It is quite surprising to see that for all the time the digital versatile disc has been making progress amongst film aficionados the work of Maurice Pialat was never considered for American distribution. Certainly with the status the French director enjoys in Europe one would have thought that by now Maurice Pialat's films would have made their way across the Atlantic. Surprisingly they did not! With Criterion's introduction of A Nos Amours however, a film that won the prestigious Prix Louis Delluc Award (named after the famous French critic) for Best Feature Film in 1983, it seems like Maurice Pialat is finally set for an adequate introduction.
The story of A Nos Amours evolves around the young and promiscuous Suzanne (played by then-newcomer Sandrine Bonaire) who seems to have fallen in a vortex of difficult relationships leading to constant disappointments. Suzanne is visibly upset how her dysfunctional family treats her as well - her mother would often burst in uncontrollable tears resulting in violent confrontations with Suzanne while her brother, a man with an equally unstable psyche, would rarely attempt to address the differences between the two women. As we soon find out the only family member Suzanne has an easy time communicating with is her father (played by Pialat himself) who unfortunately has chosen to leave.
A man whose work has often been compared to that of American legend John Cassavetes (A Woman Under the Influence) Maurice Pialat is a film director with an utterly unique style. His films tend to go deeper into the psychological world of the characters they introduce often creating that special sense of intimacy one is likely to uncover in the films of Jacques Rivette (Celine et Julie vont en bateau).
It is not intimacy however that A Nos Amours is concerned with. Yes, there are plenty of episodes where we see Suzanne involved in passionate interludes yet it is the aftermath, the moment when she returns from sexual bliss, that the story is focused on. It is then that we witness the enormous struggle raging in Suzanne's soul-she hates her mother yet she embraces her each moment she gets, she wants to leave her family and "go to college" yet she can't leave her mother alone, she misses her father yet she admires his courage to leave his family behind.
As I am faced with the impossible task of describing as accurately as possible what you will encounter in A Nos Amours I suppose the most fitting and concise summation for this unique film would be a grotesque, fractured in little pieces, tale of maturation (mental not physical). Suggestive, sensuous, and highly-demanding from its audience A Nos Amours is also the work of a man who often reveals a tendency of creating images that speak for themselves, allowing the viewers to "read" the story as they please.
The explicit nature of A Nos Amours however appears to have stung quite a few critics where it hurts the most–the moral message behind the story. Coincidence? I hardly think so! Morality is not what Pialat is concerned with in A Nos Amours and looking for a moral justification in Suzanne's behavior makes little sense to me. As cliché as it may sound try seeing the film as a story about a young girl incapable of outsmarting life.
How Does the DVD Look?
Presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1 and enhanced for widescreen TV's the print provided by Criterion indeed looks very good. In France Pialat's work was treated with a spectacular boxset of his films which as it often happens is of little use to English-speakers. That being said it appears that Criterion have used the same print elements provided by Gaumont and by large the results are quite convincing – contrast is very strong, colors are convincing as well, edge enhancement is not an issue here. What I am slightly unimpressed with is the light shimmering (and unstable image) which becomes noticeable in the openings 20 min. (a very good indicator is the scene where Suzanne is on the yacht, leaning towards the metal bars). Regardless, this is still a very strong effort by Criterion which I expect to be received well by film aficionados.
How Does the DVD Sound?
Presented with its original French (monaural) track and optional white English subtitles the audio presentation appears on par with the video treatment. The sound quality is crisp and clear providing very little for constructive criticism. All things being considered there should be no problems for you when viewing the film.
This massive double set comes plenty of extras to support the film's presentation. First of all there is a large commemorative booklet (total of 38 pages) that contains a critical essay by Molly Haskell, a long-time writer for Village Voice, titled "The Ties That Wound". In it the author deconstructs A Nos Amours and focuses on Suzanne's character with an admirable precision. Next, there is a critical essay by Film Comment editor-at-large Kent Jones in which he elaborates on the career of Maurice Pialat while also touching upon the fact that the French director is often compared to John Cassavetes. Next, there is a very informative interview with Maurice Pialat which was published in an issue of Cinematographe from 1983.
On disc 2 you will find the rest of the extras provided by Criterion. First, there is a 1999 documentary about A Nos Amours which follows the history of the production while at the same time sheds some light on the French director. The documentary is quickly followed by an archival interview with Maurice Pialat on the production sets of the film where he discusses his work (also commenting on the inclusion of Sandrine Bonaire). Next, we have a very interesting section of two interviews, one by Catherine Breillat and one by Jean-Pierre Gorin, which I thought was an excellent addition to the rest of the supplemental materials provided in this sets. The two film directors talk about the impact Maurice Pialat had on French cinema (esp. during the 80s) and how A Nos Amours launched the career of Sandrine Bonaire. Next, there is an interview with Sandrine Bonaire which was recorded in 2003 in which she explains her professional involvement with Maurice Pialat and how she was given the main role in his film. Last but not least there are a few actors' screen tests/auditions that have been added to the rest of the extras.
I am extremely surprised that it was not Van Gogh, Maurice Pialat's undisputed masterpiece, that US film buffs saw first. A Nos Amours is a great film, arguably one of the best French productions from the early 80s, but certainly a difficult film to endure - it is as a rewarding of a production as it is demanding from its viewers. Nevertheless this is a most-welcomed addition to the Criterion collection and I certainly hope to see more from Maurice Pialat make its way to R1 land. RECOMMENDED.