The Genius, Mystery, and Surprising Accessibility of Jacques Rivette

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“Mysteries. Fiction,” Bernard, a splenetic character in Jacques Rivette’s first feature, the 1961 Paris nous appartient, says dismissively when discussing the rumors circulating about the death of a friend early in the film. Those two words are crucial to the worlds of Rivette’s art, which restlessly tested the solidity of the boundaries between imagination and the real world, between documentary “proof” and fanciful tale-spinning. Despite almost never using elaborate special effects, a good number of Rivette’s 21 fiction feature films are replete with ghosts, phantoms (the filmmaker made a hard distinction between the two), and unseen forces that may or may not influence the course of his characters’ lives. Although, by the same token, a good number of his films, and outstanding ones at that — his two-part examination of Joan of Arc, his sprawling artist-and-model cat-and-mouse drama La belle noiseuse — take a (seemingly) hard realist tack. They all, nevertheless, communicate a vibrant, searching sensibility.

Over the past 30 years or so, in US critical practice, good, hard shells of conventional wisdom have been applied to the works of French New Wave directors: Godard is the difficult, acerbic intellectual turned pretentious crank, who hasn’t made a “fun” film since after Week-End or after Nouvelle Vague, depending on whose cocktail party you’re at; Truffaut is the warm, emotional, cozy one, the romantic; Rohmer is non-visual and “talky.” All of that’s a crock, of course, but the pertinent point is that the work of Rivette, who died last week at the age of 87 after suffering some years from Alzheimer’s disease, never accrued any conventional wisdom, aside from the observation that his movies were long. And that’s actually true: most of his features spool out at well over two hours, and of course his most mythologized work, Out 1: Noli me tangere, which had a theatrical run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last fall and is newly available on Blu-ray, is a spectacular 13 hours long.

For all of the idiosyncrasies of his work, though, I don’t subscribe to the idea that Rivette was an obscure or particularly hermetic director. His shooting and editing style is straightforwardly elegant. In that sense, his films frequently resemble Otto Preminger’s 1940s and ‘50s studio pictures, using lots of long takes with fluid and coherent camera movements, which some critics have called an “objective” style. The eccentricity comes in with the stories he chose to tell, and the way he told them. Turned on to the work of monumental French author Honore de Balzac by Rohmer, his buddy and onetime cohort at the influential French film mag Cahiers du cinema, he selectively magpied from Balzac motifs, themes, and plotlines. Much of Out: 1, whose characters include the members of two theatrical troupes and a couple of post-counterculture grifters who penetrate their circles, is concerned with the possible 20th-century existence of “The Thirteen,” a conspiratorial group that figures heavily in Balzac’s magnum opus La comedie humaine. 1991’s La belle noiseuse draws inspiration, then significantly veers away from, Balzac’s novella The Lost Masterpiece, while Rivette’s penultimate feature, 2007’s The Duchess of Langeais is a very straightforward period adaptation of a Balzac tale. The melodrama enacted by the white-faced phantoms in 1974’s Celine and Julie Go Boating, which was Rivette’s most prominent international arthouse hit, a quasi-feminist hallucinatory romp that skirted the psychedelic, was derived from a stage adaptation of an obscure Henry James novel, The Other House. These citations testify to Rivette’s erudition and the vitality of his intellectual range, but again, they tend to create the impression of a mad professor making too-clever cinematic puzzles.

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.