I, Pierre Rivière, Having Slaughtered My Mother, My Sister, and My Brother…

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07/24/2008 9:00 AM |

Starting tomorrow, Anthology Film Archives will revived the rarely screened and awesomely titled I, Pierre Rivière, Having Slaughtered My Mother, My Sister, and My Brother…, and its companion making-of doc Back to Normandy (pictured). The L’s Cullen Gallagher reviews both.

Fusing anthropology and noir with a neo-realist aesthetic, René Allio’s cinematic adaptation of Michel Foucault’s I, Pierre Rivière, Having Slaughtered My Mother, My Sister, and My Brother… (1976) is as bleak and severe as its title suggests. Using local farmers and their families as actors, Allio shot the film on location, not far from the small French village where the original murder occurred in 1835. Disturbed by his parents’ failing marriage, Pierre murders his mother (whom he blames) and two of his siblings (who side with their mother). A brother, who lives with Pierre and his father, is spared. This much we are told from the start (even the title suggests as much), and the rest of the film is devoted to Pierre’s trial and to understanding the events that led up to the murder. Blisteringly realistic and disturbingly acute in its exploration of familial betrayal and social ethics, the film is rarely screened and not available on video in the US. Its obscurity unjust, I, Pierre… is deserving of wider attention and re-evaluation.

What impresses most is Allio’s evenhandedness: just as in the films of Otto Preminger, the film often withholds judgment on its characters and their actions, instead leaving it up to the audience to come to terms with the moral and ethical dilemmas presented. This is not to suggest that either Allio or Preminger is merely striving for their own conception of "objectivity": in fact, they are strictly the opposite, investing largely in the subjectivity of their characters, and eliciting a strong engagement with the audience. In Laura (1944), Preminger uses a multi-person voice-over that allows us access to the subjective prejudices and slants of different characters, and in I, Pierre… Allio similarly switches narrators, offering us their conflicting testimonies to the murder and Pierre’s character.

It is precisely through these conflicts and skewed perspectives that I, Pierre… expresses both its complexity and profundity. More than just offering subjective narratives, Allio asks us to try and separate truth from misconception, a task he knows is as impossible as it is inconclusive. "All I ask is that what I mean shall be understood, and I have written it all down as best I can," narrates Pierre at the start of his confession. His plea is simple, yet throughout the film it is rare that anyone tries to understand him. Still, Pierre’s expression comes to haunt the entire film, and it is echoed implicitly by all of the characters. One could say that all of the major conflicts of the film — the failed marriage of Pierre’s parents, Pierre’s marginalization from the community, his decision to commit murder, and the subsequent trial — are manifestations of failed empathy. One of the great unspoken ironies is, of course, that perhaps Pierre is equally guilty of not understanding those around him: his own complicity prevents him from coming off as a martyr, and allows us enough judicial distance to properly weigh his confession alongside the other narratives presented in the film.

To contrast the ambiguity of the story, Allio emphasizes the objective, physical reality of the village and its environment with an almost tangible palate. Through languorous long-takes, the camera pans across rooms and over tables with an observational eye, taking note of the placement of every bowl and measuring the bare walls and dirt floors. So vivid are the muddied exteriors that one can almost smell the manure from the fields in the movie theater. With such a heavy amount of narrative and moral uncertainty, where we are left afloat in our own perplexities with nary a life preserver in sight, these physical details are all we have left to cling to.

Playing alongside I, Pierre… is Back to Normandy (2007), the new documentary by Nicolas Philibert (To Be and To Have [2002]), who was Allio’s assistant on the former film. An imaginative and innovative departure from the typical "behind the scenes" documentary, the film isn’t merely interested in chronicling the production history of I, Pierre… but instead is captivated by the real-life personalities of the villagers who acted in the film. Returning to the town thirty-years later, Philibert looks up the cast and talks with them about their experiences making the movie, but mostly about their lives since then. In one particularly humorous scene, an actor’s entire family joins him on-camera for the interview and ends up dominating the conversation with their debate as to why the father was ever chosen to play "the lover" in the film. Clearly, they conclude, it wasn’t because he looked like "a lover". More entertained by their own jokes, they never do figure out exactly why he was picked for the part.

Filled with charming digressions and personal histories, Back to Normandy is brimming with intimacy and expresses a strong sense of community, the sort of which could never be found in the gossipy, paranoid witch-hunts of I, Pierre… The earnest and endearing love for family and filmmaking expressed by the villages in Philibert’s documentary is rarely presented on film with so little cloyingness and sentimentality, which are instead replaced with something far more valuable: a natural knack for storytelling and (even better) an eager ear for listening to others who have their own stories to tell.

Both films play at Anthology Film Archives from July 25 through August 1.