Irascible, ornery and possibly brilliant Gallic helmer Maurice Pialat was the last Frenchman to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes, with 1987’s “Under Satan’s Sun.” Docu “Maurice Pialat: L’amour existe” is a primer on how the self-taught force behind “Van Gogh” drew on the residue of indifferent parents, a limited formal education, the urge to paint and relationships both satisfying and rotten to create films prized for their intense emotional veracity. Cannes-preemed item could serve as a useful complement to retrospectives of helmer’s career.
At his death in January 2003 at 77, Pialat (who didn’t take up filmmaking until he was in his 40s) left a relatively small but influential body of work that secured his place in the pantheon of revered French talents. Docu, spearheaded by helmer’s widow Sylvie, assumes everybody admires Pialat’s films, but provides evidence as to why some might have disliked the man himself.
Co-documakers Anne-Marie Faux and Jean-Pierre Devilliers use archival footage of Pialat discussing his upbringing and life experiences to illuminate liberally excerpted scenes from his work as an actor and director.
The frequently cranky but forthright individual on display exercises a certain fascination, even without a didactic context: There are no talking heads except Pialat himself, although other voices are heard — Gerard Depardieu, who acted in “Loulou” and “Under Satan’s Sun,” reads choice documents.
A clue to Pialat’s ambitions may be found in his comment that the Lumiere brothers were truly original because their pioneering films “showed life, real life.” (One of the subject’s most striking beliefs is that the French New Wave did a disservice to the world because it depicted “an artificial era” rather than the times its practitioners were living in.) It follows that although the content of Pialat’s films can be explosive and nasty, Pialat is often cited as an heir to the humanist filmmaking of Jean Renoir, his approach likened to that of Yasujiro Ozu.
Pialat states, ” ‘Filmmaker’ is such a vague profession that you don’t really need to learn how to do it.” By his own admission, the only field he truly studied was painting, with a dollop of architecture. Pialat painted from 1941-47 and his canvases show a certain talent. At first shy about breaking into film, he eventually lost his reticence.
Revelatory footage of Pialat on his own sets is the very illustration of “creative tension.”