Under The Sun Of Satan (1987)

Palme Thursday is A.A. Dowd’s monthly examination of a winner of the Palme D’Or, determining how well the film has held up and whether it deserved the highest prize awarded at the Cannes Film Festival.

Under The Sun Of Satan (1987)

I shall not fail to uphold my reputation. I am particularly pleased by all the protests and whistles directed at me this evening, and if you do not like me, I can say that I do not like you either.

Do the above remarks constitute the saltiest acceptance speech in the history of the Cannes Film Festival? Maurice Pialat delivered them in 1987, when his gloomy religious drama Under The Sun Of Satan was announced as the winner, by unanimous decision, of the Palme D’Or—an unpopular choice that earned some catcalls, just as the film itself had upon premiere a few days earlier. Difficult, controversial, and sometimes just plain bad movies get booed at Cannes all the time, to the point where BAMcinématek in New York held a screening series a couple of years ago devoted entirely to these jeered contenders. Furthermore, it’s not so unheard of for the winner of the Palme to get some blowback from folks who favored a different movie. But how often is a film remembered chiefly for how it was received on the Croisette? Or for how its maker responded to an uncharitable reception?

Three decades later, Under The Sun Of Satan still gets discussed as a scandal of Cannes, with even positive reappraisals noting the whistles of disapproval at the awards ceremony and the French director who met them with some characteristic disdain of his own, punctuating the brief address with a hand gesture people have alternately read as a celebratory fist pump and one final, wordless kiss-off to the peanut gallery.

If it remains tough to talk about this movie on its own terms—to divorce it from that anecdote—it may be because Pialat himself often made contentiousness his brand. How apropos that his biggest moment of recognition, his coronation at the world’s most prestigious film festival, arrived amid a chorus of boos. The director, who died in 2003, was a walking contradiction: unsung in his wild success, if such a thing is possible. His career dovetailed with the French New Wave, but he never fit in with that group, whose members he often held in public contempt. (Even François Truffaut, who produced Pialat’s first feature, wasn’t safe from his scorn.) Pialat’s movies won awards, scored strong reviews, and often made a lot of money at the French box office, but he didn’t enjoy the kind of reputation his peers did—perhaps because he was notoriously hard on the cast and crew that agreed (sometimes just once) to work with him. Pialat seemed to relish existing outside of any one movement, while still lamenting his solitude. And as hard as he hit back at his detractors, he was his own harshest critic, copping hard to what he saw as his failures.

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I’ve often used this space to champion difficult movies, because those are the kind that ideally should be honored at Cannes. And Pialat was exactly the kind of artist—uncompromising, with a career generally unlike anyone else’s—the festival was created to enshrine. All the same, this is one instance where the opposition may have been on to something. Under The Sun Of Satan, the first French movie to win the Palme in more than 20 years (the previous champion, A Man And A Woman, split the highest prize back in 1966), may be too alienating for its own good. Chronicling the spiritual woes of a self-flagellating priest, this dour and awkwardly structured film delivers its own lashing to the audience’s patience. It’s often about as engaging as a priest talking right past his parish, even as it takes an intriguingly earthy approach to theological struggle.

Under The Sun Of Satan

Working with his wife, producer Sylvie Pialat, the director adapted Under The Sun Of Satan from an acclaimed novel by Georges Bernanos, condensing the narrative but keeping the focus on a young priest, Father Donissan, suffering a crisis of confidence. Donissan is played by that great, hulking icon of French cinema, Gérard Depardieu, in the third of four performances he delivered for the director. He’s the movie’s greatest asset: From the moment we see Donissan, sparring with a superior (Pialat himself) about his value to the congregation, it’s clear that he’s an uncomfortable fit for this lifestyle. Depardieu has always used his imposing physicality to his advantage; here he almost looks like a painfully pubescent boy, gawky and uncomfortable in his own skin, to say nothing of the vestments. Even before Donissan has encountered carnally obsessed characters (one potentially the devil himself, the other close to damnation), Pialat has already linked spiritual commitment to the flesh; an early scene of Donissan whipping himself in his chambers has a masturbatory quality.

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Insomuch as the film has a traditional conflict at all, it’s in Donissan’s interactions with Mouchette, a teenage girl who’s accidentally murdered one of her lovers. She’s played by a young Sandrine Bonnaire, every bit as volatile here as she was at 16, making her debut as the bed-hopping wild child of Pialat’s À Nos Amours. That earlier film, along with the scathingly autobiographical We Won’t Grow Old Together—still one of the great breakup dramas of all time, for how well it atomizes the closing stretch of a bad romance—offer better evidence of what Pialat firing on all cylinders looks like. The director manages to work a pocket-sized version of one of his usual relationship dramas into the early stretch of Under The Sun Of Satan, abandoning Donissan for a while to capture Mouchette’s lovers’ quarrels (the first culminating in the aforementioned murder, staged with startling abruptness). But while it allows Pialat to use one of his signature casual leaps forward in time, this detour throws the movie off balance. It feels like it belongs to a completely different film, a better and more approachable one.

Under The Sun Of Satan

Watching Under The Sun Of Satan, it’s hard not to draw unflattering comparisons—and not just to Pialat’s earlier, livelier dramas. The name Mouchette, for example, may give cinephiles flashbacks to a different character: the eponymous, tragically ill-fated young heroine of Robert Bresson’s heartbreaking 1967 drama. Both Mouchette and Bresson’s Diary Of A Country Priest are based on novels by Georges Bernanos, just as Under The Sun Of Satan is. This only amplifies a point of comparison: Bresson, like Pialat, was a painter before he was a filmmaker, and despite the stylistic differences between the two French directors, the latter’s work has been frequently discussed in relation to the former’s. (Marja Warehime’s 2006 book on Pialat devotes an entire section of the introduction to their similarities and differences.) But one doesn’t need to play a zero-sum game to see that Bresson—with his highly ascetic style, his uncanny ability to render pathology physical—is better suited to Bernanos. Even with Depardieu by his side, Pialat takes a tell-rather-than-show approach, supplying his characters with pages upon pages of densely theological conversation. It can be stultifying.

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Abstractly, there’s plenty to appreciate. Under The Sun Of Satan belongs to a long tradition of religious films by nonbelievers—movies, like The Flowers Of St. Francis or The Gospel According To St. Matthew, that express an intense fascination with (and even respect for) faith, but don’t couch that interest in evangelical agenda. Pialat, who devoted a whole career to realism, keeps the film’s perspective earthbound. Beyond its slightly eerie (and highly unconvincing) use of day-for-night, the scene of Donissan running afoul a predatory stranger—a man who strongly implies he may be Satan, before calmly attempting to seduce the priest—is staged as naturalistically as everything else in the film. Likewise, a later vision of a deceased sinner could easily be written off as a figment of the priest’s tortured imagination. Because Donissan can’t recognize God in anything around him, Pialat denies the audience any evidence of a holy (or even unholy) presence. He takes a “secular” approach to imply a great absence.

Under The Sun Of Satan

Which is not to say that this is a movie with a fundamentally atheist worldview. Whereas many films about religious crisis make doubt the crux of their dilemma, Under The Sun Of Satan presents a protagonist whose belief never wavers; his problem isn’t a lack of faith, but an overwhelming fear that the devil has already won, and that he is, as an ill-equipped man of the cloth, entirely incapable of saving anyone’s soul. Look past the religious dimension, and it’s really a film about self-doubt and self-loathing—both topics Pialat knew a thing or two about. Writing about the director in The New Yorker, critic Richard Brody refers to a 1994 interview in which Pialat laments the career he made for himself: “I’m someone who completely blew his chance and who could have done much better in his life.” Pialat, like Donissan, could be described as a stocky odd man out, isolated from the rest of his profession and anxious that he wasn’t capable of reaching anyone through his work.

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But even if one watches Under The Sun Of Satan through that metatexual lens, it doesn’t look personal, exactly. And though Pialat carefully preserves a human scope, he doesn’t find a solution to a common page-to-screen problem: how to externalize a fundamentally internal story, especially one about something as complicated as a man’s relationship and duty to God. The dialogue, some of it quite eloquent, makes Donissan’s issues abundantly clear, but there’s a big difference between understanding a character and getting invested in his fate. Under The Sun Of Satan holds you at a distance, where it’s only possible to admire its seriousness and the audacity of its construction—again, to appreciate it abstractly. Not every movie booed at Cannes is a misunderstood classic in the making, and not every difficult film is difficult to good end. Apologies to Pialat, a filmmaker worthy of the critical reassessment he’s received these past few years, but that snippy acceptance speech really might be more interesting than the film he used it to defend. It’s certainly more entertaining.

Did it deserve it win? “The festival seemed a little tame this year, with no rioting fans trying to force their way into the latest spectacular new discovery,” wrote Roger Ebert in Two Weeks In The Midday Sun, his delightful, dispatch-and-doodle notebook from Cannes ’87. Ebert didn’t even catch Under The Sun Of Satan, but he did include Pialat’s words from the podium. In any case, the critic’s generalization of the competition field, which he apparently sampled, doesn’t seem so far off the mark. Like Ebert, I enjoy the hell out of Barfly, Barbet Schroeder’s movie about the days Charles Bukowski (who wrote the screenplay) spent drinking his ass off in Los Angeles. (Mickey Rourke, before he messed up his mug, fantastically portrays the loose Bukowski stand-in.) But my pick among the films I’ve seen would have to be Wim Wenders’ Wings Of Desire, which is really almost the polar opposite of Under The Sun Of Satan: a movie that visualizes (and romanticizes) the divine, giving us real angels and tangible miracles. It’s as sentimental as Pialat’s movie is bleak, but also a work of lovely whimsy. I have a hunch that had Wenders not picked up the Palme for Paris, Texas just a few years earlier, Yves Montand and the rest of the Cannes jury would have handed it to him in ’87. (He got the Best Director prize instead.)

Up next: Palme Thursday returns in January with what may be my all-time favorite Cannes winner, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation.

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