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Maurice Pialat (1925-2003) is often described as a ‘realist’ filmmaker. His work is certainly full of powerful moments – of spontaneous tenderness or sudden brutality between people – that are strikingly lifelike in their effect. But Pialat himself steadfastly refused the label of realism. His aim was not to record life as it is, but to reconstruct and stylise it according to his very particular view of human passions, attachments, needs and conflicts.

Pialat had a unique response to the famous question ‘What is cinema?’. Based on his love for the Louis Lumière shorts he discovered just before shooting his debut feature L’Enfance-nue in 1968, he saw every take in a film shoot as a dynamic event. This event involves the performers, a situation set up by the narrative, and the camera as it follows, frames and records the action.

Our audiovisual essay looks at four Pialat films – L’Enfance-nue, La Gueule ouverte (1974), Loulou (1980) and À nos amours (1983) – through the lens of Jean-Pierre Gorin’s remark that the filmmaker’s style can be defined in three consecutive stages:

  • ‘Manoeuvring’ refers to how Pialat set up his scenes and narrative situations.
  • ‘Capturing’ covers the surprises, accidents and volatile interactions that occurred once the camera was rolling.
  • And, lastly, ‘working’ is what Pialat achieved with his collaborators in post-production, reducing scenes to their essentials and reconfiguring their elements in a bold, stark montage.

Further reading

Where to begin with Maurice Pialat

By Geoff Andrew

Where to begin with Maurice Pialat

Deep focus: Maurice Pialat – the man who changed French cinema

Deep focus: Maurice Pialat – the man who changed French cinema

After Pialat: the young realists of 1990s French cinema

By Ginette Vincendeau

After Pialat: the young realists of 1990s French cinema

Sight & Sound Summer 2021

In our current (double) issue we hand centre stage to 100 hidden heroes of cinema who have shaped film history. Plus Ben Wheatley on In the Earth, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, Victor Kossakovsky’s pig portrait Gunda, Jane Fonda interviewed, Limbo and refugees on film, and a look back at My Own Private Idaho. Available in print and digitally.

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Originally published: 6 December 2019