Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Under the Sun of Satan


Under the Sun of Satan, Maurice Pialat's adaptation of a Georges Bernanos novel, is a dark, mysterious work about a parish priest who struggles with his faith, trying to understand God's plan for him. Donissan (Gérard Depardieu) is a man prone to self-doubt and confusion. He sees himself as a simple man, a strong farmer type with a bulky body that makes him seem built for a life of unthinking manual labor. But a simple man would not question things the way Donissan almost compulsively does. His religious feelings have made him weaker than he would otherwise have been: feeling that he is supposed to serve God in some way but not knowing how, his life becomes aimless, and he punishes himself with flogging and hairshirts, those traditional implements of Catholic guilt and self-mortification. He is an ineffectual priest, unable to provide comfort to his parishioners because he himself is so plagued with doubts. He is guided by a mentor, Menou-Segrais (played by Pialat himself), who isn't much more effective, though his own doubts and weaknesses seem to have calcified and settled in his old age.

This is a rather scathing portrait of what religious feeling does to those who possess it. Both Donissan and Menou-Segrais, contrary to the conventional understanding of religion as a balm for fears about life and death, are haunted by their religion. Rather than settling their minds, their thoughts about God only drive them deeper into confusion. What does God want from them? What is their purpose in life? Why are sin and suffering all around them, and why can they do so little to ease people's pains? These questions gnaw at them, deepening their misery. Donissan seems closest to God when he is in physical pain: Pialat shoots the priest whipping himself in a small room where the sunlight from an open window creates a hazy, pale light, and Donissan's exertions leave him in poses of religious ecstasy, his arms spread wide like Christ, his head tilted back toward Heaven, the light washing over him as though he was being cradled in God's arms. It's beautiful — but also awful to think that this religious ecstasy is a merely an endpoint of pain, that Donissan is erasing his physicality, his strength and corporeality, in order to attain these postures of sainthood.


The style of the film, in examining these crises of faith and suffering, is stark and rigorous. Pialat's images are often dark but always clearly defined; even the shadows are crisp and hard. The most striking sequence is Donissan's walk from his parish to a nearby community where he's supposed to be visiting. As he sets out, Pialat films the priest walking through wide open fields, lush with greenery, the empty landscape stretching off towards rolling hills in the distance. The priest's black form is the solitary blotch on these empty landscapes, so beautiful and serene. But in the midst of all this beauty, Donissan is blind to his surroundings, suffering internally, afflicted by his doubts and self-made torments. He looks everywhere for the glory of God but doesn't see it in the gorgeous land he walks through, and Pialat's tranquil long shots seem to be mocking the priest, celebrating the beauty of nature even as the priest stumbles and staggers, weighed down by invisible burdens. At nightfall, these beautiful landscapes become dark and eerie, bathed in blue light, as Donissan is joined by a mysterious stranger (Jean-Christophe Bouvet) who appears on the road behind the priest.

This man, who is initially courtly and slowly becomes quietly sinister, is of course the Devil, tempting the priest to divert from his path, preying on the holy man's confusion about God and goodness. The scenes between Donissan and Satan play out in this increasingly dark blue glowing night, and there's an element of homoerotic seduction in Satan's overtures towards his prey. Satan wears Donissan down until the priest is staggering to the ground, unable to resist as the Devil hovers over him, kissing him once and then wiping his mouth afterward, viscerally disgusted by that small touch with humanity: a nice touch, that. The resolution of this encounter with Satan is that the Devil curses the priest with the kinds of powers ordinarily associated with God: visions and insight, the ability to heal and perform miracles. The result is that the priest further blurs the line between good and evil, between God and Satan, performing works in God's name with power derived from the Devil.

Of course, these "miracles" only bring more misery, particularly when Donissan intervenes in the life of the sixteen-year-old Mouchette (Sandrine Bonnaire), a local girl who sleeps with a number of older men, casually giving herself away even as she knows that she's being used. Bonnaire delivers a typically intense performance as this intentionally provocative young girl, who knows the effect she has on men and revels in it, even as it leads her towards destruction. In subtle ways, her self-destructive torment is a mirror image of Donissan's religious suffering, another form of punishing oneself unnecessarily. As a consequence, Mouchette is unpredictable and emotionally volatile, wavering between flirtation and rage. In one scene, after a dalliance with one of her lovers, she lies on the couch, her clothes in disarray, reclining with her body splayed out like a Renaissance nude, very self-conscious of her provocative pose and yet also looking relaxed in her sprawl.


In another shot, Pialat's camera follows Mouchette down the hallway from her bedroom to the bathroom. At the other end of the corridor from her is a a half-open door looking in on the bathroom, a striking composition of the cracked door, the white walls of the bathroom, a few shades off from Mouchette's gray dress, the mirror above the sink. The camera follows Mouchette, but towards the end of the hallway she wavers away from the straight line she'd been walking, stepping away from the bathroom towards a room off to the side, looking in on an empty bedroom, likely her parents' room. The camera follows her gaze into the room, but is slow in turning back to the right, back to the bathroom, as she returns to the hallway. It is as though the camera had expected her to follow this path rigidly, to walk unhesitatingly towards her fate, but Mouchette subverts destiny, if only temporarily, by wavering from the line laid out for her. Once it becomes clear what Mouchette was retrieving from the bathroom, and what she intended to do, the purpose of this shot, initially so mysterious, becomes potent and freighted with meaning. It is a remarkable moment, that brief hesitation, embodied in the temporary confusion of the camera, the instrument of destiny, as this woman looks away from her seemingly ordained act, stepping off the expected path if only for a moment.

That's what the film is about, under the surface: destiny, fate, free will, chance. There are many words for it but they all reflect humanity's confusion about the purpose of life, and the many theories that seek to give a name and a purpose to what drives our lives from behind the scenes. Donissan is an incarnation of that confusion, unsure if he's being driven by God or by Satan, terminally confused about where his impulses come from. When he is moved to revive a dead child — convinced that a mere word from him could bring the boy back to life — he wavers, unsure if the impulse to save the child originates above or below. He feels he is caught in a struggle between Heaven and Hell, but unable to differentiate them, he questions everything. In its subtle way, the film is a devastating portrait of the fruitlessness of religion: the translation of the world's complexity and moral ambiguity into the terms of a war between God and Devil only confuses the issue, tries to force so much nuance into simplistic black-and-white dichotomies. There is no simple container for the emotional fire of Mouchette, who is ultimately destroyed by Donissan's misguided attempt to "help" her.


Under the Sun of Satan is a bleak but darkly beautiful film, haunting and seething with understated anger. Its potent emotions are continually straining against the cool, calm rigidity of Pialat's sharply defined aesthetic. Even the music seems constrained, boxed off: much of the film's sound is purely diegetic, but every so often the heavy, melancholy strains of a classical piece by Henri Dutilleux rise up on the soundtrack. At these points, the diegetic sound is entirely cut off, even if someone is talking, the music drowning out the noise of the world in its overbearing way. With its often noirish emphasis on light and shadow — not to mention its surprisingly dapper Satan in a trenchcoat and hat — the film explores the typical noir theme of a man struggling with his morality and the cruelty of the world around him.

7 comments:

Jeremy Richey said...

I haven't seen this in years but I remember it being fascinating. Bonnaire is a real favorite...

Ed Howard said...

Bonnaire is always so great. There's such depth in every performance she gives; we never just see the surface with her.

DavidEhrenstein said...

This is one of Pialat's best films, and Depardieu's best performances. it's radically differetn from Bresson's Bernanos adaptations. The hero's confrontation with The Devil HGimself would be an odd fit in Bresson's cinematic universe. But it's quite at hom amidst the emotional savagery of Pialat.

Ed Howard said...

Yeah, thinking of Bresson is unavoidable with a Bernanos adaptation but Pialat goes somewhere totally different with this material. It's every bit as severe and rigorous as Bresson but with quite different attitudes about faith and suffering.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Bresson went for the low-key side of Bernannos. Pialat went for the unreconstructed Catholic wildman.

Neither touches on Bernanos' anti-semitism.

susskind said...

Excellent review!

Very good points: how Donissan misses the glory and beauty of Nature & how religion turns out, in some sense, to possess him, confuse his mind with regard to the purpose(s) of life, how to live and empathize with others. Very dostoievskian, I would say, but with the opposite polarity. Bernanos was a catholic though. I haven't read his books and I'm not sure how much of this comes from Pialat, Bernanos or both.

Pialat was a unique film maker. He not only went directly to the bone, without unnecessary explanations about the surroundings or where do the characters come from. He would rather
equiped characters with their own
intrinsic rythm and breathing.
By his exquisite treatment of time, he lets us enter the characters, and to start seeing things with their eyes. This also happens in "La Maison des Bois" and in "Van Gogh".

Ed Howard said...

Very good point, Susskind, about how Pialat allows his characters to develop naturally and organically, to drive the film in a way. All of his films really do provide a sense of spending time with these people, entering their worlds and experiencing things along with them.