The best way to remedy this impression is to watch Rivette’s films (given how spotty their availability is in the US on home video, the question of which film to start with might be moot: go with whatever you can get your hands on until further notice), and notice right off the bat just how much he trusts to his actors, particularly the women. It will not do to call the group of idiosyncratic, inspired female performers in Rivette’s films his “muses.” Aside from the inescapable sexist connotations thereof, it’s inaccurate. Certainly Rivette drew substantial inspiration from Bulle Ogier (seven films), the late Juliet Berto (four films), Sandrine Bonnaire (three films), Jane Birkin (three films), Geraldine Chaplin, Emmanuelle Beart, Jeanne Balibar (two films each), and more, but it’s more important that he encouraged them to imprint his films with their own personalities, their particular numinosity. As the critic Richard Brody has pointed out, Rivette seems to be magically free of the “male gaze”; when he shoots Berto showering in Celine and Julie or Beart posing nude for demanding painter Michel Piccoli in Noiseuse, the view is matter-of-fact and encompasses the full humanity of the performer.
The improvisational nature of most of his films made many of his productions particularly demanding. Out 1 star Jean-Pierre Leaud reportedly called Rivette’s way of working with actors “vampiric” and never appeared in another of his films. (Speaking of Leaud, here’s a fun fact: In Truffaut’s feature debut, the classic The 400 Blows, when the besieged family of renegade kid Antoine Doinel — the character portrayed in five films by Leaud — strikes a temporary truce and decides to go out for a night at the movies, the title they choose is Rivette’s Paris nous appartient, despite the fact that at the time of shooting, Rivette’s film actually had yet to be completed. It was a bit of premature boosterism from Truffaut, who was one of the film’s producers.) But the time spent with Leaud in the film yields not just a character, but also a sense of the actor as a person — something he was perhaps uncomfortable with revealing, in retrospect. This provides something of a clue as to the ostensible “point” of the marathon lengths of certain Rivette films.
In the case of Out 1, for example: yes, it is a little tiresome to sit through ten-minute sequences in which a group of poorly dressed French theater types grunt and lunge and chant and do breathing exercises to no particular end. But Rivette’s intentions toward his viewers are never punitive. Like Tarkovsky, like Antonioni, like Resnais, he invites the viewer to experience cinematic time in a non-conventional fashion; unlike the three aforementioned masters, he works in a register that’s more attuned to the fringes of everyday life. There’s a scene in the film in which Leaud’s character walks through Paris streets repeatedly reading a text in a manic, strident tone; at one point, a gaggle of school kids starts following him and making faces behind his back and at the camera. For almost any other director, that intrusion would render the shot untenable; for Rivette, it’s practically central to the point of the project.
If Truffaut was a modernist, Godard a postmodernist, Rohmer a modernist/classicist hybrid, Rivette was modernist, postmodernist, and classicist, all wrapped up in one nervously energetic but eloquently assured mise-en-scene man. (“Mise-en-scene” means “placement in the scene,” and Rivette never took the possessive credit or even “directed by” credit on his films; he always credited himself with “mise-en scene.”) While his films often plumbed the depths of anxieties that plagued the old world and nag at our own, the freedom of his work is an exhilaration unto itself, an exhilaration that is not quickly exhausted.