On Gérard Depardieu’s birthday, a look at his work with director Maurice Pialat

Baradwaj Rangan

December 27, 2018 10:27:16 IST

For Gérard Depardieu’s birthday (27 December), I wanted to pick one film to write about — say, Claude Berri’s Jean de Florette (one of the actor’s most beloved films, and one of his biggest hits), or Andrzej Wajda’s Danton (one of the earliest art films I saw, courtesy late-night Doordarshan programming, and frankly, understood very little of, at that time), or Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900 (co-starring Robert De Niro), or the two excellent late-period François Truffaut outings (The Last Metro and The Woman Next Door). But a series of articles by The New Yorker’s Richard Brody made me settle on Depardieu’s relatively lesser-known (and less heralded) collaboration with Maurice Pialat. When honouring the filmmaker, in 2011, the Locarno Film Festival called his works with Depardieu “among the greatest partnerships in film history. Four superb films together, an extraordinary artistic collaboration.”

Depardieu has had other notable collaborations, with directors like Bertrand Blier, but Pialat is notable for his unique cinematic worldview. His first feature, L’Enfance Nue (Naked Childhood, 1969), was co-produced by Truffaut, but he detested the cinephilia that marked the New Wave. He said, “People say today that the cinema is dying. But it started dying in the age of cinephilia, which is to say, right after the end of the war. Some guys started treating the cinema like a curio, they went to watch movies with a notebook and a pencil… That was the beginning of the end. And all those people, thus the whole New Wave, only knew the cinema that way.” But he had no illusions about himself, either. When asked for his thoughts about his legacy, he said, “Posterity can shove it for all I care.”

But there's a good chance posterity won’t. Pialat’s films with Depardieu include Loulou (1980), Police (1985), Sous le soleil de Satan (Under the Sun of Satan, 1987), and Le Garçu (The Son of.., 1995), which was the last film Pialat directed before his death in 2003. At least Under the Sun of Satan will live on, if only for Pialat’s sensational response to the crowd that booed the film’s Palme d’Or win at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival. “I won’t be untrue to my reputation. I am, above all, happy this evening for all the shouts and whistles you’ve directed at me; and, if you don’t like me, I can tell you that I don’t like you either.” And what is this reputation? “Pugnacity,” Brody wrote. “Those who knew him often attested to it, and the trait is a crucial aspect of his art (he seems to have invented a tone and a camera style that might even be called pugnacious naturalism).”

In the context of Depardieu, this trait was evident right from the Loulou shoot, where actor and director fought constantly. Pialat called Depardieu lazy and unprofessional. (This may have had to do with Depardieu’s commitment to his role as a common thug, which made him appear “unactorly.”) But in a 1980 interview, Depardieu appeared very sympathetic. He likened Truffaut to a novelist, Bergman to a musician, Duras to silence, and Pialat to a painter. “I don’t think he is mad,” the actor said. “I am in pain for him. He’s full of doubts but he’s very extraordinary.” Two inadvertent, connect-the-dots trivia from this interview: (1) in 1991, Pialat ended up making a film about a tortured painter (Van Gogh), and (2) Under the Sun of Satan is about a priest who is “full of doubts.”

In the latter film, Depardieu plays Father Donissan, and Pialat himself plays his superior, Father Menou-Segrais. The film’s first scene is filled with angst. Father Donissan has doubts about his calling. He tells Father Menou-Segrais, “With you it all seems simple. Alone, I’m worthless. I’m like a zero, useful only with other numbers.” This exchange plays on two levels, between the characters on screen and between actor and director. (Without the director, isn’t the actor useless?) Adding to this illusion is what Father Menou-Segrais tells Father Donissan. “Your strength and manual skills suggest you were meant for a humbler vocation.” This applies to both the character and the actor. The hulking Depardieu is possibly the last person you'd imagine as a priest, and there’s an extraordinary scene towards the end when Father Donissan lifts a boy (who’s presumed dead) with his hands, the way a weightlifter showcases his prowess at a championship.

The reel/real parallels extend to the director. The citation from the Locarno Film Festival noted: “The filmmaker, through his role as Menou-Segret, Donissan’s mentor, expresses his personal feelings, the fear of old age, a distrust of wisdom (‘an old man’s vice’), the ultimate, terrible expectation of death.” When Father Donissan whips himself with a chain, it’s worth remembering that Pialat was quite the self-flagellator himself. In a 1994 interview, he rued that he was “someone who completely blew his chance and who could have done much better in his life.” Some viewers may be reminded of the self-doubting priest in Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light, but Under the Sun of Satan is less — for lack of a better word — “theatrical.” It looks more towards religious-minded dramas like Carl Dreyer’s Ordet and Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest. The latter — like Under the Sun of Satan — was based on a novel by Georges Bernanos.

The current release, Zero, has inspired a lot of talk about the “meta” aspects of film-viewing, especially the fact whether these aspects are intentionally put in by the filmmaker. The answer will depend on the viewer, and at least to some of us, it’s impossible to watch a film like Under the Sun of Satan without reflecting on the real-life relationship between the actor and director. Indeed, the last time Pialat worked with Depardieu, in autobiographical Le Garçu, he cast the actor as a sort of stand-in. (The film’s title was Pialat’s father’s nickname.) But even in Under the Sun of Satan, you have the scene where Father Donissan says, “People want only what’s pleasant and useful. There’s nothing for a saint in such a world.” This could be an art filmmaker talking, no?

Baradwaj Rangan is editor, Film Companion (south).

Updated Date: Dec 28, 2018 12:34 PM