Wednesday, 24 August 2011

A French maestro

Looking forward to another French trip in a couple of months, and meanwhile borrowed from our city library (grimly facing the threats of council and Cameronian cuts and austerities) two terrific films. Both are directed by that excellent (if still underrated – in this country at least) filmmaker Maurice Pialat (1925-2003). Pialat was one of the finest post-WW2 French auteurs, and remained a controversial figure throughout his distinguished career. The first in time, only recently available on dvd, is A Nos Amours (1983) and introduces, in her extraordinary cinema debut, the sixteen year old Sandrine Bonnaire. Bonnaire became one of the most attractive and intelligent European actresses of her generation, and this film examining a disturbed adolescence in a dysfunctional family has sensational performances by everyone involved, including Pialat himself as the father and failed patriarch, and Evelyne Ker as the mother. Bonnaire from the first to the very last frame is gorgeous and indeed unforgettable. It's a film that hasn't dated at all and packs a powerful punch, and I'm glad to have caught up with it at last. A classic!

Totally different, but also powerful and moving, is Pialat's take on Van Gogh (1991). On a second viewing, twenty years after its original release, I was struck by the superb performances, especially by Jacques Dutronc as the troubled artist. It is as it should be, an exquisitely colourful, beautifully photographed piece, full of surprises: the characters seem to live onscreen rather than 'act' in any costumed impersonation or BBC-style period drama. It's all strangely convincing, coolly framed yet highly emotional, unpredictable and always provocative.

One of the best-ever writers on cinema, David Thomson, who's invariably judicious, witty and illuminating, makes an apt final comment on Maurice Pialat in his indispensable New Biographical Dictionary of Film. Thomson links Pialat's humanist style and very distinctive approach to cinema with that of those other greats, Renoir, Ozu and Mizoguchi. Not much else to add! You can only agree with such an insightful and consistently reliable movie critic and biographer. And having now seen just four Pialat films out of what's a considerable oeuvre, I look forward to seeing as many of the others as possible.

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