A Nos Amours Review

Paris. Fifteen-year-old Suzanne (Sandrine Bonnaire) embarks on a series of sexual encounters that threatens to split her already dysfunctional family apart.

Maurice Pialat began his career as a painter and was a late starter as a film-maker, his first feature L’enfance nue appearing in 1968 when he was forty-three. As a director, for most of his career his films were very much in a realist mode, with character taking precedence over plot. In fact, certain elements of the plot of A Nos Amours are simply elided, as less important than the illumination of character. He had a particular affinity with teenagers: his 1979 film Passe ton bac d’abord (which has had no British release to date, but I caught a TV screening in the early 80s) showed a group of youngsters on the brink of adulthood. Four years later, A Nos Amours (To Our Loves) narrows the focus onto one teenager, namely Suzanne. Her emerging sexuality impacts on the rest of her family. Perhaps she is seeking a replacement for her father (played by Pialat himself) in the young men she sleeps with. Her mother (Evelyne Ker) alternates between concern and jealousy. And Suzanne’s violent brother Robert (Dominique Besnehard) has his own issues, which border on the incestuous.

This subject matter could be – and many times has been – the material for the tackiest of exploitation fare. The result isn’t that, for three main reasons. Firstly, the screenplay by Arlette Langmann (Pialat’s partner in life as well as in writing) is sensitive to Suzanne’s issues with her sexuality, that what she seeks from her partners is by no means what they seek from her – and the mismatch frequently hurts. Pialat’s films are often very raw, and the family arguments filmed here are some of the most convincing – and brutal – ever filmed. Pialat was a confrontational director, keen to show audiences the unvarnished truth, warts and all – and there are plenty of warts on display. Finally, the film would be nothing without a star-making performance from Sandrine Bonnaire. In her first film (not counting a couple of appearances as an extra), aged only sixteen, she gives a phenomenal performance, which jumpstarted a distinguished career which continues to this day. The other three leads give fine performances, but it’s Bonnaire’s film.

Two minor elements in the film add interest, if only in retrospect. At one point, Suzanne’s father refers to Van Gogh – whose story Pialat made into a film eight years later. Secondly, acting as assistant director and playing the role of Jean-Pierre is the late Cyril Collard, who made his own striking Pialat-influenced film Les nuits fauves (Savage Nights) in 1992, before dying from AIDS the following year at age 35. (And where is the DVD of that film?)

A Nos Amours isn’t comfortable viewing, and anyone watching it in search of titillation is likely to be disappointed. In retrospect, although it introduced a major actress to French cinema, it seems an ending film rather than an beginning one. After this film, Pialat moved away from strict semi-autobiographical realism, instead incorporating his methods and concerns into stories with more obviously generic structure: a police story with Police, a religious drama with the Cannes winner Sous le soleil de Satan and a historical biopic Van Gogh. (I haven’t seen Pialat’s final film, Le Garçu.) Even so, it’s one of the director’s key works and this DVD release from Criterion will be invaluable for the director’s admirers.

Criterion’s DVD is a two-discer, encoded for Region 1 only. The DVD transfer is anamorphically enhanced, windowboxed to preserve the aspect ratio of 1.66:1. The transfer copes superbly with Jacques Loiseleux’s natural-light camerawork. Colours, especially skin tones look very natural, and although surface prettiness was the last thing Pialat and Loiseleux were aiming for, they have a fine eye for the quality of light. There’s certainly some grain present, but it’s to be expected and not unpleasing.

The soundtrack is the original French-language mono, and there’s nothing wrong with it: dialogue and ambient sounds are well balanced. The only non-diegetic music in the film is the late Klaus Nomi’s falsetto rendition of Henry Purcell’s aria “Cold Song” from the opera King Arthur and it sends shivers down the spine, over both sets of credits.

Subtitles are optional. There are twenty-two chapter stops, the last being Criterion’s trademark colour bars.

The only extra on Disc 1 is the trailer, which is non-anamorphic 1.66:1 and runs 1:25. The remaining extras are all on the second disc, which begins with The Human Eye. This 1999 film, directed by Xavier Giannoli, is unusual in that it’s a study and analysis of – not just a making-of – another film, which at that time was sixteen years old. It examines the film’s structure and themes with reference to particular scenes. Interviewees include Bonnaire and Besnehard, plus Arlette Langmann and critic Jean-Michel Frodon. Conspicuously absent is Pialat himself, who was alive at the time. (He died in 2003.) The Human Eye is presented in 1.33:1 and runs 55:10, divided into nine chapters selectable from an index.

However, Pialat does make an appearance in the next item, “Maurice Pialat on Set” (11:45). This is an extract from a French television programme, Etoiles et toiles, and features an interview with the director along with footage of him on the set of A Nos Amours. Pialat discusses his approach to directing and cinematography, to give space to the actors. Loiseleux’s camera had to follow them wherever they went…into the lights if needs be. This item comes from a video source which is not best quality (skin tones verge on purple) but watchable enough.

Three more recent interviews follow, beginning with Sandrine Bonnaire (17:12), who discusses how she came to make the film – she attended a screen test with a friend and got the part herself. She discusses her relationship with Pialat, for whom she also acted in Sous le soleil de Satan. Catherine Breillat also worked for Pialat, writing the screenplay for Police, and his influence is noticeable in her own, often controversial explorations of female sexuality. In her interview (10:51) she talks about Pialat’s working methods and his often confrontational personality, his anger often being directed at himself for his films not living up to his own high standards. Finally, we have Jean-Paul Gorin (11:54), a filmmaker and academic. Gorin, speaking in English, talks about Pialat’s place in French cinema, in a realist tradition also exemplified (rather more sentimentally) by Truffaut, who was a great admirer of Pialat. Another big influence – in his emphasis on psychological realism over plot or genre – was an American, John Cassavetes.

Finally, there are a selection of screen tests Pialat shot on video at the time, with the mainly non-professional or first-time actors in the cast: Dominique Besnehard, Cyr Boitard, Sandrine Bonnaire (on her own and with Pialat), Cyril Collard and Pierre-Loup Rajot. These are each selectable from a menu, or you can play all (total 20:41).

Also included in the set is a 36-page booklet, which along with cast and credits for the film and DVD credits and chapter list, contains some worthwhile text items: essays “The Ties That Wound” by Molly Haskell (new) and “Lightning in a Bottle” by Kent Jones (from the May/June 2004 issue of Film Comment) plus interviews with Pialat and Jacques Loiseleux (both from the November 1983 issue of the French magazine Cinématographe).

Whether or not you consider A nos amours a high-water mark in 80s French cinema, it’s still a key film from a major director, and pretty much everything you need to know about it is included in this exemplary Criterion release.

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