No filmmaker could better navigate the minefield of raw, unfettered neurosis than Maurice Pialat. Indeed, few would prove as willing to dissect and examine the maladies of the mind (let alone the ailments of the heart) in so thorough a manner – and thus, it should come as no surprise to discover that À nos amours, his choleric contribution to the otherwise asinine plethora of 1980s teen-flicks, swims doggedly within the treacherous straits between love and hate. The director’s razor-sharp incisions into the socially-venerated ideal of the nuclear family unleash a myriad of fusillades that together encompass the entire gamut of emotional turmoil: ennui, melancholia and psychosis coexist in a cluttered asylum where happiness – even the illusion of happiness – is reduced to prehistoric myth. All the while, he nourishes the increasing sexual awareness of his teenage heroine, Suzanne; the character’s hormonal impulses prompting violent palpitations of feeling that tear apart her family’s fragile veneer of bourgeois respectability. Naturally, the director acknowledges our first act of intercourse as a (the) fundamental rite of passage in the grand scheme of life, but rather than viewing it as a pivotal junction in our ongoing maturation, he interprets it as a fallacious ticket into adulthood – a world in which the afflictions of youth are not cured, but instead exacerbated by new-found nuisances (norms, expectations and responsibilities) within an increasingly apathetic society. Innocence accordingly finds itself sacrificed in pursuit of a paradise that’s forever lost (if, that is, it even existed in the first place).
À nos amours‘ divergence from the conventional mould of teen dramas is instantaneously apparent, though Pialat’s scrupulous attention to detail nonetheless confounds the issue. The film’s opening sequence meets Suzanne in mid-rehearsal for a performance of Musset’s On ne badine pas avec l’amour – a play where young, would-be lovers indulge in the duplicitous mind games of their elders with dire consequences; a play in which the transition to maturity is marked with both grief and sorrow, but also a recognition of life’s inherent value. Inevitably, Pialat draws inspiration from these themes, using the literary past to illustrate his intent: young people aren’t stupid, and tumultuous emotions transcend both age and the ages. He subsequently manipulates Musset’s text to evoke the rich history of dramatising youth and its follies (“We might be children, but we are not here to play!”), and in doing so embeds his work within a tradition that stands in marked contrast to popular, contemporaneous treatments of adolescence. Therefore, it’s no coincidence when, soon after the production is complete, Suzanne surrenders her virginity to an American tourist who appears amiable on the surface (and willing to espouse liberal values) but who’s ultimately exposed as distant, exploitative and utterly disposable. Hollywood – specifically, its copious contributions to consumer culture – plays its own discreetly malevolent part in the chaos that follows.
Of course, Pialat’s cinematic freak-show is anything but disposable – it’s a morbidly edifying panacea; a cathartic pilgrimage to disaster and beyond. Suzanne’s sexual awakening rebounds upon her family, instigating a summer of malcontent in which the carnal, the feral and the dysfunctional form a regressive triumvirate that pulverises an already precarious domicile. The director lurches head-first into this middle-class purgatory, masochistically inciting the paroxysms that paralyse its hostages (masochistic for he casts himself as the indomitable patriarch of the forever-feuding clan). À nos amours‘ familial breakdown is as excruciating as it is entrancing; a circuitous dance of anguish performed with relish by its lugubrious participants: an absent father, exasperated with the mundane; an everpresent mother, incapacitated with hysteria; an incompetent brother, predisposed to physical violence; all of them, frozen into solipsistic stupors and awash with the stench of their decaying hearts. Theirs is a union ruled by mutual resentment, where relationships are strained until they create fissures that discharge volcanic outbursts of barely-repressed hate – a loathing whose fervour proves so great that its architects are compelled into the silence of self-pity and despair following its eruption. (Lather, rinse, repeat.)
Within this menagerie of malfunctioning adults, Suzanne finds her adolescent angst recast as the film’s most rational sentiment by default – though her troubles are perhaps all the more difficult to surmount as a result of her age and gender. Caught in the eternal conflict between tradition (family) and modernity (friends, lovers), our heroine finds herself stripped of any bargaining power within the free market of moral perceptions. Thus, her only escape from her home-as-Hell is to choose marriage – an option that she’s evidently ill-prepared for, and which itself leads only to a different kind of imprisonment. Examining these events from a distance, the director concludes that our formative years extend well beyond puberty, whilst recognising that Suzanne’s emotional detachment is a product of her tormented environment. So when, during a midnight confession session, he (as her father) states: “You don’t smile much anymore,” hints of guilt flicker across his weary visage – he knows all too clearly why this would be the case. In a moment of stark, naked clarity, the film’s central dilemma is laid bare before our eyes: its characters are aware of the extents to which they wound and scar one another, and yet they persist in doing so, as if helplessly shackled to their own reprehensibility.
This psychological bloodbath is recorded with Pialat’s typical, refreshing candour. Though it deliberately avoids ostentations in style (rendered unnecessary by his emotional content), À nos amours remains incompatible with its presumed siblings in the school of cinematic realism. The director strives for an experience more authentic than such outdated templates can offer, and so he interpolates a series of invisible affectations that disturb our relations with his narrative. Central to this approach is the elliptical editing which forms the backbone of his oeuvre; ruptures of time into which his camera seeks out the intricacies of the human condition. It’s a method that esteems sentiment over story, exposing life in all its disordered glory: characters appear and disappear without explication, scenes begin halfway and end without resolution, and the contradictions intrinsic to the everyday experience are accentuated to the point of wicked irony. Moreover, key events find themselves excised completely – for a film where sex is so frequently alluded to, functioning as both a catalyst and (fugacious) remedy for Suzanne’s abjection, its absence on-screen proves egregious; Pialat opting to invoke another of his trademarks, the reaction shot, to esteem emotional aftermaths over the physical acts themselves. Embracing the insignificant minutiae of our most prosaic tendencies alongside the outrageous excesses of our most animalistic, the director’s fragmentary temporalism strives to replicate his characters’ collective malaise in all its dishevelled breadth. Few films can claim to so hypnotically encapsulate the sensation of being both dead and alive.
Pialat has a tendency to orchestrate crescendos in his narrative, only to then abandon his ascents prior to their respective apogees, cutting swiftly to another scene entirely. It’s a tactic that yields a dense collage of brawling, multi-layered sentiments that shape his characters’ behaviours whilst handcuffing his film with the perpetual threat of catastrophe. That catastrophe arrives late into the drama, in a centrepiece that notably deviates from this strategy. After successfully integrating something that resembles a stream-of-consciousness device into the cinema, he decides to grind time to a painful halt. His story’s patriarch – who spends the vast midsection of the film off-screen, having departed his merry nest for unspecified reasons – makes a climactic return at an alcohol-fuelled family dinner, casually spewing intellectual bile at all those present in the room. In these painful few minutes, he calmly articulates the many, many failings of both his family and himself, before quoting the dying Van Gogh in an act of deliciously subdued melodrama that honours the film’s sternest belief: “There’ll always be sadness.” Pialat the actor excels in these chastening moments, but it’s Pialat the director who soars. Upon nurturing one of his crescendos to its apex at long last, his ruthless quest to discern the roots of despair finally crystallises into a misanthropic apotheosis. Having plundered the fields of sadness ad nauseam, he now concludes that despair is all that there is – and thus, it follows that this must be the fundamental building block of life. The director’s love for his characters – particularly the precocious Suzanne, whose exit at film’s end offers the slightest glimpse of hope in an ocean of resignation – is pure not in spite of this chronic frailty, but rather, because of it. Pain is triumphant, turning hate into love and love into hate, yet what astonishes with the richly nocuous experience of À nos amours is how it moulds this belief into a double negative: for is despair is all there is, then, Pialat argues, why not celebrate it? Why not toast it? Or better yet, why not live it? After all, it’s all that we’ve got.