Credit: New Yorker
by Brendan Nagle Featured Film Kicking the Canon

Loulou | Maurice Pialat

September 3, 2021

To put  Maurice Pialat’s 1980 masterpiece Loulou into words is a deceptively challenging task. The premise seems simple: restless Parisian woman Nelly (Isabelle Huppert) is trapped in a dull but financially stable relationship with her boss, the volatile and insecure Andre (Guy Marchand), and finds an exciting escape in the arms of Loulou (Gérard Depardieu), an ex-con low-life with a ravenous sexual appetite. It’s a love triangle set-up that probably sounds familiar to many filmgoers, but such a summary is sure to dissatisfy anyone who has actually seen Loulou. Nelly repeatedly draws attention to a sexual disparity, often in memorably nasty barbs (“I prefer a loafer who fucks to a rich guy who bugs me”), but there is more to her attraction to Loulou than his cock, or perhaps put more accurately, there is more to his erotic appeal than simply his prowess in bed. And similarly, there is more keeping her from completely severing ties with Andre than the petit bourgeois lifestyle he can offer her. There’s a complexity to these three characters and their respective dynamics that is difficult to convey, a complexity that is typical of Pialat’s distinct approach to character and narrative.

An early prolonged scene featuring the three leads converging at a lively discotheque is instructive in its emotional turbulence: the roving handheld camera finds Nelly pressed up against Loulou on the dancefloor, a frivolous smile melting from her face as she spots Andre watching from the bar. She begrudgingly detaches to greet her boyfriend, and it isn’t long before his jealousy boils over into physical violence. But soon the scene’s tenor again shifts, as Nelly’s indignation turns to condescending laughter, and Andre, moments ago a menacing figure, is reduced to something much more pathetic and feeble. Before storming out of the club he nearly gets into another altercation, this time with a stranger, and Nelly soon returns to dance with Loulou, the two later retiring to a hotel room. Though it only lasts a few minutes, the scene is dense — with action, with subtle character information, and foremost with emotion, as it lurches from ecstasy to fury to violence and back again. This tumultuous quality is one that defines much of Pialat’s work. His scenes have a way of shifting in the most unexpected ways, drifting between passionate extremes; you will think you understand how a scene is functioning, what narrative purpose it intends to serve, and then it will suddenly become something entirely different right before your eyes. He is dedicated, above all, to a cinema of the moment, concerned with the chaos and contradiction of ephemeral human experience. Kent Jones wrote, perceptively, that “Pialat’s cinema is all about the shock — startling, violent, eternally and teasingly promising — of being alive.” It’s true, and remarkably his sense of naturalism remains intact throughout –– no other filmmaker is so consistently shocking in such mundane scenarios. Yet he is also able to avoid the maudlin pitfalls that can lurk in such melodramatic territory. A throwaway line from an earlier film, 1972’s We Won’t Grow Old Together struck me as especially precise in relation to its director’s approach: “Not sentimental, but … feelings are what count most.” In context the speaker is describing some people she encountered on a recent vacation, but the characterization doubles as a succinct summation of Pialat’s modus operandi, the particular ethos that guides his work.

All accounts of Pialat, the man, suggest that he was imbued with a spirit not unlike that which animates his films. He was known for his destructive temper and bitter self-loathing; many of his productions carry tales of epic tantrums and sudden abandonments of the set, with Pialat citing either the incompetence of his cast and crew, or that of himself. On the other hand his collaborators, even those he quarrelled with, are quick to praise his generosity and warmth, remarking on his deep sensitivity — in other words, he was a knot of contradictions. Analyses of his personhood are especially pertinent given the extent to which so many of his films spring directly from his own life. Loulou is based on the dissolution of his relationship with Arlette Langmann, his longtime editor who also collaborated with Pialat on writing the film, and who herself ran off with a working-class goon. (That Andre is meant to serve as Pialat’s stand-in adds an intriguing layer to the character’s rather woeful portrayal, and suggests a self-critical streak in the director that borders on masochism, something his other autobiographical films confirm.) Essential to the aura of his work is the complex atmosphere he created on set; he was known to antagonize his actors, hurling insults and deliberately inciting conflict, but at the same time he granted them an enormous amount of improvisational and creative freedom. Huppert recounted how during filming Pialat would never call “Action” or “Cut”: he sought to “eliminate every hint of that ritual … so that, imperceptibly, fiction wedges itself, or lodges itself, in the heart of reality. And that’s what creates that extraordinary feeling in Pialat’s films. That there is no border between fiction and reality.” Oftentimes this meant turning the camera on his actors as they chatted in between scenes, allowing them to fluidly transition out of the reality of the set and into the reality of the film.

These unusual working methods lend themselves to notions of ‘realism,’ and though the designation has been attached to Pialat throughout his career, it can be misleading –– not because the term is necessarily inaccurate, but because it suggests a lineage with a European neo-realist tradition that, unlike the French New Wave directors of his generation, Pialat had little interest in. In Pialat’s pursuit of realism he would often disregard otherwise fundamental considerations of narrative filmmaking such as continuity: his quest to find, in his words, “the truth of that instant” correctly took priority over lesser details, like whether or not his actors’ clothing matched between shots. Further his films are marked by a radically discordant style of editing, his penchant for long takes balanced with an elliptical approach to narrative construction; for films with such loose and meandering plots, they move at an incredibly quick pace. In Loulou, as in his other films, the narrative is almost a series of vignettes. There are no establishing shots, often no clear connection between sequential scenes. It’s not always clear how much time has passed in the space of a cut. (His jagged edits are used to humorous effect too, never more memorably than in the abrupt shot of Andre, suddenly with tenor saxophone in hand, wailing a mournful cuckold blues after Nelly snubs him over the phone.) Pialat also has a tendency to leave significant events to happen in those interstitial spaces; what might be considered Loulou’s culminating moment, Nelly’s abortion, occurs in the negative space of a cut, without any explicit indication that it’s coming. For Pialat the act itself is less important than the collection of moments that surround it.

In fact the prolonged scene that precedes the abortion, and that presumably serves as its impetus, is worth a deeper look. It is one of the more memorable instances of that “extraordinary feeling” that Huppert referred to above. Again, the scene begins without any real introduction, cutting suddenly to a car screeching to a halt outside of a quaint cottage in rural France. Eventually we piece together that this is the house of Loulou’s sister and her husband, and that Loulou has brought Nelly along to a family gathering of sorts, his mother, brothers, and some friends all present. The scene lasts more than fifteen minutes, and much of it is taken up by lively, inconsequential conversation over oysters and wine. This retreat to the countryside comes after a cold meeting with Nelly’s disapproving brother, and the juxtaposition quickly becomes significant: Loulou’s jovial, loving, working-class family makes a striking contrast to the snooty condescension of Nelly’s brother. And, at least at first, Nelly seems to relish their warmth. The camera mostly stays trained on her face throughout the meal, watching her smile and laugh along with the others. But gradually something seems to come over her, a blank, inscrutable expression appearing on her face. And in typical Pialatian fashion, things suddenly take a rather extreme turn, when Loulou’s unstable brother-in-law Tom accuses Pierrot, a friend of Loulou’s, of flirting with his wife. Tom goes into a jealous rage, emerging from the house with a rifle and threatening to shoot, letting off a few inadvertent shots as Loulou wrests the gun from his hands. No one is hurt, but it puts a damper on the festivities, and the scene concludes with an image of Nelly, who had been offscreen for much of the incident, her eyes wide and her face pale.

There is a tendency to read this scene, and its startling violence, rather straightforwardly as the catalyst for Nelly’s decision to terminate her pregnancy. And to an extent the film encourages such a reading, as it cuts directly from Nelly’s panic-stricken face to her calling Loulou from the hospital post-operation. We don’t know how much time has elapsed between these two moments, but the film is undoubtedly telling us they are connected. Yet while we are used to simplified notions of cause-and-effect in movies, this is not that, it is not the tragically deterministic forces of melodrama falling into place. Though she tells Loulou “you know we couldn’t keep him,” Nelly’s decision was not inevitable, it was a decision, and it was the result of a series of events and feelings too complex for a simple summary. The prospect of raising a child with a criminal who detests working is understandably intimidating, but Nelly was well aware of Loulou’s idiosyncratic nature before their sojourn to the country, so what really changed? I have encountered some suggestions that Nelly was disgusted by the indecency of lower class family’s lifestyle, but watching the scene it’s clear that she enjoys these people and their way of life. Surely she was startled, but in the most practical of terms, there is really no occurrence that should have made her choice obvious. One might even think that Tom’s outburst would serve to further her faith in Loulou. In his frightening volatility and stifling jealousy, the character Tom most resembles is in fact Andre; shouldn’t that only distinguish Loulou, who has only ever been violent in defense of others, and who has demonstrated a marked lack of jealousy or possessiveness? But something did change, whether it’s logical or otherwise. Anyone who has had to make a difficult decision likely knows that the answer rarely strikes you with certainty, more often you flounder back and forth repeatedly, maddeningly, until eventually you’re too exhausted to go on. The decision is made, not because it’s unequivocally correct, but because at a certain point something simply has got to give. Huppert, almost entirely through facial expressions, somehow manages to communicate this intricate web of emotions, this deeply complex human process. This is the essence of Pialat’s ‘realism.’

His films tend to be dark, and though Loulou is not necessarily an exception, Pialat does conclude on a lighter note than one might anticipate. Loulou and Nelly’s conversation after her return from the hospital seems like a natural endpoint, with Depardieu’s devastating line-reading (“You had to trust me”) serving as the film’s last words, but instead he grants his couple one final moment, finding Loulou and Nelly once again stumbling down an alley together, kissing and clinging to each other with the same untroubled adoration that characterized their earlier romance. There may be some that regard that cyclicality with a degree of cynicism, but I can’t help but be charmed by the surprise of such a sweet, even hopeful, ending.

Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.