Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Out 1 and Jacques Rivette R.I.P.

Paris, May 1968

Éric Rohmer as a Balzac professor

OUT 1                  B+             
aka:  Out 1, Noli me Tangere                         
France  (775 mi)  1971            d:  Jacques Rivette      co-director:  Suzanne Schiffman

Born in Rouen in 1928, Rivette interestingly met his fellow Parisian cinephiles in much the same way as others do around the world, by coming to the city at the age of 20, frequenting screenings, and simply running into the same faces, usually finding themselves sitting together in the front row of the Cinémathèque Française, where Rivette actually sat next to Jean-Luc Godard for several months before Godard finally introduced himself.  Casual acquaintances eventually became good friends, where Rivette, Godard, François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, and Éric Rohmer began writing film criticism for French film journal Cahiers du Cinéma, hired by noted critic André Bazin in the early 50’s, still considered an influential film magazine to this day, Cahiers du Cinéma's Top Ten Films.  While Rivette’s retention of knowledge about films in post-screening debates was legendary, he was considered the most aggressive and well-written of the new group of writers, eventually becoming editor of the magazine in the early 60’s, where unlike his contemporaries, who flourished in their new successful careers as heralded French New Wave filmmakers, he continued attending films regularly at the Cinémathèque well into the 70’s.  While Godard holds the distinction today in critical circles of being considered a “radical” filmmaker, challenging conventions, integrating Marxist ideology and existentialist philosophy into his works, it was Rivette who experimented most severely with narrative form, particularly the use of duration along with a loose, improvisatory style, where three of his first five features are organized around theatrical troupes in rehearsal, becoming unrelenting challenges to audiences.  Bearing some similarities to Godard’s equally audience unfriendly, loosely experimental political satire LA CHINOISE (1967), a departure of the ways for Godard, a renunciation of “bourgeois” narrative filmmaking altogether, including a similar use of two prominent actors that appear in both, Jean-Pierre Léaud and Juliet Berto, Rivette’s emphasis is less on the political and more on the expansive use of screen time.  Using a near journalistic cinéma vérité style, featuring the continual use of long takes, what’s uniquely peculiar is the lack of any coherent storyline developing, even after several hours into the film, where instead the director seems more invested in an experimental sense of extended abstraction, literally toying with the idea of loosely connected characters that each get involved in parallel subplots that only become recognizable over time.  While this is a highly effective approach in Kieslowski’s The Decalogue (Dekalog) (1988-89), nearly four hours shorter than Rivette’s mammoth 13-hour film, Kieslowski uses more conventional storytelling techniques, while Rivette’s film stands alone as a clinical examination of the art of filmmaking itself, literally making a behind-the-scenes film about performers improvising extended performances that push the limits of endurance, yet little by little, the director introduces new characters and allows other seemingly real-life events to intrude into this artificially constructed reality, continually altering the mindset of the viewers watching the entire events unfold over a prolonged period of time.  It should be stated, however, that this is an endlessly challenging film and one of the most difficult to experience, where there is seemingly little reward for the effort, as Rivette’s film is entirely minimalistic, where it’s simply people going about their daily lives and routines, where often nothing in particular stands out, yet it’s exhaustive to endure, even broken up into segments, or seen over the course of several days, as it was never meant to be seen all at once.  Nonetheless, this is also one of those films that stays with you afterwards, that has an afterlife, that continues to dwell in the mind and affect one’s overall outlook, as other films may seem overly conventional afterwards.   

Although he made his first short film in 1949, and at least according to Truffaut, his short film LE COUP DU BERGER (1956), featuring uncredited appearances by Chabrol, Truffaut, and Godard, ushered in the spirit of the French New Wave, yet Rivette was the last of the Cahiers crew to receive recognition, where it was four years after he started shooting before the release of his first film PARIS BELONGS TO US (1961), while his second feature THE NUN (LA RELIGIEUSE) was not released until 1965, but was banned due to the religious content, even though it premiered at the Cannes Festival in 1966, having to go through a lengthy court process to get the ban lifted, losing the better part of a decade on these two films.  It wasn’t until the release of his more than four-hour third feature, L’AMOUR FOU (1969), where a disintegrating relationship is balanced against the workings of a theatrical group, that the public finally got some notion of how he operated as a director, and his reputation was solidified.  Finding uniquely novel approaches to explore the age-old question of truth, that film was pivotal in Rivette’s career as a precursor to his vast 12+ hour opus OUT 1 that followed two years later.  Influenced by the political turmoil of the May 1968 protests in France, Rivette began working with large groups of actors to develop characters, then allowed events to unfold organically on camera during production.  Not so much a film as an experience of sheer originality, almost like a unique “happening,” never seen before or since, the film was shot entirely on 16mm over the course of six weeks in April and May of 1970, with each of the actors developing their own characters in some detail, specifically Michael Lonsdale, Juliet Berto, Bulle Ogier, Michèle Moretti, and Jean-Pierre Léaud, where Lonsdale had been working independently with his own loosely knit theater group in Paris with Peter Brook, so it was a natural extension of what he had already been doing, while Michèle Moretti was intrigued by the Aeschylus play Seven Against Thebes, finding it distant and unapproachable, reduced to a series of vocal exercises and physical movements.  Berto chose a character in contrast to anything she had previously done with Godard, a kind of secretive con-artist that exists in the margins who would eventually die tragically.  Léaud had a similar character, playing the opening segments as a deaf mute, but eventually exposed as a fake.  Bulle Ogier’s character goes by two names, Emilie and Pauline, yet is mystifyingly absent from much of the film, largely because she was working on other projects at the time.  With these vague outlines in mind, perhaps five or six completely different stories, Rivette had to somehow pull all the collective forces together, which he decided to do through the Balzac trilogy History of The Thirteen (Histoire des Treize), three short novels following the exploits of an unscrupulous secret society in 19th century France, where Berto proclaimed, “How strange, it’s like being in a cloak and dagger story.”  This narrative device allows Léaud, who was initially little more than a fringe character, to become the driving force between an elusive web of mysteries, where Rivette, like Balzac, constructs several loosely connected characters with their own independent stories whose shadowy subplots weave amongst each other and continually uncover new characters with their own subplots.  Whether there are answers to these mysteries are apparently unimportant, as the mysteries, in and of themselves, provide all the intrigue. 

Almost lost to viewers is the role the city of Paris plays in the film, perhaps imagined as a fictionalized place of random encounters or a mysterious, labyrinthian maze, suggesting infinite secrets.  One should be reminded that in May, 1968 the city was shut down by riots and massive student demonstrations combined with lengthy worker strikes nationwide that involved nearly a quarter of the entire population of the country, with universities and factories occupied by strikers for several weeks and the government temporarily brought to its knees, with revolutionary sentiment in the air, eventually quelled by the police, leaving in its wake graffiti sprayed all over the walls and sidewalks of the city, with slogans like, “Be realistic.  Demand the impossible!” or “Politics is in the streets.”  It was a telling moment in history, where capitalism and the conservative values of the old guard were challenged by a younger generation ushering in a new era of hope and idealism about the future, where citizens challenged notions of equity, fairness, freedom, racism, and social justice.  But as quickly as these hopes were raised, the spirit of the movement was crushed, new elections were held with voters overwhelmingly endorsing the existing authoritarian regime.  It is in this aftermath that OUT 1 was born, rising out of an extended period of optimism and youthful exuberance, filled with an ecstatic yearning for greater artistic freedoms, but equally suspicious notions about the prevalence of darker forces within that prevent these freedoms from ever occurring.  Yet throughout it all, the city is beautifully preserved in a carefully sketched time capsule, with its cultural heritage evoked through a seemingly endless stream of cinéma vérité images shot by Pierre-William Glenn, using a near documentary style where the locations shift around to various parts of the city, where viewers get a continuous glimpse of Paris in the year 1970. 

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky from The Onion A.V. Club, November 5, 2015, Unique and monumental, Out 1 is the most paranoid movie ever made 

As strikes and riots shut down France in May of 1968, slogan graffiti spread like kudzu over the sidewalks, one of the best-remembered being: “All power to the imagination!” Jacques Rivette’s monumental Out 1 is set almost exactly two years later, in a hazy “What now?” where imagination is just about all people have left of those earlier days—and the thing about imagination is that it’s solitary and private, and not much of a substitute for the high of thinking everything is about to change for the better. Uniquely ambitious, Rivette’s film (technically a serial) spends nearly 13 hours stitching paranoia, loneliness, comedy, and mystical symbolism into a crazy quilt big enough to cover a generation. And though its first-ever American release is bound to dispel some of the air of sacrament and mystery that has surrounded Out 1 for decades, perhaps it will now be better seen for what it is: the medium’s most indelible portrait of an era of lost ideals and a funky, one-of-a-kind vision of individuals searching to be part of something bigger and more meaningful than themselves, even if only as a delusion.

Partly inspired by dream-like, silent-era Louis Feuillade serials like Les Vampires and Fantômas, Out 1 plants many of the best French actors of its time into a plot that can only be explained with Venn diagrams and flowcharts, involving two scam artists, two experimental theater troupes, two Ancient Greek plays, a boutique shop, a secret society modeled on Honoré De Balzac’s History Of The Thirteen, and cryptic messages decoded through Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting Of The Snark.” This is 1970—the real 1970, not a tasteful recreation—and people wear neckerchiefs, shearling coats with toggle buttons, gypsy prints, leather jackets, and pants with flared legs. Shot largely handheld on 16mm, Out 1 could pass for a documentary on what it meant to dress and live hip in the streets and unevenly painted bohemian spaces of Paris in that era. In stretches, it has the off-the-cuff luster of color street photography, with cinematographer Pierre-William Glenn’s frames bursting with the purples, pinks, and greens of fabric and paint, made tactile by the fuzz of film grain.

At the same time, it could just as easily pass for a documentary about itself, given Rivette’s taste for including flubbed takes, camera noise, crew shadows, and curious bystanders. This slipshod quality could be interpreted as a further homage to silent film, specifically the rough location shooting of the ambitious French movies of the 1910s. (One of Feuillade’s most paranoid movies, the short Erreur Tragique, actually uses this as a plot point; it’s about a man who becomes convinced that his wife is having an affair after spotting her in the background of a movie.) Could be is the operative phrase here, because these are really just side effects of a mind-bogglingly complex project being shot very quickly and cheaply. Generally, these would be left on the cutting room, but they are included here, part and parcel with characters who read sinister meaning in coincidence and nonsense.

Out 1 can sometimes seem too real (see: an acting troupe’s intensely physical improv exercise, shot in a single take that runs almost half an hour), but it’s mostly about the unreal: the world of theater, or maybe the world as a theater, full of masks and assumed identities, with actors playing actors, rehearsals doubled by small-time cons, and characters fading away into their obsessions. Here, that old prop of paranoid logic, the blackboard covered with obscure references and circled words, becomes a window into a character’s yearnings, the dots connected because each link represents a step closer to fulfillment, if not closure. At one point, filmmaker Éric Rohmer appears in an extended cameo, wearing one of the most fake beards ever committed to celluloid. Out 1 is the kind of movie that invents its own dimension, and here, a bad disguise constitutes reality. It’s all make-believe and play—and one can’t help but wonder whether the riots of May ’68, which hang over the movie like an overcast sky, were too.

Beyond all other considerations, what remains unfathomable is the degree to which this entire theater piece is a work of uninhibited improvisation, a cinema of liberation, which is really like throwing oneself into the storm of the abyss without safeguards or lifejackets.  What’s particularly impressive is the way Rivette handled the different facets of the film, from the improvisation, the theater, the personal problems, and the relationship issues, where this technique creates a theater of extreme anxiety for the actors, who are challenged to fill the empty spaces, as nothing happens in so much of the film, with characters finding themselves alone in front of a camera, which is the real crisis throughout that needs to be overcome.  But this is apparent from the outset, where no audience is prepared for what follows, as we’re introduced to rival theater groups, each preparing for different Greek tragedies by Aeschylus, one in a cavernous warehouse space led by Thomas (Michael Lonsdale) rehearsing for Prometheus Unbound, while the blazingly red-headed Lili (Michèle Moretti) is leading her group preparing for Seven Against Thebes.  The opening 45-minutes or so is simply watching backstage rehearsals in progress, with the camera weaving in and out of their physical space, where the amount of real time spent with these groups, and the meticulous documentary detail that the audience is exposed to is not only repetitive, but strains one’s degree of concentration.  There is never a question of establishing the audience’s interest, which is of little consequence, but instead it’s all about the process, where characters are introduced, theater directors are identified, acting methods are chosen and practiced, where there is little attention paid to text readings, instead what we witness are physical acting exercises and vocal techniques, where the audience is perhaps involuntarily forced to adapt to the relentless rhythm of lengthy rehearsals.  Where this all leads is anybody’s guess, but the experimental style alone will separate ardent cinephiles from more typical film lovers, as they’re in it for the long haul, while others may simply be scratching their heads.  The entire film is broken down into eight episodes, usually shown four at a time over the course of two days, where each of the episodes begins with opening titles listing one name to another, such as “From Lili to Thomas,” followed by “From Thomas to Frédérique,” followed by a handful of black and white still photos (shot by photographer Pierre Zucca) that summarize the previous episode, breaking into the final moments of that episode still in black in white before seamlessly transforming into the new episode which is completely in color.  The titles alone change the point of emphasis to those featured characters (though they are more likely the first and last characters seen in each segment), which has a way of leading the audience into multiple mindsets throughout.  Juliet Berto is Frédérique, an attractive hustler who tends to hang around bars and café’s, always pretending to be penniless, waiting for someone to nobly rush in with their pocketbook and rescue her from her fate, a girl that is not above going to a hotel room with a man who has designs on sleeping with her and then picking their pocket before anything happens.  Colin (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is the male version of a similar con artist, a young man who walks up to outdoor café’s playing a few dissonant notes on the harmonica, handing out cards revealing he is a deaf mute, aggressively soliciting money, where if patrons don’t cough up, he’ll stand and play louder and louder until eventually they pay him to simply go away.  Emilie (Bulle Ogier) is a middle class, single mother of two, whose husband has been strangely missing for six months without a word, who also runs a hippie boutique (where she’s known as Pauline) that rarely sells anything, and is more of a front for an underground newspaper. 

Eventually dozens of characters are introduced, but not all at once, as it’s not until three or four hours into the film that motives or storylines even begin to surface, where only bits and pieces of narrative strands develop outside the continuing premise of theatrical exercises, which become obsessive bordering upon pretentious after awhile, spending endless amounts of time rehearsing, always with the utmost seriousness and sincerity, though arguments and disagreements do erupt, yet there is little evidence they ever come remotely close to actually staging a performance.  Instead it’s more of a reflection of time slipping through our fingers, possibly even a diatribe on idleness, featuring multiple characters leading restless but meaningless lives of no significant value.  Perhaps to no one’s surprise (since he is the poster boy of the French New Wave), Colin becomes the central focus of the film, where on successive occasions he is handed a series of cryptic messages by a member of Lili’s group, Marie (Hermine Karaghuez, who, by chance, is the last figure seen in the film) and strangers who are either unseen or quickly vanish out of sight.  These messages speak incoherently about Balzac’s History Of The Thirteen and Lewis Carroll’s nonsensical poem The Hunting of the Snark, where he becomes obsessed, bordering on delusional, with deciphering hidden clues, reading them over and over again, writing them on a blackboard, analyzing variations and notable consistencies, literally dissecting them for hidden meanings or clues, which leads him to believe they are from an underground group known as “The Thirteen.”  (So it’s only appropriate that the running time of the film approaches 13 hours.)  Driven to know more, he visits a Balzac professor, none other than Éric Rohmer, in an extended scene that is reduced to comic absurdity, as his character is still mute, making a mockery of communication and the sharing of academic ideas.  The professor is more interested in correcting the inappropriate spellings and grammatical usages in the messages than the discovery of any inherent meaning.  Nonetheless, Colin’s persistence pays off, as his clues lead him to an address, using the opening words to each of the five lines of the Lewis Carrol poem, which turns out to be Emilie’s shop known as “L’Angle du Hasard,” which translates to “chance angles” or “Corner of Chance,” which may as well be the narrative structure of the film, as instead of following a straight line, there are continual asides throughout, some of which are dead ends while others are key to the film’s growing intrigue.  Up to her usual tricks, we see Frédérique wandering into the home of a complete stranger, an upscale businessman playing chess with himself, Etienne (director Jacques Doniol-Lacroze), where her appearance constitutes a dreamlike presence, yet the minute he steps out of the room, she rummages through a desk drawer looking for money, but instead finds a collection of old letters that she stuffs into her purse hoping to find a buyer, but only Emilie expresses any interest, and that is because several of the letters are written by her missing husband.  But these letters allude to a secret underground group named the Thirteen, suggesting the existence of a secret society of powerful individuals (which may exist in the present or the past) who are the true rulers of Paris.  With both Colin and Frédérique in possession of coded notes, these characters meet only once and eventually cross paths at what is likely the exact geographic centerpoint of the film (in both the long and short versions), where Colin is seen leaving the boutique just as Frédérique is arriving, but they do not acknowledge one another.  Quoting from James Monaco’s The New Wave: Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette:  

“This was the diagram,” Rivette explains. “For example, a sequence was decided upon for Lonsdale and Léaud, because of the work each had done in previous films. We thought it would be amusing. It was only after that we searched for the reasons why, which were very arbitrary.” Since Berto and Léaud had worked together in two films by Godard, “it was hardly worthwhile for them to meet.” To emphasize their ignorance of each other, then, their paths cross in the exact middle of the film. “It is this scene which pulls, in fact, the rest of the film,” — the knot where all the threads meet.  

Other characters also figure into the action, as Lili’s group gains a new member, Renaud (Alain Libolt), who provides a needed thrust of energy, slowly exerting more influence, changing the group dynamic, eventually squeezing Lili out.  Their fortunes become exuberant when one of the members, Quentin (Pierre Baillot), wins a millions francs at the racetrack.  But as they prepare for a jubilant celebration, Renaud runs off with the winnings, with the group developing an elaborate plan to find him, fanning out to heavily populated metro stops and circulating his picture in flyers asking if anyone recognizes him, with repeated shots of the Place d'Italie, with troupe members stopping traffic or pedestrians as if it has become the center of the universe.  Their high hopes, however, grow to ultimate despair.  Colin soon begins to talk, continually pacing out in front of the boutique, developing a fascination with the owner Pauline, assuming the role of a reporter before professing his romantic interests, while unknown to him, her missing husband Igor may be the ringleader of the Thirteen, while also old pals with Thomas.  This information surfaces when Thomas takes a trip outside Paris to a small coastal town in Normandy near Deauville to visit Sarah, Bernadette Lafont from Chabrol’s Les Bonnes Femmes (1960) and Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore (La Maman et la Putain) (1973), who happens to be living in a seaside home owned by Igor.  The Thirteen may have had revolutionary origins in the late 60’s, perhaps abandoned after the failed French revolution of 1968, as it had been dormant for several years, where chance encounters revived an interest, although motives between Igor and Thomas, and other members of the group, which includes Sarah and Pauline, also a highly successful lawyer named Lucie de Graffe (Françoise Fabian), remain unclear.  Instead Thomas persuades Sarah to return to his theater group, as it needs a new source of invigoration, but instead she causes a rift within the group and the play is eventually abandoned, much like the other theater group, where we learn Thomas had been with Lili both personally and professionally for seven years, and their split resulted in the separate groups.  Sadly, one of Frédérique’s gay friends that she meets occasionally in a bar is Honeymoon, Michel Berto, who was in fact married to Juliet Berto, but he inadvertently figures into her death, as he develops a crush on Renaud.  Frédérique mistakenly believes Renaud is part of the secret group and follows him, catching him off-guard, where she is accidentally shot and killed.  While the film can be maddening, and a bit infuriating to experience due to the slowness of things to develop, but Juliet Berto is a revelation throughout, as she is in Rivette’s later film Céline and Julie Go Boating (Céline et Julie vont en bateau)  (1974), a joyful and enchanting spirit that is the heart the film, who dies tragically and senselessly, adding a feeling of mourning for a spirit of something that is lost.  Part of the film’s mystery is the unusual rhythm established, with multiple shots through mirrors, where logic is all but absent, instead as events unravel, it’s as if characters are leading the audience down the rabbit hole of Lewis Carroll into a world of pure imagination, continually hovering between a choice of order and chaos, where human dilemmas are hidden within a network of seemingly random occurrences.  What all these connecting pieces have to do with one another remains unknown, but certainly one of the most extraordinary shots of the entire film is an extended take of Jean-Pierre Léaud as Colin walking down the crowded city streets while remaining completely in character.  The mix of reality and fiction that Rivette is looking for merges seamlessly in this breathtaking shot.      

Daniel Fairfax from Senses of Cinema, July 11, 2014, Jean-Pierre Léaud Out 1 film analysis • Senses of Cinema 

Jean-Pierre Léaud strides down the middle of a narrow Parisian street, declaiming a few lines of nonsense poetry, which he repeats several times over in circular fashion, such that one soon loses track of any sense of a beginning or end to the passage in question. As he cycles through the words, Léaud undergoes a strange metamorphosis. From an actor reciting lines belonging to his character, he is transformed into an altogether more mysterious being. Sometimes halting in frustration at his efforts to recall the next line, sometimes becoming stuck on a single word (“équipage”, most notably), ingeminating it in the manner of a scratched vinyl record until he manages to press on to the rest of his monologue, the text he utters assumes the quality of an incantatory spell, sending its enunciator into a state of trance-like hypnosis. As the scene progresses, Léaud’s locution becomes more violent, frenzied even; the expression on his face pained. His hands flay about wildly, and his whole body bobs up and down in line with the cadence of the verses he vocalises. It is as if he is consumed, mentally and physically, by the words he is to speak, as if they form his entire universe, a shell from whose encasement he cannot break free.

Léaud is seemingly oblivious to the world around him – he even appears to pay no heed to passing traffic at an intersection, in spite of the evident danger this poses – but in this scene the “outside world” possesses a degree of plenitude rare in the cinema. Numerous bystanders gawk languidly at the actor (and the crew filming him), while others hurry out of the way to avoid being caught by the camera. Roadside stalls sell fruit, posters advertise cola or call for the withdrawal of American soldiers from Vietnam, tinny music and the cries of children spill out onto the soundtrack, at times competing with Léaud’s soliloquy for the viewer’s aural attention. Most remarkably, midway through the scene two young boys take to following Léaud. Palpably transfixed by the surreal event unfolding before them, they alternate between lurking at a safe distance from the strange man and boldly approaching him, persistently clinging to his side as they periodically peek their heads into the frame.

This miraculous scene, caught by a prowling, handheld 16mm camera in a continuous, nearly three-minute long take, comes close to the end of the sixth episode of Jacques Rivette’s 12-and-a-half hour opus Out 1: Noli me tangere. Filmed in May 1970 on the Rue Tiquetonne (a sinuous street situated in an erstwhile working-class neighbourhood just north of Les Halles, in Paris’ 2nd arrondissement), the scene, in this viewer’s experience, is one of the most emotionally intense in the history of the cinema. Its haunting, perturbing quality can no doubt be ascribed to the singular confluence of factors produced by Rivette’s “direct” shooting style, effacing the boundaries between the fictive and the real, the planned and the improvised, the controlled and the unpredictable. But credit, too, must go to Léaud’s inimitable performance, which, in like fashion, resides in an interim zone between acting and sheer, unmediated delirium. In this film, perhaps more than any other, Léaud merits the term bestowed on him by Deleuze: “professional non-actor.”

Rivette was not happy by the conventional scripting in his film debut PARIS BELONGS TO US (1961), so he abandoned script entirely for L’AMOUR FOU (1969), resulting in a significant increase in running time, spending four hours with a theater company rehearsing a 17th century Racine play Andromaque, where real life issues start intruding into their theatrical performances, where the work is a unique blending of fiction and reality.  He decided to throw caution to the winds for his next project, where the unprecedented length may have originated with a nine-hour screening of a rough cut of Jean Rouch’s LITTLE BY LITTLE (1970), which was later cut to four hours, while the current release is barely more than 90-minutes.  The experience had a profound effect on Rivette, “Nine hours from end to end of Jean Rouch is just fabulous,” as he wanted to capture a similar immersion into the expansive world of OUT 1, where he collected over twenty-five hours of footage, the final version reduced in half, while also reconfiguring the entire work into a smaller, more condensed fashion in OUT 1: SPECTRE (1972), which runs just a little more than four hours.  To convey how utterly different each experience is from the other, Colin doesn’t receive his strange messages until nearly four hours into the film, while in the shorter version this happens in less than fifteen minutes.  Initially OUT 1 was shown only once at a special screening over two days in an overnight excursion to Le Havre, on September 9-10, 1971, after which it was unseen for the next twenty years until a German restoration in 1990, becoming more of a mythological legend than a reality.  The North American premiere wasn’t until the fall of 2006 in Vancouver, where it was attended by about twenty people, but by the time it got to New York it was sold out.  There were no English subtitles on the existing print, so a projector had to be set up screening them just below the screen, so there was a continuous problem with synchronization.  It was restored again for a 2015 release that included English subtitles just prior to a Blu-Ray release in 2016.  Overall the film feels like a radical experimentation and meditation on art, politics, and the importance of living, where the radicalism of the era is represented by Rivette not being afraid to try something so uniquely different.  By comparison, what we witness today is the utter capitulation of the bourgeois class, where our collective behavior resembles the habits of sheep, where we have become the messenger for the capitalist agents, buying into their age of consumerism, literally feeding the system with our habits and practices.  Léaud’s Colin was manipulated into becoming a potential messenger of one small underground cell that had otherwise been dormant for years, with repeated cuts to shots of cars passing by and pedestrians on the street, a metaphor for all of us, as we’re all implicated, where we become a repository for failed projects, broken relationships, and lost dreams.  Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has described the film as a rumination on the lost ideals of the 60’s, “a bohemian reflection on the aftermath of May 1968.”  Accordingly, the two theatrical groups may represent a kind of utopian ideal, searching for a communal philosophy that was in harmony with their own collective consciousness by representing their dreams of a better life.  While both Colin and Frédérique are outsiders living only for themselves, as the film progresses, they both want to belong to something, as Colin searches frantically for meaning from the group of Thirteen, but may inadvertently find love instead, while Frédérique’s discovery of a secret conspiracy leads her to think about something larger than herself, even if it dooms her in the process.  Rivette avoids any overtly political references, instead brief associations and chance encounters grow into something larger, only to drift away again, where the dissolution of the theater groups, and the failure or ineffectiveness of the group of Thirteen, leads to an overall sense of disillusionment.  Perhaps the film’s greatest strength lies in its ability to confront failure, with the director wise enough to anticipate the film’s own uncertain fate, where fiercely devoted groups with ambitions to change the world through the power and originality of their art have to acknowledge by the end that their grandiose visions and expectations remain largely unfulfilled.  Accordingly, the film itself may as well be a stand-in for memory, as it lingers in ours long afterwards.   

Jonathan Rosenbaum, Lauren Sedofsky, and Gilbert Adair interview the director from Film Comment, September/October, 1974, Phantom Interviewers Over Rivette - Film Comment

ADAIR: How much was the spectator’s comfort a consideration in Out?

RIVETTE: To begin with, we never really envisaged making a twelve-hour film. We had the idea of dividing it into parts to be shown on television—which, I realize now, would have been a disaster. The ideal form of viewing the film would be for it to be distributed like a book on records; as, for example, with a fat novel of a thousand pages. Even if one’s a very rapid reader—which, as it happens, isn’t my case—one never reads the book in one sitting, one puts it down, stops for lunch, etc. The ideal thing was to see it in two days, which allowed one to get into it enough to follow it, with the possibility of stopping four or five times.

ADAIR: What were the reactions at Le Havre, when it was shown that way?

RIVETTE: Of course, length changes everything. And the reactions were more emphatic, subjective, and individual than for a film of normal length. Some people left before it was over, some arrived after the beginning; and among those who followed it from beginning to end, there were some who wanted to see it as a test of endurance, others because they gradually got interested. But in any case, it was impossible to judge. After you’ve gotten over the hump of the first four hours, you mainly feel inclined to stay and see it through. But that’s a facile solution, because all of one’s criteria for what is good or bad disappear, and one is experiencing purely the duré. There are some sequences which I think are failures, but after a certain number of hours, the whole idea of success and failure ceases to have any significance. Some things that I couldn’t use in Spectre are all right in the longer version. The whole actor-spectator relationship is totally different in Out, because there the actors are much more actors than characters. There are many more scenes where the sense of improvisation is much stronger, even to the point of admitting lapses, hesitations, and repetitions. There are some of these in Spectre, but relatively few, because we treated it much more as a fiction about certain characters. In the longer version, the dramatic events are a lot more distant from each other, and between them are long undramatic stretches.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *

Jacques Rivette R.I.P.  (1928 – 2016)

Rivette died on January 29, 2016 from complications of Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 87, in his home in Paris.  French President François Hollande praised him as “one of the greatest filmmakers,” while film writer, historian, and former Cahiers du Cinéma editor Jean-Michel Frodon was quoted as saying, “[Rivette] will incarnate, probably more accurately than any other filmmaker linked to this movement, what we might call the spirit of the New Wave: his radicalism, his taste for experimentation, his intense relationship both with the history of the art of cinema and the dynamics of the real world.”  Richard Brody, from his January 29, 2016 in memoriam essay from The New Yorker, Postscript: Jacques Rivette - The New Yorker:

Jacques Rivette, who died today, at the age of eighty-seven, was both the most open and the most reticent of French filmmakers. Of his openness, I had the good fortune of personal experience—I interviewed him in 2001 by cold-calling him. (His number was in the Paris phone book.) He answered his own phone, responded to my questions generously and cheerfully, and invited me to call him back. I did so a few months later, he picked up the phone again, and he was again equable, good-humored, and patient. Of his reticence, he spoke to me frankly yet indirectly, telling me that he made only one autobiographical film (“L’Amour Fou”).

Yet even if Rivette’s specific experiences are reflected by design in only one of his movies, his oeuvre, his body of work is as personal and as distinctive as that of any filmmaker. His films reflect something bigger than the practical details of one person’s life; they represent an effort to capture the fullness of an inner world, a lifetime’s range of obsessions and mysteries. Yet these private speculations and wonders—ranging from the belief in magic to a love of cities and maps, a horror of political violence and an intimation of deep conspiracies, an ardor for romance and a feeling for the real-world obstacles to its fulfillment—take on a public, social, and sociable cast, in both senses of the word. Rivette loved his actors and built most of his movies on the basis of their contributions to the substance of the film, whether in improvisation or in the script. He loved actors as such, and set many of his movies in the theatre, where the confrontation of director, performer, and the public occur immediately, without the mediation of a camera (except, of course, his own, to take a stand on these fraught transactions).

Rivette brought worlds out of himself because he saw himself in the world. He was the most dialectical of filmmakers, the one whose ability to displace his inner life into an abstract, seemingly arm’s-length framework was most sophisticated and accomplished. That’s because his powers of abstraction were the most formidable. Jean-Luc Godard has credited Jacques Rivette with the founding text of the French New Wave, a piece titled, “We Are No Longer Innocent,” published in the house organ of Eric Rohmer’s Ciné-Club du Quartier Latin in February, 1950. In it, Rivette sought to sweep away the familiar visual rhetoric and conventions of movies in favor of a new and personal way of looking, one that’s particular to each filmmaker—and which is a vision of the world:

[T]he universe of the creator is only the manifestation, the concrete flowering of this gaze and of its mode of appearing—this gaze which is itself only the apparition of a universe.

At the age of twenty-one, Rivette (who had made one film, in Rouen, and was about to make another, in Paris) issued a theoretical framework that’s perfectly congruent with the features that he’d eventually make:

“The natural expression which, in an artificial and conventional language, means complying with conventions and artifices, requires—in this lawless, always improvised, and created language—always an adventurous attempt, a continual improvisation, a perpetual creation.”

Rivette was a consummate cinephile, a critic of profound and famously peremptory insight, as well as a virtual walking encyclopedia of cinematic knowledge. (In a ciné-club’s Monday-night trivia contests in the early nineteen-fifties, he annoyed the audience by answering most of the questions and winning most of the prizes; as a result, he was limited to five per night.) His films bear the paradoxes of his ambitions—joining the paranoid precision of a Fritz Lang and the flowing openness of Jean Renoir (to whom he devoted three feature-length analytical portraits, in 1966), the love of the closed space of the theatre and of the limitless possibilities of the city.

For that matter, his best work is of the theatre and the city, in which characters turn the city into a virtual stage for a plotted private spectacle, thus imprinting public—and often nearly anonymous and workaday—places and spaces with the overflowing idiosyncratic fantasies that his characters (and, in turn, his camera) bring to them. He titled his first feature “Paris Belongs to Us”; it’s a seemingly metaphysical conjunction of a theatre’s Shakespeare production and a political conspiracy.

He returned to the theatre in “L’Amour Fou,” and again for “Out 1,” his nearly thirteen-hour drama about the intersecting fortunes of two theatre companies in Paris and the grand and petty conspiracies and romantic bonds that link them. In 1974, he made one of the most original and influential movies of the time, “Céline and Julie Go Boating,” in which two women (played by Juliet Berto and Dominique Labourier) meet ultra-cute in Paris, move in together, share and swap identities, and become involved in an elaborate game of alternate realities in an isolated mansion.

Rivette’s New Wave confrère François Truffaut may have made “The Man Who Loved Women,” but in “Céline and Julie,” Rivette revealed a different sort of love for women—he saw them as masters of imagination, as the creators of secret alternate realms that remained a mystery to him and that he could approach cinematically by recruiting actresses to construct their own stories, their own plots, their own scripts, and enacting them with an unusual theatrical freedom.

The result is another thirty-five years of movies of paradox (his last film, “Around a Small Mountain,” is from 2009).

Filming Berto and Labourier in “Céline and Julie,” Rivette managed to avoid grasping them with a male gaze, but he doesn’t have a female gaze, either. His direction, in their presence, as often in the presence of the improvising actors in “Out 1,” became self-effacing to the vanishing point. Yet the worlds on-screen remained unmistakably his own, the realms of fantasy and gamesmanship of realities and identities were seemingly images of his inner life, and even when the images were neutralized, the film was indelibly personalized. The director of paradox embodied paradoxes: only Rivette could make films that were simultaneously almost anonymous and yet confiningly hermetic, simultaneously open and closed to a fault. Rather than becoming an innovator of cinematic form, Rivette seems to have stepped away from cinematic form and distanced himself from the very notion—as if his life were so fused with that of the cinema that he dared himself to back away from it, with the precipice behind him.. The higher paradox is that even these movie’s apparent faults clashed only to rise to a higher artistic virtue. Rivette may be the master of movies which blast through the notion of being good in order to be great.

Rivette’s tension of fantasy and reality, of city and theatre, of freedom and constraint, of societal conflicts and intimate drives, of actorly disinhibition and directorial vision, finds its supreme form in “Le Pont du Nord” (North Bridge), which had long been rare, was nearly lost, and is now, happily, available on DVD. So are “Out 1,” “Paris Belongs to Us,” as are his cold howl on modern solitude “Secret Defense” (which features some of the most majestically lyrical scenes of the Paris Métro ever filmed) and the mournful romanticism of young women in a theatre troupe and their directorial mentor (Bulle Ogier), but not the whimsical street-musical “Haut Bas Fragile” (“Up, Down, Fragile”).

Yet, strangely, Rivette’s most conspicuous influence isn’t a film but a piece of criticism—an article that he wrote for Cahiers du Cinéma in 1961, “On Abjection” (here, translated and annotated by David Phelps). Its subject is the movie “Kapo,” by Gillo Pontecorvo. Rather, Rivette’s essay is about the subject of Pontecorvo’s film and the sense of responsibility with which an artist should approach such a subject:

The least that one can say is that it’s difficult, when one takes on a film on such a subject (the concentration camps), not to ask oneself certain preliminary questions; yet everything happens as though, due to incoherence, inanity, or cowardice, Pontecorvo resolutely neglected to ask them.

Most famously, Rivette cites one scene in the film and one shot in it (the last in this clip, in which Pontecorvo moves the camera to reframe the woman who dies on the electric fence) and says, “This man deserves nothing but the most profound contempt.”

There are things that should not be addressed except in the throes of fear and trembling; death is one of them, without a doubt; and how, at the moment of filming something so mysterious, could one not feel like an imposter? It would be better in any case to ask oneself the question, and to include the interrogation, in some way, in what is being filmed; but doubt is surely that which Pontecorvo and his ilk lack most.

Rivette’s article has become a touchstone for discussing any film in which atrocities are committed (political atrocities—it’s rarely mentioned, to the best of my knowledge, in relation to horror films or gangster films). For instance, it was cited often in regard to “12 Years a Slave” (I discussed the connection soon after the film’s release) and the reference often comes off, in the telephone-game of critical influence, not as a call for a critic’s own consideration of the directorial psychology reflected in a particular shot or scene but as a taboo on realistic representation and a call for aversions or elliptical stylistic strategies. Rivette is, rather, saying something simpler and yet more elusive: directors should think about what they’re filming, should feel what they’re filming with the full force of experience, and if they do so, their images will be appropriate to the enacted events. It’s a call to directors to be humans before serving as artists—and to critics to watch movies with a comparable alertness to human, not aesthetic, experience, including the human experience of conjuring the presence of directors themselves. Rivette, as a crucial advocate of so-called auteurs, was an advocate not of artistic demiurges or abstract creators but of people who reveal and test their character by directing films. His kindness and generosity, at a personal level, are entirely consistent with and inseparable from his art.

I just re-read “On Abjection” for the first time in a few years and was jolted by Rivette’s reference to a series of “false problems” and “dichotomies.” The ones that he cites have in fact proven central to his films—and his essay comes off as his own self-justification, in advance, of his entire body of work. Such a degree of self-consciousness and self-awareness in an artist must have been a torment or, at least, a burden. It may help to explain why, throughout his career, he risked the radical depersonalization and self-effacement of his art, why he pursued unconscious resonances, irrational wonders, metaphysical mysteries of life and death.

No comments:

Post a Comment