Maurice Pialat, 77; French Film Director

Times Staff Writer

Maurice Pialat, a prickly but influential French film director, sometime actor and former painter who earned the Cannes Film Festival's coveted Palme d'Or for his 1987 "Under the Sun of Satan" starring his friend Gerard Depardieu, has died. He was 77.

Pialat, often described as the most important French director after Jean Renoir, died Saturday at his Paris home of kidney failure, European news services said.

The artistic Pialat, described physically as "Hemingwayesque" with a burly wrestler's body and salt-and-pepper beard, came late to directing and made fewer than a dozen feature films. He focused unflinchingly on raw, realistic portrayals of the underbelly of French society including marital problems, adolescence and hooliganism, producing what a Film Comment magazine reviewer called "a cinema of red meat and Burgundy."

Pialat was known as a difficult director who terrorized actors, was fiercely solitary and cared little what people thought of him or his work.

When he received the Cannes top award, he was booed, but merely raised his fist and retorted: "If you don't like me, I can tell you that I don't like you either."

Yet Pialat had a major impact on French filmmaking, influencing modern directors and eliciting peak performances from major actors such as Depardieu, Isabelle Huppert and Pialat's protege Sandrine Bonnaire.

French President Jacques Chirac, in a message of condolence, said: "Through his powerful, exacting and unique works, Maurice Pialat explored with intransigence and sensitivity the shadows and lights of the human soul." Chirac called the director "a master of the cinematographic art [who] leaves a deep imprint on the history of French film."

Gilles Jacob, president of the Cannes Film Festival, said of Pialat's death: "French cinema is orphaned."

The director's work appealed to connoisseurs of art films around the world and played regularly at Los Angeles theaters like the Nuart.

When "Under the Sun of Satan" appeared there in 1989, The Times reviewer Michael Wilmington praised Pialat for "plung[ing] us into a slate-gray world where good and evil, love and hate war implacably under a punishing sky."

"Pialat has always had a style," the reviewer explained, "restless, propulsive, fixated on the spontaneous truth of a scene -- which suggests, more than any of his French colleagues, John Cassavetes."

In reviewing Pialat's "Van Gogh," which played at the Nuart in 1992, Wilmington noted that Pialat, unlike directors of previous biopics of the Impressionist painter, never tried to depict the artist through his painting itself or his letters.

More often, the director "reminds you of that occasional actor Pialat himself," the reviewer noted. "The life, not the art, is what Pialat wants. And he makes us feel it. As a director, he's a master of the spontaneous moment, the un-self-conscious act."

Among Pialat's other major films were his initial "Naked Childhood," or "Me," in 1969, and two others in the autobiographical trilogy, "We Will Not Grow Old Together," in 1972, about his painful divorce, and "The Mouth Agape," in 1974, about his reaction to his elderly mother's death from cancer.

He gained international fame with his first film with Depardieu, "Loulou" in 1979. The actor was so upset with the demanding, temperamental director in that first collaboration that he didn't speak to him for a year. But they later became inseparable friends and went on to make "Police" in 1985, the award-winning "Under the Sun of Satan" and Pialat's final film, "Le Garcu" in 1995.

In addition to the Palme d'Or, Pialat won a Cesar, the French equivalent of an Academy Award, for the 1983 "To Our Loves" starring Bonnaire, then 16. Pialat not only directed the film but co-wrote it and played Bonnaire's father.

Born in the mountain village of Cunlhat, France, Pialat grew up in Paris and studied art at its Ecole des Arts Decoratifs and Ecole des Beaux Arts. After World War II, he painted and had several exhibitions of his work.

In the 1950s, he made amateur movies, acted and began making professional short films, including the 1960 documentary "Love Exists." Pialat spent the next decade directing for French television and making commissioned documentaries in Turkey and Saudi Arabia before embarking on his feature film directing career in the late 1960s.

Pialat is survived by a young son, Antoine, who portrayed Depardieu's 3-year-old son in "Le Garcu."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World