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This Is What You Want, This Is What You Get: The Terrifying Sexual Politics of Pialat’s “We Won’t Grow Old Together”

"Breaking up is hard to do," Neal Sedaka once sang, in syrupy tones. Just how hard it is to do is the subject unrelentingly dissected by writer/director Maurice Pialat in his 1972 film Nous ne viellirons pas ensemble, which he adapted from his own autobiographical novel. A brutal film without a dollop of sweetness, syrupy or not, it chronicles a love affair that has nowhere to go, and yet refuses to stop. The protagonist Jean simply will not leave his wife for his lover (and occasional professional assistant) Catherine—they will not grow old together. But they won't get too far away from each other any time soon, either.

Jean, as befits the autobiographical nature of the piece, is a filmmaker, sort of; he seems unable to complete a work, and various money toubles are alluded to. He often seems enervated, but on the other hand displays a bottomless capacity for resentment. He's played by the great Jean Yanne, who once again sports the Wide Sideburns Of French White Male Privilege that he wore so memorably in Godard'sWeekend. Given his insistently gruff demeanor here—Pialat expressly forbid the actor from displaying even a hint of tenderness—one can imagine that Jean actually is Weekend's rough, crass Roland Durand, resurrected and given his chauvinist mojo back.

But it's quite a bit more complicated than that. Beginning with a weekend seaside outing that includes a long visit from the parents of his lover, Catherine (Marlene Jobert)—and yes, this is one of those pictures that any number of Americans can watch and think, "Boy, French people put up with a lot—if I were her dad, I'd kick the crap out of him"—we witness, over and over, an intimacy that can turn on a dime. Jean curses out Catherine when she can't hold a microphone properly in a street-scene documentary shoot. He later explains his flip-out by saying, "You know what I'm like." He harangues her in a parked car—15, maybe 20 percent of the film is enacted in one parked car or another—excoriating her looks, her "ratty thighs," her freckles, and so on. (That Jobert is a beauty with a body that any young man of the Maxim generation would unhesitatingly characterize as "killer" underscores the hideous irony of his vituperation.) He calls her a mediocrity, and despite his viciousness, her clinginess, blankness, seeming lack of ambition outside the relationship give one queasy pause as to whether he's got a point. In the wake of his rants, he writes her love letters; we don't hear much of them (as their alliance deteriorates, one weapon Catherine uses against Jean is her refusal to read them), but perhaps we recall the letter Jeanne Moreau reads to Marcello Mastroianni at the end of Antonioni's La notte. Perhaps we imagine the saturnine Pialat snickering at us for making such an association.

But there you have it. While one is normally wary of taking certain DVD supplements at their word when grappling with a film, there's a bit during a videotaped conversation with Pialat and "associates" made for French television (imagine an iteration of Dinner For Five that you'd actually watch) that acted as something of an "open sesame" for me. One of said associates, an unnamed woman, offers a feminist interpretation of the film, saying that Catherine's decision to enact a definitive break from Jean represents the character coming into her own. (Never mind that the way she makes the break is by throwing herself into what will in all likelihood be a typically complacent bourgeois marriage.) But Pialat won't have Catharine being put into the position of a one-time victim emerging triumphant.

Allowing that the character Jean is "odious," he insists that Catharine knew this the whole time, that there's no causal link between Jean's behavior and his relationship with Catherine. And this is something the viewer intuits throughout. It's not a matter of Catherine bringing out the worst in Jean; shes just there, and she continues to be there. As for Jean's consistently deferential behavior towards the wife he's betraying (played by Macha Méril, so much meeker here than she was in Godard's Une femme mariée), it is a mystery; difficult to tell whether it's the product of respect, disinterest, or just habit. He believes he's paying her what's due by not divorcing her, and yet she is as thoroughly unhappy as Catherine. And this is the weirdest, most uncomfortable thing, finally, about the emotional arrangements and power relations presented in the film: Although he is the supposed oppressor of both his wife and his lover, he is also the only person of the three who did not, as it were, sign up for this. We don't know what it is he wants, exactly, and he sure as hell doesn't, but we do know that the situation as it stands is not that thing. Whereas Catherine, and, we gradually learn, Françoise, are willing participants in their own miseries. They know the score, or the scores, and they respond, for the most part, with passivity.

I understand that I'm treading on thin ice here, approaching the untenable notion that women in abusive relationships are somehow "asking for it." Pialat's cinema teems with head-on depictions of emotional states that are immediately...discomfiting, and unpleasant to try to make sense of. Catherine and Françoise are, undeniably, emotional masochists, colluding in their own misery. But is Jean, in fact, a sadist? He is, for sure, thoroughly dislikable, and I for one rather enjoyed watching him squirm in the film's final scenes, as he searches for Catherine and is informed by various parties, her parents included, of her plans.

But by the same token, one would have to be made of very stout stuff indeed to merely shrug off the odd sense of loss Yanne shoulders at the film's end, made all the more palpable by the end credit sequence, shots of a swimming Jobert pulled by sea currents...which are gradually subsumed by views of her standing thigh-deep in water, clearly out of character and taking direction. A testament to Pialat's regard for the actress, or a reflexive curio of his own loss? (In an interview included on this remarkable Eureka!/Masters of Cinema Region 2 UK disc, part of the label's exemplary Pialat series, Jobert says that she looks very much like her real-life analog.) While it's arguable that the film truly transcends sexual politics, one also has to admit that it could very well have shared a title with a great, little-known-in-these-parts novel by Jean Dutourd: The Horrors of Love.

thanks for blogging the “Eureka!/Masters of Cinema Region 2 UK disc, part of the label’s exemplary Pialat series” & for getting me here with the words “Eva Green” what does “Jobert says that she looks very much like her real-life analog” mean? how could she not resemble herself? quirky of you to call the women “passive” a word with a bad history of mislabeling ladies but not the man. he’s what? aggressive? they’re actually all equally acting out roles assigned by the director, attempting to mirror french gender roles. and traceable to at least moliere. you make me realize how much cinema depends on projection, the psychic kind, from the heart of each viewer, and how skewed that is by gender.
Jobert meant she looked like Pialat’s real-life ex-lover, on whom the character was based. I suppose I could have put it that way to begin with. Yes, the performers are all acting out roles assigned by the director. But I choose to give him the benefit of the doubt in terms of honesty/good faith.

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