The only genuine reaction this image of a crucifix gracefully laid on a bed can elicit—at least at the point it arrives in Maurice Pialat's plain-as-day death story—may be a choke of strangled, appalled laughter. There has been no talk of God, trascendence, spirituality, or any such thing, prior to this. Nor has their really been any non-verbal intimation of same. The introduction of the religious symbol does nothing more than remind us, mercilessly, that so many lives are lived and lost more or less by rote. Pialat is not known for creating "pretty" shots—as Adrian Martin points out in his excellent essay on the feature film of this two-disc Region 2 presentation, the "elegance and eloquence" one usually associates with the work of cinematographer Nestor Almendros, who shot Gueule, is here subordinated in part by Pialat's insistence on taking "the most awkward and difficult aesthetic path imaginable." But this shot of the crucifix is very nearly anti-numinous, and staggering.
Also merciless, of course, is the film's unshowy chronicle of one of its lead characters, Monique (Monique Mélinand—three of the four protagonists of the film have the same first names as the actors playing them) from a fully engaged human being into the title "agape mug." A hole, essentially, for food and air to go into, after words can no longer come out of it. Pialat's camera stares at her, her heavy breathing is all we hear on the soundtrack. This is not a process film, since we are hardly made privy to the forces that are taking Monique's life away. Nor is it a treatment of the "art" of dying. It is about...witnessing.
"As the past gets filled up with failure..." is a favorite phrase from an old Pere Ubu lyric that rather neatly sums up the conditions of all the characters in the film who don't die. Phillipe (Phillipe Léotard), Monique's son, is a peevish would-be love parasite who cheats on his wife with protitutes with what appears to be near-compulsive regularity. His father, Roger (Hubert Deschamps), is a racist provincial retailer who, in one of the film's most shockingly offhanded scenes, tries to cop a feel from a female customer as his wife lies dying mere yards away, and who still dissolves into uncontrollable, inconsolable sobs when the old woman finally passes. As for Phillipe's wife Nathalie (Nathalie Baye), she's ill-treated by Phillipe, alienated from his family; hence, her traansparently half-hearted attempts to engage the immediate situation are entirely understandable. Which does not make them any less half-hearted.
As Nathalie and Phillipe speed off from the death-site at the end of the picture, it would not be unreasonable for a viewer to make the mordant reflection that the couple will never finally escape from what's pursuing them, whether or not they grow old together—to evoke another Pialat title, one promised by the Eureka!/Masters of Cinema crew. The supplements on this disc present both a compelling portrait of the querelous Pialat and a sharp analysis of his work and ethos. As for the nine shorts included in the two-disc set, I intend to treat them in another post that takes in all the shorts presented in the various DVD packages. In any case, they absolutely enhance an already essential item.