domingo, 2 de julho de 2006


Pialat: "All modesty aside, L'Enfance nue (69) was done under Lumière's influence. As I was shooting L'Enfance nue I was thinking Baby Has a Snack." It's right there with the first shot, a union march through the streets of a mining town. It takes its time. No rushing through it. No hunger to reach a drama within the scene, to tag it to someone or something. But there's some meticulous carbon dating taking place (the clothes, the style they confer and how much it s-p-e-l-l-s 1969). The first shot turns sequence. We understand very fast that the set up we enter is not going to be hijacked by the constraints of plot. Whatever it is, it is going to follow its own groove, bang out its own tempo. No drama to reach for or, to be more precise, life as drama. The setup as drama. Thank you, Mr. Lumière. A footnote: Lumière filmed his workers coming out of the factory. Pialat looks at them almost a century later, parading down Main Street, a little older, with less spring in their step, more ghosts of struggles past. At any rate, L'Enfance nue speaks of class, as in "working."

The first shot again, but the soundtrack this time. Mixed in the collective brouhaha of the union march (and at a level that fluctuates between prominent and receding/barely audible) are the voices of an older couple and two young boys. An intimate story. The two older voices: it's about love, and children, and adoption. The two younger voices: it's about questions. What we don't know yet is that later on, more than halfway through the film, we will be witness to this conversation. The two boys seated across from the old couple in a kitchen, the woman, smiling, seated on the man's lap; the boys smiling, too, across the table; the whole room filled with patches of yellow and blue, falling somewhere between Courbet and Cézanne. Yes, never forget that Pialat started as a painter. But to go back to the soundtrack, the intimacy of a couple's story weaved sonically in and out of the collective noise of the march. Two things to say about that: the word "class" yet again (in France voice is class), but also the word "maneuver." A tension between the collective and the personal, the unease of not quite getting it as we fail to decipher the words. What's important here is Pialat's choice to work the material. Yes, the Lumière moment of the union march, but Pialat's will to not leave it at that. And the way he proceeds by tagging the image with the intimacy of this voiceover, with a story, a sound as inchoate, as rambling, as the march itself. This folding of life onto life. Lumière on the soundtrack, too. Pialat as a painter who never forgets to be a filmmaker, who never forgets to work out the material beyond itself so to speak, to get some aesthetic surplus value out of it. Not too different from Godard in that respect, but achieving it by opposite means. Where Godard wrenches out, Pialat stirs in. Godard hits and runs or steals. Pialat accumulates and saturates. A footnote: Pialat claimed Lumière as a father, but who could he claim as a son? Another great saturator like Belá Tarr in Satantango?

Let's stay in this kitchen for a while. On the wall, there's this swat of yellow, aggressive enough to make the retina squirm (if not "scream," as Pialat would have it). But that's the least of it. It's patterns all around. On the old woman's kitchen frock, on the tablecloth, on the curtains. And it's the same baroque accumulation in every room we'll visit. The minimal simplicity of this working-class home, where the drama of the foster child, Francois, is at loggerheads with the visual complexity of the patterns that fill and mold the space. A simple story, simply told and awkwardly played, in an amazingly, almost maddeningly, texturally busy space. What is Pialat doing? There is, of course, the anthropologist at work. A monograph on working-class taste, with its "and · and · and" fractured aesthetic (a "this pattern plus this pattern" accumulation where each element is savored for itself and vies for its own and where the whole and its aesthetics never operate by blending). But more important, there is someone who wants the retina to work anew every time. The film is entirely in this directorial gesture that forces the eye into a constant deciphering of patterns and thus imbues the space with a constant unfamiliarity. A Pialat scene in L'Enfance nue always puts the viewer through the same paces: we enter a space that is so texturally busy that it gains a surreal foreignness; we are given time to get familiar with it (the fact that life is the drama and that the scenes drone at the pace of life is a condition of this gift of time); and then we move again. We are made to experience what is at the core of the foster child's life: unfamiliarity/deciphering/displacement/unfamiliarity again. For Pialat, visual strategy derives from and contributes to drama. The pleasure of Pialat's film is, among other things, to see a director who never falls prey to the decorative, to see someone for whom visual strategy never collapses into the mournfulness of eye candy. A footnote: The radical difference between 400 Blows and L'Enfance nue? We are looking at Truffaut's imp. But we are seeing through the eyes of Pialat's.

Let's stay with the footnote for a moment. Because we are looking at the world as François does, we have little time to spoon too much saccharine onto him. L'Enfance nue is astonishingly devoid of sentimentality. We are with François in the world and just as eccentric to it as he is (in effect, the character spends more of his film life at the edge of the screen than at its center). Thus the fact that the pathos of Pialat's film is all the zig and the zag of disconnection and thwarted emotions. It has at its core an instability, a muted, latent violence, a skittish oscillation between love and emotional flight. And because we visually experience the world as François does, the only familiarity we gain is a familiarity with the fits of violence that punctuate his life. Pialat's problem is to get us there, not to provide judgment about it. To give us the normality of it and the nakedness of François's response. To throw light on a life molded by institutional fiat. The film gains its poignancy by eschewing all the trite and true paths to poignancy. Footnote: If Lumière enters the psychological realm, do we call him D.W. Griffith?

The kitchen scene, yet again. The old couple and the two boys. Nobody has been sent over by central casting. The nonpro, the amateur is, welcome here, in all his or her sumptuous awkwardness. The only rule seems to be authenticity. The shapes and looks of bodies and faces, the accents and tones are perfect on both sides of the age divide. And, yes, yet again, a strong sense of class fuses the whole thing together. But what's most interesting is the way Pialat makes it function, working off the awkwardness of these bodies and the unsettled delivery of these voices. The space he creates is a space where documentary and fiction mingle. And one gets a strong sense of how we got there. This old couple was listened to, patiently and carefully. And then they were asked gently to go through it again for the camera. And a setup was offered to anchor the scene: the woman sitting on the man's lap with the boys across the table. A spatial fictionalization of a documentary moment. And the scene will hit the right note with its very precarious staginess. There is with Pialat the sense that things are always cooked to order, that the scene is the result of some words just pronounced in front of the director, some gestures made just a day or so ago that have been collated in a visual setup of disarming simplicity. And it is in this simple setup that the transmutation of the real into the fictional happens, the subject turning actor of his or her own life (or some elements of it) onscreen. Thus this very peculiar feel of a Pialat scene, almost like watching a butterfly unfolding out of the chrysalis. One gets the sense that things have been rehearsed but rehearsed just enough not to get stale. Or more adequately said, that the director is intimately persuaded that it would be ridiculous to ask this old couple or these boys to "fall into character." It's simply (and here's where the heavy lifting comes in) a matter of providing adequate framing to flows of emotions all the more intense that they are not mimicked, that they are delivered by awkward gestures and voices that feel so completely authentic for always sounding as if they stood an inch to the left or the right of their own emotion. In L'Enfance nue, because nothing is strictly said and the ill fit between emotions and their expression is constantly explored, the body plays as crucial a role as in any Cassavetes film. Another footnote: A man who explores the potential of the amateur with such zeal and pleasure in his first film can only become addicted to it. It could not but make for stormy relationships with the pros he encountered later in life. Pialat's shoots were famous for their tension and the epic tussles he got into with his stars. He did well by them and managed to give them back some rough edges. A third footnote (thrown in as a contemporary signpost): Mystic River as cultivating an antithetical politics of acting.

Insist on the fact that poignancy is achieved and taken away in the same gesture. In Pialat's film, one doesn't rush onto the beach to see the sea à la 400 Blows, one is a voiceover that writes from the reformatory to a couple of aging foster parents. A perennial in-betweener hoping to be freed by Christmas. There is a ferocious cinematographic intelligence behind the conclusive inconclusiveness of L'Enfance nue, its refusal to submit to the pathetic of the fictional, and its incessant oscillation between fiction and documentary. An intelligence that likes to articulate drama more than it cares to illustrate it, and one that revels in triangulating its subject matter to do so. To talk about Pialat's realism, as some are fond to do, is only half of it. What's important is how much maneuvering gets into it, how Pialat circles around the material and multiplies the angles of attack. That's where its currency and its modernity lie.

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