Va Savoir!

Six characters in search of (variously) a lost play, a stolen ring, has-been and would-be lovers and who knows what, finally converge on a stage set for Pirandello’s play, As you desire me. Such a mix of objects and bodies is usually the stuff of farce and Rivette’s film Va Savoir!, which begins and ends on a theatre set, is certainly not farce. The convergence of theatre and film is at the heart of Rivette’s new film and indeed lies at the heart of his cinematic project.

Va Savior! begins with a patch of moving blue light on a black screen, forming itself into a theatrical spotlight illuminating Camille (played by Jeanne Balibar), the main character, in a silhouette: this turns out to be a lighting rehearsal. The high angled shot, a cinematic rather than a theatrical point of view, creates a divergence from the theatrical. It is the endless convergence and divergence between film and theatre that is for me the most mysterious aspect of Rivette’s film. It is this sense of the endlessness of this process of exchange that makes comments on Rivette’s work, such as “theatre as the back drop to the main action”, “theatre as the illusion to the reality of the off-stage drama”, “theatre as metaphor” and so on, not quite satisfactory in their description of his cinematic relationship to theatre. Of course having seen only one other Rivette film, Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), I am hardly in a position to say anything well informed and researched but I will have a go at conjecturing on the basis of just these two films. And it does help to note that Rivette’s production company for Va Savoir! is called La Losange, which evokes those magic lollies that Celine and Julie suck as an “Open Sesame” device to enter the mansion and rescue a little girl trapped by a trio of melodramatically scheming adults so that they could go sailing merrily down the stream.

There is much mirth, some sadness and enough madness in Va Savoir! to make it a very special kind of film, an unusual mixture of sensations, moods and manners. Luckily for us, for Rivette, theatre still has a certain magic – so for example, the staginess of Pirandello’s domestic mise en scène and the formality of its rhetoric seeps into the everyday gestures and movements within the film, like walking, sitting and talking, just sitting, opening doors and closing them and so on. But because As you desire me is cut into the action of the six characters both in and out of the theatre – that is, there is a montage effect between the formal mise en scène of the play and the everyday – these everyday movements take on a strange formality. Or rather, it is as though because of the way in which Pirandello’s play is cut in, one begins to pay attention to the non-theatrical movements of the film in a particular way. We know that Rivette improvises and is interested in the very process of filming and that Pirandello’s play calls for a different means of plotting movements and gestures, but somehow the two systems infiltrate each other so that it is difficult to say where theatre ends and film begins. They seem to be in a continuous circuit whose operations are not logical, linear and sequential, as the montage suggests. I would like to propose that consequently one focuses on the theatrical mise en scène of the film and the voices in a different way than one does on the purely cinematic sequences. This duel foci and a seeming arbitrary switching between the two does something to the quality of attention. This is a little hypothesis that would need more than one viewing to develop further.

For a while now I have been working on Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999) and Kumar Shahani’s Kasba (1991, India) and like Rivette, these two directors also create a relationship with other, pre-cinematic art forms. What theatre is to Rivette, painting is to Kubrick and Shahani. This topic is itself a vast one and Robert Bresson hinted at it in his answer to two Dutch students of cinema in their interview with the director in Road to Bresson (De Weg naar Bresson, Leo De Boer and Jurriën Rood, 1984) when he spoke of the importance of the other arts for cinema. This leads me to think that these directors (among others) create for themselves a storehouse or archive of aesthetic stuff serviceable to their work in film. To put this differently, theatre for Rivette, painting and theatre for Kubrick, and painting and dance for Shahani offer a virtual sphere to the actuality of their films. Thereby the pre-technological and the technological are intertwined in complex circuits creating various unpredictable moves. These filmmakers are great auteurs who have worked in cinema across major technological changes, from anywhere between 30 to 50 years. And I believe that their ability to do so on their own terms is due partly to their relationship to a past artform of their choice. There is a desire for theatre, painting and dance in their work and so these ancient art forms come forth to their beckoning, whispering to them “as you desire me”, and they do yield a magical, vital force so that Rivette can make a two and a half hour film that moves at an extraordinarily leisurely pace in 2001. Think of Camille’s escape through a skylight, from her farcical imprisonment in a room by her former lover. What a deliciously slow escape it is and how long she takes to walk on that metallic roof wearing those horrible sandals. Why didn’t she remove them and step lightly over the rooftops? But as she did what she did, at the pace she decided on and with the racket of her sandals on the metal, one could also hear her measured pacing of the stage, its creaking wood, its weight, which is nothing other than the weight of time as duration, so lightly evoked. And in this stretched out sequence she transforms from the haunted and tormented Cia of Pirandello and the somewhat sad Camille longing for Arthur into a creature as light as Celine or Julie.

Jeanne Balibar is both a classically trained actress and a dancer and has the most expressive scapulae I have ever seen in an actress; one notices them much more on models but here we register the tone of Camille’s body, its mood, by Rivette’s camera tracking her from behind in her beautiful low cut dresses. Thus the line of her body becomes as articulate as her face, even more so, just as her voice is, because it speaks both French and Italian in very different registers. I don’t think I have heard an actress express her desire to simply sleep, so sensuously as Balibar’s Camille does.

Though Camille’s smile at a certain angle came close to becoming hyperreal (like Julia Roberts’), this effect was deflected by the montage of her persona, her face, her voice and her body working in quite different cinematic and theatrical registers. (1) And it is, I think, an idea of the theatre and of theatricality, peculiar to Rivette that enables him to modulate his rhythm and create such an enchantingly relaxed film, full of walking, longing, silliness, lots of talking (so varied) and so much time with so many books and an irrepressibly joyous minor character, the bubbly middle-aged mum of Do, Madame Desprez, with her passion for baking pastries and Black Forest cake.


  1. “Hyperreal” is used here in the sense of an absence of affect, a sense of unreality. Roberts’ pearly white smile takes on this lack of quality though Camille’s smile does not show any teeth. It is something to do with the smile’s proliferation and endless repetition: you come to a point of feeling is this real, is this false, and end up realising that you can’t tell, a symptom of hyperreality.

About The Author

Laleen Jayamanne taught Cinema Studies at the University of Sydney. She wrote Poetic Cinema and the Spirit of the Gift: In the Films of Pabst, Parajanov, Kubrick and Ruiz (Amsterdam University Press, 2021) and directed the film A Song of Ceylon (Australian Film Commission, 1985). Her recent writings on art and politics in Sri Lanka for The Island newspaper are being translated into Sinhala.

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