By Donatella Valente
The first shot of Jacques Rivette’s eight-part, thirteen-hour long masterpiece Out 1 (1971) shows five people holding a yoga posture known as “the inverted pose of the plough”. This image introduces a gesture that is a part of a wider architecture of stages of play, progressing according to a backward and forward-motion narrative design. As the plough posture allows the body to regenerate and reinvigorate itself, to ease the blood stream flow, so the back of the body, shown frontally to the camera, gestures towards a pre-natal state, foreshadowing birth and renewal. It soon becomes evident that these five individuals are theatrical performers, led by Lili (Michèle Moretti), going through warm-up exercises before rehearsing their production of Æschylus’ Seven Against Thebes. Yet, by the end of the film, their project will have been abandoned; this is a work about preparation and anticipation. Linear and multiple narratives or storylines, while not Rivette’s primary objective, may spin-off from here and take place off-screen. In terms of mise-en-scène, the film’s textures and materials range from sparse monochrome to a multi-coloured palette, the utilisation of space, with rambling characters and shifting tones, being of primary importance. The image of the plough thus serves as a particularly apt introduction to a work structured around process and materials rather than cause and effect, suggesting a self-reflexive, inward look.
If the plough pose is a metaphor for the film’s overall narrative design, then the following upturned physical figure, shown in the space of a single take, strikes a balance, as it were, between both stillness and inward looking – but also outward and forward-looking – motion and change. The five characters sit upright, bend forward, stand, and walk in circle, simulating mechanical body movements. In figural terms, this pose signposts the necessary task for an individual, in life and on stage; to re-learn how to naturalise one’s own steps and movements by entering a state of mimicry in order to discover how to walk again.
From the beginning, we are shown human beings poised as if grappling with a pre-natal and pre-cultural condition, the film already conveying its mythical and collective tone, suggesting how the individual needs to rediscover, through a process of de-construction and re-acquisition, what once seemed natural. Art and life in the late ‘60s had stressed this process of unlearning: deconstructing in order to create afresh. The ‘70s, on the other hand, were dominated by the realisation that ideals had fragmented and were no longer tenable.
From the opening shot, Rivette’s “reverse” proposition seems to be concerned less with demonstrating how fiction can be created out of reality than with re-creating reality from fiction. For Rivette, the plough symbolises life’s close relationship to art, and especially to performance. Interwoven with all this are the theatrical exercises of another group, this one led by Thomas (Michael Lonsdale), rehearsing a different Æschylus play, Prometheus Unbound. These rehearsals will blend into their lives, overriding the boundaries between theatre and reality. We also encounter the performed personas of two loners who inhabit their own live stage plays: con-artist Frédérique (Juliet Berto) and Colin (Jean-Pierre Léaud). Both of these characters pursue their own private obsessions, Frédérique with extorting money through blackmail (a common theme in Rivette’s films), Colin with attempting to resolve the meaning of a series of puzzling messages which ultimately lead him to believe in the existence of a conspiracy ostensibly based on Honoré de Balzac’s nineteenth-century novel History of the Thirteen.
As performance and imitation of life spill out onto the Parisian streets, we are invited to consider the symmetrical resonances generated by a process of indefinitely expanding initially confined spaces. The inverted pose of the plough can thus be seen as the mechanical dispositive which sets in motion the narrative structure of a film which has no real beginning or ending. By gesturing towards a backward and forward mechanism, this pose initiates a series of returns and repetitions through the performers’ jagged body movements, but also suggests the co-existence of Myth, Happenings and Performance. 1 As if preparing them for their on-stage “life” interpretations, this mechanism will inevitably carry them down long-winded narrative pathways on which they encounter plays within plays. The provocative cue to this asymmetrical narrative design is the disruptive and chaotic logic of both Frédérique’s and Colin’s actions: a shared fear of persecution explains their need to unspool connections between the most disparate events.
Another important thread sewn into the film’s texture is Myth, revisited afresh by the actors’ performative improvisations and Happenings. As we are thrown into the fictional world in media res, left to unpick the signs and meanings of what we “happen” to be seeing, the actors’ attempts to reinterpret Myth stretch and deconstruct the boundaries of their learnt physical movements, leading them to experiment with new possibilities of meaning. It is through their preparatory steps into performance that Myth and Happenings make a historical and meta-historical connection, marking out the figures of contingency and fate.
Colin’s own study of a possible “Conspiracy of Thirteen” is also Rivette’s device for making his audience ponder the notion of fate versus self-determination; human physical gesture is here the key to understanding how life, theatre and cinema are closely interconnected, binding their seemingly heterogeneous arenas and spaces.
The opening shot of the inverted posture of the plough could then be a significant metaphor for Colin’s meaningless attempts to read a series of signs that may be scattered along a pre-determined path – another of those “back-to-front” strategies by means of which Rivette guides his audience, making them perceive those signs of self-determination scattered throughout the seemingly illogical narrative. In this sense, the beginning of Out 1 – in which the five group members stand up and spontaneously move to a hypnotic drum beat evoking primitive rituals and rhythms – is a sign of prophecy, a premonition binding life in the present to life in its pre-natal stage, a time preceding human existence. By striking a balance between life and death, this posture gestures towards Myth while foreshadowing mortality; its upturned form, looking both inward and backward, shows events in the performers’ studio anticipating the tragedies that await these characters.
By Brad Stevens
Among the most notable stylistic traits of Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 is its reliance on extremely long takes, some running a full ten minutes (the length of a reel). So it is perhaps surprising that the eighth and final episode should end with a shot lasting a mere six seconds. This briefly glimpsed image shows Marie, played by Hermine Karagheuz, standing near Léon-Ernest Drivier’s statue of Athena in the Fontaine de la Porte Dorée in Paris. We last saw Marie in episode six, occupying precisely the same camera set-up, though by now we may well have forgotten the subplot it refers to. In brief, Lili’s theatre group, to which Marie belongs, has been robbed by Renaud (Alain Libolt), inspiring its members to comb the streets looking for him. Unbeknownst to these searchers, Renaud has subsequently become involved with one of the film’s isolated loners, Frédérique, an involvement which has led to Frédérique’s death.
Out 1 progresses from an opening shot in which Lili’s group is engaged in communal activity to a closing shot showing one of this group’s members in isolation, neatly demonstrating how the communal dreams of the ‘60s were gradually fragmenting. Individuals who had once been part of larger social/revolutionary movements (and thus “in”) now belong to cocooned factions (“out”) which are themselves in danger of shattering into a collection of isolated shards, a process ultimately undergone by the film itself. Indeed, the pursuit of Renaud seems to be motivated less by the hope of retrieving stolen money than by a wish to undertake some kind of meaningful collective project, one which might proceed beyond the preparation stage and achieve resolution. The concluding image brutally reminds us that this resolution remains as distant as ever.
Yet Out 1‘s climax is far from unambiguously negative. If community for Rivette is ultimately another form of isolation or withdrawal – a way of stretching the dilemma of the solitary individual across a wider canvas rather than resolving it (Colin’s investigation of the conspiracy merely confirms him in his solipsism) – the reverse may also be true: perhaps isolation is itself a form of community, one in which the performative options are virtually endless.2
By the time the end credits have begun to roll, Frédérique is dead, Colin returned to his starting point, and Thomas reduced to incoherent anguish. But the final shot, which mercurially vanishes almost before we have had time to register it, implies new (or at least continuing) adventures, new possibilities of narrative, new ways of relating one image to another, one individual to another, one group to another. Marie’s quest – like those productions of Seven Against Thebes and Prometheus Unbound rehearsed by the two theatre companies, the utopian conspiracy of thirteen, and the separate attempts of Frédérique and Colin to expose or penetrate this conspiracy – never achieves its goal. Yet, if the other conspiracies and group enterprises are abandoned by their participants, Marie’s is abandoned only by the film; when last seen, she is still actively engaged in a pursuit which has progressed well past the point of fulfilling its ostensible aim, and started to resemble those theatrical projects whose failure to move beyond the rehearsal stage may be a kind of success. The rehearsals, though ostensibly rough sketches for more polished works, are of value in themselves, celebrating artistic process rather than artistic creation, and primarily benefiting the participants rather than hypothetical theatregoers. Marie’s search could be seen as an attempt to break out of this closed circle, to involve an audience in her theatrical “Happening”. We have already watched her prowling the streets of Paris, showing a photo of Renaud to pedestrians, even wandering out into the traffic and interrogating drivers. These scenes have clearly been shot by Rivette with an at least partially concealed camera, the individuals who respond (or fail to respond) to Marie’s enquiry being not actors, but innocent bystanders unexpectedly drawn into Rivette and Marie’s fictional web. These unwitting participants may not realise they are collaborating in a work of fiction, but their presence nonetheless suggests that the audience which never emerged for Lili and Thomas’ productions of Æschylus has finally been conscripted by the performers.
Out 1 is actually the first of three Rivette films to end with a shot of Hermine Karagheuz. The second is Duelle (1976), in which Karagheuz plays the protagonist, so her privileged position in the closing image is perhaps not surprising. But her appearance at the end of Merry-Go-Round (1979) is more noteworthy, since her function in this film remains largely incomprehensible. She turns up intermittently in what would appear to be a series of dreams showing her pursuing Joe Dallesandro through a primitive landscape. The explanation usually offered for this subplot is that Dallesandro’s co-star, Maria Schneider, had walked off the film, obliging Rivette to use Karagheuz as a substitute. Yet this can hardly account for the curious effect of her scenes, particularly since they bear no obvious relationship to the rest of the narrative. Like the closing shot of Out 1, Merry-Go-Round‘s final image serves not to shut the film down, to convince us that those narrative questions and thematic issues raised by the preceding text have been resolved, but rather to open it up to new possibilities, new interpretations, reminding us we that are departing the cinema in a state of irresolution far greater than that in which we arrived. As with such Rivettian films as Woody Allen’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010) and Abel Ferrara’s Mary (2005), Out 1‘s various narrative strands are abandoned at arbitrary points. Like Marie, we have been required to leave our world of conventional expectations – a world in which theatrical rehearsals lead to theatrical productions, and stories are neatly tied off with a bow – and enter an indeterminate milieu where process is favoured over result.
Hermine Karagheuz is thus a stand-in for both the viewer and Rivette himself, explicitly so in Out 1 and Duelle, implicitly in Merry-Go-Round, the latter film only making sense once we read it through the prism of the director’s previous work (a method associated with auteurist critics, to whose ranks Rivette belonged). And it seems reasonable to assume that the possibilities hinted at by Out 1‘s last six seconds – the juxtaposition of Marie with the statue of a goddess – anticipate Duelle, in which the same actress plays a character who becomes involved in a struggle between two goddesses (incarnated by Juliet Berto and Bulle Ogier, who also appear in Out 1). But there is surely a more direct link with Céline et Julie vont en bateau (1974), the film Rivette made immediately after Out 1, in which those feminist concerns evident throughout his oeuvre receive their most thorough expression. It was Marie, we should recall, who set the main “plot” of Out 1 in motion by handing the first of several mysterious messages to Colin, an action which remains completely inexplicable (Was she acting on the orders of the unseen Pierre? Does this mean she is one of the Thirteen?), but nonetheless cements her connection to the film’s improvisational auteur, who took the initiative by setting scenes in motion, then stood back and watched them develop (the precise nature of this development being left to the actors). Her appearance at the tail end of Out 1 – in which we see her first facing the camera, then turning away, leaving us staring at the back of her head, denying us the right to treat her as an object for the look – anticipates Céline et Julie, in which two women not only take control of the fictional universe, but trample the very concept of narrative underfoot, gleefully exposing those patriarchal assumptions upon which traditional notions of storytelling depend, eventually assuming a power over the cinematic text so complete it might be said to define them as goddesses. Since Out 1‘s title implies the possibility of a sequel, could Céline et Julie vont en bateau be the unmade Out 2?
- Informed by the spirit of Happenings, which had specific reference to the commedia dell’arte and improvisational theatre, the various interwoven narrative strands in Out 1, created by Rivette as performative exercises, reflect what Allan Kaprow wrote in his 1966 essay “Assemblages, Environments & Happenings”. For Kaprow, Happenings were the result of the artwork’s being extended by creative acts and intellectual participation on the part of the viewer, a collaboration between artist and audience that expanded the architecture of the work’s environment. Kaprow also insisted that Happenings avoid all performance conventions in order to break free of comparisons with theatrical forms. (Sandford Mariellen R. (Ed.), Happenings and Other Acts, London: Routledge, 1995). ↩
- This suggests a connection with Stanley Kubrick, a director who in most respects seems Rivette’s polar opposite. In his interrogations of identity, Kubrick opposes anarchic improvisation to disciplined role-playing, yet repeatedly demonstrates how these two extremes amount to much the same thing when seen in the widest of all possible contexts. ↩