Maurice Pialat’s second feature, We Won’t Grow Old Together, became an unlikely commercial success upon its release. Far from viewer-friendly, it tells the story of the endless breakups and makeups of a highly unstable yet apparently indissoluble couple. It’s a sort of love story told in inverted terms, depicting the protracted end of a five-year affair, with its arbitrary disagreements, sudden mood shifts, moments of irrational anger, and displays of stinging contempt, presented with a genuine, unmeasured violence.
“You’ve never succeeded at anything and you never will,” says Jean (Jean Yanne), a 40-year-old married filmmaker, to his younger, working-class lover Catherine (Marlène Jobert). “And do you know why? Because you are vulgar, irremediably vulgar, and not only are you vulgar, you are ordinary.” These are the film’s most celebrated lines, quoted in the original trailer as well as on the back of the DVD recently released in France—a sort of brutalist alternative to the famous line from Love Story: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry”
Certainly, no one says they’re sorry very often in Pialat’s film, or at least means it for long. The director summed up the film’s structure in a 1983 interview with French Prémiere‘s Marc Esposito: “It was very repetitive—it was really like Ravel’s ‘Bolero.’ A lot of people who saw the film and liked it asked themselves how I could have sustained something so slight: a guy drives a girl crazy who finally leaves him. So it’s necessarily the same scenes that come back again and again.” Violent rupture is followed by casual reconciliation, and after one of Pialat’s unmarked ellipses—a jump cut in a Pialat film can cover five seconds or five months, and there is little in the narration to tell us which—the couple is together again. No explanation necessary.
The plot, as in many of Pialat’s films, was a direct transposition from his personal life. Like Jean, Pialat was married at the time but having an affair with a young, uneducated woman; like Pialat, Jean visits the south of France to make a documentary on the Camargue region (Pialat’s 1966 short, La Camargue, is offered as an extra on the DVD). Marlène Jobert, an actress usually cast in genre films (opposite Charles Bronson, fore example, in René Clément’s Rider on the Rain), was asked to play a character close to her own working-class origins; as Jean, Jean Yanne models his performance so closely on Pialat’s own appearance and demeanor that one wonders why Pialat didn’t simply play the role himself, as he was to do later in À nos amours.
But for autobiography, We Won’t Grow Old Together remains chilly and impersonal. The camera stands out the action, taking the point of view of neither protagonist (though, naturally enough, the audience tends to side with the abused and far more emotionally open Christine). Because the couple has no place of their own, they are forced to meet in cafés, hotel rooms, and—most expressively—in Jean’s car, a boxy blue Renault with dirty, smudged windows (the greasy fingerprints on the glass seem like a direct affront to mainstream moviemaking, where such “mistakes,” otherwise known as points of reality, would never be permitted).
Just like Kiarostami 20 years later, Pialat is intrigued by the dramatic pressure cooker that the confined space of the car provides, but where Kiarostami’s characters generally look straight ahead as they drive and talk, Pialat’s actors sit in a parked car, facing each other—a shift from a sense of life as a journey to life as a static condition, from the freedom of the road to the claustrophobia of the couple. Pialat’s characters, like their vehicles, are going nowhere fast.
In the final sequence of We Won’t Grow Old Together Jean’s car finally moves—he’s dropping Christine off and for once the camera is in the back seat, looking at the two characters from behind. The shift in point of view suggests that the rupture has finally become complete; there will be no more reconciliations. Christine gives Jean a quick buss on the cheek and hops out; as Jean drives away, Pialat employs the film’s only nonlinear cut, to a flashback of Christine swimming alone in the choppy waves of a chilly sea during the visit to Camargue. For Pialat, this shot represents what may be a uniquely subjective moment in his resolutely objective cinema; the image represents the Christine that Jean will always carry with him, the Christine who will live on in his memory. Here, for once, Pialat is “making cinema,” using a rhetorical device to make a point that his studiously plain image and sound alone cannot. An emotional rupture becomes a stylistic rupture as well, in one of the most anomalous and moving moments in this uniquely stubborn and uniquely brilliant filmmaker’s work.