Gerard Depardieu plays Dossignan, a rural priest engaged in an intense spiritual struggle, a struggle so demanding it regularly brings Depardieu to ill health, one feels even worse might befall him if he didn't have his Dean, Menou-Segrais (played by Pialat himself) to mentor him. An encounter with Satan leads to a powerful revelation, which compels Depardieu to confront the promiscuous local girl, Mouchette (Sandrine Bonnaire), about her troubles, an action which ultimately leads to tragedy. Essentially, Under The Sun Of Satan is about the individual's existential struggle, but by coding this struggle as religious in nature, Pialat elevates the film beyond mere drama, beyond the everyday, while at the same time maintaining a surface naturalism, and in so doing, he has presented us with one of the great masterpieces of cinema. However, Pialat could not have accomplished this without Gerard Depardieu in the main role, whose talents are uniquely suited to the form this film takes.
Depardieu is a physically powerful man, it is immediately obvious as soon as we see him on screen, but what makes him interesting is how rarely he employs his physicality as his primary mode of expression – most of the time he is very still, and only moves when necessary, he doesn't use his body to dominate the scene. Depardieu is charismatic for sure, but he is compelling to watch because when he does move or speak, he is so simple and direct, there is no huffing or shuffling of feet, no cod naturalism, he just does it, in the moment: bang, and this directness can be alarming at times. The point is, Depardieu is a naturally talented actor, (more and more these days, I think acting is simply a talent), he has a gift, and that is why he is not ponderous in performance: he decides what he is going to do swiftly, and then he just does it. We may call this instinct. Here's Maurice Pialat talking about Depardieu:
“He has a way of understanding things a lot faster than everyone else, which is the mark of intelligence....He's amazing at getting into character, or letting the character get to him. There is this sort of chemistry. I should know how it's done, but I don't know how he does it...when it comes to Gerard, it's just astounding. You don't need to condition Gerard. He's able to look in one direction and joke around with someone, then turn around with a sad expression on his face.”
Yes, we can sum this up as talent. And I'd go along with Pialat's definition of intelligence. While acting is not an intellectual pursuit, I think mental strength and the ability to think quickly are extremely useful qualities for an actor to possess. The other point about natural acting instinct, is how it can so easily be nullified by an insecure director (especially when the instinct belongs to a young and insecure actor) - an insecure director is one who overburdens the actor with reason – which is in effect a rejection of the acting instinct, a rejection of the instinctive actor (ie – a rejection of the talented actor), and the stodgy, second rate actor is preferred, because the second rate actor can (and most certainly will) explain away every moment and every gesture of their performance - they have conceptualized it, and what you end up with is something closer to a lecture than a performance, and it's dull to watch, so we (the audience) “appreciate” the actor's technique because we've nothing else to be delighted by, but of course, this reassures the director that the actor is not making any “mistakes”, which is exactly the reassurance the director was seeking in the first place, when he rejected the instinctive actor, in favour of the stodge, conceptual actor. Top tip: there are no mistakes in acting: everything that happens is engendered by the truth of the moment, whether we like it or not, whether it fits our plan or not. It's only the second class actor who treats his performance as a school exam, ticking boxes, avoiding “mistakes”, the first class actor just goes for it courageously, and that is why he is so great to watch (so, the only real question for the actor is whether he wants to be a first or second class actor, and once he has chosen, he may proceed accordingly). The truly talented actor cannot always explain how or why he is acting well, most of the time he doesn't know how or why.* If you asked Depardieu what was happening after shouting CUT, he would just shrug and light up another Gitane. Lets learn to recognise this instinct, this talent for acting, and instead of being intimidated by it, let's nurture it, or it may be lost to us.
As Andre Frossard said of Under The Sun Of Satan, it's a film which wrestles with the great questions of life, of evil, of death, of redemption, and it's a film where bodies are “only instruments of salvation or perdition”. In some respects, we're lucky Depardieu and Pialat found eachother, and went on to make Under The Sun Of Satan – because this particular film gave Depardieu the opportunity to exercise his talent to it's fullest, and in so doing, a rare example of the true power of the actor is committed to film. Depardieu's physical bulk is a red herring, it is the man's spirit we respond to. He offers us an insight into the inner workings of the human soul, and his body is simply an instrument to deliver this insight. In this sense, Depardieu and the film are one. Acting then, in it's very highest form, allows us to observe body and soul working in combination – it's a visceral, emotional, sometimes enlightening experience.
Great actors show us something we cannot see anywhere else.
*There is the famous story of Laurence Olivier, who came off stage furious after giving a particularly brilliant performance of Othello. Backstage, one of the cast members said; "Larry, why are you so angry, you were brilliant tonight", to wit Olivier replied; "that's exactly why I'm so angry, I haven't got a clue how I did it."