Cannes winner Maurice Pialat, painter turned actor and tyrannical but influential filmmaker, died Saturday in Paris of kidney failure. He was 77.
A demanding individual whose talent was equaled only by his self-destructive tendencies, he made 10 features, including Palme d’Or winner “Under Satan’s Sun,” the dour and mystical 1987 film starring Gerard Depardieu as a priest battling temptation.
Although the jury’s decision was unanimous, the first French film to win the top award at the Cannes Film Festival in more than 20 years drew jeers and boos. Accepting the award, a defiant Pialat said: “If you don’t like me, rest assured I don’t like you either.”
But Pialat’s ability to capture convincing emotions on film from actors who did not seem to be acting, sealed his reputation as a standout director. Many observers consider Pialat one of the few masters of the cinematic humanism embodied by the likes of Jean Renoir.
Particularly skilled at depicting the vicissitudes of childhood and coupledom, Pialat drew out extraordinary performances from established stars — Depardieu, Isabelle Huppert, Jacques Dutronc — as well as non-pros and first-timers. A Pialat discovery, Sandrine Bonnaire made her debut in helmer’s “A nos amours” in 1983, stepping into instant acclaim.
Pialat was born in south-central France to a failed coal and wood merchant and his wife. Farmed out to a relative at age 4, Pialat felt rejected and abandoned. Lingering resentment marbled his films, which could be tender and compassionate even as they depicted stubborn or wild behavior.
From the bickering couple of “We Won’t Grow Old Together” (1972) to the dysfunctional family of “A nos amours” to the painful breakup of a man and woman with a young child (played by Pialat’s own late-in-life 3-year-old son) in his final film, 1995’s “Le Garcu,” Pialat depicted human interactions as messy and intense.
It was rumored that Jacques Dutronc looked so convincingly like the dying title artist in 1991’s “Van Gogh” because of abuse from his director during the shoot. Although downbeat and even “difficult” by non-French standards, the general public nonetheless supported most of Pialat’s efforts.
Having studied painting in Paris, Pialat had made five short films in 16mm by the late 1950s but missed joining the French New Wave by about a decade.
His autobiographical 1960 short “L’amour existe,” won a prize in Venice. He was 43 when he directed his first feature, 1968’s “L’enfance nue,” about a youngster placed with foster families.
Pialat’s seven-part drama, “La maison des bois” (The House in the Woods), made for French state TV in 1971 and little seen since, is considered a stunning example of what the medium can be at its best. Pialat cast himself as the village schoolteacher who nurtures displaced youngsters in a small community during WWI.
Whether in his own films or in roles for his contemporaries Claude Chabrol and Jean Eustache, Pialat more often than not played odious men with frightening veracity but could also convey gentleness. “The Mouth Agape” (1974) dealt with the emotional rigors of watching a parent die of cancer. His other features are “Passe ton bac d’abord” (1978), “Loulou” (1980) and “Police” (1985).
Although Pialat was regularly courted by producers who hoped to entice him back to directing, a combination of self-described laziness and illness prevailed.
Asked to assess his legacy in an interview last year, Pialat declared, “Posterity can shove it for all I care.”