Maurice Pialat’s semiautobiographical second film, We Won’t Grow Old Together, is a dark love story marked by contempt and emotional cruelty. Jean (Jean Yanne) is an established middle-aged filmmaker carrying on an extramarital liaison with his much younger mistress, Catherine (Marlène Jobert). It isn’t clear how they met, how much time they spend with each other, or why they’re together. What’s clear is that their relationship is quickly coming to an end. Oh, but it’s sad when a love affair dies.
The relationship—an entanglement, really—is dysfunctional, to say the least. The two always seem to meet on the go (even though Jean’s wife and Catherine’s parents know about the affair). Their affection surfaces here and there, like when they go to the beach or take a dip in the Mediterranean. It never lasts long; whatever good time they have soon sours. Jean is arrogant, condescending, and mean. He tells Catherine she’s ugly, he shoves her away from him and publicly berates her for not holding a mic correctly while he’s filming a street scene, and he literally throws (OK, pushes) her and her things out of their motel room. He makes no attempt to hide the fact that Catherine’s visiting parents are an inconvenience. He’s a prick. The following is my favorite quote from the film, and it shows how mean Jean is to Catherine:
“You’ve never succeeded at anything and you never will. And do you know why? Because you are vulgar; irremediably vulgar. And not only are you vulgar, you are ordinary.”
Catherine is absolutely beautiful with a fabulous early ’70’s flair. However, she’s unambitious, ambivalent, and kind of crazy. She’s flighty. Jean seems to be the only thing she can see through to the end. Their personalities—indeed, their very identities—bring out the worst in each other.
Even though it was a hit in France during its original run, We Won’t Grow Old Together is not a film I imagine many people appreciating. It’s probably too blunt and ugly for mainstream tastes, especially today. Neither character has any redeeming qualities. In the French New Wave tradition, there isn’t much of a narrative here; the “story” is told through a collection scenes strung together that build a sense of doom. The action is repetitive: Catherine arrives, Jean eventually gets pissed and flies off the handle, they sort of reconcile, and Catherine takes off. Pialat is more interested in getting at a feeling or an experience than telling a story. He succeeds at cutting to the emotional core of an ugly breakup; his depiction is vivid and realistic even if it is extreme, and you feel Jean’s ultimate devastation. The final shot of Jean’s idealized memory of Catherine—beautiful, happy, and peacefully frolicking in the water—is a nice touch.
We Won’t Grow Old Together is hard to watch because it’s frankly brutal; but it’s precisely Pialat’s frank brutality that makes it brilliant.
(Gene Siskel Film Center) A-