About forty minutes into Maurice Pialat’s À nos amours (1983), fifteen-year-old Suzanne arrives home to her Paris apartment after curfew and tiptoes toward the kitchen, catching a glimpse of her dad stirring in the other room. Earlier that evening, he had been so enraged by her sketchy plans for the night, thinly veiled as a trip to the movies, that he’d struck her in the face.
“Stop treating me like some kind of idiot!” he’d said. “Do this again and I’ll strangle you!”
As Suzanne collects herself in the bathroom—removing her makeup and fixing her hair—Roger moves to the front room where he waits, hovering over a worktable. Pialat crosscuts between the spaces, and though they are separated by at least two walls and a hallway, he uses the characters’ furtive glances to connect them.
This kind of shot sequence, which builds suspense by showing the separate whereabouts of this character and then that one, is rare, if not entirely unique, in Pialat’s filmography. His scenes often forego introductory beats altogether, instead throwing the viewer into already-in-progress situations, with lively scenes of blunt, objective action covered by a single camera setup or two. Here, the alternating perspectives work to stir up the feeling of a coming collision.
And then it happens: Suzanne enters the room where Roger pretends to work, walking with a boxer’s swagger and eating a cold piece of ham.
Roger barely looks up. “Want some?” she asks.
What follows is an extraordinary setup for the middle action of À nos amours, a shrapnel-soft portrait of a teenager (Sandrine Bonnaire, in her film debut) whose sexual awakening coincides with her father leaving the home.
This scene, which culminates in Roger’s admission of an affair and his desire to leave, works to draw the characters (and us) into a kind of punch-drunk black hole of late-night intimacy. As Pialat moves from a wide two-shot into a beautiful series of pirouetting over-the-shoulders, the scene begins to take on the dreamy dizziness of love. When it lands with the pair elbowing the table in nothing-but-you close-ups, the effect is astonishing. Suzanne has become literally engulfed by her father. And so have we.
The emotional nuance of Pialat’s camera work—immediately on display here in that slithering, pins-and-needles tracking shot that moves from the sight of Suzanne entering and taking off her look to the room where Roger stirs—often goes largely ignored in favor of his more en vogue genius with performance. He was a master of directing improvisation, and his disdain for traditional performance is apparent in his sometimes unusual methods, as when he kept Roger’s return at the end of À nos amours a secret from the entire cast. But Pialat doesn’t get enough credit as a shot maker. His brand of pugilist naturalism often draws lazy (but understandable) comparison to John Cassavetes, which underlines Pialat’s work with actors while diminishing his specific formal genius. His painterly compositions somehow withstand the unpredictable chaos of his sets while simultaneously revealing the emotional crinoline of his dramas. A lover of the 1890s French artist group les Nabis and their post-impressionistic scenes of domestic togetherness (Bonnard is mentioned several times in À nos amours), he is nothing if not the best tabletop filmmaker this side of Lumière.
That his images are formal and specific and bring with them clear, sophisticated emotional ideas, and that these camera setups somehow remain loose enough to afford his brand of improvisation: this is the root of his genius and what allows each of his masterworks—We Won’t Grow Old Together (1972), The Mouth Agape (1974), Loulou (1980), À nos amours (1983), and Le garçu (1995)—to reach a cinematic language beyond words, a visual grammar that is as unique as the rough edge of a torn photo.
It is precisely this ability to use expressive camera design in contrast with action that feels untouched and accidental that serves as the diving board from which the “story” of À nos amours takes its leap. And because Pialat is playing Roger himself (!), he is able to direct the scene from the inside out, mirroring the waltz of the camera with a sometimes improvised conversation that rolls this way and that, finding little accidental miracles.
For instance: “Where’d the other go?” Roger asks toward the end of the scene, touching Bonnaire’s adorable single dimple.
“It got fed up and left,” she says.
This improvised response, which repeats a phrase her father used when describing his coming departure, is a stop-you-cold, one-in-a-million-takes moment of superstar intelligence.
And then he is gone.
Because this surprising moment of intimacy is made up of these kinds of miraculous unrepeatables, and because the camera has corkscrewed the two of them into overwhelming closeness and drilled us into place between them, the impression of Roger’s goodbye is so strong that we feel his absence like a pulled chair.
While he’s gone—for months or years, it’s difficult to say—the house goes to shit. Suzanne’s mother, discarded and furious, is unable to stomach the stench of her daughter’s burgeoning sexuality while Suzanne’s squealing older brother, with whom she shares a semi-incestuous relationship, becomes a kind of foot soldier to maman. He beats Suzanne for her promiscuity while braying awful things he thinks his dad might say.
The film’s tumbling middle—with its lonely sex and violence—is held taut by its resistance to all mentions of Roger’s desertion, save for its initial announcement and a later revealing line from Suzanne: “When I meet a guy, I think of my father.” Like her, we miss him.
After Roger returns to bring the picture to a close, the pair’s final scene together is made up mostly of callbacks and allusions to that earlier moment at the worktable. This time, however, it is Suzanne who is leaving.
After warmly hugging her father goodbye, Suzanne says, “This is the first time you haven’t pushed me away.”
“No,” Roger says, touching her dimple. “The second.”