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The retrospective Love Exists: The Films of Maurice Pialat will run at the TIFF Lightbox until Dec. 5.

It has been more than a decade since the films of Maurice Pialat last enjoyed an engagement in Toronto – and a decade without Pialat is a poor one indeed. A Pialat film is restorative, invigorating; it is a tonic that ought to be administered with regularity. The late French director's work returns at last this month, arriving at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in the magnificence of a full retrospective. Who knows when we'll be afforded the opportunity again.

Pialat was born in 1925 in the small town of Cunlhat in central France. He began his working life as an aspiring painter, like his countryman Robert Bresson, though after languishing without success he abandoned the vocation for a career in film, starting with a series of short documentaries and travelogues in the early 1960s.

He was, to his lasting regret, already 43 by the time he made his first feature, the deeply moving coming-of-age story L'enfance nue. Yet the years hardly show: Urgent, volatile and, like all of Pialat's films, uncompromising, it is the sort of debut you would expect of a much younger man. That's Pialat for you. The energy, the electricity, seems inexhaustible. He retained the fervour of youth until the day he died in 2003.

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Pialat is often discussed in terms of extremes: extreme violence on the one hand (mainly psychological and emotional) and extreme joy on the other. Life, for Pialat, is scarcely dull or mundane – it is rarely in repose. Instead, it hurtles mercurially from peak to valley, from ecstasy to sorrow. His films reflect this turbulence.

Early in L'enfance nue, its orphaned young hero, François (Michel Terrazon), drops his foster family's cat down several flights of stairs; in the next scene, we find him nursing it affectionately, feeding it a saucer of milk and wishing it well. Staggering cruelty, inexplicable tenderness – François flits between them. It's a dichotomy Pialat would return to across his career.

This can make for intense viewing. But Pialat's generosity – his fondness for people at their worst – goes a long way toward alleviating the onscreen pain. Pialat cares for François, and wants us to, too, if we're willing and able. L'enfance nue does not wheedle us into sympathy by indulging a fantasy of the tragic orphan. It introduces us to the orphan at his most callous and petulant, at his most insufferable, and invites us to learn, slowly and patiently, to care. It isn't easy. But that's what it takes to apprehend another life without compromise. That mess and that sprawl – that's what life is.

One gets the sense that sympathy for scoundrels came naturally to Pialat. By most accounts, he was a bit of one himself: Bilious, hot-tempered and notoriously pugnacious, the man had an unenviable reputation in France. Nor was he embarrassed to admit it.

Many of Pialat's films are widely known to be autobiographical – and usually in the worst ways. I suspect few would care to admit a resemblance between themselves and Gérard Depardieu's volcanic philanderer in Loulou, Pialat's masterful romance from 1980, but the filmmaker wasn't shy about his affinity. That makes the film a strange kind of self-portrait: It scrutinizes its hero's misbehaviour unsparingly – not a modicum of undue charity directed his way – and yet neither is there the slightest shade of condemnation. He affords us another glimpse of the Pialat extremes: obnoxious man-child, likeable guy.

Pialat's empathy extended well beyond himself. And it cultivated in him what was for the time a radical conception of personal liberty. Á nos amours tells the story of a working-class French family struggling to accommodate the new-found independence of its youngest member – an independence that manifests itself as sexual agency. Suzanne (Sandrine Bonnaire) has developed one summer a rather voracious sexual appetite, whetted nightly by gentleman callers. This young girl, her nubility suddenly flourishing, is pleased to find herself desired. And desiring – insatiably so. Her sexuality is irrepressible; she delights in it.

What's wonderful and rare is that Pialat encourages her to. There's no judgment in Á nos amours: Suzanne's promiscuity isn't celebrated or condemned so much as presented as one way of living.

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That same magnanimity courses through Graduate First (Passe ton bac d'abord), Pialat's exquisite teen comedy (inasmuch as any Pialat film could qualify as a "teen comedy") about a group of high school dropouts bumming around the coast of France. "You're always sleeping, hanging about till 3 in the morning," one fellow's mother chides him. "We would never have done that in our day." The young man just scoffs. "That's progress!" he beams. No doubt Pialat agrees: History moves in the direction of freedom. Let the children have more.

Pialat left school in his teens. (The autobiographical impulse appears here once again.) He, of course, turned out just fine. What he became attuned to as an adult making films about those many years younger were the emotional stakes of adolescence – the distinct sense, common among us all, that every event and experience is electrically charged. Pialat seized upon that charge as his work's animating force. Tumultuous affairs, vicious fights, internecine family strife – these were his favoured subjects because they're the moments that make us feel the most emphatically alive.

Love Exists: The Films of Maurice Pialat runs until Dec. 5 (tiff.net).

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