Jacques Rivette – Le veilleur/Jacques Rivette – The Night Watchman (1990 France 125 mins)
Prod Co: Arte Prod: Janine Bazin, André S. Labarthe Dir: Claire Denis, Serge Daney Phot: Agnès Godard Ed: Dominique Auvray
Cast: Serge Daney, Jacques Rivette, Bulle Ogier, Jean Babilée, Jean-Francois Stévenin
For the average cinephile with a particular penchant for the artifacts of French cinema culture, Jacques Rivette – Le veilleur is a dense hub of filmic nonpareils: in a single film we are joined by the figures of Serge Daney, Claire Denis, Agnès Godard and Jacques Rivette, not to mention the appearances in film clips of Juliet Berto, Bulle Ogier and Jean-Francois Stévenin. Yet alluring as the total sum of these figures are, the film’s singular value rests primarily on its bringing together of two exceedingly important French film personalities, Daney and Rivette.
In some sense both of these figures have been slighted in the English-speaking world (and it’s not entirely unreasonable to suggest the same about the Francophone world). Rivette has managed to remain one of the more obscure, or at least underappreciated, directors of the French New Wave. (Luckily, however, his work has recently been getting more and more attention in the Anglophone world, from the screening at the National Film Theatre in London of Out 1: Noli Me Tangere (1971), to recent retrospectives in New York at the Anthology Film Archives and the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens – where once again Out 1: Noli Me Tangere was screened – as well as a retrospective at The Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, California.) Although films like Céline et Julie vont en bateau (1974) and La Belle Noiseuse (1991) are well-known and widely seen, much of Rivette’s mystique comes from a lack of access to his early, long-format works such as the two versions of Out 1 (1971, 1972) and L’amour fou (1969). To aggravate things, there is also a decided lack of English-language literature on Rivette. Apart from a monograph by Jonathan Rosenbaum and a chapter devoted to him in James Monaco’s New Wave: Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette, the dearth of substantial literature on this important figure is, to say the least, strange (1).
If the literature on Rivette is peculiarly slim, almost the entire body of literature on Daney in English is composed of short articles explaining that there is a lack of literature on or by him in English. Hopefully the forthcoming translation of Persévérance entitled Postcards from the Cinema will assist in generating a more grounded and concrete enthusiasm for this shamefully overlooked critic (2). In broad terms the knighted guru of French cinephilia was, like Rivette, a critic at Cahiers du cinéma, one who participated in the rigorous yet rigid Maoist period and who, as editor-in-chief, inaugurated a kind of “return to cinephilia”, in which one was allowed to again write “I” instead of “we”. And it is precisely this “I” that Daney constructed that made up his singular critical method. From Cahiers du cinéma he moved on to the French newspaper Libération, and finally founded the journal Trafic before succumbing to AIDS.
Jacques Rivette – Le veilleur is part of a television series that begun in 1964, and that was created for the ORTF (Office de Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française) by yet another important Cahiers du cinéma critic, André S. Labarthe, along with André Bazin’s widow Janine Bazin. The original project was entitled Cinéastes de notre temps, and was composed of a series of portraits of filmmakers. One of the exciting aspects of this project was not just that it offered a close examination of such important filmmakers as Luis Buñuel or Robert Bresson, but also the fact that those who undertook the directing of the films were often established or burgeoning filmmakers themselves (see, for example, Jacques Rozier’s portrait of Jean Vigo). The relationship to Cahiers was also clear: although Labarthe directed many of the films himself, other critics from the magazine – Jean-Louis Comolli on Miklos Jancso, Jean-André Fieschi on Pier Paolo Pasolini, Jean Douchet on Alexandre Astruc – also made significant contributions. One of the great highlights of the series was a three-part portrait of Jean Renoir directed by Rivette, Jean Renoir, le patron (1967). Cinéastes de notre temps screened until 1972.
In 1989 the series was relaunched under the banner Cinéma, de notre temps. In 1990, Rivette was once again involved but this time as the subject of one of the films, the two-part Jacques Rivette – Le veilleur, directed by Claire Denis. Daney was employed as the interlocutor and received half of the directorial credit. Under Denis’ direction, Agnès Godard’s camera follows Daney and Rivette around Paris, walking, talking or as Daney says in Postcards from the Cinema, “walking, that is to say talking with my legs, over speaking, which is to say walking with my mouth – but basically it’s the same thing”.
For those who have seen another important interview film with Daney, Pierre-André Boutang and Dominique Rabourdin’s Itinérarie d’un ciné-fils (1992), the difference in Daney’s appearance will be immediately apparent. Itinérarie d’un ciné-fils is a continuous close-up of Daney wearing a floppy driver’s cap, and smoking incessantly. But Daney is visibly quite ill: though he speaks lucidly and with passion, he is obviously dying, his jaw protrudes too forcefully, and he looks exhausted and withered. His image in this film acts as quite a contrast to the almost robust, bold figure of Le veilleur, who at times, looking a bit like Kelsey Grammer, seems to be intimidating Rivette in some strange way. This is odd because the film documents the meeting between a director (Rivette) and a writer (Daney) who, as a young man, wrote that Rivette was a decisive influence on his becoming a critic, and further, that as a boy he took on, championed and even enforced, Rivette’s objection towards a particular tracking shot without ever having seen it. So for those who have followed this affair, it might be anticipated that the big meeting between the two would be filled with gratitude and respect on Daney’s part, perhaps even a bit of fawning. But like Apu saying goodbye to his mother, such anticipated, even desired, sentimentality is wholly missing from the event. Perhaps this attitude is a relic of those unglamorous Cahiers years: the staunch anti-humanism, the party lines, etc. If there does exist some melancholic note in this film it is in the night, in Rivette’s seeming reluctance to speak, and in Godard’s close-up long takes of the director smiling timidly, silently, with his thin hair blowing just slightly in the breeze.
As MK2 has released a box set of selections from the Cinéma, de notre temps series, it can only be hoped that the Rivette/Daney/Denis installment will soon follow. This film could serve as a kind of Trojan horse for a renewed appreciation of Rivette. If, as Denis Lim wrote in the New York Times (3), Out 1: Noli Me Tangere is the Holy Grail of cinephilia, we would add that Jacques Rivette – Le veilleur is its Shangri-La, that almost impossible meeting between two oneiric emblems of cinephilia pure et dure.
- Jonathan Rosenbaum, Rivette: Texts and Interviews, BFI, London, 1977; James Monaco, The New Wave: Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1977.
- Serge Daney, Postcards from the Cinema, trans. Paul Grant, Berg Publishers, 2007.
- Dennis Lim, “An Elusive All-Day Film and the Bug-Eyed Few Who Have Seen It”, New York Times 4 June 2006.