Thursday, June 23, 2011


OUT 1: NOLI ME TANGERE (1971, Jacques Rivette, 12 hours 53 minutes) WILL BE SCREENED ON 25-26 JUNE at the Reading Room in Bangkok. You can read the details of the screening here:

Jonathan Rosenbaum on OUT 1:

Work and Play in the House of Fiction: On Jacques Rivette

Jonathan Rosenbaum

n the spring of 1970, Jacques Rivette shot about thirty hours of improvisation with over three dozen actors. Out of this massive and extremely open-ended material have emerged two films, both of which contrive to subvert the traditional movie going experience at its roots. Out 1, lasting twelve hours and forty minutes, has been screened publicly only once (at Le Havre, 9-10 September 1971) and remains for all practical purposes an invisible, legendary work. (Its subtitle, significantly, is Noli Me Tangere.) Spectre, which Rivette spent the better part of a year editing out of the first film -- running 255 minutes, or roughly a third as long -- was released in Paris earlier this year. And during the interval between the editing of Spectre and its release, Rivette shot and edited a third film, Celine et Julie vont en Bateau, 195 minutes in length, which surfaced in Cannes last May. The differences between Spectre and Celine et Julie vont en Bateau are considerable: they are respectively the director's "heaviest" film and his "lightest," probably the least and most accessible of his six features to date. Both of them clearly situate Rivette in the forefront of narrative innovation in contemporary French cinema, exhibiting a sophistication about the entire fiction-making process that seems to go well beyond the recent efforts of his peers. On a narrative level, one might say that they resume a line of development abandoned by Resnais afterLast Year at Marienbad and Muriel, and by Godard after 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her and Made in U.S.A.

To have fused many of the concerns of these separate lines of inquiry is remarkable enough. What is more remarkable still is that Rivette has extended them, into the outer reaches of a terrain that the following notes can only attempt to sketch.

[Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz] causes earache the first time through, especially for those new to Coleman's music. The second time, its cacophony lessens and its complex balances and counter-balances begin to take effect. The third time, layer upon layer of pleasing configurations -- rhythmic, melodic, contrapuntal, tonal -- becomes visible. The fourth or fifth listening, one swims readily along, about ten feet down, breathing the music like air.

-Whitney Balliett, "Abstract," in Dinosaurs in the Morning

If there is something comforting-religious, if you want -- about paranoia, there is still also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long.

-Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow

The organizing principle adopted by Rivette in shooting the raw material of Out 1 and Spectre was the notion of acomplot (plot, conspiracy) derived from Balzac's Histoire des treize, where thirteen individuals occupying different sectors of French society form a secret alliance to consolidate their power. Consciously setting out to make a critique of the conspiratorial zeitgeist of his first feature, Paris Nous Appartient, Rivette also used this principle to arrange meetings and confrontations between his actors, each of whom was invited to invent and improvise his own character in relation to the overall intrigue.

It should be noted that repeated viewings of Spectre help to clarify not its "plot" but its formal organization. The analogy suggested above between Rivette and Coleman is far more relevant, however, to the notion ofperformance. Much like Coleman's thirty-eight-minute venture into group improvisation with seven other musicians,Spectre's surface is dictated by accommodations, combinations, and clashes brought about by contrasting styles of "playing." The textures run the gamut from the purely cinematic skills of Jean-Pierre Leaud and Juliet Berto to the stage-bound techniques of Francoise Fabian; from the nervousness of Michel Lonsdale to the placidity of Jacques Doniol-Valcroze; from the reticence of Bulle Ogier to the garrulity of Bernadette Lafont.

For Coleman as for Rivette, the thematic material is kept to a minimum and mainly used as an expedient -- a launching pad to propel each solo player into a "statement" of his own that elicits responses from the others. Apart from the brief ensemble passages written by Coleman, there is no composer behind Free Jazz, hence no composition; the primary role of Coleman as leader is to assemble players and establish a point of departure for their improvising.

Rivette's role in Spectre is similar, with the crucial difference that he edits aand rearranges the material afterward, assembling shots as well as players. And the assembly is one that works against the notion of continuity: sustained meaning, the province of an auteur, is deliberately withheld -- from the audience as well as the actors. Consequently, it is hardly surprising that the "13" in Spectre never reveals itself as anything more than a chimera. By the time the film is two-thirds over, it is evident that the complot is a pipe dream that never got off the ground, an idea once discussed among thirteen individuals that apparently went no further. Aside from the efforts of certain characters (mainly Lonsdale and Fabian) to keep its real or hypothetical existence hidden, and the attempts or threats of others (Leaud, Berto, Ogier) to "expose" it, the "13" never once assumes a recognizable shape -- in the dialogue or on the screen.

Spectre begins by pretending to tell us four separate stories at once. We watch two theater groups rehearsingPrometheus Bound (directed by Lonsdale) and Seven Against Thebes (a collective), and also observe Leaud and Berto -- two rather crazed and curious loners, each of whom tricks strangers in cafes out of money. (Leaud impersonates a deaf-mute; Berto usually starts by flirting.) For the first thirty-five shots -- ten of them black-and-white stills accompanied by an electronic hum -- Rivette cuts between these four autonomous units, establishing no plot connections. The only links set up are occasional formal repetitions: a scene echoed by a subsequent still, two pans in separate shots of Leaud and Berto in their rooms. Even within each unit, many shots are either "too long" or "too short" to be conventionally assimilable as narrative. Rivette often cuts in the middle of a sentence or a movement, and the missing pieces are not always recuperated. Conversely, a shot in which Leaud's concierge reminds him to leave his key ends irrelevantly with her walking away from the camera and sitting down at a table to write. Like some of the cryptic stills punctuating later portions of the film, such a diversion proposes -- without ever substantiating -- yet another supplementary fiction.

Then almost miraculously, in the thirty-sixth shot, two of the four "plots" are brought together: Leaud is suddenly handed a slip of paper by a member of the theater collective. On it is typed a seemingly coded message which he sets out to decipher, along with a subsequent message he receives, following clues provided by references to Balzac and "The Hunting of the Snark" (the former gracefully explained by Eric Rohmer in a cameo role). And when Leaud's deductions eventually lead him to a hippy boutique called "l' Angle du hasard," the "plot" appreciably thickens: the boutique is run by Ogier, whom we later discover is a friend of both Lonsdale and Michele Moretti, another member of the collective; and all three are members of the alleged "13."

Meanwhile, Berto, the fourth narrative strand, has been making some unwitting connections of her own. After stealing letters from the flat of Doniol-Valcroze (another one of the "13," along with his wife, Francoise Fabian) for the purpose of possible blackmail, she dons a wig and arranges a meeting with Fabian: an incongruous match suggesting Mickey Rooney versus Rohmer's Maud. Then, when she fails to collect money, she turns up at the boutique to try the same ploy with Ogier. This second encounter marks the fusion of all four "plots," and occurs just before the film's intermission. It is the only time Berto and Leaud ever cross paths (they are the only important characters who never meet), and the spectator may well feel at this point that he is finally being led out of chaos. But the second half of Spectre, after drawing the four strands together more tightly, proceeds to unravel them again; and the final hour leaves us as much in the dark as we were in the first. Indeed, the delivery of the first message to Leaud is totally gratuitous, an act that is never explained, and most of the other "connections" are brought about by equally expedient contrivances. In a country house occupied at various times by Lafont, Lonsdale, Ogier, and Moretti, Rivette parodies the very notion of "hidden meaning" in a subtler way, by making sure that a single nondescript bust with no acknowledged relation to the "plot" is visible in every room. It even crops up in the locked room possibly inhabited by Igor, Ogier's missing husband, a room she enters only near the end of the film. Obviously the bust is a joke; but why is it there? To suggest a complot. And according to the tactics ofSpectre, suggesting a complot is at once an absurdity and a necessity: it leads us nowhere except forward.

Complot, in short, becomes the motivation behind a series of transparent gestures: spectres of action playing over a void. We watch actors playing at identity and meaning the way that children do, with many of the games leading to dead ends or stalemates, some exhausting themselves before they arrive anywhere, and still others creating solid roles and actions that dance briefly in the theater of the mind before dissolving into something else. Nothing remains fixed, and everything becomes ominous. Relentlessly investigated by Leaud and blindly exploited by Berto, the spectre of the "13" reactivates the paranoia of its would-be members, mainly increasing the distances between them. Other crises intervene (a stranger runs off with the money of an actor in the collective; Ogier threatens to publish the intercepted letters); fear begets fear; both theater groups disperse; Ogier and Moretti are last seen driving off to meet the perpetually missing Igor; and Berto and Leaud are each returned to their isolation. Repeated "empty" shots of Place d'Italie in the final reel -- chilling mixtures of Ozu-like emptiness with Langian terror -- embody this growing sense of void, which ultimately widens to swallow up everything else in the film.

Much as folie a deux figures centrally in L'Amour Fou and Celine et Julie vont en Bateau, failed folie a deuxgradually becomes the very essence of Spectre. The inability to "connect" reveals itself as part and parcel of the incapacity to sustain fictions, a failure registering most poignantly in the relationship of Ogier and Leaud, which begins with mutual attraction and ends in estrangement. Of all the ''two-part inventions" in Spectre, theirs is the richest in shifting tensions, and the growing rift is brilliantly underlined by the staging of their scenes in the boutique -- particularly when they're stationed in adjoining rooms on opposite sides of the screen, each vying in a different way for our attention. This spatial tension reaches its climax in their last scene together, on the street, when Ogier forcibly breaks away and Leaud mimes the invisible barrier between them by pushing at it in agonized desperation, finally wandering in a diagonal trajectory out of the frame while blowing a dissonant wail on his harmonica.

"It didn't work," he feebly confesses in the film's final shot, after repeatedly trying to make his Eiffel Tower trinket swing back and forth exactly thirteen times. Speaking for the audience and the other actors/characters as well as for Rivette and himself, he is testifying to the impossibility of a sustained pattern or meaning. On the deepest level, he is expressing an anguished agnosticism toward all fiction, directing a frightened stare into the face of intractable reality.

An infernal machine programmed to arouse narrative expectations in order to frustrate them, begin stories in order to contradict or cancel them, Spectre cruelly exposes the artifices of cinematic fiction by revealing many of the precise ways that they play on our reflexes. The scenes of violence that figure in the second half -- Ogier's murder of a messenger (played by the film's producer!) and the brutal beating of Berto by a leather jacket named Marlon (Jean-Francois Stevenin) -- are especially disturbing in this respect. They perform the ritualistic role of supplying "action" and "excitement" at junctures whim we probably feel that they're most sorely needed, yet the reasons for these actions are so enigmatic that they fulfill no other visible function.

Even more than Rivette's other features, Spectre is built around a series of profound contradictions. Its apparent subject and substance is group effort, yet what it finally conveys is entropy and isolation. The extraordinary freedom of the shooting is counteracted by the aggressive constraint of the montage. One could reproach the film for having either "too little" or "too much" -- a paradox reflected in the title, which suggests all colors (spectrum) as well as none (the transparency of a ghost). Without proposing any sort of influence, it is interesting to compare the title of Gravity's Rainbow, another recent work oscillating between form and formlessness, plotting and chaos, a compulsive desire to control the world and an equally strong desire to leave it alone -- a novel, in fact, that proceeds to tie and untie its strands with a similar duplicity of purpose and diffusion of focus.

Before editing Spectre, Rivette spoke in a Le Monde interview of wanting to make it "not a digest of the long version, but another film having its own logic: closer to a puzzle or a crossword game, playing less on affectivity and more on rhymes or oppositions, ruptures or connections, caesuras or censorships." But it is a game that one submits to rather than plays, for it offers no chances of winning. One can sit before it as though at a tribunal -- facing an Inquisition that repeatedly asks "Why?" -- or one can watch it like network television, and ignore the contradictions as if they were commercial breaks, viewing it all as pure spectacle. Or -- likelier still, alas -- one can get caught between these two possibilities, and intermittently become bored. A do-it-yourself kit, Spectrehas no singular experience to convey, but a set of raw materials. Like Leaud in the film, we can concoct plenty of formulas out of them. A submerged history of the splinterings and disaffections of Cahiers du Cinema after 1968? A film as steeped in silences as certain works by Webern? A semi-Sadean exposure of a lot of personal traits that actors generally seek to hide, particularly uncertainty and fear? Or a flight into the unknown seeking no "success" or predetermined destination, only adventure?

SPECTRE isn't easy going for anyone, nor was it intended to be. Leaving its audience and its actors each suspended over a void, it offers itself as a dead-end experiment that can be neither emulated nor repeated -- although it certainly will be learned from for years to come. Going further in self-annihilating narrative than any director before him, Rivette has burned up all the ground beneath his feet.

Originally appeared in Sight and Sound 43, Autumn 1974: p. 190-4. Reprinted in Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism (University of California Press, 1995): p. 142-52.

You can buy the book here:

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