A nos amours.

(To Our Loves, France - 1983)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Sandrine Bonnaire, Evelyne Ker, Dominique Besnehard, Maurice Pialat, Maite Maille, Cyr Boitard
Genre: Drama
Director: Maurice Pialat
Screenplay: Arlette Langmann & Maurice Pialat
Cinematography: Jacques Loiseleux
Composer: Henry Purcell
Runtime: 99 minutes

"I'm only happy when I'm with a guy" - Suzanne

This is not a statement of truth; it's an attempt to explain her own behavior that she doesn't even understand. I'm only alive when I'm with a guy is closer. This life, however, does not evoke any passion or love in her; it simply allows her to pass some time. It allows her to forget, to temporarily escape.

At the outset of the film the disinterested 16-year-old youngest child gets the attention of her dysfunctional family. Quickly though, the family atmosphere disappears as everyone begins worrying about their own lives. Her older siblings turn their attention to their careers. Her father (the director Maurice Pialat), who has been around less and less because he's been having an affair, chooses himself over the preservation of what's left of the family by deciding to move out and live with this woman.

Suzanne (Sandrine Bonnaire), fully bloomed but immature and directionless, is unable to just move on. Although there's no connection between the films beyond the same lead actress, it's tempting to look at this 1983 Cesar winner for Meilleur (best) film as the reason Sandrine became the Vagabond. Everyone that her Suzanne character may have cared about drifts away or is forced away by her. There's no longer anything here for her. She has lost her innocence, but hasn't gained anything to replace it or anywhere or move on to. She's stuck in the house, which becomes unbearable with her elders that don't even try to understand her ordering her around if not beating her around. The only other option is going away to school, but she knows from camp that their rules will be stricter and more problematic. She'd rather cut classes than do anything constructive anyway.

"Life's no fun when you don't love anyone" she says after a meaningless night of casual sex. Probably never even able to have any sustained happiness, the attention seeking Suzanne slowly falls out of existence. "It's as if my heart had run dry." While we almost never see her alone, the distance between her and her family, friend Martine (Maite Maille), and boyfriend Luc (Cyr Boitard) multiplies quickly. Luc, not knowing how to deal with her emotional state or lack thereof, asks some questions to try to figure her out. As her father says to Suzanne, "you're so stubborn, you'll never say why," although that assumes there's a sensible answer. Eventually Luc gives up on their relationship, which is down to them sitting next to each other staring silently into nothingness.

Like her character in the play, Suzanne seems unable to cope with her question "Why did you desert me?" She's not a lot of fun to be around because she doesn't reciprocate what she wants most, love and attention. "I can't imagine them having had lives of he own," she says of her parents, almost ruling out the possibility that they are still having a life. Bonnaire just stares blankly as if she's in another world until someone talks to her, and sometimes even then.

Seeking the attention absent in her home, Suzanne embarks on one sexual relationship after another. She has sex with everyone she's attracted to other than the one person it would be meaningful with, Luc. Pialat regularly tries to give us a Sandrine Boner in making the point that everyone is turned on by his underage star, including The Father and her brother Robert (Dominique Besnehard). He more than alludes to the fact that Suzanne has become a hooker without a fee.

Things may go well for The Father once he leaves the house, we don't know because we never see. What we do see is things get much worse for everyone that remains. The Father was the one Suzanne was closest to. Although they didn't talk much and she considered him a bore, he had some understanding of what was going on with her even though he lacked the solution that worked. She was most alive when her father was paying attention to her. Any man she picks up is just a poor replacement.

Thrown into different roles, The Mother and Robert change greatly for the worse. They treat Suzanne poorly because they don't try to understand her, not that it's easy. Lacking any clue of how to deal with her, they can only imitate some of the father's failed actions without comprehending what he was going for in acting that way. Robert, the doughy mama's boy, is not cut out to lead the family since he can only think about how to try to please his beloved mother, who he kind of worships in his immature bow at the alter of the queen kind of way. The Mother (Evelyne Ker) - overworked, overstressed, and lacking in income - is also sick of life. She worries so much, mainly about everyone else in a way that's not helpful to anyway, she pretty much has a nervous breakdown. Some of the leaps the film makes don't work at all. For instance, the mother goes from telling her husband Suzanne is doing nothing wrong to becoming a puritanical moralist who tears up Suzanne's love letters and throws her "hooker" dress in the garbage, "where filth belongs!"

A nos amours is a great film when it's a character study of a troubled lost teen powered by Bonnaire's fascinating work. Her eyes are the key to her great performance in her first role of any size, which won the Meilleur espoir féminin (most promising young actress) Cesar. They show her lack of attentiveness and desire, sadness, apprehension (to talk to Luc again), coldness (the way she drives Luc away calling him a bastard of a guy who just wants to sleep with her because he knows others have), longing, that she's lost, zoned out, etc. Her dialogue is largely meaningless, especially since she rarely says what she's feeling, but she's got the gift of spontaneity that makes it largely irrelevant in a movie like this that's about what you convey rather than what you say. The film is made by her ability to convey her disinterest, boredom, sadness, and frustration with the idea of life, and also her momentary enlivenment when she's able to forget her problems. Bonnaire injects enough life into Suzanne to show a big difference when she's with a guy, and plays these scenes with a total confidence that they'll come to her sooner or later because they want her. At one point one of Suzanne's boyfriends tells her he's been advised by his friends to dump her (they realize all she's good for is a couple of screws). She asks, "I don't really turn you on?" He replies, "Sure you do, and you know it."

The biggest problem with A nos amours is it starts straying from the character study as the film goes on, going with a big family gathering down the stretch that has too little to do with Suzanne and too many characters that previously had little to no involvement. Its goal may actually be a balanced dysfunctional family film, but it doesn't really develop the characters other than Suzanne. While none of the characters may be likeable, we are only able to identify with Suzanne and perhaps The Father. Suzanne has dimension and, although her life isn't sensible, makes sense when she's arguing with her relatives. The father has some dimension and makes sense, but the other characters have one of the two, at best. The illusion of an unbiased piece of cinema may be created, but when one character is in the entire film and a bunch of others are in the film for 5 or 10 minutes, how can it not be slanted? If Pialat's goal is to show the youngest member of the family suffers the most or simply trying to offer a distanced balanced study of the results a dysfunctional family can have on a young girl then he's much more successful in spite of losing some focus toward the end. The more I think about it, the goal of the film is simply to attempt not to express one. On one hand it's refreshing not to be told what to think or do, but on the other you almost wonder why the film was made. Perhaps the point is simply that we should understand the problem and realize there is no easy solution?

The rigorous technique of Pialat's film is basically compression without compression. In going for "reality," he's eliminated as much montage as possible. Using extended handheld camera takes with tracks and pans to keep the regularly ad-libbed scenes going without a cut, he's packed everything into incidents that can become explosive without foreshadowing anything. The problem with only using straight cuts, for the most part only when necessary to change scenes, is that the viewer suffers from time displacement. You are distracted because you don't know if five minutes or two months have passed, making certain outbursts or lack thereof seem puzzling.

The real compression here is in what the scenes themselves contain. Pialat chooses not to really let a scene play out. Instead, he crams all the necessary information together, sometimes resulting in overload. The idea, I believe, is to reject montage is to not be manipulative, but of course it's just a different form of manipulation. Where it succeeds is in the emotional outbursts and fights. Editing can be seen as a form of audience protection because it points out that the actions either didn't really happen or already happened. The lack thereof gives the sequential film more of a live feel, and leaves us wanting to run for cover.

Pialat has forced us to draw our own conclusions on almost everything. He wants to recreate the uncertainty of life, especially relationships. There's no explanation or moralization, so when we see a shouting match followed by a scene where the characters are agreeable we simply must conclude that enough time has passed that they got over their anger enough to tolerate one another. This I like, but toward the end it starts jumping so quickly that there's little continuity because with all the changes we need to detect and new family members we need to identify the details become too muddled. Even though at one point they say six months have passed and a new wife and brother-in-law are eventually introduced, you kind of lose tract of what's going on waiting to find out such details. In a way, the whole film is muddled because we don't know what we are supposed to be arguing for or against. The details, actions, and techniques that probably should be challenged lack the basis and/or exposition to make a solid pro or con argument. It's like the history argument in the film, except we were there in a sense.

What I like about Pialat's work here as a director though is that he makes us so self-conscious and uncomfortable. There's nothing melodramatic, conventional, comforting, or condescending about his presentation. In fact, in search of realism the entire film is anal about seeming totally unplanned. Pialat just throws us into the second troop of a small battle and forces us to gaze on in astonishment and horror at what's happening to those directly in front of us. In other words, he cuts us off just short of participating ourselves. I say a small battle because the people are made to seem inconsequential. Their worldview, at most, is effecting a few people around them. They can argue about things like history, but something has been recorded and no one can win because the other person just takes the cheap tactic of pointing out that they weren't there. There are no close-ups during an argument because no one is allowed any dominance. They share the fight and someone may come out on top so to speak, but ultimately everyone is left damaged.

The perverted way he Pialat films Bonnaire works the same way. He makes you want her like all the other guys, which although I first liked her from seeing her as an adult still makes me uncomfortable since I'm nonetheless ogling someone who was only 15 or 16 years old when the film was made, but like everyone "close" to her you are cut off before you can have her. Of course, when doing a character study it's questionable to make the audience want to get into her pants rather than her head. Acting as writer/director and playing The Father, Pialat seems to have created a film where his roles conflict, therefore creating a justification of having it both ways. What's interesting about it though is that Pialat the director possesses Bonnaire the actress in a similar way Suzanne seems to feel she should possess the lives of those who should love her. In their own way, both deal in torment.

A nos amours falls shy of being a great film and Pialat's style is going to be too harsh for some viewers, but I appreciate it because it's challenging, different, and in it's own way rewarding. RCA/Columbia apparently thought it was way too challenging. Usually I'm bad when it comes to giving away too many details, but half of their paragraph write up on the video box attempts to explain the sketchier final half hour of the film. At least they were willing to release it here, which is more than can be said for most of Bonnaire's films.




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