The time-honoured coming-of-age movie is engineered so the viewer can project personal experience onto the young characters as they pummel their way through adolescence. The parents serve as a counterpoint, sometimes chiding their offspring for recklessness, or maybe even just lurking in the shadows, dealing with their own tantrums and tiaras, allowing the kids to get on with it.
In Maurice Pialat’s 1983 masterpiece, A Nos Amours, the family is a cauldron of high-concentrate froideur. The film pinpoints the instant where a child suddenly realises the lustrous bounty that lays ahead, just as her malcontent father discovers that he’s coming close to life’s final terminus.
Emerging from the fantasy of childhood is seen in the opening moments, where Sandrine Bonnaire’s 16-year-old coquette Suzanne takes time out from rehearsing a play at a teen summer camp to “perform” for a gallery of male on-lookers. She stands tall at the prow of the boat like a charm statue that’s keeping the schooner afloat. One of those warm for her form is older brother Robert.
Later, she wanders off to a motorway siding to canoodle with her dorky boyfriend, but decides he’s not the one to take her virginity – that’s a prize she’ll pass to some random nutter in a fun pub. Back in Paris, Suzanne stealthily operates around her highly-strung family. She doesn’t crave sex like it’s an addiction, but is determined to make it a regular aspect of her social life. She thinks that her parents don’t see it, but they do
They see it because they’ve been there themselves, they’ve experienced those clinches, they’ve told those lies, they know the entire playbook of disappointment by heart. Maybe they’re also jealous that she’s able to make these snap decisions and she’s a master of her own destiny. As parents, as professionals, they are trapped in limbo.
There’s a spiritual aspect to Bonnaire’s performance as she seems to exemplify some corrupted notion of free will. That freedom results in idle pleasure or beautiful stolen moments, like an intimate late night powwow with her father, brilliantly played by Pialat himself. He reveals that he’s planning to walk out on the family, but this bombshell barely registers with Suzanne because this is the type of brutal spontaneity that has become her creed. She carries on chomping a disc of baloney.
Yet this is also a film about how free will can negatively impact others. Her mother, played as a nagging wraith by Evelyne Ker, is in the midst of a protracted breakdown, and she blames Suzanne for all her problems. The calming bliss of lounging naked, chugging cigarettes and applying make-up is cracked when life at home takes a turn for the bleak.
A Nos Amour is that rare teen movie that doesn’t shy away from violence, both literal and psychological, and some of the tussles in the film err close to being unwatchable. Pialat’s commitment to untrammelled, quasi-Mondo realism means that when Suzanne comes home to a smack round the face, she really does get a smack round the face.
These scenes become more of a regular occurrence as the film surges on, are chilling and blunt, but they also emphasise Suzanne’s pluck, as she is more than willing to fight back. It’s inferred that her effete brother Robert (Dominique Besnehard) hits and demeans her because he, alongside a string of male paramours, is in love with her.
What’s so great about this film is that it isn’t about anything obvious. There is no cosy arc. Time passes, wounds are healed and then reopened, Suzanne gets engaged but regrets it, her father returns during a festive dinner and appears to confirm that the family unit is soon to disband. It’s a story about time’s meandering, unpredictable, always-tragic passage, but it’s also about a specific moment where a child becomes an adult and a parent is saddled once more with an independence of which they’ve long become bored.
Overwhelming sadness becomes the product of accrued detail, as Suzanne and her father share the charred remnants of his corrupted wisdom on a bus to the airport. This doesn’t adhere to any traditional conventions of what a movie should be, and yet it does more than make banal generalities about how life can be lived. There’s no lesson from this film, and yet in its glorious, infuriating entirety says we should be happy that love is a concept that defies definition.
The Maurice Pialat season runs on mubi.com until 4 November. A Nos Amours screens at London’s Rio Cinema on Sunday 17 September in collaboration with the À Nos Amours filmmakers collective – book tickets here.
Published 12 Sep 2017
Our latest print edition is a love letter to Luca Guadagnino’s scintillating summertime romance.
Join us for this special screening of the teen movie to end all teen movies.
By Matt Thrift
The director has been producing casual masterpieces since 1964.