First we see only ugliness. A troubled young boy hurls a cat down a flight of stairs. A mother cradles her daughter’s corpse and presses her gaping mouth against the pale and bloodied face. The labored breaths of a dying woman come slower and slower and finally cease altogether. We want to look away, but Pialat – spitefully? callously? – holds his, and by extension our, gaze fixed, unflinching. When Pialat does tear us away from an image the cut comes without warning and at a moment of peak emotional investment: a sudden outburst is quickly stifled, a tender embrace cut short.
These images belong to Maurice Pialat, one of the leading figures of post-New Wave French cinema, and their inhospitable quality extends beyond their subject matter or the rhythm with which they come and go. It is the images themselves that are inhospitable, down to the most basic level of mise-en-scène. Pialat attacks his cinematic space like a sculptor, hacking away at the unyielding stuff, seeking not refinement but domination. The resulting images, in their crude and lopsided beauty, render every movement clumsy, every interaction painful, for Pialat refuses to surrender any control over the cinematic space to the figures that must navigate it. “Every step,” in critic Adrian Martin’s words, “involves the negotiation of some difficult gauntlet…Awkwardness, hesitancy, collision constitute the rule, not the exception.” 1 Yet it is precisely this stubborn insistence that his consciously misshapen world appear with every flaw intact that makes Pialat such a life-affirming filmmaker. He must show life without cosmetic enhancement, its deformities not only evident but deliberately magnified, precisely because he believes in humanity. Because for Pialat no amount of ugliness can bury the potential for grace that is built, according to some mysterious and ineffable order, into the world itself.
Pialat’s dedication to the truth is never at odds with his belief in the possibility of grace – in fact, he considers the two concepts interdependent. A film that is honest about the state of the world will not simply expose indiscriminately all the dirt and refuse of mankind without allowing for some small window of grace. Equally dishonest is a film that sincerely wishes to affirm life yet overlooks all the ugliness that might mar its vision. Such a film has no confidence in humanity. It is not willing to gamble that a character with real human flaws is capable of garnering the audience’s sympathy. Pialat is willing to make that gamble. He dares the audience to revile his characters: take the patriarch of the family in La gueule ouverte (The Mouth Agape, 1974), who gropes his store’s female customers as his wife slowly dies in the room upstairs. We revile this man until, when his wife does in fact pass away, we witness his crippling, entirely sincere grief – and then, against all odds, we pity him. Pialat continuously forces us to question our own moral judgments – how could we ever hope to fairly assess the motivations of characters whose actions are such mysteries even to themselves?
There are other, subtler examples of Pialat’s nuanced characterization: L’enfance nue’s (1968) initial foster family, well-meaning but hopelessly unequipped to handle their destructive charge; the promiscuous, manipulative, yet desperate Mouchette in Sous le soleil de Satan (1987). Of all the filmmakers who best understood people, Pialat has perhaps the most at stake. He wants nothing less than to peer into the souls of men, and one gets the sense that he hopes profusely to find there a justification that might outweigh their obvious offences. Pialat never disdains his characters. His pity is without condescension and his judgment without condemnation.
Pialat subjects his world as a whole to the same desperate search for grace. He unearths grim circumstances one after the other because he believes that he will find something beneath them to justify and exonerate the world. The odds seem stacked against him: in Pialat’s world relationships inevitably rupture, bonds are strained to breaking, careers stall and fail and lives come to painful ends. By his ruthless mutilation of space, his constriction of movement, and his stubborn refusal to let the viewer’s emotions dictate his cuts Pialat impresses on us the tension and the anxiety of living in such a world. And then, grace: a fleeting moment of connection, a smile, an embrace, a renewal of love. Pialat finds his justification, his affirmation of life in these wisps of human connection, these few seconds during which the characters forget that their world is decaying around them.
La gueule ouverte is in this respect perhaps the archetypal Pialat film. For ninety minutes we have watched two relationships slowly crumble and a woman slowly expire from an unknown illness, mostly within the rigid and claustrophobic confines of one home. Pialat further narrows the already-tight corridors and constricts the already-stifling rooms, so that every physical interaction becomes a battle for control of the meager space; this physical conflict only intensifies the psychological strife between the characters. Everyone is stretched to the point of breaking, including the audience. In one of Pialat’s most lacerating scenes we watch the family matriarch slowly pass away, her laboured breaths receding into the terrible silence.
Then Pialat grants us an escape: in the film’s penultimate shot the house which has become our prison recedes into the distance and vanishes, taking with it all those painful memories of soured interactions. The same camera that once inched haltingly, nervously around every corner, as if afraid to let more into the frame, now drinks in great gulps of space, accepts an endless progression of wide landscapes as it flies down an open road. During a stunning mid-film funeral scene, the camera creeps around a corner with the same agonizingly slow, hobbled rhythm that the mother’s last breaths will eventually adopt: the frame’s frustrated need for space mirrors the dying woman’s desperate gasps. The camera’s liberation in the penultimate shot becomes a triumph over death, an assertion both that life is worth showing and that there will always be something to show. Miraculously, this act of grace is completely consistent with the rest of Pialat’s universe: redemption is not foreign even to a world in which by rule all relationships must founder and all lives end. As the film’s devastating final shot reminds us, this moment of release has neither solved nor resolved a thing. Except maybe to prove to us that there is still hope for comfort in an inhospitable world.
Similar glimmers of grace fill much of Pialat’s other work – take for instance the tender exchanges between child and foster parent in L’enfance nue or between father and daughter in À nos amours (1983), both moments of respite nestled between harrowing scenes of domestic disintegration. A moment of genuine human connection becomes the justification for the entire film’s existence, the reason why Pialat continues to keep his eye trained even on images that might sear into it. The ordeal is justified film after film – until Sous le soleil de Satan. Here for the first time Pialat fails to conceive of an act of grace compatible with the state of the world. Here we have a film in which a very real Satan gives humans the chance to abdicate their responsibility for the ills of the universe, a film in which the potential for redemption is no longer built into the framework of the world and must be realized by an act of the divine. The film follows Gerard Depardieu’s priest Donissan, perpetually tortured by visions of human weakness and divine indifference and incapable of applying his sincere faith to the lives of others. In one burst of divinely (or infernally) inspired insight, he manages to shatter the fragile illusions of Sandrine Bonnaire’s Mouchette, a promiscuous young woman who, as the film’s sole human source of agency and its sole character without the fear of God, is the film’s most typical Pialat protagonist.
Kierkegaard theorized that a “movement of infinite resignation” was necessary for faith; that is, faith is at once the recognition of an impossibility and the belief that it will nevertheless come to pass.2 Pialat once prided himself on not needing to make such a movement – he could believe in the triumph of humanity over their circumstances precisely because the state of the world allowed for such a victory. Yet here we have a film entirely based around resignation, a film in which hope can only be made possible by a confession of its impossibility – for there is no longer any act of grace that could on its own redeem the world. The introduction of Satan serves as a means of recognizing this void without laying the blame strictly on humanity. We derive a perverse sort of comfort from the existence of a supremely evil being – it assures us that mankind could not on its own be responsible for such dreadful circumstances.
But this comfort comes at a terrible price – to exonerate his characters Pialat must deprive them of the one thing that once defined them – their will. Humanity’s powerlessness to defy Satan’s will and imbue the world with some vestige of hope castrates even as it vindicates them. Mouchette, a remnant of Pialat’s old order in which humans could redeem themselves without appealing to the divine, cannot survive in the word of Sous le soleil de satan. She envies animals, their ability to “live and die unthinkingly” – for it is not impotence itself but the consciousness thereof that is intolerable. So when Donissan informs her that her one deadly, decisive action has “no more offended God than most animals,” that she is only capable of re-enacting the same unique sins of her ancestors, she becomes the first Pialat character to say no to life. Her fate is prefigured by one of Pialat’s most haunting scenes: after an extended, tense exchange with her lover, Mouchette suddenly lets out a bloodcurdling scream – and is promptly silenced by a jarring cut. Is this the fate of all who, though unable to compete with an external evildoer, still cling to the hope that they can create grace for themselves? A scream, then silence.
By introducing one new variable – Satan – into his universe Pialat has pardoned humanity from their share in the world’s ills, but in doing so has restructured the world so that it no longer allows for grace. To restore this potential Pialat needs a second variable. For the first time, he needs God. And while Satan, incessantly, physically present, provides mankind with manifold options to curse life, God remains inscrutably distant until mankind makes that one movement of resignation. This is the paradox that lies at the heart of Sous le soleil de satan: men have the immense power to elicit divine intervention, but they can only do so by first confessing their own powerlessness. To affirm the potential of life one must first condemn its current state. Hence Donissan’s outburst at the deathbed of a frail, angelic young boy: “Satan is prince of this world. He holds it in his hands. God is with us, vanquished. We are the vanquished.” The split second following these words stretches out for an eternity. Has Donissan given into, in Kierkegaard’s words, a spiritual trial by renouncing the world, or has he made that one life-affirming movement of resignation? Has he closed the gulf between God and man or widened it still further? Another cleric breaks the silence: “nothing is impossible for men such as you.” What hope, what grace is in these words!
At once we recognize Donissan’s confession as a declaration of faith and, moreover, one that God will inevitably fulfill. Grace will be re-integrated into Pialat’s universe – and it is man who will be responsible. Pialat rightly posits God as the source of grace – He, after all, will be the one to accomplish the miracle. Yet Pialat, this infinitely generous filmmaker, gives mankind the means to bring about God’s intervention by a conscious act – an act of grace that is in itself a rejection of the possibility of grace. In that nameless cleric’s eight words we find the vindication of Pialat’s entire mission: the affirmation of mankind’s ability to redeem itself.