The teenage girl on the cusp of sexual awakening is a beloved icon of French cinema. Part child, part femme fatale, innocent and dangerous in equal proportions, these schoolgirl seductresses, born to blossom under the eye of the camera, have exerted a fatal fascination for Pygmalion auteurs who seek to capture and unveil this drama of unfolding. But over the years, as one transfixing newcomer after another, barely out of braces and backpacks, embarks on the vita sexualis, we have to wonder, whose sexuality is it, exactly? Is this the way they see themselves, are these their yearnings, or is this precocious sensuality a projection of the guilty desires and fears of directors old enough to be their fathers? In his 1983 masterpiece, À nos amours, Maurice Pialat confronts this powerful dilemma head-on. The dazzler here is sixteen-year-old Sandrine Bonnaire, in her first film, playing a sultry, dimpled fifteen-year-old whose sexual awakening threatens to blow the lid off her entire family.
Wondering about love, tasting the fruits of forbidden sex, wantonly disobeying rules, yet simultaneously bored and confused, a bit of a slut but a “nice girl” too, Suzanne is a study in teenage volatility and blithe provocation. As she goes through lovers like revolving doors, she is coming into her own as a wildly desirable woman under the eyes—watchful, protective, but with barely concealed yearning—of her father, played by Pialat himself. In an apartment that is also the couple’s fur workshop, the mother, brilliantly played by Evelyne Ker, is torn between loving concern and uncontrollable jealousy, while the no-less-ambivalent brother (Dominique Besnehard) plays his own violent part in the thermonuclear family romance.
Painful, beautiful, and discomfiting, À nos amours remains as startling in its honesty, its unique mix of savagery and delicacy, as it was in 1983. Next to it, most adolescent “rite of passage” films, with their predictable dividing lines and alignments of sympathies, look tame, even reassuring. François Truffaut, who had his own take on the miseries of childhood, and thus was perhaps the closest to Pialat in interests, admired him immensely, but from our vantage point, this late-blooming director was not one of the “new people.” Not just a late starter but a cranky outsider to boot, Pialat was never part of the nouvelle vague, had none of the collegial feelings or movement enthusiasms of a team player. And although he shared a revolutionary aesthetic, and was as adamantly opposed as they were to the tyranny of the “well-made film,” he was more interested in autobiography than genre. In a series of films, made and seen with difficulty, he explored his life and concerns in terms so uncompromising and so deeply felt that, though he was not easy to take in his own time, he has emerged like a prophet of the conflicts that are convulsing today’s families and relationships.
For Pialat, there was no balm: he tells it like it is, gives us life in its awful, wrenching untidiness, which is why mainstream popularity has eluded him, and probably always will. He was a difficult, truculent, even impossible man; his abrasive personality comes through in his films, but behind, and even protected by, the prickliness was an artist ruthless in his determination to capture the truth of the moment. Scenes begin and end abruptly, without explanation or resolution, marked by an absence of those customary dramatic artifices that shape human interaction and tell us how to feel and think. Characters make scenes, confront their most explosive and embarrassing feelings. But Pialat never judges them. Nor does he take sides, with one generation (or sex) against the other. And, perhaps the ultimate tribute, he refuses to “understand” his characters too readily. They don’t “add up” or make psychological “sense” in ways that most audiences have come to expect.
We first meet Suzanne at a summer theater camp, where, after rehearsing a period play about love, she flees the campground with some friends and heads for a boat and the open sea. The camp itself is beautiful, its sun-dappled arbor redolent of French impressionism—reminding us of Pialat’s background as a painter—but it is also, with that tension between entrapment and liberation that is a central theme of Pialat’s films, confining, with rules about swimming and dating that, like the family’s later attempts to ground Suzanne at night, are bound to be broken. Perhaps, Pialat suggests, that’s what being human is—and hence the hovering sadness of all his films—a series of links, tentative communications, relationships, just waiting to be severed.
Once aboard the boat, Suzanne stands at the prow, her back to us, wearing a white sundress that billows around her, turning her into a figurehead as remote and enigmatic as a classical statue. Overseeing her from the upper deck, her brother remarks to fellow oglers on her beauty, her power over men. Thus, right from the start, we see her through a double lens: as the object of male lust (filtered through sibling desire), on the one hand, and wrapped in her own cryptic and impenetrable subjectivity, on the other.
She sneaks out of camp for a sexual romp with her boyfriend, Luc, then abruptly breaks it off. She appears at a party in the port, wearing an off-the-shoulder T-shirt, tan and delectable, her skin, her eyes, her smile, catnip for every sailor at the bar. After losing her virginity to a crass American, she gets her own back by responding to his “thanks a lot” with, “You’re welcome. It’s free.” She tells her roommate she doesn’t quite know why she did it: it was kind of nasty (moche), but she doesn’t regret it. Such contradictions are her way of negotiating the sexual minefield her eroticism provokes, sex becoming the thing that is not attached to love.
Some credit for this exquisite balance between male and female points of view must go to Pialat’s partner and co-scenarist, Arlette Langmann (who also co-wrote Pialat’s 1980 film Loulou), whose own teenage crises furnished material for the story. (Langmann was, in addition, the sister of director Claude Berri, the model for the writer-brother here.) But Pialat has always treated women with a generosity that contains little of either the idealization or the subtle vindictiveness that usually comes with the turf: think of Isabelle Huppert’s complex, sexually slumming heroine in Loulou; or of La gueule ouverte (1973), the commercially doomed movie about a dying woman, based on Pialat’s own mother. In that film, Philippe Léotard plays the Pialat surrogate, implicating the director’s own darkest self in the derelictions of duty and often idiotic behavior of the middle-aged son. Pialat knows that not just women but men, too, are never that far from their animal nature.
In< i>À nos amours, Pialat plays the father as a gruff, sensitive sometime tyrant, a man who is slowly discovering that the little girl he worried over so is no longer the vulnerable child in need of surveillance—if indeed she ever was. In overreaction to her declared intention to go out on a date that will obviously be a sexual encounter, he slaps her, suddenly and hard. But the extraordinary complexity of their relationship, and the fierce tenderness of Pialat’s direction, comes through later the same evening, in the midnight heart-to-heart conversation that is one of the great scenes of the film. Never has a taboo subject been broached with such boldness . . . and such delicacy. In a breathtaking moment of communion, the father worries about Suzanne’s sadness, the loss of her dimple, and they talk gingerly and for the first time about sex, that is, about each other as sexual beings. He clearly feels desire, and just as clearly suppresses it, while she realizes how her longing for him, for his approval, is at the heart of every relationship she forms . . . and just as quickly dissolves. But the understanding, this brief moment of rapport, counts for very little in the dire drama of a family operating entirely on raw emotion and toxic grudges, never on reflection and insight, and determined to wound each other, and keep on wounding.
Hence the Pialat genius at its most disturbing can be seen in the horrifying dinner-party scene near the end of the film, when the now estranged father turns up and provokes the family and their new in-laws into an uproar of bitterness and recrimination. Reportedly, Pialat gave the cast and crew no warning of his intended appearance, and the tension is genuine and palpable. We cringe at the rawness of the emotions, the power of men and women to inflict such intense pain. Educated, intellectual families are not supposed to behave this way, like animals lying in wait, ferreting out each other’s weaknesses, screaming and slashing in public.
Yet Suzanne manages to keep her cool; of the four family members, she has learned how to get what she needs to escape this mutual torture machine: the love and admiration of men. But in needing all men, she needs none in particular, which is why the boyfriends never emerge as vividly as the father and brother. Almost interchangeable, the lovers are seen in profile or in the shade, marginalized, and what we remember more are images of her alone: after breaking up with Luc, she sits on a bench, strands of hair dancing in sunlight. She drifts, she causes trouble, she feels bad, but she never goes under.
In the final scenes of the film, Suzanne takes leave of her father, before heading for San Diego with her latest guy. The separation is cool on the surface, enigmatic. He accuses her of being unable to love, she shrugs it off. He understands, and acknowledges, her personal freedom, her power as a woman independent of him. The cuteness is gone, the dimple temporarily in hiding. Once on the plane, she looks out the window with a kind of numb expectation, neither here nor there, her childhood left behind, a future not yet arrived, a future that is likely to be both a liberation and some new kind of imprisonment. She is as alone in the two-shot—for we are barely aware of her companion—as she was on the prow of the boat, before she “learned” about love. The solitariness is also a form of self-sufficiency, or at least a recognition of the young woman who can never quite escape the pull of the past, who will always be going from her father to a new man, never quite belonging to either.
Molly Haskell, author and critic, was a longtime staff writer for the Village Voice, New York Magazine, and Vogue. She has written for many publications, including the New York Times, Esquire, the Nation, the Guardian, and the New York Review of Books. Her books include From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies and Holding My Own in No Man's Land: Women and Men and Films and Feminists.