[The following is a translation of a chapter from Serge Toubiana’s memoirs Les fantômes du souvenir (“The Ghosts of Memory”, 2016, Grasset)]

Anxious to know if Maurice was suffering, Sylvie Pialat called the doctor. The prognosis was that he’d possibly not last the weekend. We three had a meeting of sorts to decide whether or not to increase the morphine dosage. That very evening, just before midnight, Maurice Pialat died in his bed. He was in the sky-blue shirt that Emmanuèle and I had gifted him on 25 December 2002 during the Christmas meal we were invited to. Sky-blue suited him well, Maurice seemed at peace after a long illness.

Shortly before Maurice’s death, Sylvie did the right thing by inviting all those who mattered in his personal and professional life one after the other. She wanted everyone to have a memory of Maurice, without the regret of not having seen him one last time. But he wasn’t capable anymore of recognizing the person sitting next to his bed. The only one whose voice and presence he recognized by instinct was Gérard Depardieu. Whenever he entered the bedroom, the actor had the gift and energy to banter and make himself heard. Maurice’s face would then light up with a faint smile. The two men loved each other deeply, there was an obvious and natural complicity between them that Maurice had with no one else, except of course Sylvie.

An intense atmosphere reigned all through the night of 10-11 January, suffused with remembrance and shared affection. Death brought together those who were present physically. At one point, I had to take little Antoine in my arms and grip him tightly because his body trembled as he cried. I was able to calm him after several long minutes. He slowly pulled himself together and received his friends from the neighbourhood. The children soon started playing and running around, but ensured they went to see Maurice on his deathbed from time to time.

Around 1 AM, Sylvie asked me to take care of the funeral services. I’d never done that. On the telephone, a man asked me pointed questions that I was unable to answer. Something like: “How many people should the vault accommodate? Two or three? Should the service be religious or not?” “Hmm… a little religious but not too much!”, I mumbled. Behind me, Sylvie, Daniel Toscan du Plantier and Isabelle Huppert burst out laughing. Daniel Toscan du Plantier came up with the right answer quickly: “Antoine is too young; I think a vault for two will do!”

Two undertakers came in an hour later. They looked the part so well that you could take them for characters from a Jean-Pierre Mocky film. They presented a catalogue for Sylvie to choose a casket from: it had the entire range of materials and colours. With Antoine and Sylvie, we had a “casting” of sorts for the caskets. For the first time in my life, I felt as if I were in the shoes of a filmmaker, taking concrete decisions. Someone had just died, his body was in the adjacent room, but that didn’t prevent life from resuming its course. There was a kind of communion, friendship and empathy between us: Jacques Fieschi and Philippe Godeau, who were in charge of the wine and the food, Géraldine Pailhas, Alexandra London, Sandrine Bonnaire, Yann Dedet, Patrick Grandperret, Lise Lamétrie, Claude Davi, Jean-Claude Bourlat, Alain Artur, Martine Giordano, all friends were present. A spontaneous moment, around a dead person, right in the line of Maurice Pialat’s cinema—I’m thinking of La gueule ouverte that depicted his mother’s death, and of Le Garçu that depicted his father’s. Death, very much present in his films, resembled them. I was moved but didn’t cry. I was simply concerned. I had known this man, handsome in his grey beard and white hair, for almost twenty years. And I liked his films.

Other near and dear showed up all through the weekend at their home, including Cédric Kahn, who was very close to Maurice. At 9 AM on Monday, I had to go to their place, where Daniel Toscan du Plantier was to pick us up on his way to the Montparnasse cemetery. We had to choose the plot where Maurice was to be buried. The manager of the cemetery gave us different options, the cost varying depending on whether the vault was on the aisles or in the second row. We were there to accompany Sylvie, to help her choose. The services took place on 16 January at 2:30 PM at the Saint-Sulpice church, and it was crowded. Who could’ve guessed that exactly a month later Daniel Toscan du Plantier would succumb to a heart attack as he came out of a breakfast in Berlin, where he was present as the president of Unifrance Films?

I got to know Maurice Pialat in 1983, at the time of À nos amours. The film had made a strong impression on me, if only in its discovery of Sandrine Bonnaire. She was hardly 16 when she was chosen, following a long casting process, to play the character of Suzanne. Pialat was so amazed by her that he decided to play the role of the father in the film. À nos amours, like Loulou, the preceding film with Isabelle Huppert and Gérard Depardieu, was inspired by the life of Arlette Langmann, who was the filmmaker’s partner for many years. À nos amours is the story of her adolescence, her friendships and her first loves, her family life centred on the relationship with her father, who was a furrier, and her brother, Claude Langmann, alias Claude Berri. As often, Pialat modified his script at will to suit his shooting conditions and actors. In the original script, the father dies. But Pialat, without warning, decided to have the father return to sow trouble in the family. The scene is staggering in its truth. Family and friends are seated at the table, the doorbell rings, the mother gets up to open the door, and Pialat, who was so far behind the camera as the filmmaker, had quickly put on a raincoat to enter the scene, through another door, as an actor. Evidently surprised, Evelyne Ker, who played the mother, scolds and slaps him, then receives a brutal blow that sends her packing across the room. Filmed in a single shot, without interruption, the scene plays out like a long settling of familial scores. Pialat had told no one, except Jacques Loiseleux, his cinematographer. So much so that the camera could capture the actors’ stupefied looks on seeing him come back and being forced to improvise their reactions.

It’s wholly characteristic of the filmmaker’s method to let the process of creation surpass him, in order to surprise and be surprised himself by the incidents and accidents of shooting. Pialat caught his actors, even technical collaborators, on the wrong foot this way. He was obsessed with the idea that his films dodge conventions, that his scenes never be predictable. That’s what imparts a feeling of freedom to his cinema. I don’t remember which character utters this line in Police: “Beware of still waters”, which perfectly summarizes the contradictory feeling of heaviness and supreme lightness of Pialat’s cinema. Scenes in his films are at times suffused with melancholy, as though the story found it hard to free itself of a torpor, giving too much way to dialogue. And suddenly, like an uppercut, something emerges, storms into the quiet rhythm of the scene, propelled by instinct. What might’ve seemed confused starts clearing up, in an unforeseen way, jostles the shot and surprises the characters. The water isn’t still anymore, the film becomes a thunderstorm. This feeling of chaos is at the heart of Pialat’s style.

During the release of À nos amours, Alain Bergala, Jean Narboni and I had conducted a long interview with Maurice Pialat for Cahiers du cinéma. Our friendship began there. He was a complex man, difficult to understand at times. What did he expect from others? That they tell him the truth about his work? I think he was quite lucid about his own work. I remember our arguments, him reprimanding me for liking his films while also liking those of other filmmakers for whom he only had contempt. At the same time, he felt hurt by the comparison, as though he wanted to be loved exclusively. He had his punching bags. Especially the New Wave filmmakers, whom he reprimanded for making bourgeois films on pointless subjects. From Godard to Truffaut, passing through Chabrol and Rivette, everyone was taken to task. Conviction obliged me to defend them, but it was of no use. He begrudged them for existing, and especially for having begun to make films in their youth, in the late fifties and the early sixties, when he was “struggling”, settling for short films—including the sublime L’amour existe produced by Pierre Braunberger in 1960—and documentary jobs, such as Chroniques de France made in 1965-66 and produced by Pathé.

Jealousy and resentment animated the man like his films. One doesn’t understand anything about Pialat if one doesn’t notice that characters in his films embody figures of resentment. This is obvious in the character played brilliantly by Jean Yanne in Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble, a man at once abject, miserable, tormented, constantly mistreating his mistress—played devastatingly by Marlène Jobert—and forcing her to leave him while not being able to accept that she does. Maurice Pialat’s self-portrait in the figure of the abandoned man.

To come back to his jealous and very critical relation with the New Wave, one must know that François Truffaut was far from indifferent to Pialat’s cinema, going so far as to coproduce L’Enfance nue in 1968, his first film, with Mag Bodard, Véra Belmont and Claude Berri. It may be that Pialat resented Truffaut for having helped him and that he saw it as a humiliation or a debt to pay back. Pialat was forty-two when he made L’Enfance nue, an age when the New Wave filmmakers already had a body of work behind them. The truth is that Pialat had “missed” the New Wave bus. Partly due to bad luck, but also due to the fact that his inspiration or imaginary universe was rooted in an older France, that of his youth, before and during the war.

He had something of the black sheep in him. It’s not surprising that L’Enfance nue deals with neglected childhood in a raw and moving way. With him, one had to constantly furnish proofs of love, again and again, until exhaustion. And that’s when he’d blame us, at times terribly, for abandoning him. During the release of Van Gogh, discovered at the Cannes Festival in May 1991, even when Cahiers du cinéma had the film on their cover, Pialat refused to give us an interview. What did he resent us for? I don’t know. The film didn’t win any prize at the festival; the jury led by Roman Polanski had chosen the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink. Pialat was vexed, sad and perceived it as an injustice, which was true because Van Gogh is a masterpiece, his most ambitious and aesthetically successful film. That didn’t prevent Pialat from belittling it, as was his wont. For him, the criteria for artistic success never included a film in its entirety; he was only satisfied with moments, when he thought he was able to capture life, to find the right rhythm, to locate himself at the right distance from human beings and things, and when the actors had stopped performing and let themselves go, finally allowing their soul to show through. Pialat strongly believed in the truth of each moment. It was his absolute criterion.

Van Gogh makes heart-breaking assertions about the status of an artist: an enigma, an interrogation, a “parasitic” element amid the living, a solitary being, humbler and more anguished than the average, doubting everything, carrying out his work like an artisan, who expects nothing from the society except to survive. There’s often an anger, at all those who enjoy an inappropriate, facile recognition, or whose talent is usurped, dishonest. I recognized Pialat himself in the character sorrowfully played by Jacques Dutronc in Van Gogh. In April 2003, when I was working on the DVD of Pialat’s films for Gaumont, I made a trip to Corsica to meet Jacques Dutronc. He received me with kindness in his beautiful Monticello home. With great reserve, he talked about the tumultuous shooting of Van Gogh. “I didn’t know that painting was his life… During the shoot, I used his paint box, his own easel that didn’t stand straight. I could never have said no to Maurice: making films with him is worth all the conservatories in the world! Like a good professor, he elevated you, he elevated, and you didn’t realize that it was to make you fall down again… I had the privilege of seeing him every day, with his beautiful smile… We never spoke during the shoot. After the film, he hated me, never talked to me again. He resented me and wrote to me that I was as capable of the best as the worst… It’s good for an actor to be as capable of the best as the worst!” Jacques Dutronc described the interpersonal difficulties with Pialat during the shooting of Van Gogh, without the least resentment. But it was as though he had “stolen” the role from his director. As though, in Pialat’s eyes, the actor was a usurper or an imposter in his attempt to play Van Gogh.

Not just because Pialat was a painter in his youth and because painting had been his first passion. Why did he give up painting, only to lead a rather chaotic and uncertain material life? I’ve not been able to find out. In his living room, he kept a self-portrait painted in 1943. When I asked him about this period, between 1943 and 1946, when he was a student at the Arts Décoratifs, Maurice was evasive, affirming that he didn’t keep any of his paintings. Shortly after his death, Sylvie found about forty of his canvases in the cellar, which she exhibited in October 2003 in Picasso’s old atelier at the Grenier des Grands-Augustins.

Our reunion took place during the release of Le Garçu four years later. Thierry Jousse and I had come to interview him at length, when Sylvie, Maurice and little Antoine lived in Agassac, a village in Haute-Garonne, not far from L’Isle-en-Dodon. Shortly after, he was cross with me once again for obscure reasons. In his words, I was “Judas”. I wrote him letters and postcards, and sent him a greeting card every year, offering him signs of my friendship, but I got no response. This went on for five years, to a point that I stopped writing or telephoning him.

The miracle took place in January 1999. A chance encounter between Sylvie and Emmanuèle, who ran into each other in front of a shop on the Pré aux Clercs street. They hugged each other. It was, of course, a question of meeting each other again, but Sylvie had to ask Maurice’s opinion. I felt like I was taking a test. Maurice agreed to see me. We never left each other in the three years that followed. I was distressed to see how lonely he was. He had created a void around him, discouraging the best wishes of his close collaborators, his actors and actresses. No one reached out to him anymore. He was angry with Daniel Toscan du Plantier, who was his faithful producer, I’d even say “protector”, his friend and his neighbour in Le Gers. He didn’t want to hear about him anymore. Daniel Toscan du Plantier was unhappy about this because he sincerely admired Pialat.

We regularly dined at his place on the Abbé Gregoire street, where the food was always excellent. Sometimes at a restaurant. Despite knowing him for twenty years, it was only ten days before his death that he finally declared his friendship to me. With him, it was an ordeal, a test to be passed. You had to regularly suffer unpleasant moments, moments of maceration and disparagement. And then, he’d smile and everything vanished, the bitterness and bad faith, to make way for a childlike, provocative charm. His smile always moved me. Others have also been bowled over by this smile of a mischievous child, which preferred to come “fetch you”. This man worried himself sick, poisoning himself in the process. What I remember of Maurice is this incredible negative power at work, which didn’t prevent his work from being magnificent.

I put myself at his disposition from January 2000 onwards. He spoke of his film projects, his desire to adapt Lovecraft, Georges Simenon or Michel Houellebecq. Projects that were too ambitious and fanciful, which would have demanded a physical effort he was unfortunately not in a position to undertake anymore. But it was essential that he had the desire to go back to work, that he dreamt of projects. Sylvie wanted me to supervise the production of Maurice’s films on DVD. Nicolas Seydoux, the president of Gaumont, was fascinated with this project and supported it. I had thought of involving Maurice in it, hoping that he’d grant me an interview for each of his films. Except that he couldn’t do without bad-mouthing them.

The Premiers Plans Festival was supposed to take place in Angers in January 2002. Its director Claude-Éric Poiroux and I agreed to organize a complete retrospective dedicated to Maurice Pialat, ensuring that we showed all his films including his first shorts, the series of six documentaries on Istanbul [1] that, thanks to Sylvie, I’d just discovered, preserved at the archives of the CNC, his magnificent serial La Maison des bois, made for television. All that remained was to convince Maurice to come to Angers. And the clinching gesture was to get Gérard Depardieu on board, who agreed to be present at the tribute to Maurice. Nathalie Baye, who presided the jury that year, also backed Maurice Pialat, who had directed her in La Gueule ouverte. We had rehearsed the proceedings meticulously: Claude-Éric was supposed to introduce the evening, then it would be my turn to invite Maurice to join us along with Depardieu. At the last moment, possibly because he sensed that the hall was fully occupied, Maurice flouted the protocol and, with his walking stick, got onto the stage even before being called. He received an enthusiastic and warm reception that lit up his face. It was a moment of great intensity and great affection around him. The following morning, a conversation was planned between Pialat and me to which I invited Yann Dedet, his editor. A lot of people had shown up, curious to listen to Maurice, who was in full swing and made the public laugh, often at my expense. Even though we lauded him for La Maison des bois, Van Gogh and his other films, Pialat demurred, noticing only faults, the lack of resources or the ill-will of his actors and technicians. That’s how the man was, harsh and unsatisfied.

Shortly after, Gérard Depardieu organized a luncheon at his house in Tigné, not far from Angers, where he owned vineyards: it was Antoine’s tenth birthday. This day remains a wonderful memory, a little like a long meal scene in a Pialat film.

A few days later, at his home, Maurice and I recorded a long radio program for France Culture, which found a large audience. We then had the idea of producing a book of interviews. It was probably too late. His health was worsening. He was hospitalized in Necker, where I used to visit him, in order to relieve Sylvie who constantly watched over him. Curiously, I think of these as very sweet moments, rife with long silences. In his hallucinations, Maurice would stare at a wall of his room and see his father come to life. He’d see a lizard on a window. “See, there he is!” He had to be reassured otherwise, such was his anxiety.

That’s how it was all through 2002, until Christmas when we went to lunch at their home. Sylvie had prepared a feast and had invited Micheline, Maurice’s first wife. Antoine got his gifts, Maurice his beautiful sky-blue shirt. We had brought a bottle of Condrieu, knowing that he liked this wine a lot. But I couldn’t sense his look anymore, he wasn’t really there anymore with us. He excused himself from the table to go back to his room at the end of the corridor. A while later, he called me with a feeble voice. Sylvie asked me to join him. I found him on his bed, very agitated, gripped by anxiety. He told me: “I now know that you are a friend, promise me that you’ll take care of…” I called Sylvie, who joined us. The three of us huddled for a moment. He was like a child who had to be reassured.

 

Footnotes:

[1] I’m talking about Chroniques turques made in 1964: Pehlivan, Istanbul, Byzance, Maître Galip, based on Nazim Hikmet’s poems, La Corne d’or, Bosphore. These six short films, each running for thirteen minutes, were produced by Samy Halfon (Como Films).