Maurice Pialat’s La maison des bois
, playing in New York this weekend at the Museum of the Moving Image's retrospective
on the director, consists of seven episodes each about an hour long. The series follows Hervé (Hervé Levy), a young boy living in a “house in the woods” with foster parents Albert (Pierre Doris) and Jeanne (Jacqueline Dufranne), and is set during WWII.
Hervé hangs out, gets into trouble, goes to school. His father (Paul Crauchet) is in the army; his mother left them before the film’s events. The story overlaps in many ways with Pialat’s previous film, L’enfance nue, to the point where it’s easy to assume that Pialat was tapping the same autobiographical well for both projects. Maison, however, is looser and more expansive than usual for Pialat, and consequently more direct about his concerns. While there’s a great deal of detail in any Pialat work, here detail is the raison d’etre: the film often feels like a comprehensive catalog of what the director finds interesting to look at.
The camerawork contributes most to this impression—equipped with a nifty automatic zoom, Pialat feels free to rove about the image, spontaneously picking up whatever goes on in the scene. (The zoom is particularly noticeable in the classroom scenes, where there seems to be about two places to put a tripod.) This formal choice seems partly pragmatic; improvisation is a famous tactic for this director, and camera mobility contributes to its feasibility. But the interactive cutting, the little catches of detail, and the occasional track-in all seem to suggest an active observant, rather than an unwary orchestrator; the camera mimics the way one observes things in real time, inviting you to see each moment as if it were happening just now in front of you. Pialat is trying to collapse the distance between the camera-observer and the audience-observer, thereby creating a calm, dependable, objective tone.
It is this calmness of tone that makes Pialat films somewhat fearsome. Pialat’s visual aesthetic is unpretentious and fluid; however, his narratives, comprised of a large variety of unpredictable behavior, are generally jagged and painful, and the combination often results in exhilarating and discomforting emotional discontinuities from one shot or scene to the next. This tendency is not quite as pronounced in La maison des bois, perhaps because he does not need ellipses to get to the good parts in this more relaxed format. But he still finds ways to fill the film with mysterious, not-quite-comprehensible behavior.
I’m especially fond of the scene where the mailman brings Hervé letters from his dad, telling of a prospective step-mom. At first, the mailman tells Hervé not to read the letter; but when Hervé opens it anyway, the mailman reads it aloud for him, as if putting in some effort in exchange for juicy gossip. Then, as the meat of the letter is revealed, the mailman, embarrassed to read something so private, scurries away. Hervé, apparently quite calm, finishes reading the letter before nonchalantly ripping up all of the letters (not just his own), throwing them in a bush, and stepping on them.
Certainly the placid acting style Pialat enforces contributes to the surprise of this emotional moment; in a sense we more readily understand the mailman, whose reactions are fairly external and quite comprehendible. But Hervé does not signal sadness or anger except through that destructive gesture. Pialat plays up the distance between the audience’s observational state of mind and Hervé’s interior workings: we feel the rumblings of drama.
The formal maneuvers Pialat pulls to highlight these moments of emotional drama are not obvious. The effectiveness of his emphases relies on an organic, unchanging flow of material just happening to arrive at an emotional point—in the scene above, the letter ripping. Equally important is that after this point, the same rhythm pushes forward—a single cut brings us back to idyllic country, with little narrative repercussion until much later. The moment does not throw the film off balance; it does not seem privileged.
Yet it is hard to miss the parts that are supposed to affect you—because Pialat is not egalitarian about his material. When Hervé reads the letter without the mailman to read it aloud for the audience, helpful voiceover kicks in so that we can identify with Hervé in the moment and know what he knows. When he needs to, Pialat goes inward: he creates identification with the character, rather than merely observe him. Our mystification at an external gesture is transformed into recognition of an internal and identifiable feeling—here, as in many similar Pialat scenes, the feeling of pain.
Of course, Pialat has many ways to subtly lift parts above the whole, and structure seems to be especially favored in La maison des bois. While the series often feels like a unified whole—particularly because no individual episode is a strictly self-contained narrative—Pialat mostly indulges in curtaining after each episode. In other words, the episodes do not seem to end arbitrarily, but rather seem to be tagged to a major development and a dramatic effect. This is where the film feels most like TV. It’s not exactly that Pialat is aiming for cliffhangers, but he likes the effect that rolling the credits (and cueing the theme) has, and uses it when it’s available, which is seven times more often than usual.
Perhaps the most obvious example is in episode four, which I think is one of the more stand-alone episodes of the series. With a quarter of the episode left, a fight breaks out between a German plane and a French plane. We’re rooting for the French plane because we believe it is piloted by a French soldier whose girlfriend is very kind to the protagonist of the series. One plane goes down; it is the German one. The man inside is dead. The episode ends on a extreme-wide shot of the plane, the dead soldier, and a French guard, with the camera tracking in deliberately and slowly until it gets to about medium close-up.
This long take is quite a departure from the quick cutting observational style of the rest of the episode; Pialat takes a contemplative break here to emphasize his most characteristic theme: death. The formal effect is more apparent at first than in the letter scene, but eventually we wind up identifying with the French soldier who has to watch over a corpse—an emotional weight is imparted on the audience. To relieve us, Pialat runs the credits. He wants the moment to pack a wallop, and it does.
It’s easy to imagine a version of that scene that would strike one as typical European dourness: drawn-out, entirely too solemn, a drag. However, for some reason, death scenes in Pialat films are rarely overbearing, and in fact seem quite organic to their contexts. And a lot of people die in this movie.
For the very final scene, the foster mother, Jeanne, is dying, seemingly of heartbreak, since her son died in the war and all the foster children are back with their parents. It’s implied that she misses Hervé especially. Hervé runs away from his Paris home to go see her. He doesn’t cry, really doesn’t do much to show his love, and is soon picked up by his parents to go back to Paris. Here we are not given anyone to identify with. The strongest candidate is Marguerite (Agathe Natanson), Jeanne’s daughter, who has been especially mysterious since Hervé’s departure, and whose strong expression as she watches Hervé drive away leaves an impression. But the scene does not cue us into Hervé’s perspective, even though he’s been the focus of the whole film. The extreme-wide frame keeps still as they drive away in silence and then freezes for credits. By removing the spectator from the characters, Pialat emphasizes the fact of Jeanne’s death rather than the sentiments around it.
Brutal reality is often too brutal to endure when brutality is the point. For Pialat, reality is the point; he’s one of cinema’s finest pessimists because he knows brutal moments derive their power from the variety of living experience that surrounds them. La maison des bois is first and foremost a recreation of lived experience, an interaction with reality, with death and pain underlined. It is an impressive work of reenacted impressions and revived memories. It seems to contain many of the things Pialat ever saw and noted and thought the cinema should show.