Jacques Rivette, who died on January 29 at the age of eighty-seven, was always the least known, least commercially successful, and most enigmatic of the French New Wave directors. The core group who got their start as critics at Cahiers du Cinéma in the early 1950s—Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Éric Rohmer, and Rivette—and were collectively responsible for proposing the auteur theory and notable for their nuanced appreciation of American B movies were quite distinct from one another as filmmakers.
Godard was (and remains) the experimentalist with a didactic streak; Truffaut the old-school craftsman, somewhat given to sentimentality; Chabrol the serial purveyor of genre pieces, initially spiky if later sometimes lax; and Rohmer the austere Christian moralist with a vivid sense of human frailty. Rivette was the first of the group to make a film (the silent short Aux quatre coins, 1949), and among the first to start work on a feature (Paris Belongs to Us, which began production in 1958, although a host of factors delayed its release until late in 1961), but he was the last to find his own voice. Paris Belongs to Us and his second feature, La Religieuse, were both, in different ways, somewhat old-fashioned for the New Wave moment—they were fully scripted and storyboarded in advance, for one thing.
It wasn’t until L’Amour fou, released in 1969, that Rivette began his trademark practice of making open-ended films, developed in collaboration with their actors, relying to greater or lesser degrees on improvisation, and legendarily long: L’Amour fou at 252 minutes, Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974) at 193 minutes, and the monster, Out 1: Noli me tangere (1971), which originally ran 760 minutes, was radically reedited and released as Out 1: Spectre (1972; 253 minutes), and is again available in something like its original form at 729 minutes. Rivette initially aimed Out 1 at television, dividing it into eight episodes, but that did not pan out.
After its single screening, on the night of September 9–10, 1971, in Le Havre, it was long doubted whether it would ever be shown again, especially since it only existed as a work print, in a questionable state of preservation. But in the late 1980s a screening print was struck and shown at a few European film festivals, and it eventually made its way to the United States and now onto DVD, which has made it easier to countenance the viewing of a twelve-hour motion picture.
There are various theories about the origins of the title: that it refers to outtakes, that it alludes to “out” jazz (Jonathan Rosenbaum, in an essay that appears in the DVD booklet, makes an intriguing case for certain structural parallels between the movie and Ornette Coleman’s 1961 album Free Jazz), that it represents the opposite of that quintessential 1960s adjective “in,”1 that it alludes more generally to marginality, or for that matter the outdoors. Rivette began the project with no story, merely some touchstones, notably theater and conspiracy. Paris Belongs to Us had featured both elements: a character attempts to stage a bare-bones production of Shakespeare’s Pericles; the conspiracy, while perhaps imaginary, does result in several actual deaths. L’Amour fou was even more involved with theater, revolving around a production of Racine’s Andromaque; the main story was shot in 35mm while the rehearsals were documented on the fly in 16mm.
For Out 1, Rivette invited Michèle Moretti and Michael Lonsdale to direct their respective troupes in two plays by Aeschylus, Seven Against Thebes for Moretti and Prometheus Bound for Lonsdale. In addition, Rivette summoned three other actors he knew he wanted to work with: Bulle Ogier to anchor the conspiracy element—something like a third troupe, in effect—and Juliet Berto and Jean-Pierre Léaud to operate as floating characters, independent of the groups. Then he and his codirector, Suzanne Schiffman, established a structure that took the form of a shooting schedule and was the closest thing the movie had to a script.
Schiffman, who served as cowriter or assistant director on four other films by Rivette (and performed similar tasks on a dozen pictures by Truffaut), came up with the outline of the conspiracy, basing it on the one in Balzac’s History of the Thirteen:
In Paris under the Empire, thirteen men came together who were equally possessed by the same idea, all of them endowed with sufficient energy to be faithful to the same principles, sufficiently honest with one another not to betray the cause even when their individual interests conflicted, so deeply prudent as to keep hidden the sacred bonds that linked them, strong enough to position themselves above all laws, tough enough to undertake all that was required, and so lucky that they almost always succeeded in their schemes.
Like L’Amour fou, Out 1 is poised between fiction and documentary: the play rehearsals are authentic, the actors’ lives invented. Both Lili (Moretti) and Thomas (Lonsdale) are members of the Thirteen, as are Pauline/Émilie (Ogier’s character, the owner of a hippie boutique, has two names, depending on the social setting); Étienne, a businessman (Jacques Doniol-Valcroze); Lucie, a lawyer (Françoise Fabian); Sarah, a novelist who joins Thomas’s troupe (Bernadette Lafont); and Warok, a philosopher (Jean Bouise). In addition to these seven, frequent mention is made of Pierre, an architect, and Igor, a journalist and Pauline/Émilie’s husband, who never appear onscreen.2
The viewer first learns of the conspiracy of the Thirteen in the second episode (which is to say, more than two hours in), via Colin, Léaud’s character, a deaf-mute who makes his living selling phony fortunes to café patrons while blowing tunelessly into a harmonica. One day, as he is leaving a café, he is handed a slip of paper by Marie (Hermine Karagheuz), a member of Lili’s troupe—an action that is never explained. Back in his room he discovers it contains ten lines of doggerel, a pastiche of Lewis Carroll: “Two paths open up before you/Thirteen to better hunt the Snark…/A hand will guide your own/Thirteen others formed a strange crew.” Colin copies the verse onto a blackboard and obsessively circles and underlines until the repetition of “thirteen” leads him to Balzac. He has meanwhile received two other messages, both of which appear to be citations from The History of the Thirteen. He consults a Balzac expert (Éric Rohmer), who notes that the Thirteen barely figure in the plot of Balzac’s trilogy. Later, more blackboard tinkering leads Colin to discover an address coded in the verse: 2 Place Sainte-Opportune, the location of Pauline’s shop.
Meanwhile, the two companies’ rehearsals have been documented at length: Lili’s ritualistic, physically strenuous adaptation of Seven Against Thebes seems influenced by Jerzy Grotowski and Peter Brook, while Thomas’s emotionally grueling, nearly preverbal Prometheus owes a debt to the Living Theater and perhaps Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty.3 All the while, too, we’ve been following Frédérique (Berto), who lives alone in a small aerie-like room, swindles men in cafés, and commiserates with her sad gay friend Honeymoon (played by Michel Berto, her real-life husband, who was in fact gay). She ambles into Étienne’s ground-floor apartment, sensing him for a mark, but instead of trying to con him she steals a packet of letters full of tantalizing allusions to the Thirteen. Without understanding their meaning she decides they can be used to blackmail one of the senders, Lucie. Her gambit fails and Lucie steals the letters back, but their exchange, in addition to Colin’s obsessive and increasingly pointed queries (he has turned out to be neither deaf nor mute), throws the Thirteen into confusion. It seems that as a group they have been dormant for some time.
L’Amour fou may have relied on the actors to supply their own dialogue, but it did base its structure on a synopsis, written by Marilù Parolini, Rivette’s frequent collaborator and first wife. Out 1, by contrast, began with only a grid, which dictated the intersections of the characters but left everything else to the vicissitudes of daily improvisation. Rivette had been impressed by Jean Rouch’s Petit à petit (1970), particularly a twelve-hour version that no longer exists.4 Rouch, who began making ethnographic films in Niger in the 1940s, became friends with some of his subjects, who were herdsmen by trade, and cast them in a couple of fiction features.
Petit à petit begins with the premise that the herdsmen plan to build a skyscraper in their village and must travel to Europe to learn how they are made. Rouch allowed his actors complete freedom with the story, and it ranges far and wide—in one memorable sequence, two characters board the Montmartre funicular and disembark in the Alps. What exactly Rivette saw in the twelve-hour version is inaccessible, but the extant four-hour cut is often exhilarating, giving the sense that the picture could go in any direction at any given moment. A very long movie guarantees a sustained intimacy with its characters, as well as an additional fund of documentary information; an improvisatory component, always to some degree grounded in the actuality of the filmed moment, further destabilizes the balance between fact and fiction.
There is no question that Out 1 was intended to be a chronicle of the time and place of its creation, which are cited in its opening titles. This impetus can already be seen in Paris Belongs to Us, in which the climate of political distress and confusion that gives rise to conspiratorial thinking is incidentally illustrated by such unscripted details as an American overheard in a bar holding forth on Richard Nixon’s presidential chances.
Out 1 is about the ambient state of mind in Paris after the protests of May 1968, even though that time and its events are never mentioned. For one thing the film presents, as Berto put it, “something fascinating and disquieting about actors, about the essence of actors in that era, that is to say after ’68—that race of actors.”5 For another, it is concerned with utopia: as a chimera, as a faint hope, and as a working method. By the spring of 1970, many of the people and groups involved in the events of two years earlier had dissolved into palaver, while others had gone hard-line—Rivette unsurprisingly left that option to his colleague Godard, then making Pravda and See You at Mao—and yet others had given up altogether.
While what the Thirteen are up to is never made clear (Frédérique guesses they plan to “blow up the world”), they are clearly intended to have emerged from the hopeful turmoil of ’68, although by now some can barely remember their previous fervor and commitment. It seems that the hints received by Colin were planted by the unseen Pierre, who wants to shake his friends out of their torpor. Étienne has gone back to his money, Lucie to the law, and Warok to his paradoxes. Sarah, after publishing a novel about her relationship with Pierre, has retreated into writer’s block in a house on the Normandy coast that seems to be collectively owned by the Thirteen.
Pauline/Émilie wants it both ways, as the owner of a counterculture hangout who is founding an underground newspaper, yet lives a quite different life in a vast apartment with her children and a servant. Lili and Thomas have to a degree transferred the participatory democracy of ’68 into their work, but glimpse the precipice of psychodrama and mysticism. The agents of their potential awakening are Colin and Frédérique, two marginals who barely scrape by on penny-ante con games and have fleeting or nonexistent links to society.
The movie certainly doesn’t hold out false hopes. As it is, the story slopes off ambiguously, although it seems that the original cut ended with four of the principals going to pieces—the half-hour missing in the current version apparently consists in large part of an extended sequence in which Colin has a violent, head-banging, furniture-smashing crack-up, after which he reverts to his harmonica-blowing wordless beggary.
In a 1977 interview, Bernadette Lafont said that Rivette was “a kind of Mao and his films are a Cultural Revolution.”6 Despite the unfortunate overtones her intended praise has since acquired, she meant that Rivette, more than any other director of his time, had liberated actors from their usual constraints—an original proponent of the auteur theory had become a kind of anti-auteur. Certainly the filming of Out 1, in which once the general drift of a scene had been established it was immediately shot, with no script or rehearsal, was unlike anything else going on then; Rivette trusted his players and challenged them.
The film employed a great range of actors: movie stars, Nouvelle Vague veterans, players from both classical and experimental theater, and a few people who had barely acted at all. They each had their particular talents and limitations, and the structure was calibrated to play to their strengths. In an interview, Schiffman noted that Léaud, who had begun acting at age thirteen, “was the least free of the actors, or at least the most sheltered.”7 He was incapable of improvising, so he was given the deaf-mute act and the harmonica as props; the literary McGuffins were assigned to him for the same reason.
The main thing that Lafont intended by her comparison of Rivette with the late Chinese dictator, though, was the importance he gave to women, radical for the time. In virtually all his films with a principal protagonist, that character is a woman; in Out 1, with its large cast, the gender parity is total. Céline and Julie, which was written by its four female principals with Rivette and his dramaturg, Eduardo de Gregorio, stars Berto and Dominique Labourier as a match-of-opposites comedy team in the tradition of Laurel and Hardy, Keaton and Arbuckle, Martin and Lewis. His uncompleted Filles du feu tetralogy is very much about gender-role reversal, in particular Noroît (1976), inspired by Jacobean revenge dramas, which pits Lafont against Geraldine Chaplin as sword-wielding pirates. (In an interview Lafont said: “Dagger in hand, I scale the heights of raw power…. This kind of sexual metamorphosis, this strange androgyny, had never appeared in the French cinema before Rivette…. It felt like levitation.”) His most materially ambitious film, the two-part Joan the Maid (1992–1994), sets about reclaiming Joan of Arc from appropriation by the French Catholic and military right wing—it makes her, in the person of Sandrine Bonnaire, a human being: confused, vulnerable, beset by hallucinations, but also resolute and for a while implacable.
Despite the direct-cinema transparency of Out 1—cinematographer Pierre-William Glenn shadowing every spontaneous turn with his handheld 16mm camera, pausing only to change magazines every eleven minutes—it was no laissez-faire free-for-all. Rivette subtly and silently manipulated the action. Crucial information might be withheld from a single actor in a scene, so that he or she would be hit with the force of a revelation when it came from the others. Ogier’s real-life panic in one scene, when she has no idea what to say or do next, becomes her character’s panic at not knowing whether her husband is alive or dead.
In many interviews, Rivette emphasized the dialectical nature of the production, a synthesis between the tradition of directorial control, as represented by Eisenstein, Lang, and Hitchcock, and that of nurtured liberty: Renoir, Hawks, and Rossellini. After the screening in Le Havre, he told an interviewer:
I hope that the film functions like a bad dream, overloaded with catharses and slips, one of those dreams that appear even more “interminable” when you are more or less aware during its course that it is a dream, and no sooner do you think you are emerging from it than you fall back in.8
This might be even more true of Out 1: Spectre, the 253-minute cut he produced a year later. Although built from the same thirty hours of footage and run in approximately the same order, the films are radically different from each other. In Rosenbaum’s words, Noli me tangere is “a documentary that is progressively overtaken by fiction,” while “Spectre might be said to begin as a fictional narrative that is progressively overtaken by documentary.” The serial, for all of its longueurs, is one of Rivette’s most accessible pictures, while Spectre, which according to its opening titles takes place in “Paris and its double,” may be his most hermetic.
The episodes of the serial begin with a series of stills, over a percussion soundtrack, that recap the previous installment. In Spectre these stills, accompanied by white noise, are dropped without explanation into the middle of scenes—often interrupting a sentence—alluding to things that have already taken place, or that will occur later, even to some that only figure in the long version. These collage-like intrusions, in combination with a purposely ragged-edged cutting style (also true of the serial, although the spaces between edits are much longer), quickly establish an atmosphere of conspiracy, seeming to connect all the threads, as if the viewer were shuttling among a bank of screens on a central console. The “complot sans maître” (in the words of Michel Delahaye) overtakes and devours the longer film’s other narrative lines. The viewer is given even less information about it, but it colors matters that are more flatfootedly explicable in the serial.
In Noli me tangere, the theft of an actor’s lottery winnings is followed by extended sequences in which he and the others in his troupe try to locate the thief; in Spectre the theft barely occurs and the search for its perpetrator is reduced to a number of mysterious stills, bereft of context, that can be interpreted in any number of paranoid ways. And then there are those shots of Place d’Italie near the end—cars, pedestrians, empty space—that are ostensibly void of significance but that owing to their very emptiness seem to function as the scene of an unidentified crime.
Spectre was a cult film for decades. It was the film we saw again and again on those rare occasions when it came to town, its abiding mystery forever drawing us back in, and Noli me tangere was perhaps the solution to the mystery, although no one really expected it to one day materialize. Now that both films are accessible, it seems that Spectre’s mystery remains intact, for all that the serial resolves a few loose ends. It will endure, not simply because of its relatively more convenient length, but because it has a hook: it demands active intellectual and emotional participation from the viewer.
This is not to disparage Noli me tangere, which is a moviegoing experience of a wholly different order—it encourages a kind of semiconscious immersion, not so much a viewing as half a day of existence that includes the film among such extraneous matters as meals, drinks, conversation, and daydreaming. The characters are doing as much on their side of the screen. It is an emissary from the distant planet of the 1970s, when technology was primitive and there was a great deal more time, when process reigned supreme in the arts—when Robert Wilson could mount twelve-hour spectacles and performance artists could stage actions that went on for days or weeks.
For a variety of reasons, mostly having to do with money and logistics and a changing film culture, Out 1 has had limited direct influence on subsequent movies. Perhaps its most obvious heir is the Portuguese director Pedro Costa’s In Vanda’s Room (2000), a portrait, filmed over the course of a year, of a woman enacting her own life in a Lisbon slum, which is unscripted and improvised but invisibly shaped. Documentary and fiction inhabit the same skin, with barely an inch of air separating them.
Both Out 1 and Spectre are indelible records of their actors, some of them better known from other movies but few seen in circumstances that demanded more of their inner resources. They are more than characters in Out 1, much more truly themselves: the questioning, knowing stare and Mona Lisa smile of Bernadette Lafont; the precise play of hands and posture that Jean-Pierre Léaud inhabits like a house; the radiant little-girl face of Bulle Ogier and the iron will behind it; the shambling bearlike presence of Michael Lonsdale, always pretending to be on the verge of collapse; the feral, sinuous grace of Juliet Berto, poised on the knife-tip between control and abandon. If the movie were nothing else, it would still be a chance to make the acquaintance of those remarkable people.
Sometime in the late 1960s, Rivette made a brief stab at a project tentatively titled In, which would have followed a group of disaffected youths in a provincial town. It was the first manifestation of his desire to make a film with a collective protagonist, which resulted in Out 1. ↩
There were vague plans for Out 2, in which Pierre was to have been played by Alain Cuny and Igor by Sami Frey. It was also to include a gang of “amazons” roaming around Paris, led by Marie-France Pisier. That idea, perhaps derived from Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires, may have formed the germ of Céline and Julie Go Boating. ↩
At least these are Rosenbaum’s identifications. John Ashbery’s 1974 review of Out 1: Spectre more or less reverses them. I’m not in a position to know. ↩
The character played by Michel Delahaye in Out 1, an ethnologist, is an explicit homage to Rouch’s movie. In Petit à petit Delahaye is ethnographically surveyed—his skull measured with calipers—by the African visitors; he wears the same clothes in both pictures. ↩
Isabelle Jordan, “Entretiens avec Céline et Julie,” Positif #162, October 1974, p. 22. ↩
John Hughes, Bernadette Lafont: An Interview in Central Park (The Thousand Eyes, 1977), p. 43. ↩
Hélène Frappat, Jacques Rivette: secret compris (Les Cahiers du Cinéma, 2001), p. 143. ↩
Yvonne Baby, “Comme un mauvais rêve…,” Le Monde, October 14, 1971, p. 13. ↩