Tuesday, 24 November 2015

I, Pierre Rivière, Having Slaughtered My Mother, My Sister and My Brother... (René Allio, 1976)

(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2008)

This week, I want to look at a remarkable one-of-a-kind film made in France in 1976 and a concomitant documentary, filmed thirty years later.

The film has the startling title of I, Pierre Rivière, having slaughtered my mother, my sister and my brother... and if that sounds unwieldy, it is nonetheless necessary. I’m tempted to add to it to give further explanation. So, the extended version: I, Pierre Rivière, having slaughtered my mother, my sister and my brother,  a film based on the collective work concerning a first person account of a 19th century parricide, edited by Michel Foucault and published in 1973 and brought to life on film by the residents of the commune of Athis-de-l'Orne in Normandy, near to where the original event occurred 140 years previously. The film was directed by René Allio; one of his assistant directors was Nicolas Philibert, known for his wonderful 2002 documentary about the life of a rural primary school, Être et Avoir. In Philibert’s 2007 film Back to Normandy, he revisits the people and places in which I, Pierre Rivière was filmed. I’ll return to his film later.

The title of I, Pierre Rivière comes from the first words of the testimony by a young man of the same name who had committed the acts described in June, 1835, killing his mother and siblings with a sharpened billhook, acts for which he accepts culpability. His memoir, written in his prison cell before he is sentenced, outlines his reasons for his actions. This is the story that director René Allio has adapted for the screen. As he says, it was a representation of rural life that needed ‘to answer the requirements of documentary film and of dramatic fiction‘. Although the exact spot of the original events was unsuitable for filming, having been altered by land consolidation, roads and construction in the meantime, it was filmed nearby, and by using inhabitants of the very same region in which the events took place, Allio created a unique film that is also part ethnographic and historical study, his reasoning being that, as he said, ‘those known as farmers could help him restore the words, gestures and tasks that Pierre Rivière describes. When this works well, as with the grandmother’s account of the murder, the father’s aspect throughout or a villager’s testimony about Rivière, you can see exactly what he means and the effects he was aiming at, with a certain phlegmatic stiffness borne of long suffering and a knowledge bred in the bone of the land and toil characterising the film’s atmosphere. It also comes out in more practical ways too, such as ways of eating and serving food, wearing clothes (many donated locally) or the correct way to hold and use a pitchfork.

Pierre’s father Joseph had made a bad marriage to a spiteful, malevolent woman. An early scene of Joseph sucking pus from his sick wife’s breast is a striking symbol of their relationship. Pierre sees so much misery and cruelty in their relationship that he takes what seems to him to be the only option left, one that cuts through their impossible relationship. To free his father from a wife who has driven him to despair, he kills her. Because his sister sided with his mother, he killed her too, and because killing his brother also would make his father despise him, so much did he love his father, he killed his young brother too.

In seeking an explanations for his actions, numerous witnesses are called up – the doctor, prosecutor, priest, interrogator, maids, neighbours and farmers. Their psychologising about the accounts of his strange behaviour and callous actions towards birds and animals gets them no closer to the reasons for this enigmatic young man’s behaviour. He is dismissed as an idiot, described as ‘solitary, wild and cruel‘, or ‘an uncommon individual‘, ‘a man that asked of his father if it was possible to live in the woods on roots and herbs‘. It is left to Rivière to clarify his deeds, and in a surprising and lucid final section we see that he really is ‘an uncommon individual’, but in a way only previously hinted at. As well as torturing frogs and birds, nailing them to trees in aspects of crucifixion, he has a prodigious memory, especially for books of the Bible, and a thirst for knowledge. He attends markets and listens to people talking about their wares and their animals to learn from them. He invents machines (albeit for bird-killing) and gives them made up names – Caliben in the case of his bird crossbow – draws up plans for a butter churn or a self-propelled car and carries out curious semi-religious rituals. One of Allio’s strongest achievements in the film is that he makes Rivière’s pathology seem a logical, convincing course of action. Pierre for example talks of the importance to him of doing the deed in his Sunday suit.

Foucault said that he and his fellow researchers spent more than a year compiling and editing the Pierre Rivière documents. Why? As he says, partly because of ‘simply the beauty of Rivière‘s memoir. The utter astonishment it produced in us was the starting point.’ There is certainly a powerful simplicity in Rivière‘s words that carries the film along and gives it an unadorned, mythical directness. ‘My father was too discouraged to work. He would lay down to rest, and when he woke, he would take the wrong direction,‘ is just one very small example of the style.

Allio’s filming style also has a direct, unaffected, yet extremely effective, simplicity about it, beginning with the opening credits which are shown over a cleft tree in a divided field. We immediately see the aftermath of the murder. There are split logs, an overturned cooking pot and glimpses of red clothing, intimations all of the deed. Other nice underplayed touches in the editing are shown in something like a cut from Pierre‘s father pouring milk into a churn which goes to a inversely echoing shot of a circular skylight in the council chambers in Calvados. At other times the film resembles a series of tableaux vivants based around birth, death, sickness, earth and toil. Filmic associations come to mind: it shares something in its approach with Werner Herzog in general and his 1974 film The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser in particular. (Also – and this is only partly serious – with its rural setting, plans hatched in shadowy attics, the persistent cawing of rooks, primitive religion, murder, a deluded child that meets with the devil in the woods, its melodramatic British counterpart might be the 1971 Tigon production Blood on Satan‘s Claw.)

Although Pierre Rivière initially says he was motivated by religious conviction, that he was ‘roused by God‘, and his acts were committed ‘to justify God's providence‘ and avenge his father‘s persecution by his mother, he does not continue with this line and admits that it was for the love of his father that he carried out his terrible deeds. His testimony gives a strong feeling of a man constrained by his times and setting. It is a feeling that spreads to other characters too – the father, even his mother, whose spite seems as much a product of frustration at the lack of opportunities for self-expression in such a world that gave them all such limited opportunities for the fruition of their needs and desires. This was part of Allio’s design. He said: ‘the project is a difficult one yet doesn’t paralyse me. But one cannot enter the memoir, accounts and text and get to know the characters without friendship and compassion for the prisoner of the peasant condition. For Pierre Rivière first, but also for the others. Their words take on the urgency of a nightmare and we are eager to listen to them.’ These words come from a letter that Allio wrote to Michel Foucault at the time of filming.

Thirty years on from his role as assistant director on the film, Nicolas Philibert went back to Normandy to seek out the original cast of the film to see what impact the film had had on their lives.  His journey we learn is also a personal one for him and has meaningful resonances with the theme of fatherly love in the original film. As is to be expected, it’s a compassionate portrait of a place and its inhabitants, who examine their shared experience of making the film. Familial stories from the present day chime with those of characters in I, Pierre Rivière, sometimes tragically, sometimes not, and while listening to people talk of their experiences in the film we can’t help but consider how much things have changed with regard to opportunities and whether the film could be made again today. Who would play the roles? Could they be played or is the visceral link with the region’s rural past so broken that the approach would no longer work? One of the questions left hanging throughout, after we have heard interviews with the people who played Pierre’s father and sisters, and other sundry villagers, is what happened to the strikingly enigmatic actor Claude Hébert, who played Pierre Rivière, and who was by all accounts a loner himself charged with religious conviction. He made ten more films, the last of them in 1982, and then his trail went cold. Philibert does, finally, make contact.

It is a result of the rightness of his casting that I can immediately call up his intense face from the 1973 film, addressing the camera with the first words of his unique manuscript. Allio said that he made the film for the lives ‘of those who cannot speak, who leave no trace and yet display skill, imagination, bravery, invention and love in order to simply exist, to go on existing or to change or simply endure.’ Here, he gives them voice.

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