Maurice Pialat was 43 when he made L'Enfance Nue, his first feature film, and was comfortably into middle age when he made his second, We Won't Grow Old Together. This latter film, which Kino Lorber is releasing on DVD and Blu-ray today, is plainly not the work of a young man. It's the story of a diseased love affair between a man in his 40s named Jean (Jean Yanne) and a woman in her 20s named Catherine (Marlene Jobert) that struggles and collapses and rebuilds itself again and again, over the course of six years. It's one of the most profoundly uncomfortable viewing experiences I've had in some time, and it left me uncertain what to think. There's unmistakable evidence of artistic success in that reaction, but no comfort.
The film opens with the couple in bed, Jean barely awake while Catherine wonders idly, though not insignificantly, about their past together, and their present. It moves on to their morning, and removed from the ambiguity of that opening scene you can see their ease together, and their humor as Jean asks if Catherine wants bread and butter while she dries her hair. A few scenes later, Catherine is helping Jean in his work -- he makes documentary films, and while shooting on a busy street, he with the camera, she working the sound, he berates her for failing to keep up, finally sending her away. He breaks up with her, in fact, sends her to the train station. But she doesn't board and he comes to get her. They smile wryly at each other, and the fight is in the past. The next time Jean bullies her, they're in his car, and it's sudden: he wonders when she'll get a job, then asks if she'll get another office job, then asks why she won't aim higher, then calls her useless, stupid, ugly. She sits and listens, and the look on Jobert's face is heart-stopping. Every word is a slap but her face and posture show that she's terrified that soon the slaps will become real if she protests, or fires back.
They break up again, for a little while.
When they get back together, there are physical slaps, and in fact before this there was reason to believe Jean had already been hitting Catherine. But now we see it, and there's one terrifying moment of violence that could at any point cross over into rape. In truth, there's no denying that Jean had been hitting her before we actually see it. Her face in the car almost proves it. I won't make too much of this, or get into it too deeply, but my previous job occasionally involved me being trained in matters of domestic violence prevention and aftermath (for the record, my involvement in this arena was very far from extensive), and in one of those training sessions we saw a video that a husband had told one of his sons to take of him, the husband, verbally abusing his wife, the boy's mother. The physical abuse in this case (recorded, but not part of what I saw) was extreme, and in the video of the verbal abuse, the woman's face is very much like Catherine's in the car: weathering the storm, hoping it will pass without becoming physical, blank-faced but terror-stricken, silent, motionless.*
For the first half of We Won't Grow Old Together, this is essentially the relationship we see. A point is reached when Catherine becomes more firm, and Jean begins to regret his behavior. "As they always do," you might say, and, yes, indeed, though to the degree that it matters sometimes that regret makes a difference. In the essay about the film included in with the Kino disc, Nick Pinkerton makes it clear that this was a very autobiographical film for Pialat, and that he'd once had a similarly tempestuous relationship with a younger woman. It matches up in obvious ways, too: Pialat started out making documentaries, like Jean, and Jean's age would have matched Pialat's a few years before he broke into features.
It's not my place, and I'm in no way qualified, to look at this film and use it to condemn Pialat, and I'm not going to do that, but I often see We Won't Grow Old Together as a "breakup" movie, or a "relationship" movie, when it's quite clear to me that it's a film about abuse. It's just that it's one where the abuse reaches a point beyond which the abuser won't allow himself to go. Usually in films, the abuse goes all the way, while this form, which remains inexcusable, must be more common. In any case, Pialat is not excusing himself. I don't know how exactly Jean's behavior reproduces Pialat's own, but Pialat, Pinkerton notes, claimed this film was quite factual. And I think the film hates Jean. I won't stretch that to mean Pialat hated himself, but there's a palpable reaction of pure disgust to some of the things Jean does in this film. Jean Yanne, like Marlene Probert, is exceptionally good in this, which means, by my reckoning, he, the other Jean, the film Jean, is exceptionally hateful.
When the film begins to soften up, and Jean, the film Jean, begins to change, my impulse is to pull back from the film and say "Well fuck you all the same." But Pialat isn't saying "You see, he's not so terrible after all." To the degree he's saying anything, he's saying "This is what happened." That's the sort of film that an audience really has to deal with. They won't grow old together, and thank Christ.
*For the record, the case to which I'm referring ended well: the wife tricked her husband (I can't quite remember the details) into incriminating himself, and walking into the arms of the police. With so much abuse caught on camera, there was no case for the defense, and this particular piece of shit was given something like thirty years in prison, which is currently the stiffest sentence ever given in a domestic violence case.