A nos amours and the Elliptical Eye

Often when observing famous teenage performances on screen, I feel a vast detachment from the spectacle in front of me. More often than not, whatever is present and supposedly prolific flies over my head.

The Ringwalds and Cusacks of yesteryear have a number of well-known performances under their belt, cementing a distinct appeal amongst adolescents while being adolescents themselves. However, their portrayals of adolescence barely feel like reflections of a pivotal period of human growth, often muddled in archetypes of empty words, even if these sentiments possess meanings that are all too concrete.

It evokes the same passivity that I feel when I open a high school yearbook, fully aware of my photographic absence outside of a class portrait. That I am a spectator in an environment whose mediated portrayal is only a stone’s throw away from creating a ripple within the student body as a working reflection.

It’s crazy how John Hughes was able to speak to two wildly different eras of youth and bring their fevered daydreams to the big screen. Yet I am but a mere participant in witnessing something that can now be considered as universally opaque. There’s something missing in his films that causes them to be as translucent as they are, and in my case, it’s a jarring awareness of its characters’ own reality amongst personal resonance that goes beyond its dialogue.

For a director whose portrayals of adulthood are more frequent than adolescence, Maurice Pialat manages to capture the adolescent nature that is present in all human beings — one riddled with indecision as it is complicit towards its own share of hardships. This is why his style still remains perfectly fitted with exploring the actuality of adolescence in one of cinema’s best explorations of youth.

Lingering upon hormonal nonchalance and elliptically jumping between casually awkward interactions, multiple instances of vulnerability, and the helplessness of physical conflict, this film possesses as much as it follows an adolescent eye. With every near-claustrophobic close up and verbal uncertainty, Pialat’s signature style of realism does not attempt to precede the reality it portrays, in the way that Hughes’s work receives its own praise. Instead, it mirrors it entirely, if not naturally shows a much-needed perspective of a young girl struggling to come of age through the ambiguities of youth itself.

The personal resonance of A nos amours does not come to fruition without being fully realized for what it is, even if that entails a fair number of scenes involving several blows to the face. It’s brutal in its honesty as its protagonist’s ventures into intimacy only become increasingly unsexier, slowly stepping out of the daydream that occupies the film’s first 15 minutes.

It’s no wonder that Suzanne’s navigation of sexuality seems to bring a sense of discomfort within its resonance towards people who have either been in her place, those who have had to feel the same shame, and those desperate to expel their own self-repression. Every organically filmed convergence of flesh and words poses an undoubtedly human (and therefore shockingly clear) disconnect from genuine tenderness. It questions the necessity for us to witness the stages of a personal transformation — the personal being so emboldened, that one moment of us feeling that we’re prying proceeds to strike us with a subsequent portrait of surviving the toxicity of family.

What seems like our voyeurism in question is immediately countered with the cost that comes with finding solace in this form of liberation, often through circumstance. Suzanne’s brief encounters never permeate into lingering highs that dissipate after weeks on end, because they will never be allowed to do just that. The lack of ownership that she does allow over herself may be illicit to some, but often seemingly the only way out for others who have seen the end of the road off the beaten path before they’ve even set foot in it.

For one, it’s quite rare that a 16 year old is so joined at the hip with a typical vision of adulthood that was crafted by an individual who was 4 decades her senior. It only proves that Pialat’s most frequent theme strikes its greatest chord with the very demographic that possesses this thematic prevalence. Bonnaire being 16 at the time only further cements the fact that the personal resonance found within adolescent tales truly comes alive when the individual portraying them is still living as one, rather than being one of the lived who have already gone past these years, stuck in a construct of age so far from who they struggle to grow out of because of how attached they are to their respective audiences.

In fact, I’m anything but intimidated by the fact that Bonnaire lives and breathes through Suzanne, who is more of a human than she is (and what could have been) a larger-than-life caricature of a teenage girl. There’s nothing fictitious about her identity that would be present within the other screen teens that I’ve known, as her lived experiences not only make a connection to the viewer that is attainable, but documents several fragments of the real world to make viewers understand that this kind of living is attainable. Suzanne is one of the few characters that I can truly relate to without aspiring to be or live like them, especially for good reason (which is prominent and important in this film to begin with. Had I seen this at her age, I would still come to the same conclusion). Instead, I feel a lot closer to her, and Pialat draws me in by giving me the option to allow me to do just that.

I don’t feel like I’m seeing a typical teenager who has yet to fully realize herself without seeking redemption. I’m seeing someone like Benjamin Braddock, chided by previous generations for the impassioned impulses that drive their only form of escape, and left to ponder upon the future to come. I’m seeing a woman who is weighed down by societal and familial expectations, and repressing a vehicle of liberation through the same confine of marriage that eventually dissipates into this same inclination towards independence, which can be all the more frightening.

Not to mention the parallels present between Pialat’s ending and Nichols’, given that both characters resort to doing what they‘ve been told their entire lives. Suzanne’s multiple flings eventually lead her to trade her parents for a man she has yet to know, while Benjamin’s affair with Mrs. Robinson leads him to trade his parents for Elaine. While this is given that Benjamin and Elaine’s lives were being planned out for them in the first place, Suzanne becomes bent on planning her future out of fear and for the sake of survival, despite never seeming to fully abandon the sexual politics that she could have reconsidered earlier on in the film. At the same time, never doing such a thing pushes her to achieve this means of possibly continuing this cycle by prioritizing an escape from her daily dose of motherly repercussions. In fact, it is only after realizing the impossibility of an escape that drives her to find a sense of seriousness within her following relationship.

The Graduate’s ending isn’t about the love that blossoms between Benjamin and Elaine, but rather about them finally growing up and rejecting their parentally predetermined paths. The suffering their parents had experienced was precisely because they never found freedom in marriage in the first place. This ending doesn’t bind them, yet it briefly revels in this freedom.

In the same manner, Suzanne leaves both us and herself completely frozen in place, gazing out into the same wideness of life’s horizons that have yet to either prompt her to get herself together or possibly tear her apart. Whereas the possibilities of the opening’s seaside view are seemingly endless, the sight of a tarmac from an airplane window keeps Suzanne at a distance from the realm — let alone the thought — of possibility.

It ultimately leads us to question her present sense of control alongside her. How long must it take for her to regain it before she lets that of the men in her life overtake her? And honestly, who knows?

The somber realization in both endings concludes that whatever is to come will be entirely of each character’s own doing, alongside the absence of the slight comfort of being told what comes next. These endings are exactly the opposite of what many may think to be the eventual reality of a last resort. It’s not each of them rushing headlong into what could possibly be a doomed relationship, as this is precisely and literally what each ending escapes from — a predetermined life of sadness (the latter more steeped in the possibility of this aftermath).

However, the opposite of a depressing and predetermined life isn’t eternal bliss. It’s responsibility. And it is Benjamin and Suzanne who share these uncertainties through longing faces, having escaped their familial constructs and unexpectedly forcing themselves into the subsequent but inevitable world of adult responsibilities. Both inconclusions allow for the indeterminance of future contingencies to finish these characters’ chapters with the same open confusion that they started with. It leaves their mediated presence on an ellipsis that echoes A nos amours’s last words:

It’s no coincidence that Pialat chose to utter the film’s final words, given that the irony of the film’s verbal turbulence is neutered by a gut-wrenching sentiment that reflects on the deep-seated need to be understood. We are barely aware of both of their companions, as they are both in some sense alone as they were the entire time — before they each learned about “love” and life itself.

Be it on the prow of a boat or the seat of a plane (Pialat ends on one where Nichols begins), there is the thought of the numbest expectations sinking into them as they look back at the windows which may open or close their lives altogether. This solitude also acts as self-sufficiency, or at least the very recognition of two adolescents who will never escape the pull of the past for the reason that the past is what they’ve managed to drag in.

For now, it still remains that they’ve reached a place that is not here nor there, but somewhere in between liberation and imprisonment, where both feel less like a rock and a hard place.

However, what really continues to strike me most about Suzanne in comparison to Benjamin is the fact that I don’t feel like I’m seeing a written character on screen. I don’t feel like I’m seeing a clear work of fiction set in the real world. Here, I am seeing life, and seeing someone seeking a (and trying to make) sense of living through transience; whose definition of love is an ephemeral blur that has yet to sharpen its focus because of their very need to break free and rush in.

If Pialat’s realism is so uncomfortably close to the reality that it mirrors, then A nos amours may as well precede it. Suzanne is beautiful, vivacious, troubled, and seductive, but amongst all things, she is human. I could have sworn that this film knew something about adolescence that I wasn’t able to realize before. All the more when it feels as if I’m watching someone that I know all too well, even if it seems like I shouldn’t know these things about them. Even if I was aware of the circumstances they’ve been in, it would still strike me as a part of their identity. The more that is revealed for me to see, the more striking one’s unraveling truly becomes for me to understand.

I didn’t think that I’d be hit with a current of resonance from the very first frame. The familiarity of it alone stills sends shockwaves through my system, nevermind that it’s someone I’ve yet to truly find out about being introduced to me with her nose in a play. For one, I could’ve easily mistaken it for a glimpse of a close friend.

But I’ll be fucking damned if Suzanne never felt like someone I’ve known this entire time. Shit, it seemed like she always was.

A nos amours (the only Pialat mainstay) is currently streaming on the Criterion Channel. It is also available for physical purchase via the Criterion Collection.

Toronto-bred media student and ocassional prose writer. Unevenly divides interests between world cinema and a neverending music library.

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