‘We Won’t Grow Old Together’ opens on Friday, September 14th at the Gene Siskel Film Center for a weeklong run.
Maurice Pialat’s We Won’t Grow Old Together (Nous Ne Vieillirons Pas Ensemble) (France, 1972), at first glance, seems like somewhat of a slog – another ‘anatomy-of-a-breakup’ film…*sigh*. But don’t sell it short – I found it to be oddly affecting and genuinely engaging. The film concerns the dénouement of a six-year affair between Catherine (Marlène Jobert) and Jean (Jean Yanne). Pialat dispenses with the romantic beginning and settling-in middle of that six-year period, and starts his film when both people know exactly who the other is: what infuriates who, which buttons to push to evoke a response (which they can then manipulate), which disagreements can be ignored or taken seriously, and which tiny, seemingly inconsequential details can bring their love for each other welling back in an instant. Whether this is true love, or co-dependence, or a unique mix of both, is left entirely up to us for much of the film. When a resolution finally does occur, and one of the partners changes their own life by disengaging from the other, we feel the break just as deeply as the characters do, as well as their resignation that it was meant to be this way, that this was inevitable.
Catherine is younger than the middle-aged filmmaker Jean – it’s not clear what she does for a living (besides occasional temp office work), or if she has larger long-term goals, and she still lives with her parents. Jean’s career is intermittent – he picks up small film gigs here and there, but it’s clear that there’s nothing remotely steady, and he’s not particularly ambitious about changing that. There’s also the small matter that he’s still married – he still lives with his wife, Françoise (Macha Méril), and we meet her upon her return from a vacation in Russia – she tells him about the people, shows him art, and plays him Rachmaninoff on her stereo; he seems disinterested, but he’s comfortable with her overall. Catherine’s parents aren’t keen on Jean, but they’re civil and friendly to him for her sake. Most of the time we follow the couple perpetually en route – in his car, in train stations, restaurants, in hotel rooms, on weekend trips, together on a beach. Catherine takes some time of her own to visit her grandmother in the country; Jean visits his father elsewhere, but as soon as he gets there, there’s a letter from Catherine inviting him to join her. He can be bullying, controlling, and is prone to berating outbursts. She’s endlessly, almost masochistically, tolerant, but always knows that Jean’s worst behavior is fleeting, and that he’ll always return as the basically kind and generous basset hound that he tends to be most of the time anyway. But, even in the face of those aspects of who they are, the film never devolves into the passive-aggressive tennis match it seems to be on the surface. What I, at least, admired the most about these characters is how much they’re like many people we all know – they love each other, trust each other, and always move ahead together no matter how nasty or dismissive particular moments of crisis make them towards each other. Pialat and his characters are always testing the breach between devotion and denial.
As in many of Pialat’s films (Loulou, À Nos Amours, Police, Under the Sun of Satan), events don’t follow each other chronologically – they follow an emotional timeline rather than a consecutively logical one. For instance, Jean visits his father near the midway point of the film, and tells him that Françoise is in Russia. But we witnessed her return from Russia much earlier in the film. Pialat doesn’t juggle time like Tarantino or Christopher Nolan do, for big structural effect within the plot. Pialat simply inserts Françoise into the narrative where she’ll provide the most information about Jean’s subsequent behavior. Many scenes between Catherine and Jean, shot in long, almost theatrical takes, follow one after the other, but it’s hard to tell if an hour’s gone by, or three days, or three weeks. What’s absolutely clear, though, is that moment-to-moment, bit-by-tiny-bit, the relationship is eroding.
The film has been described by earlier critics as somewhat harrowing and rigorous viewing – “a wrenching account of emotional masochism,” warns one assessment – but I find myself disagreeing. Its realistically human characters were fascinating to follow, almost exhilarating at times, much like good Cassavettes, Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage or Stanley Donen’s wonderful Two For The Road.
The film was quite successful upon its 1972 French release, and it played at Cannes and the New York Film Festival (Yanne won Best Actor at Cannes). And it wasn’t seen in America again until a few months ago, at a revival by New York’s BAM Cinématek. Why the film never got wider distribution for forty years is a mystery – Yanne and Jobert (Eva Green’s mom, by the way) are superb, and Pialat is an important and singular director. These revival screenings are a real event, and shouldn’t be missed if you can help it.