Friday, August 5, 2011

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: A Nos Amours (1983)

A Nos Amours (1983) ****
Directed by: Maurice Pialat.
Written by: Arlette Langmann and Maurice Pialat.
Starring: Sandrine Bonnaire (Suzanne), Maurice Pialat (Le père), Christophe Odent (Michel), Dominique Besnehard (Robert), Cyril Collard (Jean-Pierre), Jacques Fieschi (Le beau-frère), Valérie Schlumberger (Marie-France), Evelyne Ker (La mere), Pierre Novion (Adrien), Tsilka Theodorou (Fanny), Cyr Boitard (Luc).

There is always a danger in movies about a young girl’s sexual awakening, written and directed by an older man, that the portrait of sexuality we see will not really be the young girls, but the director’s projection of what he thinks the young girl’s sexuality is. I cannot think of another movie that handles this problem the same way Maurice Pialat’s brilliant A Nos Amours does. Pialat himself plays the young girl’s father, and it is their complex relationship full of repressed lust on both sides, that really makes up the heart of the movie.

The movie stars Sandrine Bonnaire, in a brilliant debut performance, as Suzanne a 15 year old French girl. Right from the beginning, it is clear that the men in the movie are going to view her as a sexual object. There is an early scene on a boat, where the men, including her older brother, stare laviciously at her. And yet, this scene also establishes Suzanne as a girl unto herself as well – the camera holding back, regarding her as she stands at the head of the boat starring out at the water like the old statues of busty mermaids did at the head of the boat. She is free, but also trapped. This pretty much describes her life.

Suzanne has many relationships with boys in the movie – but they are mainly only half glanced on by Pialat. Rarely, do we see her with the same boy twice as she is certainly sleeping around. The boys come in and out of focus, never really establishing themselves as characters – sure they use Suzanne, but she also uses them. Lest you think this is simply a movie about a teenage slut, the movie is much more perceptive and complex than that.

Suzanne’s sleeping around pretty much drives her already screwed up family to the breaking point. Pialat’s father character is the most complex of the other characters in the movie – and the  scenes with him are really the heart of the film. The first involves him freaking out, and slapping Suzanne when she announces she is going on a double date to the movies – he knows she has no intention of going to the movies, and they purpose of the date is really sex. But later that night, when she returns, the two of them have a tender scene together, where he seems worried that she is not happy – that she has lost a dimple. The two of them talk openly, and yet buried beneath this scene is longing, desire and lust on both of their parts. It is quite clear that Pialat’s father feels something not fatherly towards Suzanne – and equally clear that he is repressing it. It is this scene where Pialat tells Suzanne she is leaving her mother because she has gone even more insane than she was already – but this isn’t the real reason. He is doing it to get away from Suzanne, and his desires.

It is after the father leaves, that the two other family members – her older brother and her mother come into focus. Her brother’s feeling towards Suzanne are also confused and lustful – yet he has a harder time controlling them than his father did. He lashes out violently at Suzanne multiple times and calls her a slut – all in the name of “protecting” their mother. But really, he lashes out more like a spurned lover than a brother. The mother, brilliantly played by Evelyn Ker, has as Pialat pointed out gone completely over the deep end. Always mentally unstable, she seems to have lost it when he left. Her feelings towards Suzanne are a mixture of motherly worry and also resentment and jealously.

All of this sets up the two pivotal final scenes – one in which the father returns to the apartment the family lives in during a party, and causes a scene, where the buried resentment and cruelty this family inflicts on each other is somewhat exposes. Pialat apparently did not tell the rest of the cast that he was going to crash the party as it were, and the result is a painful and raw scene – and the most awkward dinner party in film history. Finally, there is one more scene between just Pialat and Bonnaire, on a bus, as she gets ready to depart to America with her new husband. Although the two of them don’t raise their voices, he is more cruel to here than at any other point in the film.

Maurice Pialat is an interesting director. He never fit in with the French New Wave, because he was older, got his start in filmmaking later in life, and was more concerned with the emotions in his films than in being innovative visually. He is often compared to John Cassavetes, who made films with larger than life emotions, and messy relationships. This is the only film of his I have seen, but it certainly makes me want to watch more. He gets a natural performance out of newcomer Bonnaire, whose sexual confusion is shown mainly through her facial expressions. This is a remarkable performance for a 16 year old to give, as so much of what happens is left unsaid at her part. She is, in many ways, the healthiest of the family members – she has at least learned to get what she wants. And yet, she too is trapped. At the end of the movie, she gets away from her family, but in another way, she will never escape. She is leaving one prison for another. One wonders if she’ll spend her life looking for her father in other men. For his part, Pialat does a remarkable job at directing, writing (along with Arlette Langmann, who undoubtedly helped given the movie a much needed female perspective) and also as an actor. He commands the screen when he’s there, giving a performance that is more nuanced than the rage he displays at times suggests.

A Nos Amours is not an easily digestible film. It will undoubtedly disturb some viewers, and bore others. And yet, with this film Pialat has crafted one of the best portraits of teenage sexuality I have ever seen on screen. It is the film he will be remembered for.

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