(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2002)
Jacques Rivette is one of my favourite living directors, but of all my favourites he’s the one for whom I have the most work left to do. His new film Va savoir is the only one I’ve ever seen under a regular commercial release. I’ve seen seven others on video or DVD or at festivals, but that leaves many to go. Salvation may be near, for apparently there’s a Cinematheque Ontario retrospective coming up later in the year.
Given Rivette’s low profile in North America, he’s been quite well-served by DVD. It’s in this format that I recently saw his brilliant 1992 version of Joan of Arc – a film of great understatement, exactitude and care. It’s a fascinating exercise to compare the film to Luc Besson’s The Messenger – where Besson is bombastic and insistent, Rivette is sparse and matter-of-fact. At times he studies Joan as carefully as a psychoanalyst; at others, he recedes, allowing alternate interpretations to stand. It’s one of the great historical films of the last twenty years.
But he normally deals in contemporary subjects. Probably his best-known film is La belle noisseuse, a long exploration of the creative process, set around a model who poses nude for an aging artist. The film’s sensuality never obscures the rigour of its examination of gender relations and of the relationship of art and life. The theatre, where these intersect most directly and dynamically, turns up in many of his films. His films feel theatrical too – not in the sense of being stagy or uncinematic, but in that they have choreography and poise that walk an often-magical line between naturalism and artificiality.
By general consent, his masterpiece is Celine and Julie go Boating, a film I seriously need to see again. Two women slip into an imagined world that they summon up by sucking on strange candy. The film is as grainy, obscure and elongated as the most experimental cinema; it has a concept simultaneously goofy and brilliant, and it’s a complex text on femininity. Rivette has probably been more productively preoccupied by women than any other male director of his time, something exemplified by the Joan of Arc project, but also reaching back to his 1965 film The Nun, still a stunning depiction of a woman driven to the grave by societal pressure.
Gang of Four
These comments are more fragmented than I’d like them to be, but it just reflects how I’ve had to acquire my sense of Rivette. He seems to me a highly uninsistent artist – his films aren’t conventionally passionate or prescriptive; they reflect the open-mindedness of someone who has a generously expansive vision of both life and cinema. It follows that Rivette has shown limited regard for certain conventions – particularly normal movie length. His Out One, which I’ve never seen, ran for twelve hours and forty minutes (he later edited it down into a four hour and twenty-minute version). The films habitually run to three hours. David Thomson, calling Rivette the “most important filmmaker of the last thirty-five years,” cites “the uncompromising way that he has identified the future of film as something other than the two-hour work shown to paying audiences in special buildings, and telling tidy stories.”
But Rivette’s experimentalism shouldn’t obscure his humanism. Another film available on DVD, The Gang of Four, is one of his lesser-known works, but a sheer joy. It follows four young women, sharing a house while they study in the same exacting drama class. Like many Rivette films (right back to his first in 1961, Paris Belongs to Us), it introduces an odd conspiracy that tangles their lives into knots, but always returns regularly to the sanctuary of their endless rehearsals. The film makes countless points about the creation of reality and identity, but it’s also a captivating portrait of the four women (at times, watching Rivette doesn’t feel so very different from watching Eric Rohmer). The Gang of Four might be the film I’d recommend as the best introduction to Rivette – it shows his huge intellect at its most easeful. In general, Rivette seems to have been getting more benevolent as he gets older – one of his most recent films, Haut bas fragile, was a musical – and why not?
Which brings us to Va savoir. The film continues Rivette’s latter-day grace – it’s another story set around the theatre, with criss-crossing relationships and a focus on women. Jeanne Balibar plays an actress performing with an Italian troupe in Paris, sleeping with her director/co-star and perhaps rekindling a relationship with an old boyfriend. As the film progresses, the canvas widens to include other connections and coincidences. The film has twists and turns galore, and a bona fide happy ending.
Given everything I’ve said above, it’s obvious that I regard Va savoir as one of the best things you can currently do with your time, cinematically speaking. However, my immense desire to hype Rivette’s work must yield to honesty – good as the film is, I think it’s probably the least interesting of the Rivette films I’ve mentioned in this article. The film’s title translates as “Who knows,” which might indicate anything from a shrug to submission to ultimate mysteries.
But on this occasion, the film seemed more earthbound than I’m used to with him – the convolutions in the structure didn’t seem as philosophically or intellectually revealing. Of course, this may be the very reason that the film has found such popular acceptance. But even on that level, it’s probably not as engaging or as subtle as the recent The Taste of Others.
Still, it gives you a place to start. And I may change my mind about it, for as I sit here, I find myself thinking more and more about various moments in Va savoir. A young woman says to the director: “You are lucky to be someone else every night. And never really serious.” Thereafter, the two spend the film alternating between seeming to gravitate toward love and suddenly pushing each other away. In a way it’s the kind of device movies always use, but Rivette makes us feel the desperate exhilaration of this dynamic. And her reading of him as not being serious is of course an error – an error that Rivette himself might too easily attract.
The Gang of Four is dedicated to “the prisoners, to the one among them, to those who wait for them.” This supports several readings in the context of the film, but I like to think of the actresses, of those dedicated to their art, of Rivette himself as the prisoners he’s mainly thinking of. He’s captive to cinema, and yet far too great an artist to be limited by it. And following Rivette has necessarily involved far too much waiting, but it’s getting a little easier now.
(2017 comment – I still treasure Rivette as much as ever, but I’d write much of this article differently now)