Maurice Pialat was one of the toughest, most bullish, tenderhearted, pugnacious filmmakers to ever work in Europe. He made 10 feature films, many shorts, and one television series in 35 years. Each is uncommonly spare, love-filled, banal, and brutal, as difficult to experience as their maker reportedly was to contend with on set. Together they form an oeuvre that exemplifies rigor and gracelessness and a total lack of fussiness about good taste, wherever it might land on the high-low spectrum. His movies are routine and explosive; they lurch between emotional polarities in the space of a minute; they are stuffed with odd-ends and anti-climaxes. His actors flip wildly between dramatic registers and the characters they play are thrown together out of flagrantly contradictory material. His work is riven with ellipses, regularly shifting uncomfortably, seismically past essential plot points and character beats—he was said to cut instinctively chasing the 'truth' of a given scene. None of which is to say that Pialat was ever imprecise; he was simply scrupulous—pig-headed even—in following a well-developed, natural bullshit detector.
Grappling with the Pialat oeuvre is a tiring experience—full of left-of-field jabs, hooks, feints, ducks, surprises, and uncertainties. For all their organizing intelligence, the films are also exercises in the willful generation of chaos, always at odds with the dramatic potential of a scene as it uncoils. A lot of these crossed lines are there in the intimate moments between his characters—whether that's between two panting young lovers carnally tearing off each other's clothes or between a mother and her adult son eating soup and talking about infidelity the way they would talk about the flavor of the soup. Pialat was one of the least sentimental artists to ever work in the medium of film and began by making flat, political, frank, ugly, de-dramatized masterpieces before graduating to producing higher-budget films with a patina of prestige like Police (1985), Under the Sun of Satan (1987), and Van Gogh (1991). Yet these later films, once you yank away the productions' would-be pretensions, are almost perverse in their incessant barreling towards the least conventional, most acidic, laconic, antithetical idea of how a scene should be played. Just think of the opening few minutes of Police and its shrieking coffee machine inelegantly overriding the dialogue between Gérard Depardieu and the man he's interrogating. Or the more general approach the director took to biography in Van Gogh: cataloging all the boring, spontaneous, at times beautiful ins-and-outs of the man's life without ever elevating his art beyond the realm of routine pleasure. Painting and the creation of art, while often pained, can be like a pleasantly dull stroll by the side of a lake. Likewise, for Pialat love and intimacy can be one of the most dangerous, violent, animalistic arenas under the sun.