Under Satan's Sun Review
Donissan (Gérard Depardieu) is a rural priest suffering religious doubt, which he confides in his dean and mentor, Menou-Segrais (Maurice Pialat).Donissan becomes involved in the case of Mouchette (Sandrine Bonnaire), a young woman who has killed her lover, and he finds his faith comes under fresh assault from temptation.
Based on a novel by Georges Bernanos (1888-1948), Sous le soleil de Satan is one of Pialat's most difficult, uncompromising works. Although it controversially won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1987, its stay in British cinemas the following year was brief, despite the presences in the cast of Dépardieu and Bonnaire, who had between them starred in the three previous Pialat films which had up to then had British cinema distribution (Loulou for him, and her breakthrough performance in A nos amours) and Police for both of them).. However I did manage to see the film towards the end of its run. Back then, and still now, it seems a film completely out of synch with its time, theological debate not always being at home on the big screen. Much of it was visually quite austere and conducted in dialogue scenes at a time when the cinéma du look (Besson, Beineix) seemed to be dominating the French cinema we saw in Britain..
Pialat has never been a visually flamboyant director, but the first impression of this film is one of deliberate restraint: colours are on the whole muted, and while the camera does move it never feels like an end in itself. A style that keeps itself on as tight a rein as Donissan does – he's a man given to self-mortification after all. The style evokes that of Bresson, who also filmed a Bernanos novel (Diary of a Country Priest) and was known for paring down cinema to essentials. But if there's Bresson here, there's Dreyer too, with one key scene evoking the climax of Ordet. Incidentally, while Bresson was a Catholic and Dreyer a Lutheran, Pialat was an atheist.
Sous le soleil de Satan is a film that needs to be taken on its own terms, but once you've done that the film becomes compelling. The encounters between Donissan and Mouchette are superbly acted by the Dépardieu and Bonnaire, and a later scene where Donissan is approached on the road by a man who might be the Devil is very striking.
This film continued a move away from the personal – though not necessarily autobiograhical – material of his earlier films to a Pialatian take on certain genres: the police drama in Police via this religious drama to the artist's biopic of Van Gogh, his final film. Along with the simultaneously-released A nos amours, Sous le soleil de Satan completes Masters of Cinema's releases of seven of Pialat's films. Loulou and Van Gogh are in Artificial Eye's catalogue. Yet there still remain Pialat's last film (Le garçu from 1995, his fourth collaboration with Depardieu) and his 1971 TV series La maison des bois, neither of which have had British distribution up to now. Let's hope some enterprising distributor can release them in the UK.
Sous le soleil de Satan is number 78 in the Masters of Cinema series. It is released as two DVD-9 discs, encoded for all regions.
The film is transferred to DVD in its original ratio of 1.66:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. The transfer copes well with some quite darkly-lit scenes, not to mention a key sequence in bluish early-morning light. Grain is present, but it's natural and filmlike. (There has been some speculation that the scene where Donissan is approached on the road by the Devil is brighter than it was theatrically, but I can't comment as I don't remember my one theatrical viewing of this film well enough.)
Police was Pialat's first film with a Dolby soundtrack, though it was really plain mono with Dolby noise reduction. For Sous le soleil de Satan, he returned to non-Dolbyised mono, which given the austerity of the film's style and approach I've referred to above, seems entirely more appropriate than a multi-channel showcase for the sound editor. The film is very much dialogue-driven anyway. English subtitles are optional.
Also on Disc One are the theatrical trailer (3:24) and the trailers for the six other Pialat films released by Masters of Cinema: L'enfance-nue, Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble, La gueule ouverte, Passe ton bac d'abord..., A nos amours and Police. However, there also is an interview with Dépardieu (11:00), shot in April 2003, three months after Pialat's death. Interviewed by Serge Toubiana in what looks like a hotel room, Dépardieu talks warmly about someone he clearly misses terribly.
On to Disc Two. One of the many values of Masters of Cinema's Pialat series is their making available the director's short films, two of which are included here. Isabelle aux Dombes (8:32) was made in 1951 and is believed to be Pialat's first film. It's a short, silent, black and white piece which displays some visual experimentation (sequences in negative) which Pialat later expunged from his style. Congrès Eucharistique Diocésan (7:59), also black and white and silent, was made in 1953 and was a record of the event of the title taking place in Clermont-Ferrand. There's an authoring glitch on the checkdisc I was sent to review which may or may not be in the retail version: the menu link for Isabelle takes you to Congrès and vice versa. Both films show a little damage, but nothing too distracting.
The next two items are from French television and take us to the 1987 Cannes Festival, where Sous le soleil de Satan won the Palme d'Or. To a chorus of boos, Pialat raised his fist and said, “If you don't like me...well I don't like you either.” “Palmères de Cannes” (6:53) was shot immediately afterwards, with reactions from Pialat, Dépardieu, Best Actor winner Marcello Mastrioanni and head of jury Yves Montand. Earlier in the week, straight after the film's premiere screening, there was a press conference (12:39) which featured Pialat, Dépardieu, Bonnaire, producer Daniel Toscan du Plantier, screenwriter Sylvie Danton and DP Willy Kurant.
A more in-depth piece is “De Bernanos à Pialat...” (54:03), made in 1987 for the French television programme Océanique, discussing the work of Bernanos and the recently-released film. It begins with Pialat receiving the Palme d'Or. He is also interviewed, along with Catholic writer André Frossard.
“On the Set of Sous le soleil de Satan” (13:56) is some behind-the-scenes video footage, showing Pialat at work with his actors in rehearsals, shooting and looping of dialogue.
Finally, “Excised Scenes and Alternative Versions” is exactly what it says. However, it's a step up from the usual collection of deleted scenes in that they are interspersed with video footage of editor Yann Dedet, Sylvie Pialat (formerly Danton, the film's co-writer) and apprentice editor Cédric Kahn, himself now a director, discussing them, which is much more enlightening.
The 28-page booklet begins with “From Moment to Moment”, an essay by Gabe Klinger making a close analysis of one scene, Mouchette's opening scene with her lover, a piece which gives us much insight into the director's filmmaking methods. “Maurice Pialat: A Reflection in Motion” is an extracts from a 1987 interview with Michèle Halberstadt where he discusses Sous le soleil de Satan. Next up, Sandrine Bonnaire (interviewed in 2003 by Olivier Joyard) talks about her work with Pialat. It's clear she has a lot of respect for him, though he could be a hard taskmaster. The booklet also includes cast and credits for the feature and the two short films, plus transfer notes and DVD credits.