Canon Entry - A Nos Amours (1983)
Inspired by the 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die, Edgar Wright’s 1000 favorite films and other lists, I am striving to come up with my own personal canon of films.
Though A Nos Amours starts with a young girl (Suzanne, played by Sandrine Bonnaire), rehearsing lines for a romantic period drama, this is the closest that this film will come to the teen romance genre, a deservedly maligned one with its most heinous culprits filling young minds with unrealistic expectations of love and romance. In fact, this film is so free of cinematic artifice that I felt most of the time I was watching a documentary rather than a constructed narrative.
Suzanne is a young Parisian girl who is just starting to experiment with her sexuality. Her experiments coincide with her father’s leaving her family. As she slowly grows more and more sexually active, her mother and brother despair over her apparent promiscuity, more than once resorting to physical violence in order to discipline her. Suzanne is unable to find true fulfillment and love with any of her partners, believing that sex and physical intimacy as an acceptable substitute, though there are many cases to the contrary.
Much of this authenticity owes to Sandrine Bonnaire, Arlette Langman the screenwriter, and director Maurice Pialat. Starting with Bonnaire, her performance is even more extraordinary since she is the exact age of the character. Playing yourself (which, to be clear, Bonnaire is not doing) is always difficult, especially if you do not have direct control over how to portray. You end up playing a version of yourself, which can be particularly problematic if that version is seeing through adult eyes. Pialat was extremely clever to let Bonnaire be in such control and trust in her ability. Her Suzanne is disaffected, rebellious, sullen, yet she can also be adorable, charming and affectionate - in other words, a real teenager.
You know that Bonnaire is simply not playing herself because of the scenes where she is physically intimate. Even if she had somehow been that sexually active even before this movie, these scenes are clearly the work of Arlette Langmann. In these scenes, Bonnaire seems so much older than her age. We see the arc that she goes through, which is not so much an arc as it is sinking into deeper and deeper states of disaffection. A sexual tryst with an American sailor ends with the sailor thanking her and her telling him “it’s free.” Later, she talks about her tryst with her girlfriend as a teenager would, but she does it in such a matter of fact way that we can see how the rest of her sexual encounters will turn out. When she says later “I’m only happy with a guy,” this line and the casual attitude with which she says it encapsulates her mental and spiritual state. Perhaps 15 or 16 might not be too young for sexual jadedness, but it still is profoundly sad while also clear-eyed and honest. That Bonnaire had the talent, but more importantly, the discipline and the stamina to play so many different emotions, sometimes in close succession in the same scene, is a testament to her astounding ability.
As for Maurice Pialat and Arlette Langmann, I really think that these two need to be treated as a creative team. Langmann was an important creative force and artistic voice in Pialat’s greatest movies (L’enfance nue, A Nos Amours, La Gueule Ouverte, Loulou), and not to diminish Pialat’s ability, but I doubt that he would have been able to understand a teenage girl as deeply as Langmann did. Many details from a female point of view seem right. For example, all the men in this movie, especially Suzanne’s brother and father, seem to have an unhealthy obsession with her sexuality that borders on incestuous. Even a lighthearted joke from her father about joining Suzanne and her friend in bed is creepy yet strangely accurate. The claustrophobic relationship between she and her mother probably strikes unnervingly close for many mothers who also believe that their daughters will never see them as more than just villains.
Maurice Pialat does his best by staying relatively invisible. We do not get too many cinematic flourishes (though that beginning scene with Suzanne in a white dress at the bow of the boat is sheer perfection). He lets scenes play out in seemingly desultory ways, yet his overall film does not seem aimless. When dramatic events do happen, they are truly shocking because he does not build up to them in obvious ways. Consider the violence that is inflicted on Suzanne. Those are medium shots that show the whole bodies of characters and simply observes. The dinner scene towards the end has Pialat (as Suzanne’s father) baldly criticizing a young man in front of everyone, yet the words he used are from a review criticizing Pialat’s own films. To have something as random and improvised as that speech fit so well within the movie speaks to Pialat’s ability to remain tonally and emotionally true, even when it comes from ostensible artifice.
Perhaps the greatest way that Suzanne’s father hurt her was that she does not see value in herself outside of what people think of her, most especially her father. The last scene on the bus is perhaps the most devastating at all, not because her father is deliberately hurting her. In fact, he goes on about how much he wanted to protect her when she was young since he thought she was going to be kidnapped because she was too cute. Even though Suzanne has declared that she is going to marry a man and go away with him, it is clear that the only man she ever really loved was her father. Her rough domestic life is nothing to the loving obliviousness of this man who has so casually ruined her life, and when she she is with a man on the airplane who is not her fiance, we do not know if Suzanne will ever completely have a healthy attitude towards love, sexual and romantic.