Dir: Maurice Pialat | France | 1980 | 110mins
“Suddenly there are abrupt changes in tone or rhythm, fleeting occurrences which are not as realistic as all that. They produce emotions of a different order which are, in my opinion, as valid as those arising out of more classical film-making.”
– Maurice Pialat
Loulou is in many ways a typical French film with lots of smoking, drinking, eating, shagging, as well as the ubiquitous Gérard Depardieu and Isabelle Huppert. It's also like a Dogma film, before the term was invented (in 1998). There are no close-ups and a lot of hand-held camerawork and natural light (and darkness). It's so improvised Depardieu laughs and looks at the camera at the end of one scene, unsure what to do next. There's no soundtrack music; the only music heard is source music (radio, musical instrument, a band in a bar, etc).
Eat your heart out Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. In English 'social realist' films (or TV) characters are like pawns in the game – social comment and/or plot comes first, at the expense of character (see the BBC's Mistresses or any soap opera). In Loulou any plot and social concern develops naturally from the characters (rather than vice versa). It's honest, frank, raw and realistic but that doesn't stop it from being lyrical, funny, sexy, touching and tender too.
A lot of the scenes are just one shot; the cameras sole purpose seems to follow the characters around. Scenes and shots sometimes seem to linger too long or cut abruptly. Some scenes don't link together in a conventional narrative as such. But all scenes have the same significance, and carry the same weight, be it a burglary, a fight, sex, or watching TV, smoking a cigarette, eating a baguette.
A fight scene is all one shot – honest, in a way, not fooling the audience with contrived editing and music. It's not exciting, it's just part of life, part of the film. Pialat’s is a modest style (like Bresson's); his characters just regular people trying to get by.
The plot – such as it is – concerns middle-class couple Nelly (Isabelle Huppert) and Andre (Guy Marchand). Nelly leaves him for unemployed loafer Loulou (Gerard Depardieu). The film contrasts deeply personal matters on the one hand and a cinema-verite approach to French society on the other, vis-a-vis the contrast of lifestyles of the two leads (middle class and working class).
The acting throughout is superb. Gerard Depardieu worked with great directors throughout the 1970s and 80s including Bertrand Blier, Barbet Schroeder, Bertolucci, Truffaut, Resnais and Wajda. But with Pialat there's a real naturalness about his performance. Some scenes feel improvised – Depardieu looks at the camera more than once; in one scene he's seen chatting to someone off screen (who has nothing to do with the film).
The credits and opening scene show André (Nelly's husband) walking towards the camera at night. There's hardly any light (it could be a film noir), yet showing Andre in darkness implies he's not central to the film. He sees two lovers kissing and is reminded of Nelly.
Sex, smoking, drinking, eating and love equals life, in a typically French way. The family lunch scene perhaps epitomises French films – food and drink and conversation being la vie. The extended scene comes across like a home movie, though it ends, humorously, in near murder.
The human body in action is at the centre of Pialat's films – lovemaking, fights, deaths (though I guess in this he is not unique). But an early scene in a nightclub emphasises movement, there's an immediacy and spontaneity and the editing has an emotional rhythm. There's an abrupt cut to Loulou and Nelly in bed. Nudity is treated as natural, not erotic or exploitative.
The last shot shows Loulou and Nelly stumbling together, drunk, down a dark alley. There's been a jump cut from ordering drinks to being drunk. Godard famously used jump cuts in A Bout de Souffle, as did many French New Wave films. But in Loulou they're not experimental for the sake of it. Loulou is concise; it focuses on what's important. Again, there are no lights, no sound. The lack of sound makes the shot peaceful and calm – optimistic too; lovers in their own world.
Maurice Pialat died in 2003. He came to film-making late, not making his first feature till the age of 44. He directed ten features since 1969, all of which are worth seeing – my favourites are Sous le soleil de Satan, Cop (both with Depardieu) and Van Gogh. A natural air to Robert Bresson and John Cassavettes, he's unfortunately largely unknown in the UK.