One of France’s most challenging directors, Maurice Pialat emerged from the sexy haze of French cinema as a difficult prospect – not only for audiences distanced by his uncompromising approach, but also for his peers, thanks to constant on-set clashes. Refusing to be confined to any group or populist style, Pialat instead cultivated a reputation as an outsider, offering unapologetic portraits of the dark side of everyday life. Sous Le Soleil De Satan (Under The Sun Of Satan) is one such portrait.
Adapted by self-professed atheist Pialat from Catholic novelist George Bernanos’ 1926 work, this intense, unfathomable film is fuelled throughout by the tensions between literature and cinema, atheism and religion. Revisiting familiar themes of life, death, faith and perception – which Pialat investigated early in his career in his shorts Isabelle In La Dombes and Diocesan Eucharistic Congress (both featured as part of the comprehensive extras) – this is an unsentimental meditation on the moral paradoxes of the human condition told through the journey of a priest, Donissan (Gerard Depardieu). Pialat – whom Depardieu refers to as “a warrior for the conscience” – was convinced by the actor to play the part of elder priest Menou-Segrais, who initiates Donissan and leads him through his crisis of faith.
While Depardieu’s performance never deviates from stoic as his troubled priest teeters somewhere between sainthood and insanity, Pialat is the warmer, more human of the two, and it’s the off-screen respect the two shared (apparent in the interviews) that allows this partnership to make such an emotional impact.
Elsewhere, the film is stark. Set against a backdrop of unwelcoming countryside and unsettling religious fervour, Donissan’s search for God leads him through tests from Satan towards an intense, somewhat elongated internal struggle.
It’s unsurprising the film received a mixed reception on its original release but neither is it surprising Sous Le Soleil De Satan won the Palme d’Or at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival. The decision was met with controversy, as was the director’s ungracious attitude (the infamous raise of his finger to a whistling audience as he went to collect his prize). Footage from the Cannes press conference, interviews with Depardieu and Pialat and featurettes sit among an overwhelming set of extras that more than do justice to the UK DVD debut of this cinematic enigma.