There are few directors prepared to confront their own demons and put all their personal flaws and failures on the screen with such brutal honesty as the late French filmmaker Maurice Pialat. The violence seen in his films between family members and in affairs between men and women was certainly shocking for its time, and it’s still very hard-hitting today. Pialat was also notorious for the demands he would place on his actors, putting them through hell in order to get beyond narrative structure and conventional acting performances to reach an unprecedented level of realism in performance and in the depiction of the darker side of relationships. This was evident from his 1972 film, the directly titled and heavily autobiographical Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble (We Won’t Grow Old Together), a shocking depiction of a woman trying to put an end to a relationship with a man who is possessive, violent and abusive – a film so harsh and direct in its depiction of relationships and so demanding on the actors that Jean Yanne would refuse the Best Actor award at Cannes because of the suffering he personally had to undergo making the film. As powerful and harrowing as that film was, it is equalled in intensity of performance and violence of the script by Pialat’s 1980 film Loulou.
Pialat would later describe Loulou as a shameful film, the lowest a person could sink to, and the one film that he wished he had never made or never had to make, such is the level of personal pain he would come to feel in its depiction of another brutal relationship based on autobiographical events. What probably makes the film more difficult for the director to confront is that it is depicted from the point of view of the woman. Scripted by his wife, Arlette Langmann - sister of the director Claude Berri - Loulou shows a woman Nelly (Isabelle Huppert), trapped in a relationship with a deeply possessive and jealous man, André (Guy Marchand), who decides she has had enough. One night at a nightclub, she meets Louis, more commonly known as Loulou (Gérard Depardieu), a lowlife petty crook and notorious womaniser. After yet another row with André, she leaves the nightclub with Loulou and spends the night with him. It’s the final straw that breaks Nelly’s relationship with André, not just because of the violent manner in which he throws her out of their apartment, but because of the terrific sex she has with Loulou. She leaves André and moves in with Loulou, paying for them to stay in a hotel where they scarcely leave the bed. André however won’t let go of Nelly easily, and after a violent confrontation between her two lovers, ending in a street brawl, the men come to an arrangement, Nelly continuing to work with André as her boss, while she lives with Loulou. However, when Nelly becomes pregnant, the situation becomes a little more complicated.
Loulou is not easy viewing and this is a far from conventional cinematic depiction of relationships. Typically for a Pialat film, fists fly, women are slapped around and there’s a harsh word or two spoken. That’s putting it very mildly, since the wonderfully earthy script is ripe and laced with bitterness, cruelty and black humour. There are a number of issues confronted in the film. To a large degree it’s an autobiographical exorcism – Pialat drawing from a painful episode in his own personal history to confront the flaws and weaknesses in his own temperament and behaviour. There are also social issues raised in the film – Nelly, a comfortable bourgeois woman breaking away from her comfortable lifestyle for a bit of rough sex. Yet, while Loulou may be a thug in the conventional sense, a petty criminal in a leather jacket who has done time in prison, the suit-wearing André is clearly the more violent character. Since his behaviour is directed towards a woman who belongs to him and who has “stepped out of line”, his behaviour seems to be regarded as more acceptable by society. The main subject of Loulou however, as in other Pialat films, is the harm that men and women inflict upon each other in the name of love. And yes, despite how strange that might sound and despite how unconventionally and unromantically it is depicted on the screen, Loulou is all about love. It’s about love as real people know it, with all its romanticism stripped away, showing it in its raw state, with all the violent emotions and behaviour it can give rise to – possessiveness, jealousy, infidelity, lust – and the physical embodiment and consequences of those characteristics are shown with full, frank and brutal honesty.
In order for that to have the necessary impact, the performances must be realistic and convincing, and it would be hard to imagine a group of actors (apart from Marlène Jobert and Jean Yanne, who had already shown the depth of performance that could be achieved in Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble) willing to push themselves so far into complex and dislikeable characters going through fairly tawdry situations. Huppert would come to be more associated with icy roles in Claude Chabrol’s films, but demonstrates here the ability and willingness to undertake risky and challenging roles that would later lead to films like Jean-Luc Godard’s Slow Motion and Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher. Depardieu, also early in his filmmaking career and in his first film for Pialat (although he was the first choice for the earlier La gueule ouverte), would similarly have his direction moulded as an actor of the Pialat school, appearing subsequently in his films Police (1985), Sous Le Soleil de Satan (1987) and Le Garçu (1995). A team like Huppert and Depardieu in a Pialat film, might sound like a dream combination, but the performance of Guy Marchand should not be underestimated. As the personification of the Pialat character in the film, his role is a thankless and unsympathetic one – a jealous, possessive man, prone to inflicting explosive outbursts of verbal, physical and mental violence on those close to him - yet it is the key role in the film and one whose twisted view of love we must understand if we are to take away anything at all positive from Loulou. It’s a credit to all the actors and the director that this is admirably and powerfully achieved.
Loulou is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. The DVD is encoded for Region 2 and is in PAL format. Like the AE release of Pialat’s Van Gogh, their edition of the feature itself appears to be a port of the excellent restored print of the film released in France by Gaumont and collected as part of a complete edition of the filmmaker’s films, released in two boxset collections. None of the French editions contain English subtitles. Not all the extra features however are transferred from the French edition.
The video transfer of the film is quite impressive, showing extraordinary sharpness, detail and accuracy of tone and colour. There is however a low level of grain and a faint flicker in backgrounds, where compression artefacts can occasionally be detected. Apart from a few white dustspots – literally only one or two over the length of the whole film – the print is in excellent condition. There is scarcely any difference between this transfer and the French Gaumont edition – possibly only a fractional difference in red tones. A comparison is provided below – Artificial Eye first, Gaumont second.
The original soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 and it is fine throughout. Dialogue is clear and there are no significant issues.
Unlike the French edition, which contains no subtitles of any kind, the Artificial Eye release contains English subtitles in a clear white font for the film and for the extra features.
The Artificial Eye release contains a recent Interview with Isabelle Huppert (13:41), where the actress talks about working with Pialat, the difficulties they had on set and how his methods differ from other directors. The Theatrical Trailer (2:26) is the original trailer for the film, which makes very plain what the film is about and the severity of its tone. It’s compelling. The remaining extra features are text based Biographies and selected filmographies for Isabelle Huppert, Gérard Depardieu, and Maurice Pialat.
The Isabelle Huppert interview and the Trailer are also on the French Gaumont edition. Additionally on the French edition, but unsubtitled, are a 1980 Interview with Maurice Pialat (28:07) and a brief Interview with Gérard Depardieu (5:27), both from the French Ciné Regards programme. Both of these features contain some clips of the shooting of Loulou. The French edition also has a recent interview on The Editing of Loulou by Yann Dedet (12:31). None of these features have made it across to the Artificial Eye release.
Maurice Pialat reckoned that the original script for Loulou was one of the best screenplays you would ever see. Adapting such deeply personal and confrontational material to the screen was inevitably going to be extremely difficult and the director never felt he did it justice. Pialat however was always extremely hard on his own films, as he was on his actors, in his striving to capture reality as closely as possible, with an open, instinctive working method. Loulou is a very harsh, unconventional and hard-hitting look at relationships, but with actors like Huppert, Depardieu and Marchand working together with a rigorous, demanding director, the film still has tremendous force, truth and meaning.