends seems rather risky. However, on the question of the actor’s performance and the unexpected, it seems that two different positions emerge from Pialat and Cassavetes. This can be explained in two ways.

John Cassavetes shooting A Woman Under the Influence

The first comes from the distance between the camera and the object being filmed. With Cassavetes, the distance is short and the framing is often in close up on the characters. In such conditions, each gesture can easily go out of frame, thus giving an impression of unpredictability. Since the field is reduced, the least detail appearing from off screen can “surprise” the viewer because its arrival is unexpected, through the effect of it coming suddenly into view. The curious consequence of this is to create a habit of being surprised. Unexpectedness is an integral part of the way Cassavetes shoots his films. Unexpectedness becomes a basic given. In a way, we come to expect it. Paradoxically, Cassavetes’ positing that “everything-is-unexpected” results in nothing being unexpected. For the unexpected to appear suddenly, there must first be the expected. It is this position that is illustrated by Pialat’s methods. The distance between camera and actor in this case is greater and the framing is wider. Pialat sets up a frame, in the common usage of the term. That is, he designates a space that is wide enough to enable the viewer to follow a pre-established action. In this predetermined and large frame, the viewer watches the scene unfold, in an expected manner. The body of the actor who moves in a closed space is caught as though he were in an “aquarium” … when, all of a sudden, the unexpected happens. There are many examples in À nos amours, the most well-known being the vengeful return of the father during the family meal, or his remark, during his talk with Suzanne about the fact he might soon leave the family home, on how she lost the second dimple from her cheek. But in L’enfance nue it is also the cap of the ointment tube, lost by Mémère (Marie Marc), which unfortunately rolls under the table. It is indeed because the frame is sufficiently large that we understand Madame Thierry’s (Evelyne Ker) behaviour and emotion, as we shall see further on. Or, yet again, in the large frame where all the children are sitting in the train, it’s the little girl at the window sill who keeps waving and becomes unpredictable.

The second reason is related to the actors. John Cassavetes’ actors perform unpredictability, whereas, in Pialat, actors such as Monsieur and Madame Thierry are unpredictable. In the former case, we have Gena Rowlands who performs the unpredictable, for example during Mabel’s introduction to Nick’s workers. What is striking in this scene is that it is constantly impossible to anticipate the actress’s movements. Contrary to convention, established social attitudes relating to “introducing someone” are reinvented here in their tiniest movements, rediscovered by Mabel for the first time. The rhythm of her movements is out of step. Whether it is ahead or else lagging behind, the movement comes in an impromptu manner (when Mabel shakes a worker’s hand). The movement may also not take place even though it is expected (when she does not shake the hand of a worker she has been staring at). Or else it might indeed happen when it is not expected (when Mabel’s greeting is, “Would you like some spaghetti?”). With Pialat on the other hand, the unexpected is not controlled. For him, these are moments which no amount of direction could foresee, and that is what gives them their power. There is the occasion when Madame Thierry is upset because she loses the cap of the ointment tube, or, having forgotten the name of her fictional son, “Raoul”, and ends up stammering during the take, or the moment when Monsieur Thierry (Maurice Pialat) is obviously overcome by remembering events in the Resistance – no doubt he is describing a past he has lived through – which he relates to François, unless it’s the spontaneous kiss which François gives him. These are the moments when fictional life vibrates, trembles, when the bodies on screen come to life. This can be illustrated in À nos amours by the shot where Suzanne’s face remains motionless, under the body of the American with whom she has just made love for the first time. When Sandrine Bonnaire smiles (is it accidental?), the emotion she is then expressing (uneasiness) can just as much belong to the expected as to the unexpected, to fiction as well as to the actual film shoot. This smile could in fact seem like disengagement, as though the actress were “leaving” the scene for a few moments, in order to look at herself under the body of this actor.

Finally, we can note a point in common between the two directors on the question of how roles are distributed: the fact that there is no clear hierarchy of roles. The best example seems to be in Faces, where the couple who are the pivotal characters of the story, Chet (Seymour Cassel) and Maria (Lynn Carlin), do not appear until over an hour into the film. In this sort of competition, everyone has a chance of making it into the fiction and staying there. For example, in À nos amours, the almost uncertain and unpredictable appearances and reappearances of the actor Cyr Boitard (who plays Luc) are a case in point. But this principle of “democracy” is backed up by another principle, that of the filmmaker’s unscripted and arbitrary intervention into his own fiction – like a sort of “taking in hand”. Certain characters can disappear from the fiction without any warning. For example, in Faces, the two businessmen Jim (Val Avery) and Joe who are out for a good time. Despite their efforts to stay at Jeannie’s (Gena Rowlands) place (the disappearance is written into the script here), they will not return to the film after Richard (John Marley) chases them away from Jeannie’s. Or else take the moment in À nos amours where Pialat without warning decides to cut from the narrative the man whom Roger the father (which is to say Pialat himself) showed round the apartment during the family festivities. When the narrative focuses on the characters at the dinner, this anonymous visitor (played by Pierre Novion) finds himself cut from the film without any justification. Besides, nobody even mentions it. In A Woman Under the Influence, this same phenomenon occurs when Cassavetes makes Garson Cross (O. G. Dunn) “disappear”. After a fleeting shot in the kitchen, we will never see this character again. As with Mabel Longhetti, Cassavetes does not burden himself with those he no longer wishes to see.

II. The imprints left by the body

L'enfance nue

The idea of taking non-professional actors and making them into central pivots of the fiction also reveals a desire to print and capture traces of their reality, their own past life onto film. That is what photography represents. A photograph tells us: “this is what happened, at that very instant”. By the very fact that it has been photographed, this instant is forever completed. It belongs to the past. The photograph has archived it. In Pialat, there is this desire to capture fragments of the real, and to “archive” them. Just as with Jean Eustache, Pialat wants to fix onto the negative the imprint of something that has happened much earlier in time than the film. Jean Narboni speaks of an “ethnographic current” in relation to directors such as Jean Rouch, Jean Eustache and Jacques Rozier. Pialat could be added to this list. For him, movements always have a corporal, muscular substrate, leaving marks on the body and on the way it is positioned; imprints.

Even though it seems quite difficult to differentiate between the movements of a character, the movements written in the script and the permanent movements of the actor – those which are independent of the scenes – in L’enfance nue, during François’ first meal at the Thierrys’, Madame Thierry’s attitudes and movements (her way of sitting at the table, her straight back, her way of lifting her wrists whilst her elbows are leaning on the table) are close to what no acted performance could give with such accuracy, and which could be defined as the imprints of past life on a body. As in a Georges De La Tour painting, the curves of the depicted body reveal the traces of its past. In choosing to film Madame Thierry in profile, during the scene where she has to bandage François’ wrist, Pialat has no doubt noticed that there was something of her “essence” in the straightness of her back. This is noticeable in the way Madame Thierry leans forward. In fact, in order to lean over, rather than lightly curving her back to complete the movement, Madame Thierry tilts her body forward in a single block. This straight-backed posture can also be seen when Madame Thierry scolds Raoul. Madame Thierry’s straight back is what Gilles Deleuze calls the “daily body” as opposed to the “ceremonial body”.

When the administrator comes to the Thierry’s place for the first time to propose that they take in François, he does not reply to the question posed by Mémère (Marie Louise Thierry) when she asks about the boy, “He isn’t too awful?”, but his attitude speaks for itself. At that instant, it is interesting to note Marie Louise Thierry’s reaction to this tacit reply by the director. The movement is economical, but as we watch her upper body lean back into the chair, we understand that Mémère knows the answer to her own question, knows that the director too has already had to confront this kind of situation and accepts the request of the director (to take in François). But this would only be the surface picture, the directions given in the script. What Pialat’s camera really captures in this retreating movement is something not stated in the script, but seems patently obvious here: it is, quite simply, the kindness of this woman.

To continue with the idea of archiving, a new element should be added here: the fact that the entire film of L’enfance nue has been marked out by sequences of “explanations”, not in a script-driven sense of the word – which is to say, the resolution of a given postulate – but in the sense of a report, or rather an interview. Four instances can be noted: the sequence on the train where the woman from Welfare explains the functioning of the organisation she works for; the sequence where Mémère, on Pépère’s knees, explains the Thierry family history, the sequence where Pépère explains his actions in the Resistance to François, and the sequence where Mémère explains François’ life to the director of Public Welfare. Even though these lengthy shots in L’enfance nue bring no psychological material to the narrative, they are, during these moments which are filmed like an “interview”, the carriers of the “official” discourse of the characters. It is no doubt a safe bet that the Public Welfare woman has already told the story she tells on the train a thousand times. Similarly, the Resistance stories told by Pépère/Monsieur Thierry, or the story about the Thierry’s and their family, told by Mémère, are no doubt the story of the Thierry’s in real life. This brings us to three observations. The first is that it would be hasty to claim that the length of the shot does not tell us anything, since in these oral accounts told by the characters we do really learn things(!!), whether it be about their daily life or their past. This comes from the fact that, much more than with fictional characters, we feel we are in the presence of real people. The second observation is that, in a classic fictional narrative, this oral transmission of information would be insufferably boring, and the viewer, moreover, would not retain a quarter of it … Whilst here, the oral narrative holds our total attention. This is no doubt due to the fact that the viewer is well aware that what they are watching is not a true fiction but very much a “piece of reality”. In fact, there is in these interviews a pledge of authenticity that is keenly felt by the viewer. The third observation is that we see on screen Pialat’s avid desire to “archive”, to inscribe forever onto film stock, this couple who are Monsieur and Madame Thierry.

Regarding this last point, it can be observed that in the sequence where Mémère drinks her coffee whilst sitting in Pépère’s lap, and the following one where Pépère explains the details of his activities in the Resistance, there are two close-ups of François’ face which in their framing are equivalent to the shot where he watches a film in a movie theatre. In the first situation (Pépère and Mémère’s coffee), François seems calm. This is no longer the case during Pépère’s narration, even though, it must be admitted, throughout the close-ups where François watches Mémère and Pépère speaking to him, there still remains an insurmountable distance between them. Even though François keeps sizing up his parents and measuring the distance that separates him from them, perhaps there is a second important element in the life that François constructs for himself, other than going to see films at the movie theatre: his wish to listen to other people’s lives. Since his own life is cruelly lacking in fundamental elements (such as a father and a mother), François tries to capture life by looking at the example of others around him. He listens and records it, like a fictional equivalent of the “filmmaker as archivist”.

The scene in the movie theatre again brings up this notion of archiving. The footage takes on a truly historic value, because the places being filmed are going to disappear, and Pialat can sense it. Admittedly, the bodies of the Thierry’s, filmed in 1968, have no doubt also disappeared. But the fact that bodies grow old and disappear is not a historical fact, in contrast to the publicity posters on the screen curtain, or the ice-cream seller – in a few years’ time. In this scene, where the camera picks out the posters of Rancho Bravo and The Triumph of the Magnificent Ten near the ice-cream-seller, it can be noted that these are little-known films being cited by Pialat. In fact, we can even ask whether the second one actually exists at all! However, even though Rancho Bravo, a Western by Andrew MacLaglen, actually exists, Pialat’s employment of similar-sounding names weaves a “kaleidoscopic” vision of films, of genres, of actors who have made their mark on the collective imagination or on the history of cinema, such as Rio Bravo by Howard Hawks, The Ten Commandments by Cecil B. De Mille, The Magnificent Seven by John Sturges, the Western genre, the sword and sandals genre, and even actor James Stewart. Added to this is the voice-over of a Western trailer that the captivated François is listening to (“He vowed he’d find him again”, we hear). Certainly, from the script’s point of view, this voice-over suggests the oath that François might swear to find his parents again. But it also alludes to John Ford’s Western, The Searchers (1956), where Ethan (John Wayne) vows to find his Indian-raised niece, Debbie (Natalie Wood). In this kind of “panoramic movement” as described by Pialat’s references, it can be seen that one of the characteristics showing the author’s love of the movies is to ally auteurist cinema with popular cinema, without forcing any question of choice. And, last, the publicity posters that cover the curtain being lowered over the screen have disappeared today. It can only be assumed that at the end of the 1960s Pialat sensed their future disappearance and filmed them so as to “archive” them, before these images too are relegated to cinema history. But there does not seem to be any sense of nostalgia in Pialat. Once again, Pialat tells us correctly and with precision, how it happened “at that very instant”.

The imprints of a body reside not only in its physical arrangement, but also in its oral language. In À nos amours, the great meal scene where the forgotten father reappears, has “body” because the flux of language is fleshed out and present. This is what Jacques Kermabon points out in “À nos amours, Pialat, the painter of the void”:

overlapping of conversations, truncated phrases, repetitions, abrupt tone changes, quiet asides at the end of loud tirades, sniffing sounds, sighs. It is of course artificial to separate sound manifestations from body movements in this way, because Pialat’s films are, above all, physical. The entire body communicates.

L'enfance nue

In L’enfance nue, this notion of capturing and archiving reality by means of oral transmission appears when Pépère, during the engagement toast, begins to help himself to more champagne before serving the other guests, saying, after a delicious moment of hesitation, ”Well then, let’s have some more here.” It is quite probable that this reply was not in the script, that it appeared somewhat by chance, and that Pialat recorded it because his capturing-camera was rolling. This little “surplus of reality” makes the scene funny and particularly lively, or, more exact, animated, persistent. Besides, it is not surprising when François, who is in a way Pialat’s double in the film, grabs the camera during the banquet, showing an enormous interest in it. No doubt photography is the art which is closest to this notion of archiving.

To return to the idea of an imprint in language itself, Pialat seizes on Marie Louise Thierry’s language mannerism that consists of constantly repeating “That’s it.” These words are not entirely meaningless. They are funny because they are repeated mechanically, and they form part of Madame Thierry’s social vocabulary, whilst in current usage, they have a meaning which is far from being neutral. They are first of all a way of acquiescing to the rules of the institution, or the direction she should take (it is quite probable that Madame Thierry acquiesced to the instructions of Pialat-the-director in the same way). These few words are also used to close any discussion; they accompany an irrefutable conclusion, in the sense of “That’s (how) it is.” And the irrefutable conclusion, the irremediable error, is very much a theme at the very heart of L’enfance nue. Lastly, there is a cold matter-of-fact quality about these few words, as “clinical” as the whiteness of the Public Welfare walls shown to us by Pialat. “A naked childhood, that’s (how) it is.”

Furthermore, within this recurring motif of “That’s it”, we find the Bergsonian idea that comedy comes about because of the presence of rigidity and the mechanical in living things. This is illustrated in the sequence where François’ new environment is presented to him: the new room, the cupboard or the bed (“Here, this is your bed”) are presented to the child the same as his new brother Raoul (“Here, this is Raoul, do you see? That’ll be your big brother”). Furthermore, during this presentation of François to Raoul, the comic effect is doubled through the fact that a certain awkwardness (of the institution) becomes entangled with something intimate (the fraternal relationship). In a more general manner, there is awkwardness, a feeling of failure, and a mechanical nervousness in the Thierry’s attitudes (the shawl unfortunately caught in the handle of the kitchen door, the cap of the tube which falls under the chair, etc. …) as well as in their speech – especially Monsieur Thierry! The least one can say is that his flow of words is a far cry from the ease and fluidity of an orator. René Thierry’s way of expressing himself shows the way the mechanical constraints of a social discourse which must be respected come up against the outpourings of the heart. Which means that here we are at the heart of the project, the heart of L’enfance nue.

The concept of an “overflow” of reality is to be found once more in this rare scene where Madame Thierry’s true nature is revealed – no doubt her affability – when she unhappily loses the cap of the ointment tube. Madame Thierry acts as though she will pick it up later. This reaction reminds us, more than in a classical fiction film, that we are in the presence of a camera filming two people who are “acting” for it. In fact – and we may have almost forgotten it! – we are watching a film and not reality. Otherwise, if it were a real situation, what reason would there be for Madame Thierry to put off looking for her cap? None at all. So, if she does so here, it is because she knows that the camera is rolling and she still has a series of actions to complete before going to pick it up (bandage the boy’s wrist, put away the tube of ointment, wipe her hands, serve a slice of cake, remonstrate for the last time). It’s as though, in an almost physical way, she was counting off the actions she had to complete before searching for the cap. In other words, Madame Thierry’s little gesture sends us back to the conditions of the film shoot. This spark of reality is a kind of change in register in the fiction and, above all, it is a moment that especially stands out for the viewer, the moment they’ll remember when the rest of the film is forgotten.

It is no longer the film’s narrative which produces meaning, but the very conditions of the film shoot. Shooting so as to generate life is an element one also finds in John Cassavetes’ Faces. As Jean Louis Comolli observes in Back to Back:

… The behaviour of the characters – who provide the sole fictional basis in Faces – no longer refers to a realistic slice of life which they might more or less faithfully represent, the characters only have coherence and realism in relation to each other, to the film itself. Certainly, nothing is produced on screen which might not also be produced ‘in life’, but this ‘in life’ here means in front of the camera and because of the camera. Cassavetes and his friends do not use the movies as a means of reproducing facts, movements, faces or ideas, but as a means of producing them.

To return to the ‘principle of the ointment cap’ in L’enfance nue, which calls to question the act of filming itself, it is interesting to commentate on Peter Falk’s slightly distracted look towards the camera in A Woman Under the Influence when he is walking in the rain in front of his place. The distracted quality in Nick’s look integrates perfectly with the fictional moment calling him to be indecisive, since Nick, caught in a dilemma, does not know what to do. There remains something unresolved in the look, especially since it is followed up by the actor’s changing direction as he walks along. Again, the change is justified: it is the crossing of the paved footpaths … But a second hypothesis appears here, which in no way weakens the first with regard to the logic of the fiction: that there has been a direct intervention by filmmaker Cassavetes during the shot. Everything happens as though John Cassavetes had just told his actor to go to the end of the path and that would also correspond to the end of the take. In effect, we feel that Peter Falk has something to do right up to the moment he changes direction, which is where the slight hesitation sets in and the actor waits – in vain – for his director to call out “Cut!” At that point, the possibility that Cassavetes waved him on to continue his walk into the background of the shot is in the order of the probable. It is translated by the slight hiatus in time. Here the direction of the actor would take on quite a literal meaning, almost trivial, since the filmmaker would be directing his actor by indicating to him the direction he should take as he walked. The verification of this hypothesis comes in the following instant, with the impromptu appearance of the edge of an umbrella on the right side of the frame: Peter Falk couldn’t keep walking straight ahead because of the simple fact that the whole film crew were in front of him. In fact, this umbrella has no reason for being in the fictional narrative (Nick is supposed to be alone on the footpath). It is no doubt held up by a member of the crew, and is the trivial reason why John Cassavetes is forced to “direct traffic” during the shot.

III. Where is the body?

À nos amours

One of the points in common between the four films that make up this study is the total unity of place in which the action unfolds. It’s the Thierry’s house in L’enfance nue, Suzanne’s Parisian apartment in À nos amours, the Longhetti’s house in A Woman Under the Influence. In Faces, we seem to have two principal places: Jeannie’s lounge-room, and that of Richard (John Marley) and Marie Forst … But these two places are only seemingly different. In the placement of their furniture, their topography and in the ways they are shown (angles of shots and framing), they are very similar. So it could be argued that here too exists a kind of unity of place. It could be given the generic term of “lounge-room”. Consequently, it seems interesting to pose the question about representing the body in a unique space. Which spaces do the bodies occupy in these rooms? Where are the bodies?

The way in which Pialat films the Parisian apartment in À nos amours seems to obey three principles: first, through a kind of “honeycomb” effect, no one is ever alone; second, through an absence of openings, characters are in a closed space; and third, through the interlocking effects of doors and corridors, each character can spy on the other, and evil can circulate and multiply. That would be the “principle of the Pressure cooker”.

The sequence showing Suzanne coming home is made up of two shots, the first of which because of its framing or its panoramic tagging of the characters, describes all the activity in the house in depth of field. The life of the apartment is seen in different depths of field which form a “honeycomb” system around a central point, such as the apartment’s workshop, or, as is the case here, the entrance hall which houses the camera. The different honeycomb “cells” that are shown by the camera’s panning movement would in this case be the front door, which allows Suzanne to come in – this would be Suzanne’s first cell as she is the one who most often goes out of the apartment; the kitchen, where we find mother Betty; Robert’s room, where he receives his friends; the dining-room, where those who are not of the family are invited and received; the workshop; and, last, the room at the back – another domain belonging to Suzanne. This same concept of deep focus honeycomb “cells”, where a second scene is taking place, is to be found a few instants later when Suzanne asks her father for permission to go out whilst Betty, the mother, is seen going in an out of doors in the background, preparing the table for the meal.

The second principle would be the absence of any opening towards the outside. In fact, in the Parisian apartment of À nos amours, Pialat’s camera films the interior of the place, and not the openings – such as windows, for example – which increases the feeling of being closed in. As a result, we have a forced cohabitation in a closed space. A third person could still very well appear in the background of a shot. This is what happens, for example, at the beginning of the sequence when Roger asks his son to stay and work in the study whilst he goes to the Labour Exchange: in deep focus behind him, there is a door which connects with the passageway … where we see Suzanne passing by.

Furthermore, in opposition to this principle of the closed space, a rare example of filming windows that look out onto the exterior, into full daylight, is indicative of a shift in the scenario. This passage is situated just after the moment where Roger, Suzanne’s father, leaves the family home. This daylight which comes in through the windows strikes a sharp contrast with the closed-in feeling of all the preceding shots of the apartment and denotes a definite change. In any case, the fact that Betty is lying down allows us to understand in an immediate and elegant way that one of the members of the family, the father, has “flown the coop”, according to the popular expression which is here illustrated by these two big openings.

On the notion of glances and evil that are circulating, the moment when Suzanne comes home early in the morning seems particularly revealing. The seeing motif and evil both make their way in an intertwining of doors, passageways and visual chicanery where each one is able to spy on the other. Suzanne comes home to a veritable trap that she believes to be peaceful, but in fact it is a place where everyone is ready to pounce on her. The most striking example of this is perhaps when Suzanne comes into the dining room and we see Robert appear deep in the background of the shot, motionless, his arms folded. The viewer’s gaze allows itself to be ambushed by these visual tricks which lead him into a deep cul-de-sac, where Robert the brother is ready to do his damage, just like Suzanne, discovered by her mother, allows herself to be ambushed in the dining room.

It now seems interesting to compare two spaces where the characters who inhabit these spaces are under the influence of madness: the Longhetti’s house in A Woman Under the Influence, and Suzanne’s Parisian apartment in À nos amours. As we have seen, the topography of the latter promotes the flow of evil. In contrast, there is a partitioning off of spaces in A Woman Under the Influence. There is the sliding door which determines whether there are one or two spaces, according to whether it is open or closed: the lounge-room is the public sphere but the dining-room can be separated from it at will thereby becoming the couple’s bedroom. There is the bathroom where even we the viewers can never enter, which carries a sign on its door: “Private”. The kitchen is set apart, accessible via a corridor that also separates it from the entrance hall. Similarly, you have to use a staircase to go up to the children’s room. These ways of partitioning off space contribute to the effect that, when the camera is placed in a room, it is only in that room.


Let us note here that this system of partitioning can also be found in L’enfance nue, and in a way suggests the idea of “staunching the flow” between the shots of that film. Just as there is no linking of shots – a notion we will again see in the chapter headed “Temporality” – so too is there no topographical link between the rooms. You are in the bedroom. You are in the kitchen. But Pialat does not film the passage connecting the one to the other, which is the stairway. The stairway, for Cassavetes too, is the transitional space par excellence and is filmed. It not only allows him to change from space to space, from one floor to another, but also to change situations, from one state to another. You only need to look at the way Chet and Maria in Faces mount the stairs to see how this is translated into a heightening of desire; or else the stairs where each one rediscovers their place in a painful return to reality, at the end of this same film. Or yet again in A Woman Under the Influence, the staircase where Nick begs Mabel to “Just be yourself!” so that she can become herself again.

In À nos amours, this notion of separation between spaces is deliberately tacked on. Each person is spied upon through doors. Neither the father nor the mother knocks on the door before entering Suzanne’s room. When the camera is inside a room it shows not only that space but also the following room which forms part of a series. Or else by means of a tracking shot that ignores the walls, the viewer is smoothly brought to the three adjoining rooms. Besides, it should also be added that at the end of this camera movement a fourth room is discovered in the background. This tracking shot and the depth of field allow us to follow, beyond walls and foreground visuals, Robert’s particularly violent behaviour when, having dragged Suzanne by the hair all around the apartment, he spits on her in her own room. Which is to say that, in this space which has no partitioning walls, evil can circulate quite effortlessly. It seems very difficult to hide yourself from the other’s gaze. With the big “L-shaped” trajectory described by Robert’s movements as he drags his sister Suzanne, one arrives at the conclusion that the entire space has become sick and generates violence, no longer is there any refuge possible.

Furthermore, let us also note that with the tracking shot which takes us through the walls, this “other’s gaze”, which cannot be avoided by the protagonists, is nothing other than the gaze of the viewer. The tracking shot makes the viewer into an accomplice to the situation being filmed. The viewer is in a way forced to watch this scene, put in the same delicate situation as the worker in the workshop, who helplessly watches the family violence. He is also in the same position as the director Pialat who is present at the violent scene between Besnehard and Bonnaire, and could perhaps be accused of “not rendering assistance to persons in danger”, according to the appropriate terminology. Perhaps that, too, is the reason for the uneasiness that the scene causes in each of us. The scene involves us by pointing the finger at us, a rare occurrence when we are watching a show. It is the force of the scene, rather than the interplay of the actors, which renders tangible, even palpable, the viewer’s position in this trio.

Finally, the fact that this extremely violent scene happens at night, whereas the preceding scene, a few minutes earlier in the film, took place during the day, suggests that evil has become permanent, that there is no relief. There will be neither spatial nor temporal limitations to it.

About The Author

Philippe Lubac is a French short filmmaker (Aujourd’hui, plage, 2000, Grac Lyon Award; L’âge de raison, 2001, Kieslowski Award; Hautement populaire, 2004, Hype Gallery film; Suzanne, curently in post-production), scriptwriter and writer, script-reader and -doctor.