Giant in the shadows

If all the innovative young French film critics who were writing for Cahiers du Cinema in the 1950s had been asked who among them would go on to actually make films of their own, the answer would have been unanimous — Jacques Rivette. Yet compared to the output of some of his better-known contemporaries, such as François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Claude Chabrol, Rivette’s work remains relatively obscure.

Born in Rouen, France, in 1928, Rivette arrived in Paris in the late ’40s to pursue filmmaking. After being refused admission to film school for failing the entrance exam, he pursued his cinematic education on his own, obsessively viewing his way through the vast film archives available at the Cinémathèque Française. Meanwhile, he was also making his own experimental short films and working as a cameraman for Truffaut and Eric Rohmer, and as an assistant to Jean Renoir.

If Rivette’s films remain relatively obscure, it may in part have to do with their sheer length, with many of them clocking in at an average running time of four hours. Such running lengths reflect his fascination with the ability of cinema to approximate actual life lived in real time, giving him the space to collaborate improvisationally with the actors (many of whom he worked with repeatedly), exploring themes of art vs. life, identity vs. performance, and illusion vs. reality. Frequently his films deal with the process of creation itself, often focusing on theatrical groups preparing for performance.

L’Amour Fou (Mad Love, 1968, 252 minutes), commonly considered one of Rivette’s masterpieces, utilized different types of film stock to painfully narrate the disintegration of the relationship between a director and an actress as they take part in rehearsals for the play Andromaque. And then there’s the legendary, improvisational Out 1: Noli Me Tangere (1970), which runs for nearly 13 hours and chronicles two rival theater companies that are both rehearsing different plays by Aeschylus. Although originally meant to be shown in installments on television, it never was and has been shown only once in its entirety. Out 1 is what film scholar David Thomson calls “the film fou, the impossible and unseeable picture, the grail of a certain kind of collective enterprise.”

One of Rivette’s more influential films is Céline et Julie Vont en Bateau (Céline and Julie Go Boating, 1974, 193 minutes). This meandering adventure begins with Julie, a librarian, sitting on a park bench in Paris reading a treatise on magic. Suddenly, the alluring Céline, a magician by trade, walks by with her clothes fluttering in the breeze. Sporting a green feather boa, she drops various objects as Julie follows behind picking them up, pursuing Céline throughout the city yet never catching her.

Julie plays with a tarot deck in the library; Céline socializes with a group of people and tells fanciful stories that are utterly untrue; then Céline inexplicably shows up at Julie’s apartment claiming she is being pursued, and the next thing you know she moves in and takes a shower. One day, Julie enters a house but finds herself unable to remember what happened there. By consuming mysterious pieces of candy, Julie and Céline are able to gain access to the house, where they witness an awful melodramatic seduction involving two women and a man that gets played out over and over again.

There is a maid and a nurse in the melodrama, and with dreamlike logic, sometimes they are played by Julie and at other times by Céline. Eventually they disrupt the artificiality of the stilted drama by initiating a Marx Brothers routine and rescue a little girl who lives in the house. Finally, Céline and Julie do actually go boating, and the movie ends as it began, only this time it is Céline dreaming on the park bench. An interesting companion film is Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995), which is a direct tribute to Céline and Julie.

Rivette has often been quoted as saying, “The cinema is necessarily fascination and rape, that is how it acts on people: It’s something unclear, something one sees shrouded in darkness, where you project the same things as in dreams.” Something similar can be said of painting as it is portrayed in Rivette’s 1991 Cannes Festival winner, La Belle Noiseuse.

La Belle Noiseuse roughly translates as The Beautiful Annoyance or The Beautiful Troublemaker. For the aging painter Frenhofer (Michel Piccoli), who has been mired in a period of creative sterility for years, it’s the title of his unrealized masterpiece. One day, Nicolas, a young artist, and his beautiful girlfriend, Marianne (Emmanuelle Béart), arrive at the chateau where Frenhofer and his wife live in a self-described “state of perfect stability — happiness, you might say.” Frenhofer explains that “La Belle Noiseuse” originally referred to a 17th century courtesan who led a crazy, unstable life and had an unsettling effect on others.

Ultimately, the title comes to stand for persons who disturb us, who painfully unnerve and transform us in ways we cannot control or understand. Such becomes the relationship between Frenhofer and Marianne as he picks up his work again, using her as the new model for his unfinished masterpiece.

In his current film, Va Savoir (Who Knows?, 2001, 154 minutes), which can be seen at the Detroit Film Theatre this weekend, Rivette returns to two of his favorite themes — the theater and human relationships — as he explores the emotional entanglements of three men and three women, and as a company stages Luigi Pirandello’s As You Desire Me. Warmly received at Cannes, Va Savoir shows that at age 73 Rivette is still at the top of his game.

Deborah Hochberg writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected]
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