I, Pierre Riviere... Review

On June 3rd 1835, Pierre Riviere, a native of La Faucterie in Normandy, took a billhook to his mother, his sister and his brother. Having killed them, he left the village to live in the woods. Upon being captured, he wrote a lengthy statement explaining his crime. A remarkably literate work, this statement was published as a pamphlet for popular consumption. In 1973, the philosopher Michel Foucault edited a collection of contemporary sources from the case, including Pierre’s statement. Foucault and his colleagues were astonished by both the completeness of the documentation – unusual for a 140 year old case – and fascinated by how one single event could produce so many different discourses

This book, which became an international success, is the basis of Rene Allio’s film, I, Pierre Riviere, Having Slaughtered My Mother, My Sister and My Brother. A great admirer of Foucault’s work, Allio wished to honour it. But he also wished to make a film about the peasant experience of the time and give voice to a subjugated class – Riviere’s statement, containing much social context, is that voice and his story is a tragedy not only of a family but also of a people governed by hunger and poverty. Essentially, this is a film about an act which took place many years before but which is somehow still reverberating within the area and the people. Allio’s film is not only made on the same locations where the crime was committed but instead of actors, uses the people of the area, many of whom were descended from the people they play in the film. They play out their own family stories and the result is emotionally overwhelming – a commemoration and, in some way, a celebration of a people.

Rene Allio’s decision to use non-actors to play the characters has mixed results. On the one hand, the film gains in authenticity – the farmers actually look like farmers and, as noted in the accompanying making-of documentary, they use their various tools correctly and convincingly. However, the downside is that the lack of expertise in movement, both facial and bodily, means that the film sometimes looks a bit like an amateur pageant at a village fete with people unconvincingly acting out the words of the storyteller. There are two major triumphs in the acting stakes though. Emilie Lihou as the grandmother has one of those peasant faces which is far more eloquent than words could ever be and her protestations that God has abandoned her are entirely believable. More significantly, Claude Hebert is unforgettable as Pierre, facing us with an endlessly ambivalent stare which challenges us to understand and believe. It should be said, moreover, that however stiff and amateurish the cast might sometimes be, you always feel they are being totally emotionally honest and giving to the camera with complete selflessness.

This emotional honesty is what motors the film and makes it compelling. We want to know what happens next. Much of the narrative is a straightforward dramatisation of Pierre’s statement and his story is a rich family saga. Pierre’s justification for his actions was that he wished to protect his father’s reputation from the depredations of his mother and the sister and brother who sided with her. The story of his parents is a sad one – a loveless marriage bound together by social convention and the vagaries of the legal system. His father works himself to the bone while his mother, refusing to co-habit, runs up vast debts which must be paid. She deliberately humiliates her husband and lies to the locals about his cruel treatment of her. This is all good melodramatic stuff with the atmosphere of a Brueghel painting. But it’s also a fascinating slice of social history – the peasants are trapped in a lifestyle revolving almost entirely around poverty and wondering where the next meal is coming from. Their lives are governed by the land and their only contact with the outside world is through the whims of magistrates and local dignitaries. Allio’s film, beautifully shot on 16MM by Nurit Aviv, seems to take us right inside this world in much the same way that films by the Taviani Brothers do.

The film is slow moving, particularly at the beginning, and the occasional awkwardness of the staging in the early parts may make some viewers impatient. But it acquires a cumulative power and, largely through Claude Hebert’s performance, becomes hard to forget. There is a refusal to label Pierre as one thing or another. Was he a psychopath? Mentally alienated? A religious maniac? Perhaps he was just a misogynist who hated seeing women gain the upper hand. The film flirts with all these explanations – through a variety of other voices - but never comes down on one side or the other and the explanations given by the scientists are curiously unsatisfying, as if one man’s mind defies simple analysis. The ending, even though it is unsurprising, is genuinely moving and the complexity of the film means that it stays with you – haunting, provoking – long after the final credits.

The Disc

I think it’s fair to say that Rene Allio’s film has been very little seen in the UK prior to this DVD release and were it not for the documentary Back To Normandy, it may well have remained in undeserved obscurity. Tartan are to be congratulated for releasing it alongside its more recent cousin.

The film is presented at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and has been anamorphically enhanced. Originally made in 16MM and blown up to 35MM for cinema showings, it shows both its age and the limitations of the source. There is an awful lot of grain throughout and there is evident colour bleeding, particularly during the interior sequences. Print damage is also much in evidence. However, particularly given the fact that the film has been so difficult to see, the flaws do not unduly mar the viewing experience. The mono French soundtrack, accompanied by optional English subtitles, is generally very good. It only occurred to me at the end that there was no music score – the ‘music’ of the film is that of nature and rural labour.

The only extra feature is a 25 minute making-of documentary which largely concentrates on how Allio dealt with his cast of non-actors. This is interesting but more so when seen in conjunction with Back To Normandy which is a look back on the making of the film from a 2007 perspective.

I Pierre Riviere is a fascinating and unique film and one feels privileged to see something which is so unusual and so rarely seen. Despite the flaws of Tartan’s DVD, definitely a film worth seeing.

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