Maurice Pialat's 1979 examination of adolescents on the verge of they-have-very-little-idea-what is both an exemplary and slightly anomalous work, anomalous primarily in terms of scope. Most of Pialat's works focus on individuals (L'enfance nue, Van Gogh) or small units such as couples (Nous ne veillirons pas ensemble, Loulou) and families (La gueule ouverte, À nos amours); here, he looks at a social group, high-school kids preparing—or, rather, not preparing—to take the baccalaureate exams that will determine their future education. He will visit a similarly complex locus once again in 1985's dizzying Police, with its cops and criminals and hookers and prosecutors enacting a ballet in which emotional dysfunction registers far louder than the maintenance of civil order.
The character interactions of this film—set in the northern town of Lens—are not quite so phantasmagoric, if you will. Nor is there much going on in the way of traditional narrative "thrust." It really isn't until the very end of the seemingly fragmented picture that one gets a sense of what it was/is "about," and that sense might not be entirely correct in any case. One of the glorious mysteries of Pialat is how his seemingly straightforward-to-the-point-of-plainness approach—the mise-en-scène is quite deliberately un-pretty, always—can yield works that are so essentially enigmatic, that contain such riches to plumb.
Graduate First...(the title recalls the early Ozu works I Was Born, But... and, of course, I Graduated, But...) is the sort of work that might lead one to characterize Pialat as a"director of moments." Moments of thoroughgoing banality, as guys discuss the asses and the morals of their female schoolmates over refreshments, or debate the relative merits of Pink Floyd ("too slow") and Bob Marley while strolling across a beach. And then moments of chilling despair, as when soon-to-be-shacked-up Elizabeth (Sabine Haudepin, the "petite Sabine" of Truffaut's Jules and Jim) has a searing break with her mother. The realism achieves its own particular poetry pretty much around every corner. Near the end, the looking-to-be-seduced (or is she?) Frederique (Frederique Cerbonnet) invites slick Bernard (Bernard Tronczyk) to her room, so as to turn him on to the Sex Pistols. The talk turns instead to her fabulously, hilariously suggestive leotard, which Pialat shoots without a snicker or a raised eyebrow or anything. As a result, the ridiculous garment is made not merely symbolically suggestive, but practically numinous. And yet it's all within the bailiwick of near-absolute verisimilitude—look at the audience shots in any concert footage of, say, Roxy Music from the mid to late '70s and you see how right this picture gets its costume design.
A fleeting shot of a girl on horseback, a moment of carefree bonhomie in a supermarket; these, too, are significant parts of the world explored by this picture. But for Pialat, these are exceptions that prove his pessimistic rule. Some might call it his reactionary rule, given the pronouncements he makes in one interview that's reprinted in the excellent booklet of this terrific Eureka!/Masters of Cinema Region 2 U.K. DVD: "These are spoiled children, brought up like petits bourgeois...once, the maréchal ferrant ['blacksmith farrier'] for example, had his pride, he knew how to do something...But them, these young people, almost every worker's son is privileged, and never has anything in his hands!"
The strange unity that the film finally achieves receives an explanation of sorts in Pialat's pronouncement that "Lumière filmed togetherness, that is, life." Life and life only—that's what Graduate First... is made of.