Saturday, October 3, 2015


On the occasion of the Museum of the Moving Image's retrospective of the films of Maurice Pialat from October 16 to November 1, the UK home video distributor Masters of Cinema has granted permission for me to post essays originally written for the DVD booklets of MoC's Pialat releases.  This 2008 essay on Pialat's 1983 film Police (screening Sunday, October 18 at 4 pm) takes a particular interest in the contributions of screenwriter Catherine Breillat.

Police was an eccentric project for Maurice Pialat, and, despite its commercial success, many critics continue to regard it as one of his lesser efforts. At the time of its release in 1985, Pialat was coming off of the critical acclaim of 1983’s À nos amours, which had shared the Best Picture César and won the Prix Louis Delluc. Pialat’s previous film, 1980’s Loulou, had not only been well regarded, but had also seen wider international distribution than Pialat was accustomed to, thanks to its provocative subject matter and the celebrity of Gérard Depardieu and Isabelle Huppert. By contrast, Police’s title and subject matter introduce it as a polar, a genre exercise; and then the film pointedly refuses to fulfill genre expectations, without abandoning its genre trappings.

À nos amours, Loulou and 1979’s Passe ton bac d’abord were based on material from the life of Arlette Langmann, Pialat’s frequent editor, sometimes scenarist, and former lover. Before that, Pialat had worked from autobiographical material in films such as 1972’s Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble and 1974’s La Gueule ouverte. It’s striking that Pialat seems no more or less invested in the events of Langmann’s life than in his own stories. One suspects that Pialat’s frequent resort to biography and autobiography did not stem from a need to recount personal history. Rather, Pialat appeared to have a deep distrust for fiction, even fiction that he himself generated. Working from real life, his own or someone else’s, put him in touch with the arbitrary and accidental qualities that he needed to convince himself that he was not trafficking in falsehoods.

But Police was an effort to create a more marketable project, under the sponsorship of Gaumont. And its material was generated by Catherine Breillat, who was originally hired to adapt a detective novel that was discarded, and then threw herself into detailed research of the Tunisian drug underworld. Breillat, one of the few filmmakers of the era whose work does not suffer in comparison with Pialat’s, has a solo credit for the original story, but splits her script credit with Sylvie Danton, Jacques Fieschi, and Pialat. (Breillat later sued for sole credit, saying in interviews that the other writers contributed “commas.” Frederic Bonnaud, on the other hand, claims that Breillat essentially wrote the film’s first half, and that the other writers based the second half on material from Pialat’s life.) In any case, the script feels like Breillat’s work: not only in the freedom with which sympathetic characters dip into unsympathetic behavior and vice versa, but also in the way that the central love story is pitched on an existential level that is given more weight than practical and social considerations. What delights me about Police is how much play Breillat’s world view gives to Pialat’s style: how the disjunctions and paradoxes of the characters’ behavior provides Pialat with something approximating the fissures and gaps that he searches for when trolling through the raw data of his and his collaborators’ lives.

The first scene of Police, in which Detective Mangin (Depardieu) interrogates the small-time gangster Laouti (Meaachou Bentahar) is unremarkable. (It would be unlike Pialat to begin a film with a remarkable scene – in fact, one senses that he harbored the unattainable goal of making every scene unremarkable in itself.) Nonetheless, many of Pialat’s characteristics are expressed, inobtrusively, in the opening moments.

  • The first shot, a medium closeup of a seated Laouti, contains no dialogue for several seconds. And yet there is nothing about the shot that invites contemplation or benefits from the stillness: little is established, little context is available. The film’s rhythm starts with a stutter: it’s as if Pialat chooses to cut in at a lacuna in the conversation.
  • The second shot is a reverse shot of a seated Mangin. The cut is intentionally jagged, after the unproductive stasis of the first shot. Mangin slams his fist on the desk; the action occurs too close to the cut. The quiet of the first shot and the violence in the second shot are thrown together in a jarring way.
  • In the same shot, Mangin walks to the back of the room and gets a cup of coffee from an automatic vending machine, continuing his harassment of Laouti the whole time. The machine makes a grinding noise that distracts from the content of the conversation; it’s too loud to be textural, and yet has no dramatic significance. It’s just the sort of irritation that a good sound mixer would advise a director to avoid.
Pialat has achieved little with this collection of negative style elements: for some viewers, he will have succeeded only in making the advance of the story more uncomfortable and less coherent. And yet one imagines his delight at hearing the obstreperous sound of the coffee maker, his protecting the noise from diligent craftspeople at every phase of production and post-production. Pialat was always on the lookout for any kind of irrelevance, anything he couldn’t write down in an office, to make himself feel that he was presenting the viewer with something like life. All his minute discordant effects seem calculated to interfere with the smooth mechanism of fiction that stands between him and his experience of the world.

We see similar effects repeated throughout the movie, and other disruptions added on the level of structure:

  • As many commentators have noted, large chunks of time vanish between scene transitions in Pialat films. These lacunae are not obvious to us as they occur: we learn about them, if at all, from dialogue at later points in the film. For example: after Laouti gives information to Mangin, Pialat immediately begins the scene of the cops’ stakeout and arrest of drug dealer Simon Slimane (Jonathan Leïna) and his girlfriend Noria (Sophie Marceau). Some time later, we learn that a long period of investigation occurred between the informing and the arrest.
  • When Pialat uses only one or two shots to represent a larger action, he has a tendency to choose shots that do not capture the salient qualities of the scene, that are not a vivid evocation of the event as a whole. Examples: the stakeout is largely depicted via a visually flat shot of cops questioning a concierge in front of a wall apartment mailboxes; Simon and Noria being taken into custody is shown with a few shots of cops and criminals emerging from cars and climbing the drab concrete stairs leading from the police parking structure.
These examples illustrate Pialat’s general imperative to attack the codes of fiction. This imperative often seemed to govern Pialat’s selection of subject matter as well. One imagines that he sifted through biographical or autobiographical material in the hope of seizing stray events that had no obvious narrative or thematic relevance: he was always more interested in action that does not easily integrate with the story concept. Pialat’s filmmaking instincts were anti-dramatic: he set out to weaken large structures in order to enhance authenticity on the moment-by-moment level.

Breillat is not exactly a kindred spirit to Pialat in this regard. She is fascinated with structure, and specializes in finding unpredictable ways to give closure to her narratives. But she is a wizard at generating behavior for characters that runs perpendicular to narrative expectations and to conventional patterns of sympathy and identification. From a stylistic perspective, Police is the fascinating spectacle of Pialat imposing himself on an alien but not inhospitable structure, like a school of fish who discover that a sunken ship is a usable breeding ground.

Breillat researched the project by observing the nocturnal activities of the Paris narcotics squad, and claimed to have transcribed rather than created much of the film’s dialogue. Even if this is true, the decision of what dialogue to transcribe reflects a willingness to allow attractive and repulsive forces to collide with each other. In Breillat’s case, this willingness has always seemed to be rooted in her empathy for turbulent characters. Transmitted to us through Pialat’s fragmented, harsh direction, it feels more like the desire to prevent a coherent identification structure from forming. We see the police carelessly trash Simon and Noria’s apartment while complaining to each other about their long hours; a cop discusses the merits of a new jacket with his colleagues as the lightly brutalized Simon is transferred from his cell; Mangin, often capable of a relaxed and contemplative perspective on his work, is spasmodically violent to his detainees and consistently boorish and insulting to his female colleagues.

Even when our sympathy isn’t divided, the scenario of Police is largely about people surprising us. We first encounter many characters during interrogation scenes, in which they either enact a professional role or dissemble to protect themselves; as the story unfolds, we are gradually given glimpses of the same people in less guarded circumstances. After doing nothing but deny wrongdoing to the police for the first half of the film; Noria comes across as a practiced criminal when we first see her conferring with the Slimane family in a hospital room; the bar owner René (Franck Karoui), convincingly obsequious under police questioning, casually assumes a dominant role in gang settings. In all these cases, whether observing a shift from sympathetic to unsympathetic behavior or a previously hidden character trait, Pialat is at pains to guarantee that the form of the film in no way reflects our presumed confusion or surprise. Every time he introduces a piece of material that contradicts or twists our previous ideas about characters, Pialat uses the simplest cutting to join scenes, with no added emphasis, stringing the fragments together like boxcars on a train. Pialat proposes, through style, a narrative unrelated to any drama or development, one in which inconsistency and accident have the same weight as connection and cause and effect.

Unlike many Pialat films, however, Police arrives at a nexus of story and theme, an idea that gathers the film together: Mangin, the hardened cop, will unexpectedly fall in love with Noria, with all the solemnity and anguish of a teenager. Whether this nodal point is part of Breillat’s concept (and it seems consistent with her vision of honor between sexual combatants – compare it to the psychic duel between the mismatched lovers in her next film, 1988’s 36 fillette) or an autobiographical element added by Pialat and his other collaborators, it’s a grain of sand in the oyster, an anomaly that will throw Pialat’s technique into relief.

The film’s already established style acquires a new emotional weight when it meets this story development. After Simon is sent to prison, and Noria is investigated and released by the police, we are suddenly presented with a scene in which Noria and the Slimane lawyer Lambert (Richard Anconina) are out to dinner with Mangin and his fellow cop Marie Vedret (Pascale Rocard). We have already learned that Mangin and Lambert, on opposite sides of the drug war, are close friends, and that Mangin seems oddly accepting of and comfortable with his adversaries when he is off duty. Still, it is shocking to see Mangin and Noria at the same table, especially as the previous scene was a tense meeting between Noria and the criminal Slimane family. Pialat cuts casually between the scenes as if he were making the most natural transition in the world.

The onset of romance is equally abrupt. Irritated at Lambert’s inappropriate behavior at a nightclub, Noria accepts a ride home from Mangin. Pialat’s cut into the car interior is jagged: before the cut, Mangin approaches the car door; after the cut, he is inside with Noria, with the opening and closing of the door elided. Inside the car, Pialat stutters into a few seconds of mysterious silence: we don’t see what caused the silence, don’t know whether it’s the result of romantic anticipation or a conversation caught at a pause. At one coup, the car interior has replaced the Belleville streets as the movie’s emotional terrain, with the muted sounds of street traffic becoming the soundtrack for the couple’s unannounced plunge into intimacy.

Much of the dialogue in Police and other Pialat films is undoubtedly improvised, and we can observe in the romantic scenes his marked, career-long tendency to select improvised dialogue that hits theme squarely on the head. As the couple begin to tell each other their secrets, and the word “love” crops up early, we hear phrase after phrase that addresses the characters’ issues directly: “I’ve never loved anyone,” says Mangin; the kissing couple are “like two kids”; “We’ve spent the whole night talking without noticing the time pass – I haven’t done that since I was 15 or 16,” says Mangin; “I’ve always lied,” confesses Noria. This preference for unshaded dialogue is an odd directorial trait; in some circumstances it strikes me as awkward, and I’m not sure that it’s a conscious artistic strategy. But there is an interesting synergy between the abrupt rhythms of Pialat’s pacing and the verbalization of subtext. Not only is the romantic story a sudden contrast to the police story, but the colliding elements also feel bigger and more explicit because of this overt dialogue. If the power of the love scenes in Police is connected to their abruptness, then the outsized quality of the dialogue can be seen as an upping of the stakes.

The final section of Police centers on the ambiguity of Noria’s response to Mangin. In its broad outlines, the story can be seen as a typical film noir trap for the male hero: Noria lies to Mangin about her theft of the gang’s money, uses him to extract herself from a dilemma, then leaves him when he has served her purpose. As written and performed, the interaction between the lovers is much more sympathetic: even as Noria lies, there is a core of honesty to her relationship with Mangin, a freedom bestowed upon her by his unconditional love that she uses to confess, to confront, to experience the luxury of being herself. It would be a mistake to see this ambiguity as a mystery – is Noria’s love true or false? – upon which the story hinges. Breillat would no doubt consider the ill-fated affair an illustration of one of her favorite themes: that people often lie in factual terms while telling the truth emotionally. Pialat, less seduced by the pleasures of fiction, seems to take a grim satisfaction in the way that the broken codes of romantic communication deprive the film of a classifiable ending.

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