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À nos amours
Teen angst gets down to the primal basics in Maurice Pialat's À nos amours, an affecting drama about a "beautiful young thing" entering the world of adult sexuality that's now considered to be one of the best French films ever made.
The riveting Sandrine Bonnaire (La Cérémonie) is Suzanne, a 15 year-old who gets the attention of every man in a room. Suzanne's eyes express a hurt quality but her smile is guaranteed to stop hearts. Early in the film she's invited for a spin on a boat and strikes a pose at the prow while the men watch from the deck above. Suzanne senses their attraction and wants more.
Suzanne is in a miserable predicament at home. Her perfectionist father (director Pialat) realizes that if she isn't already sleeping around, she soon will be. Her father leaves her mother (Evelyne Ker), who reacts to abandonment by becoming abusively critical of Suzanne. Big brother Robert (Dominique Besnehard) dotes on Mom and indulges her emotional outbursts; his maternal attachment is more severe than Suzanne's interesting relationship with her father.
The provocative Suzanne is soon ditching summer camp to neck in the bushes with a boyfriend, Luc (Cyr Boitard). She mysteriously surrenders her virginity not to Luc but to a casual pickup, an American. Suzanne rejects the boyfriend but keeps going out with other boys; it all seems a classic reaction to being abandoned by her father. When Suzanne later decides she wants Luc back, he's attached and abusive; when she announces plans to marry he begs to reconcile. Suzanne lives for the attention of men but seems incapable of committing to any of them.
In average hands all of this might be a standard drama underscoring the psychological effects of an unhappy home. Suzanne's unresolved relationship with her father is the cause of her maladjustment to life and love. Robert's unhealthy attachment to his mother affects his sexuality and his zeal to surpass/humiliate his father. Ex-painter Maurice Pialat avoids overdramatizing these conflicts and instead offers a series of brief observations that illustrate his story without focusing on precise narrative details. We're given some moments but not others, in the same way that we seem to be selective about which memories we retain. Suzanne is happy when she is with her lovers but spends an equal amount of time alone and forlorn, waiting for busses in the rain. The young man she eventually marries is seen in several hopeful 'snapshots' being supportive and loving. Then he's suddenly gone. Without an explanation, Suzanne is leaving to go to America with yet another young man.
Pialat barely shows the last boy, a directorial choice that reveals his 'accidental' style to be very carefully controlled. Sometimes called the French John Cassavetes, Pialat hits us every few minutes with an improvised family scene. Evelyne Ker's mother runs amuck as only an unhappy, hysterical mother can, bashing her head against a wall until she draws blood. Cameraman Jacques Loiseleux (in Criterion's detailed extras) tells us that he had to anticipate what actors might do and betters Cassavetes' often-uninspired dependence on close-ups. The camerawork in these partially improvised scenes is remarkable.
In the original plan the father was supposed to die, and Maurice Pialat's deviation from the script kept the cast off balance for the rest of the shooting. The director's strategy pays off in the most-discussed scene, a family dinner party late in the picture. Suzanne appears happy with her husband of six months (Cyril Collard) while brother Robert has become more annoying than ever after his writing has attracted some critical success. Then the estranged father walks in unannounced and raises tempers by telling off Robert and his pretentious friends. The scene quickly becomes an utterly convincing shouting match. According to the interviews, the actors at the table were not told that the father character would enter, and everything that happens from then on -- which is practically a perfect scene -- is an improvisation. John Cassavetes constructs entire pictures out of similar behavioral exercises, which can be extremely rewarding but require the audience to make a radical adjustment. Pialat's party scene is more tightly fitted into his structured plan, but its conflict engages us at the same "this is happening right now" Cassavetes level.
Maurice Pialat and his writing partner Arlette Langmann show concern and affection for Suzanne and her father in a touching pair of scenes. When the father realizes that his little girl is slipping away from him to become a woman, they share a flirtatious late night moment. The close-ups of Ms. Bonnaire smiling made her an instant movie star. At the end Father sends Suzanne on her way to America with a little speech about finding happiness. Many movies about young girls written and directed by older men conceive of their heroines as fantasy figures of one kind or another, perhaps "the one that got away." The suspicion also arises that the director may be using his young actress as a way of fumbling through a mid-life crisis. À nos amours has a more mature stance and plays as an honest look at an interesting girl's passage into womanhood.
Criterion's 2-disc presentation of the 1983 À nos amours has a perfect enhanced transfer of the handsome film that brings out its soft colors and warm flesh tones. The second disc has three interviews. French filmmaker Catherine Breillat comments on Pialat's style and Jean-Pierre Gorin discusses Pialat's films as a reaction to the 60s New Wave. Actress Sandrine Bonnaire gives a touching interview, recalling how she was too naïve to appreciate the movie when it was new, and how she remained friends with Pialat until his death.
The Human Eye is a 1999 documentary on the film by Xavier Giannoli that rounds up several more of the cast members and shows how highly regarded the film is now in France. Another very good extra combines a 1983 Pialat interview with behind-the-scenes shots and deleted scenes. This excised material plugs holes in the story or describes the unused plotline in which the father is dying of a liver malady. Pialat's interview is wonderfully open. Fifteen years into his career he feels like he really hasn't gotten anywhere. He considers it a slight to be described as a 'fringe' director because French cinema is already "on the fringe." We also see auditions that tell us exactly why certain actors were chosen. Young Cyr Boitard is incapable of getting into character but he has the perfect look.
The 2-disc set comes with a booklet containing essays by Molly Haskell and Kent Jones that help position Maurice Pialat for viewers who have never heard of him. It also has text interviews from Pialat and his extraordinary cinematographer Jacques Loiseleux.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, À nos amours rates:
Supplements: Trailer; interviews with Catherine Breillat and Jean-Pierre Gorin; 2003 interview with actor Sandrine Bonnaire; The Human Eye a 1999 documentary on the film; Archival interview with Pialat on the set; Actor auditions; booklet with essays by critics Molly Haskell and Kent Jones and interviews with Pialat and cinematographer Jacques Loiseleux
Packaging: 2 discs in keep case
Reviewed: June 29, 2006