A lot of filmmakers started out as painters. Maurice Pialat seems to’ve been more tormented by his failure at it than most. But then nothing is easy in his world if his movies are to be believed. Others like David Lynch and Julian Schnabel have found ways to continue with both mediums. Pialat said if you can’t be a genius at something, then why bother. It’s an extreme position, but given the movies he made, I’ll take his word for it.
I wrote about Pialat a few times before. Most recently, a year and a half ago. He’s again front of mind because I recently bought a crummy European DVD of his last film, Le Garçu. It’s the only one of his features unavailable in this country. According to Wikipedia, he was unhappy with how it turned out and wanted to reedit it, but never got to. It came out in 1995, four years after Van Gogh; he was dead a few years later.
It’s an older man’s story about the insecurity of being a late-in-life father, involved with a far younger woman. The little boy in the film is his own son. Pialat’s stand-in is played by his frequent leading man, Gerard Depardieu, a few years before that actor’s slide into full-on lunacy, typified by his friendship with Vladimir Putin. It’s a movie that would pair well with Abel Ferrara’s recent Tommaso. Whether this is your kind of thing, I can’t say, but it’s definitely mine. Few filmmakers portray the wars between women and men more accurately than Pialat. What keeps him from sliding into misogyny is that he’s at least as hard on the men in his movies as the women. The man Depardieu plays in this final film is a real monster. Takes some courage to show yourself that way.
There are very few references to Pialat’s time as a painter online. The pictures in this letter are the only ones I could find. There’s also a shitty untranslated video of a memorial exhibition. What sticks in the memory are the hideous oversized wooden frames on all the little paintings. A bad frame can destroy a picture. Even in the sloppy camera pan of the video, I can tell that whatever quality the work has is obscured by its presentation.
Pialat made my favorite Van Gogh movie partly because of his own intimate experience with oil painting. There are certain things that can only be related from firsthand experience.
Unlike the raging, crystal-clear power of his films, Pialat’s paintings look a little tentative. He was still feeling his way toward a way of working that was his own. He never made it, but that’s all to the good, because otherwise we would not have his movies. Looking at Schnabel’s non-film efforts, I think more painter-filmmakers should follow Pialat’s lead. There are only so many hours in a day and so much creative energy one has to expend in a life. It’s probably best to choose one and give that your all.
This, coming from someone currently attempting to do three things at once, so maybe I’m talking out of my ass, giving out advice I can’t follow myself. It’ll all shake out in the end, and the lesser things will be forgotten, one way or the other. As much as I love movies though, the idea of making one never got past the daydream stage. The level of collaboration and compromise necessary made it a nonstarter. I’m just not a team player.
Would Pialat have been better off as a painter? Unlikely. Know any happy painters? His paintings only matter to his friends and family, whereas his films are for at least a few others. Those who want to see what people are actually like rather what they want others to see or how they wish they could be.
—I reviewed a new Jim Broadbent flick.