Passe ton bac d'abord... Review
The bac of the title is the baccalauréat, the pre-University French examination. It's an important step in many French teenagers' lives. Pass your bac first... However, note the ellipsis on the end of the title. In this film (made in 1979) many of the central characters are cynical about the future having much to offer them, with many people who did pass the bac working in supermarket checkouts. (Not to mention parental comments that the bac isn't as much an achievement as it was in their day. Some things never change.)
Passe ton bac d'abord was shot and takes place in the Northern French town of Lens (in the same region where Pialat made L'enfance-nue a decade earlier), with a mostly non-professional cast improvising much of their dialogue. At first the film seems a free-form ensemble piece, but soon a central character emerges, Elisabeth (Sabine Haudepin, one of the few professional actors). During the film, she moves from casual sex – once caught by her own father in car headlights – to a little more lasting relationship with Philippe (Philippe Marlaud, who went on to star in Eric Rohmer's The Aviator's Wife before dying tragically young at twenty-two in a campsite fire). Philippe seems to have Elisabeth's parents' approval: mother (Annik Alane) offers to try to get him a job, while father (Michel Caron) bonds with him over some DIY.
However, Passe ton bac is not as random as it might appear. As Craig Keller says in his essay in the booklet, it has a musical structure, alternating sections with the various teenaged characters as a group with sections concentrating on Elisabeth. The closing scene, with the philosophy teacher greeting his new intake of pupils (and some retaking the bac), and using many of the same words, mirrors the opening scene and completes a circle. In addition, a key sequence of a wedding party, which binds the community together, but precipitates fallouts between many of them, is positioned at the halfway mark. This isn't a long film, and Pialat leaves out some information other filmmakers might consider vital – for example, one of the characters is pregnant at the end of the film, but who is the father?
Passe ton bac d'aboprd was Pialat's fourth feature, shot on a tiny budget after the box-office disaster of La gueule ouverte. However, by this time Pialat's reputation outstripped his commercial success (only Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble had made money) and, following Nestor Almendros in La gueule ouverte he used another fine DP, Pierre-William Glenn, for Passe ton bac. The budget was so tight that Glenn and his crew stayed in a hostel at 14 francs a night, with a communal shower. Glenn's work doesn't draw undue attention to itself, but it seems just right.
It took until his next film, Loulou before a Pialat film received a UK cinema release. No doubt the presence of two major stars, Isabelle Huppert and Gérard Depardieu (who would make three films with Pialat), helped there. However, someone at the BBC seems to have been ahead of the game: L'enfance-nue, La gueule ouverte and Passe ton bac d;'abord all had single TV screenings, in 1972, 1977 and 1982 respectively. I saw the last of these, which was my first Pialat film, broadcast as one of the Film International seasons BBC2 used to show on a Saturday night. So this DVD marks the film's first UK commercial release. Pialat was a great director, but this isn't to my mind his very best film, though there are still plenty of reasons to see it. And to buy this fifth DVD in Masters of Cinema's Pialat series.
Passe ton bac d'abord is released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema line, and appears on a single disc encoded for all regions.
The DVD transfer is in the original ratio of 1.66:1 and anamorphically enhanced. Like the other MoC Pialats, it's derived from a HD transfer and it shows: colours are solid and there's a lot of shadow detail. There's inevitably some grain, especially in the darker scenes, but I'm in no doubt that's a feature of the original.
The soundtrack is the original mono, and is clear and well-balanced. Optional English subtitles are available for the feature and the extras.
The extras begin with an interview (conducted in 2004) with Pialat's one-time partner and scriptwriter (though not credited on Passe ton bac...) Arlette Langmann and first assistant director Pierre Grandperret (11:03). Both discuss how the film was made at a difficult time in Pialat's life, resulting in a very low budget. Pialat extended his principle of using non-professional actors to the extent of casting his own (then) girlfriend and Sabine Haudepin's (rather older) boyfriend in the film.
Apres le bac (25:39) is a retrospective documentary, made in 2004, where members of the cast and crew revisit Lens and reminisce about the film and their part of it.
The extras on the disc are completed by the theatrical trailer (2:15) and trailers for the other six Pialat films that MoC have released or will release: L'enfance-nue, Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble, La gueule ouverte, A nos amours, Police and Sous le soleil de Satan
The 52-page booklet begins with “The War of Art” by Craig Keller, an insightful essay on the film, its making, and its structure and effect. Also in the booklet are one whole and two extracts from interviews with Pialat, all conducted in 1979 and showing the director in combative form. Also included are his responses to “20 Questions for Filmmakers”, a round-robin feature from Cahiers du cinéma in 1981.