Splendid title, Sous le soleil de Satan...that is, "under the sun of Satan," or, more colloquially, "under Satan's sun." A pretty plain statement, not unlike Satan Is Real, the unequivocating title of a legendary proselytizing Louvin Brothers album. Less wiggle room here than in "Le diable, probablement," the famous answer to the question "who's in charge here?" and hence the source of the title for a legendary Bresson film. Maurice Pialat's 1987 picture takes its title from its source, a novel by George Bernanos, whose work was twice adapted by Bresson, in Journal d'un curé de campagne, and later Mouchette. If Bresson's cinema can be seen as that of transcendence (and the matter is hardly what you'd call closed), Pialat's perspective is in direct opposition to any such notion. "Satan is the prince of this world. He holds it in his hands," one character notes. He doesn't need to add, "and there's nothing you and I can do about it."
This isn't merely true in this film, by the way. It's true in pretty much all the feature films by Pialat,
six seven of which have been released over the past year or so in magnificent editions by Eureka!/Masters of Cinema. And in these films, Satan's grip doesn't merely manifest itself in overt evil; it manifests itself in emotional pettiness and niggling; in banality and mediocrity; in indifference that calls itself love; and more, and more. When Satan was awarded the Palme d'or at the Cannes Film Festival, the director was greeted by boos; with a smirk he waved a fist at the audience and announced "If you don't like me, I can tell you I don't like you either." That's Pialat all over: an artist in constant opposition. One could say that being a prick was his way of standing up to Satan.
But back to this film. Scrupulously unfussy and bereft of shock effects, it is nevertheless a horror film in the very truest sense of the term. It is a picture with relatively few scenes, all of which form perfect modules of anxiety, spiritual torment, and despair. When Gérard Depardieu's tortured and self-flagellating priest Donissan encounters a tempting, taunting Satan in the form of a sardonic "horse dealer" (Jean Christophe Bouvet) on an ill-fated trek to another parish, he understands, as the viewer does, that there's no getting away from this entity. And sure enough...
...Donisson soon confronts Mouchette, a very troubled young woman whose sins he is able to discern via a divine—or is it?—vision. In an essay on a ten-minute sequence from the film included in the two-disc package's accompanying booklet, Gabe Klinger describes in detail what he sees as Pialat's particular approach to filmmaking: a "complex strategy of accumulating violent eruptions and then burying them for long stretches of time while the film reveals other details." One place where Satan differs from such Pialat films as À nos amours, Police, Loulou, and so on is that in those pictures the eruptions often had sex or romance as a pretext. This is not so much the case here, for both obvious and not particularly obvious reasons.
But by removing that component, more or less, from the equation, Pialat is able to distill a tragic vision of even more purity than usual, as far as I can see. If you haven't seen the picture, I'm not going to be the one to spoil the ending for you, but I will say it's the most counter-intuitive denouement I've ever seen, and one of the most perfect.
All the prior video versions of this masterpiece that I've encountered have looked dismal, almost unwatchable. As we expect from Eureka!/MOC, this edition is gorgeous, capturing the ever-miraculous light of Willy Kurant and Luciano Tovoli's cinematography with exceptional sensitivity. The package, like those for
three four of the other five six Pialat films in this MOC series (the exceptions are the discs of Passe ton Bac d'abord and Nous ne viellirons pas ensemble), is a two-disc presentation replete with pertinent extras, including two shorts, one of which, 1951's Isabelle aux dombes, was Pialat's very first film. This is a signal event in DVD publishing and an essential addition to the cinephile's library.