1972’s “We Won’t Grow Old Together,” The Second Unsentimental Feature of Maurice Pialat

we wont grow old together

Marlene Jobert and Jean Yanne

Please bear with me, as the first part of this review is a long overdue appreciation post for someone who should’ve received more credit for shaping the film scene here in Boston. Needless to say, 2008 was a tough year for the film here as Bo Smith, the 21 year Director of the Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro Film Program at the Museum of Fine Arts, left the MFA to head the Denver Film Society for what would sadly be less than a year. Bo revitalized a dying scene of truly independent and foreign film programming here back in the 1980s and nurtured the growth of a multitude of festivals featuring work from all over the world, including The Turkish Film Festival, The Boston Iranian Film Festival, The Palestinian Film Festival, and the festival where we first met, the inaugural 1995 French Film Festival. Though Bo was always consistently clad in the finest of clothes, he walked up to a grubby, skater shorts and ska t-shirt wearing Generoso after the screening of the ninth film I saw at the festival and asked why was I there. We then engaged in a lengthy discussion on the state of French cinema, which I guessed surprised him a bit because, between films, I was playing a lot of very loud reggae through my headphones. After that exchange, Bo would frequently stop by during the remainder of the festival and ask my opinion on what I had just seen, and in turn, during the conversations that followed, I grew my appreciation of his immense knowledge and love of cinema.

Cut away to 2003, shortly after the passing of Maurice Pialat, Bo curated a complete retrospective of the work of Pialat, a director he greatly admires and resembled himself as a director who also never seemed to be remotely concerned with the commercial success of his output. By 2003, I had only seen Pialat’s most well known film, 1983’s “A Nos Amours,” and although I admired it greatly, I had never seen the rest of Pialat’s work, so based on Bo’s suggestion, I attended all of the retrospective he put together. All, except the film that I am writing about today, 1972’s “We Won’t Grow Old Together,” which was recently screened at another of this area’s institutions, The Harvard Film Archive as part of a series entitled, “Furious Cinema ’70-‘77.”

More than almost all of the films in this series at Harvard, the word “furious” is most aptly applied to “We Won’t Grow Old Together,” the story of Jean (Jean Yanne), a film cameraman and his obsessive relationship with the younger woman whom he is having a bit more than a little rocky six-year affair with, Catherine (Marlène Jobert). Jean brutally lashes out at and reconciles so many times with Catherine that it borders on the comedic, and at times it even resembles a more violent turbulence that Albert Brooks’ neurotic film editor inflicts on Kathryn Harrold in Brooks’ 1978 film,“Modern Romance.” The plot of “We Won’t Grow Old Together” can be surmised easily. You are there, intimately watching a relationship spiral out of control, but this film is like so many of Pialat’s best works in that it is so much more than the plot. As film critic Kent Jones once explained:

“Even more than Jean Eustache […] Pialat was an irascibly private artist, charting a twisted, crook-backed path with each new movie, almost always emerging with works in which the mind-bending vitality of immediate experience trumps all belief systems, allegiances, plans. […] More than Cassavetes, more than Renoir, Pialat wanted every frame of celluloid bearing his name to be marked by the here and the now.

Jean is relentless in his unsavory treatment of Catherine and she is as relentless in her tolerance of Jean’s somewhat grotesque behavior to the point of insanity. The conflict reaches such a insane mess, that even Jean’s beleaguered wife Françoise (Macha Méril) calmly counsels her husband during about his frustration with dealing with Catherine. This bizarre treatment of this relationship is portrayed as it is with most relationships, romantic or otherwise, in many of Pialat’s films, and that is a portrayal that is completely devoid of a divisive plot or sentimentality. There is no hoping for an understanding between characters or even a moment off of the ropes; you are there to witness a few sensational actors destroy one another for the better part of one hundred minutes, and you are enthralled with the process, though this process was not always appreciated by Pialat’s actors. It needs to be noted that even after winning the best actor’s award for his portrayal in “We Won’t Grow Old Together” at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival, Jean Yanne castigated the film. “I think it’s a lousy story,” he said, in part, noting also, “If I’m any good in the part, believe me, it was completely involuntary.”

The Opening Scene Of “We Won’t Grow Old Together”

Similar to Gerard Depardieu’s character, Loulou and his treatment of Isabelle Huppert’s Nelly in the 1980 Pialat film, “Loulou,” your only recourse is to watch Pialat’s characters crack and get glued together over and over again and it’s this kind of elliptical style editing, which is a Pialat trademark, and this is also why you either love or hate his work. My feelings about Pialat’s work can be summed up by a conversation with Bo Smith  after the MFA retrospective screening of “Loulou” back in 2003.  Bo came up to me and asked me as what I thought of the film and I responded: “It’s a bit like the stab in the gut that Loulou gets in the middle of the film, Loulou takes it, it knocks him down, but soon he just sucks it up and moves on.”

Though it has been many years since Bo Smith has walked or more like bicycled through the streets of Boston, I will be a bit sentimental here unlike Mr. Pialat and wish him a long overdue thank you for all of the great films he brought to town.

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