I was bound to fall in love with this one, I suppose. It has that whole turmoil and conflict of adolescence thing going on like the Tous le garšons stuff which I love so much. But in as much as it resonates with the teenager buried within our adult selves, what it provokes is not nostalgia but rather a resurfacing of the raw pain that only a teenager is capable of and that has since ossified into something much more manageable or at least invisible.
The film itself opens with a rehearsal of Musset's play, "No Trifling With Love", a play in which the transition to adulthood is marked with both grief and sorrow. Pialat's film seems to borrow it's spirit from the play (at least based on whatever I read about it) in that the film treats adolescent emotions with the utmost respect and without a trace of condescension. Besides, Pialat's portrait of his young protagonist is less about psychologizing and more about focusing on her face and gestures. He films her almost clinically as she moves from one experience to the next and these contradictions and Suzanne's transformation are inferred in the gaps between these experiences.
For instance, early on in the film, we have a scene where Suzanne is lying on the grass with Luc, the boy she supposedly is in love with (and eventually admits was the only guy she loved) and Suzanne eventually stands up and walks away without letting him have sex with her. Later in the film Suzanne meets an American guy in a bar and the earlier scene is repeated except this time when the camera closes in on Suzanne's face what we see instead is a flurry of conflicting emotions. Much has happened between these two scenes. Suzanne has learned the cruel lesson that the giddiness of sensual pleasure is often immediately followed by a sense of utter emptiness and irremediable loneliness.
But the terrain that really makes this film such a jarring (albeit rewarding) experience is the way Pialat navigates the minefield of raw, unfettered neuroses that is Suzanne's family. Suzanne's sexual maturation (or exploration) instigates in the family different forms of malcontent that ends up completely upending an already precarious domicile. Watching this familial breakdown is simultaneously excruciating and entrancing. It's chilling watching the absent father, exasperated with the mundane; the mother, incapacitated with hysteria and prone to self-harm; the brother, seemingly predisposed to physical violence and Suzanne, coming home giddy from the euphoria of sexual self-discovery. The family seems ruled by mutual resentment and strained to the point where they frequently erupt into volcanic outbursts of barely-repressed hate. Even more chilling is the cyclicality of said eruptions followed by quiet moments of self-pity.
I've often heard Pialat being compared to Cassavetes and I think I understand where the comparisons are coming from. But Pialat's approach still strikes me as unique and different from Cassavetes. For one thing, the acting in these films is at quite a different register than the acting in Cassavetes's films. Secondly, a lot of the power of Pialat's style seems to me to come from his elliptical editing. Pialat's focus doesn't really seem to be on story at all. Characters appear and disappear without explication, scenes begin halfway and end without resolution and key events are often elided completely. For a film where Suzanne's sexual encounters are alluded to all the time, functioning both as a catalyst to and a remedy for Suzanne's malaise, there's surprisingly little sex on-screen. What we get to see instead is mostly just reaction shots of the aftermath of these events on the characters after the fact.
Several of the most revealing moments in the film come from Pialat himself who acts in the film as Suzanne's father. In a stirring provocative monologue that mark the last fifteen minutes of the film, he lays bare his entire philosophy and argument and concludes that sadness is fundamental and permanent to the human condition. But Pialat's conclusion is not one of resignation or pessimism but rather a petition to embrace this despair given that it's all there is. We go right back to Musset's play where an older character remarks, "We are often deceived in love, often wounded, often unhappy, but we love, and on the brink of the grave we turn to look back and say: I have suffered often, sometimes I have been mistaken, but I have loved. It is me who has lived, and not an imitation created by my pride and my sorrow."
My favorite of all the Pialats I've watched so far.