Abuse and Weakness in Pialat’s ‘We Won’t Grow Old Together’

The most excruciating of breakup movies, "We Won't Grow Old Together" showcases a classic performance from Jean Yanne.

Maurice Pialat is not really a director one would call a filmmaker’s filmmaker, though plenty of his shots grow more interesting with attention to his background and to his rough compositional style. In We Won’t Grow Old Together, his second feature, Pialat’s images are flecked with brightly colored clothing. They take place in sun-soaked beach scenes and almost Elysian parks, and in the middle of all these scenes squats Jean Yanne, the stand-in for Pialat himself, with his mutton chops and eternal scowl.

The film’s most memorable shot sees Yanne pouting as he sits in the foreground during an outdoor scene with his lover, Catherine (Marlène Jobert). Sitting at his side, Catherine suddenly gets up and moves back a distance to a spot that suits her better. She calls for Jean to join, but he continues to gaze dejectedly downward, somewhere left of the frame, as the great love of his life reclines behind him, out of focus.

Contrast this beautifully staged summation of the characters’ relationship with an earlier scene in a nightclub where Jean and Catherine go dancing. They speak to each other in a medium shot, the background crowded with young extras, many of whom stare at the couple or past them, possibly toward the camera.

Pialat, a documentarian before making the leap to feature films with L’Enfance nue, pours much of himself into his work. Nick Pinkerton’s accompanying essay in Kino Lorber’s new DVD release of We Won’t Grow Old Together details the history of the six-year relationship and subsequent breakup that inspired the film, one between the long-married Pialat and a much younger woman who became his mistress.

After failing to exorcise the trauma of his breakup with a novel (of the same title), Pialat cast Jobert as his ex-paramour and Yanne as a filmmaker also named Jean. The script he wrote for them was violent, a deeply jarring chronicle of abuse and codependency, of a damaging relationship that went on far longer than it ever should have.

Crucial to the script’s truly radical honesty about heterosexual relationships was the boorish behavior of the Jean character, which led to on-set friction between Pialat and his leading man. Yanne struggled with portraying such a cruel, pathetic lout, and as Jobert reports in an interview for the disc, particularly with the physical violence directed toward Catherine.

The weight of Jean’s behavior is evident onscreen in the slump of Yanne’s shoulders and the fog of depression he sinks into whenever Catherine leaves his side. It’s one of cinema’s greatest performances depicting male tyranny, though likely Yanne would have preferred that the character not also bear his first name.

The film—tightly scripted, not improvised as many viewers mistakenly assume—carries over some novelistic, literary techniques from Pialat’s first stab at dealing with his breakup. The first half of the film, leading up to a truly decisive split between Jean and Catherine, contains many arguments and fits of violent behavior that should end the relationship. After each similar scene, Pialat either allows only a brief interlude to depict the tentative reconciliation or simply cuts to the couple back together and enjoying another summer idyll.

It’s a radical break from traditional narrative continuity, but also contributes to the sensation Pialat achieves rather uniquely: the feeling of actually experiencing the end of the relationship as one watches the film. Unmoored from conventions of editing and linear progression, who’s to say whether the scenes are really taking place one after another?

Late in the film, It becomes clearer that time has really been progressing in a constant forward movement, but that first hour of clashes and reconciliations creates a space in which the relationship seems at once new and irrevocably broken; we mourn the love lost even as it continues to play out, almost like holding the hand of your loved one as you look in their eyes and see the rupture widening between you.

“When someone leaves, it’s like a death,” commiserates Jean’s wife Françoise (Macha Méril) as her husband drags himself around the house. “It’s worse,” he replies, “she’s still alive.”

The aftermath of their decisive breakup, in which Catherine gives Jean his own tongue-lashing and announces that she will be marrying another man, reveals something of Pialat in middle age, as the wrathful spirit leaves Jean and he spends the remaining scenes puzzling through the end of his affair with friends, with his wife, and most humiliating of all, Catherine’s parents.

Jobert, though she creates a vivid and sympathetic character in her own right, ultimately plays second fiddle in the film which identifies so strongly with Jean and with the power of Yanne’s performance. These later scenes see Jean recede from his position of power and becomes more physically and obtrusively an inconvenience and a burden to those around him.

Included on Kino Lorber’s disc is a short video essay by the filmmaker Alex Ross Perry, who cites Pialat and We Won’t Grow Old Together in particular as influences on his upcoming film Listen Up Philip, a portrait of a New York-based novelist and the consequences of his abrasive, narcissistic personality on the lives of the people in his orbit.

As well, Perry’s script contains a chronicle of dissolving romance. But Pialat’s merciless attack on his own behavior and culpability, through Yanne, keeps We Won’t Grow Old Together from being comfortably categorized as a breakup movie. The roots of abuse and male tyranny run deep, and it’s Pialat’s oblique approach to understanding this that has made his story of love lost and lost again into an enduring work of art.

The film’s theatrical trailer is included on the disc, along with the insightful interview with Jobert, Perry’s video essay (mercifully brief – though insightful into Pialat’s literary angle, the young filmmaker does not have a voice for radio), and Pinkerton’s booklet essay, which though ripe for expansion would make the release a worthwhile purchase on its own; Pinkerton is among America’s best and liveliest critics.

RATING 8 / 10