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We Won't Grow Old Together
cast: Jean Yanne, Marlene Jobert, Macha Meril, Christine Fabrega, and Jacques Galland

director: Maurice Pialat

102 minutes (12) 1972
widescreen ratio 16:9
Eureka DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 10/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Based upon his own semi-autobiographical novel, Maurice Pialat's We Won't Grow Old Together (aka: Nous ne vielliron pas ensemble) is a powerhouse of emotional turmoil. The film's title not only perfectly summarises the broad strokes of the plot, it also serves to implant a certain set of expectations in the minds of the audience. A set of expectations that Pialat brilliantly and surgically up-ends.

Jean (Jean Yanne) is a failing filmmaker. Too lazy to work a proper job and too lazy to devote himself utterly to his art, he makes money shooting second-unit footage while working on a script that he will never complete. He also has a wife named Francoise (Macha Meril). He lives with Francoise but, they are clearly no longer in love. Francoise goes off to Russia for months on end and returns with tales of love affairs while Jean carries on a long-term affair with Catherine (Marlene Jobert).

Catherine is much younger than Jean and is similarly adrift in life. She works as an office temp while waiting to be picked up as a professional model, but she never seems to chase down modelling jobs or work any contacts she might make. Jean and Catherine have been having an affair for six years and the signs of decay are starting to show. The film opens with Catherine musing about how much she hates Jean's flat and how he obviously has never done anything to improve the place. The pair then go away on holiday to the Camargue where Jean has some filming to do.

Catherine attempts to help him but merely gets in the way resulting in Jean losing his temper in public, screaming insults at her and telling her to go back home. He returns to the hotel and finds her waiting. He kicks her out of the hotel room with money for the train and sits on the bed. Next we see him at the train station with her waiting for him. Despite his desire for her to leave, she refuses to. Despite the insults and the anger, she takes him back and he goes looking for her. These early scenes set the tone for a film all about a couple that simply cannot stop breaking up and getting back together. From the public display of anger we move on to Jean sitting in a car with Catherine as he gives her a simply extraordinary dressing down, ranting about how she's too ugly to be a model and how she is not only irredeemably vulgar but ordinary and lazy. Again, he tells her to leave and storms off. He returns to the car a few minutes later and finds her waiting patiently for him.

Throughout the first half of the film, Pialat paints us a picture of not only a dysfunctional relationship but also of two dysfunctional people. Jean is one of those Frenchmen whose attractiveness flows largely from his lack of self-consciousness. A large and physically imposing presence, his raw sexuality crackles around him like an electric field, heightened by his charm (a verbal skill that can just as easily turn vicious), and his unpretentious intellectualism. Jean is a man who lives and breathes cinema and literature. He is also a beast. Catherine is almost the complete opposite of Jean. Softly spoken and passive, Catherine is not only fashion-conscious but also adept at using clothes to augment and amplify her slight frame. Her worldview is so childishly naïve that it is charming. She is a woman who appears to be endlessly forgiving and Jobert's performance beautifully captures a sense of light-hearted vulnerability slowly being crushed beneath the resentful and demanding emotional intensity of Yanne (a performance that rightly won him the Cannes prize for best actor).

The film relies upon this highly gendered sexual dynamic to create a certain set of expectations. From the beginning of the film, we sympathise with Catherine and slowly grow to despise Jean. Yes, Jean is capable of romantic gestures and of real tenderness but he is clearly a monster. This perception is also aided by the fact that prior to making this film, Yanne appeared in Claude Chabrol's Que la bête meure, in which he played a man who terrorised his entire family, and Le Boucher, in which he played a murderer. As Pialat drags us through the endless cycles of break ups and make-ups, Catherine's position becomes almost absurd. The title tells us that the couple will eventually break up, but what is stopping them? What does she see in him? Then Pialat changes the rules.

Somewhere, amid all of the examples of physical and emotional abuse, something changes in Catherine. No longer passive, she starts to assert herself... Telling her boorish lover to leave her alone as she walks to work... Telling him not to drop by her parents' place anymore... Telling him that when she is going to spend the weekend with friends, and he is not to turn up. This process of disentanglement distresses Jean. He refuses to leave her alone, following her on the tube and even into work when he walks into the lift behind her causing her to flinch; her feelings of fear and distrust surfacing physically for the first time. Gradually, Catherine pulls away, disappearing off on holiday to an undisclosed location where she meets another man. Jean becomes bitter and obsessed, knitting bizarre fantasies out of what rumours he can scrape together by interrogating Catherine's friends.

After six years of abuse, Catherine is stronger and more independent. After a few months of being ignored, the great and powerful Jean is a broken man. Catherine's refusal to surrender an inch to her old lover is pitiless and would appear sadistic if we did not know both sides of the story. At the end of the film, Jean is reduced to begging for table scraps. Drawing some kind of sustenance from the idea that maybe, if Catherine broke up with her new man, she might consider consenting to having sex with him. The reversal of power is devastating and beautifully realised.

We Won't Grow Old Together is a film that is both astonishingly mundane and imbued with a sense of heightened reality. It is a film full of dingy flats, awkward family dinners and conversations held in cars, but its depiction of the central relationship is exaggerated. Jean and Catherine's relationship has no down moments or periods on an even keel. We never see them happy and we never see the moments in-between the dumpings and reconciliations. This kind of relationship-centric heightened reality is hugely reminiscent of the works of Chabrol.

Looking at the number of linked between these two filmmakers; it seems almost safe to refer to them as collaborators. Aside from sharing a leading man and name-checking Chabrol in the script of this film, Pialat also appeared as a police detective in Chabrol's Que la b�te meure. At the heart of Que la bête meure is a family desperately trying to rid itself of a hateful father-figure; a father-figure who ran over another man's child only for that man to seek him out in order to exact revenge. While many of Chabrol's films of this period revolve around murder (a fact which, along with his output as a critic, earned him a reputation for being the 'French Hitchcock'), they are all ultimately rooted in dysfunctional relationships.

Because of the murders in these films, it is easy to overlook quite how strange and distorted many of Chabrol's relationships are. We lighten the load required for suspension of disbelief because of genre trappings. However, when you look past the murders you will see that Chabrol and Pialat, during this period in their careers at least, were travelling a similar path - one that tried to display the realities of the human emotional landscape by emphasising the peaks and valleys. Indeed, it should come as no surprise that Chabrol's Pleasure Party touched upon many of the same themes and ideas as We Won't Grow Old Together. Both films involve strong sexually powerful men who dominate their partners only to fall apart when their partners decide to move on and start another relationship. Of course, Chabrol ends his film with a murder. Jean is far too beaten to even think of doing the same to Catherine.

The DVD is a wonderful transfer of the recent French re-release (which is important as We Won't Grow Old Together is a surprisingly colourful film) with some decidedly decent English subtitles. It also boasts a fantastic collection of extras including a short film made by Pialat about the Camargue (presumably the film that Jean was shooting while on holiday), a number of period interviews taken from French TV and some wonderful trailers. The DVD also comes with the obligatory 'masters of cinema' booklet including an essay about Pialat and Proust which was not available at time of review.

All things concerned this is a sensational film that has been given an appropriately sensational level of support by masters of cinema and Eureka. I simply cannot fault this film or the release it has been given.
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