A Nos Amours Review

The following review of A Nos Amours was written by my colleague Gary Couzens in 2006.

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.

The Disc

Masters of Cinema's release of A Nos Amours combines an excellent anamorphic transfer with an interesting selection of extra features which largely duplicate those on the 2006 Criterion release, although it lacks the interviews with Catherine Breillat and Jean-Paul Gorin. Making up for these absences are a comprehensive trailer gallery and a superb booklet.

The 1.66 transfer is an absolute beauty. Anamorphically enhanced, it offers bags of detail and gentle yet vivid colours throughout. No problems with artifacting or excessive grain mean that A Nos Amours looks great here. The mono French soundtrack is also pleasing and accompanied by easy to read English subtitles.

The best of the extras is a 55 minute documentary entitled The Human Eye which concentrates on a detailed exploration of the themes and structure of Pialat's film. Although it contains some interviews with the actors, it's not really a making-of piece and is likely to be of interest to admirers of the film rather than those casually interested in its production.

The interviews with Sandrine Bonnaire and Maurice Pialat are comparatively brief but certainly valuable. Pialat is caught in extracts from a French television programme broadcast in 1983 and he is seen both on the set and in conversation. He comes across as very eloquent and intelligent with an actor's acute awareness of how he is coming across on camera. Bonnaire is radiant, charming and obviously fond of the man who gave her a chance at a star-making role. The video screen tests showcase the actors who were new to filmmaking in 1983 - Bonnaire included.

The package also features trailers for all the feature-length Pialat films included in the Masters of Cinema range. Accompanying the disc is an exceptionally good booklet which has an insightful essay about the film from Dan Sallitt, a graphic piece by Craig Keller and a wonderfully entertaining chat between Pialat and Jean-Luc Godard.

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