Colin: Does that… mean anything to you?
Warok: Are you the… the author of this amusing message?
Colin: I’m the messenger.
Warok: The messenger. I see. You see… I think that this is all a joke… of your making and at my expense. Or rather, a joke that has nothing to do with me, but which may be at your expense… don’t you think?
Colin: A joke… A joke? But in that case… the entire magical, mysterious world in which I move would be shattered in a moment. And that’s not possible.
Warok: Of course.
– Out 1
“Inout” (programming): A type or “mode” of function parameter that passes information in both directions – from the caller to the function and back to the caller, combining the in and out modes. An “inout” parameter might be used where the function needs to read and update some data belonging to the caller as a side effect of its main purpose.
In this article I address Jacques Rivette’s 1970s work through 12 key elements.1 At the generative heart of Out 1: Noli me tangere (1971), Out 1: Spectre (1972), Céline et Julie vont en bateau: Phantom Ladies Over Paris/Céline and Julie go Boating (1974), Duelle (une quarantaine) and Noroît (both 1976) is what I call the web. Such a key organising principle powers this caché of experimental feature films, a treasure-chest long hidden or difficult to access but now finally brought into the digital light.2 A loose term encapsulating their much-discussed internal conspiracy theme and the key organisational principle of Rivette’s cinema, the web also evokes networks of a less exotic nature, including the banal but vital pursuit of connections between people driven by desire for external meaning and continuity. But it just as easy results in withdrawal and disconnection. The subtitle added to Out 1’s long version upon Rivette’s definitive 1990 edit, Noli me tangere, is a Latin term meaning “touch me not”, “don’t tread on me”, or more prosaically, “don’t come too close.” This is an appropriate phrase (with mythic origins attributed to Jesus speaking to Mary Magdalene following his resurrection) signaling Out 1’s story of people coming into close proximity and association before moving away without confirmation of ongoing connection. Throughout these five films, the web’s alienating, oppressive, and sometimes sinister dimension exists alongside its playful, connective, and creative potential. The result is a cinema at once demonic and utopian.
Discussing the origins of his 13-hour film originally christened simply, Out, Rivette scoffed at the notion of being “in”.3 But being “out” itself is the quintessential utopian modernist gesture, from the atonal breakthrough of the Neue Wiener Schule on through Cecil Taylor and beyond in music: to revolutionise an art form by “playing out”. What would become Out 1’s long obscurity appears to confirm its thoroughly “out” nature. Yet the film is now proclaimed as one of the most interesting, and certainly sustained, reflections on the disillusioned post-May ’68 counterculture. Despite remaining unseen by any audience for nearly three decades after its one-off screening (sans credits and colour-timing) as a “work in progress” at Le Havre in 1971, today the film is read as a reflective “zeitgeist” text and thereby “in”.4 Both through what it shows and in the strange journey from real-yet-mythic shrouded work to declaration as a key document of radical reflection at the dawn of the 1970s, Out 1 (in both its versions) embodies a dual movement I call inout.5 Following initial indicators in Paris Belongs to Us and the more intimate, chamber film-style explorations in L’amour fou (1969), Out 1 embodies most fully Rivette’s particular modernist innovations as both “in” and “out”.6
Céline and Julie pulls the opposite trick to Out 1’s incarnations. A comparatively short film (slightly over three hours), with its lighter tone, comedic elements, and fantasy-related playfulness, shot against a beautiful tree-lined Paris in slightly hazy images – thanks to the use of 16mm stock and available light – the film likely seems more “in” to a regular arthouse audience. It also confirms and brings into focus Rivette’s central interest in the contemporary experience, behaviour, and friendships of single women. The film became a kind of feminist and in some readings lesbian classic, playing as “in” or “out”, depending on the viewer. It is also rather inout in its sneakily deconstructive approach to form, the play with improvisatory possibilities versus the treadmill of narrative – the former represented by the “real” antics and world of Céline (Juliet Berto) and Julie (Dominique Labourier), the latter by the fictional loop occurring within the mansion house – resulting in a reflexive, “mise en abyme” cinematic essaying.
Duelle and Noroît continue Céline and Julie’s trick in another way. The films’ shift into elaborate widescreen camera work and stress on mise en scène give rise to a thus-far unknown sense of spectacle in Rivette’s cinema, and their loose narrative set-ups and costumes suggest distinct genres (“in”). Yet Rivette also becomes even more overt in his experimental attitude towards form (“out”). The loose generic setups of these twin 1976 works (planned as two parts of a tetralogy that was never completed),7 as supernatural film noir and pirate adventure film respectively, play as thoroughly inout for initially offering some familiarity but soon destroying any semblance of narrative convention and logic. Noroît‘s final scenes bring to a close this period of Rivette’s work with appropriately operatic excess, exploding in a truly crazed, demonic trance. Distinctions of what is in and what is out, across all these films, becomes totally reconfigured, undermined, obliterated.
The length of some of Rivette’s films is central to their radical claims, in refusing to abide by commercial dictates of exhibition or distribution. Frequently also at the level of the shot or scene, length is often foregrounded such that time appears to play havoc with narrative forward movement and logic. Out 1 is famous more than anything for its epic duration, yet is divided up into “conventional” movie-length segments, each prefaced with monochrome images elliptically reminding the viewer what has occurred in “the story so far”. Rivette suggested that the best way to experience Out 1 would be via “records with books on them”, which decades later would indeed be possible.8 On the one hand, the film is inherently demanding for its length, yet – now finally available for home viewing – rather amenable to being adapted to each viewer’s screening preference in the digital box set and streaming era.9 Meanwhile, the general style of shooting for Out 1: Noli me tangere favours long shots, frequently up to 10 minutes. But by initially framing the film with the very slow, narratively devoid theatre sequences in the first two episodes, featuring near-exclusive use of such long hand-held shots, the viewer is given a trial by fire so as to be successfully inoculated, then delighted when a truly sketchy narrative stutters into life three hours later.
Out 1: Spectre should on paper be a far more accessible work than its outsize older sibling, even as the “problem” of length has now partially been solved by digital distribution methods. Subtracting almost all the non-narrative theatre footage, it gives us some kind of “story” intrigue within only 15 minutes, and features consistently shorter scenes across its four-plus hours. Yet increased pace, it turns out, does not make for a more accessible film. In fact, once given more emphasis, the narrative’s basic dysfunction becomes more keenly felt than ever, the film’s ultimate vision grimmer. Spectre is a third of the total length, yet designed to be watched in one hit, although with a halfway interval marker. So it is shorter-yet-longer than the first Out 1. Meanwhile, perhaps most importantly, its individual shots are far shorter to a quite radical degree.
Céline and Julie‘s comparable brevity combined with air of fantasy and whimsy sustains its still-considerable length even more effortlessly. Yet the women’s antics have been known to irritate some (perhaps especially male) even otherwise admiring viewers for so dominating the screen time, giving the impression of a too-leisurely, rambling film – which, once we factor in the mansion house scenes, is in fact rather rigorously constructed.10 In addition, the cloistered, anachronistic drama occurring inside the mansion, which the two women gradually manage to “play” more of each time following one of their turns at acting the part of a nurse in this aristocratic melodrama, always “rewinds” so the viewer is forced to see (with the bonus, or complication, of different angles) the story events replayed over and over. Length of duration, then, sits alongside confusing repetition and variation – another kind of serial form.
Both Out 1: Spectre and Céline and Julie provide more overt narrative scraps and potential than the long version of Out 1, but their narratives’ fragmentary and unsatisfying nature is such that the viewer may feel the weight of time more heavily and in more complex ways than with the “slower” Out 1’s more apparently linear temporality. Meanwhile, Duelle and Noroît are again paradoxical in their radicalism: shorter films, and at first seemingly more full of narrative and genre goings-on, they are also thereby in some ways more deconstructive.
If cinematic modernism is often driven either by a temporal schema of slowness or fragmentary speed, Rivette’s cinema both exemplifies the former but also the latter through almost subliminally quick shots or scenes. But what I call the splinter effect is not only a question of editing speed. No matter whether an image is on the screen for one second or ten minutes, it plays like the shot is either incomplete or excessive. The up to ten-minute shots across Out 1: Noli me tangere are no more or less comprehensible than the far shorter ones in Spectre. If anything, the brevity of the latter’s images reveals the truly radical nature of Rivette’s cinema, each shot connected not via seamless or comprehensible ellipses, but unbridgeable lacunae. Shots and the chasms in between both play out for the spectator as too-short or too-long splinters.
This effect is especially clear in the extensive use of black-and-white photographs throughout Spectre, some of which a viewer familiar with the long version of Out 1 would recognise as shorthand markers of scenes cut from the shorter film. In concert with the highly elliptical stitching together of moving-image shots, Spectre’s editing regime has an increasingly fragmentary effect almost to the point of being a stretched-out cubist exercise. In Céline and Julie, Duelle, and Noroît, splintering manifests in different ways, sometimes via short, sharp images interrupting the increasingly elaborate (in the two 1976 films, now widescreen) “sequence shots” that are very different to the long documentary-style, academy-ratio footage dominating Out 1: Noli me tangere’s early episodes. Again this reaches an apotheosis in Noroît, the viewer lavishly assaulted by individual shots throughout and especially in the film’s faster-paced last section as splinters, or combinations thereof, from a possibly larger but likely no more potentially comprehensible or less demonic film-world.
These films offer radically different visions of the world and its select constituent terrain. The world of Out 1 comes across, especially in retrospect, as showing us a rather “real” space and historical moment thanks to a quasi-documentary account of post-’68 disappointments and various real enough Paris and Brittany locales. Both versions of the film provide a seemingly casual look at a world that is in some ways an updated version of that shown in Paris Belongs to Us a decade earlier: a loosely real yet also decidedly uncanny Paris, whose youthful bohemian representatives are already disillusioned that their dreams cannot come true. In neither version of Out 1 (nor Paris Belongs to Us) does the world, city, or even small terrain within which they hone their artistic ambitions, “belong” to the protagonists. (In Out 1 even the apparent conspirators increasingly come across as without any real power or knowledge of their purported domain.)
Out 1’s theatrical troupes dwell in subterranean out-of-the-way spaces in the bowels of the city. The various apartment space and other largely interior terrain, when we get to see it, is ultimately no less claustrophobic and transitory-looking. By virtue of its increased editing tempo, Spectre on the one hand gives us reduced time to inhabit and really take in such spaces, so we feel less haunted by them. But if the longer film, especially its later episodes, makes the viewer feel the strange, at time almost sinister nature of the external-yet-internal territory through which the characters move, the shorter one enforces “unhomeliness” by yanking us out of one such space and hurling us into another without warning. That a scene in Spectre we think has finished can “return” a long time later, or a very short shot never becomes a new scene, means that the viewer cannot trust the basic contiguity of space.
In Céline and Julie, the inner regions of Paris become a maze of titillating possibility and hide-and-seek. But as the fascinating-yet-disturbing intrigue of the mansion narrative gradually develops, and as Céline and Julie’s final images also make clear, both fictional scenarios could be in a state of endless looping with minor variations.11 Magic and homegrown fantasy, both which had already emerged in Out 1 via the notion of a central conspiracy, is extended further still in Duelle and Noroît, presenting worlds now totally ruled by celestial-level fantasy. But these fantasies, no matter how lush the spatial terrain on screen, are ultimately nightmares. Mise en scène in the conventional sense – here a very consciously selected compositional array of bodies, clothing, and objects as framed in often rather exotic, specifically chosen environments and sets – dominates the widescreen frame. While we may be seduced by these two films’ sometimes ornate and beautifully sustained aesthetic constructions, their alienation from both functional “reality” and “fiction” is stark.
Today Out 1 can be read as a document of both the post-’68 moment and modern experimental theatre.12 But it is also a document of a very arbitrary, unsure fiction, starting when Colin (Jean-Pierre Léaud, in perhaps his greatest performance) is passed a written message from a theatre troupe member, Marie (Hermine Karagheuz), as he enters a bar. This entirely “artificial” event gradually builds into an odd drama, complete with the ultimate breakdown in the 13th hour by Thomas (Michael Lonsdale), the quasi-patriarch of this film-world, slowly evicting a sense of realism. But rather than the earlier documentary gaze set in train during the theatre exercise-dominated episodes entirely receding, its focus shifts into documenting the mechanism of this halting fiction, which is no less of an “exercise”. If in Spectre the increased proximity of narrative fragments does not amount to a more satisfying fiction, this failure, documented up close, becomes exponentially more “non-fiction” in its gaze as it details the usually-hidden mechanics and questions of fiction filmmaking.13
For much of its running time, Céline and Julie is concurrently a documentary and a fiction about the following of one woman by another through Paris, and their eventually forming an ambiguous friendship. The initial gesture of this tale, whereby Céline/Berto runs away from Julie/Labourier after the latter tries to give her a scarf she has dropped, is an arbitrary and unexplained one – which can be said of both documentary or realist films and more overtly fictional starting points. The remainder of the film documents these mid-‘70s independent women and their whimsical meanderings just as it documents in narratively slack and generally “feminist” form loose genre conventions of the “buddy film” and “screwball comedy”. With the starkly formal, theatrical action of the mansion interior, another multiple documenting layer begins, charting a creaky, dark but perhaps once-upon a-time more fully functional, genre-abiding and “classical” narrative cinema.
Duelle’s documenting of noir and fantasy tropes shorn of narrative justification (or, a narrative so absurd and metaphysical that the viewer rejects it) is largely laid out at the level of mise en scène. The moment when the two central “goddesses” fully reveal their mythic selves in the murky bar utterly transforms the image on the level of colour, costuming, and light. Juliet Berto and Bulle Ogier’s “magical” transformation into white-silver costumes and blinding luminescence is quite breathtaking. The two 1976 films get as close as Rivette ever would to the pleasures of sheer, abstract formalism, featuring “excessive” mise en scène defined by décor, costume, lighting, and colour. Noroît’s gradual, abstract, documenting of a loose “pirate film” world re-imagined as a strict matriarch’s dominion, to be read possibly as a commentary in the dark side of countercultural retreats into sheer cultism, is exponentially dominated by colour, lighting effects, and composition. With these final two films at least, shot in full-resolution 35mm, we get the rich colours Hollywood so often provides, but taken “too far”.
Throughout, Out 1 emphasises the often-bright colours of its environments and clothing via 16mm film stock grain (revealed almost forensically upon high-definition Blu-ray transfer). As Rivette allowed his actors to take responsibility for their appearance, they should be credited for the film’s extensive documenting of circa-1970 colour array and combinations, from Thomas’ and Colin’s disheveled dark clothing, to Lucie’s (Françoise Fabian) immaculate blue denim dress suit and Elaine’s (Karen Puig) all-orange street get-up.14 Watched in close proximity, Céline and Julie if anything tones the colour emphasis down a notch from Out 1. This is due in part to the larger role played by Paris’ beige and grey exteriors and the changing nature of women’s fashion in the 1970s. Use of available light, combined with once more being shot on 16mm, also notably softens the image, which enables appropriately murky, impressionistic colour and light effects. After establishing the lush, picturesque location and central castle structure in Noroît, then foregrounding the purple leather suits worn by the matriarch, Giulia (Bernadette Lafont), this focus on colour reaches its concurrent apotheosis and breakdown – like everything else – in the final sequence, when the image jarringly shifts from full saturation and filters to “nightmarish” surveillance camera-like grainy monochrome.
Due in part to the films’ formal properties and length, many commentators have seen Rivette’s 1970s work as constituting a political cinema. Yet for all Out 1’s apparently poignant commentary on the post-’68 malaise, virtually no overt discussion of politics takes places in the film. At the same time, while its portrayal of theatre can be read as a kind of metaphor for, documenting or critique of, the resort to “apolitical” pursuits after the failure of large-scale exterior action, the form of theatre and filmmaking we see onscreen remains highly invested in radical newness and experimentation – hallmarks of politically revolutionary periods and movements. The film’s characters and on- and off-screen makers may be indulging in obscure, “interior” activity, but they are hardly resorting to workday slavery and consumerist capitulation.
The common desire to see Out 1 as commenting on and somehow also embodying the spirit of May ‘6815 has the effect of assuming that “the 13” – the name given in three Honoré de Balzac novellas of a loose conspiracy, and perhaps a 1968-borne network in the process of reactivation – is some kind of radical left-wing group. But while certainly possible, the group’s diversity (including professions associated with radical politics but also some that are less so, combining theatre people and journalists but also a businessman and lawyer) tends to suggest a genuine ambiguity as to its character. Comments by Colin relating to Balzac’s “13” are rather dark, describing a “criminal group seeking power over society”. The conspiracy could even be right-wing (connecting the film further to Paris Belongs to Us). Or it could be a critique of left-wing idealism becoming mired in secretive, would-be authoritarian plans. However we view the conspiracy in Out 1, politics in the broad sense comes across as a presumed but never explicated and highly ambiguous affair.
Part of what makes Céline and Julie a more accessible film is the warm, if also at times strange, bond at its heart between two women who may or may not become lovers.16 But while this makes the film appealing to some 1974 and present-day sensibilities, Céline and Julie is also darker. First, that its political dimension appears based in the realms of gender and identity suggests, and possibly critiques, the way that the more transformative revolutionary change intimated by Out 1 (even as “May ’68” was hardly specific on this point) is by 1974 out of the picture.17 The two women’s fascination with the mansion house “movie” can also be read as a further critique of the even more socially-disengaging impact of television despite that we never see a TV set, as they “watch” this serial, looped narrative with minor variations play out in the comfort of their apartment.18
Even the more focused or “reduced” level of political struggle on the terrain of individual identity may itself be a chimera. While in one sense a feminist buddy film appropriation, Céline and Julie also operates as Rivette’s version of Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966), asking in no less deconstructive form, “What is cinema?”, but also, “What is the human subject”? Like Bergman’s film, this is an inquiry played out via two women who become very close, including the possible presence of queer sexuality. When the final shots suggest explicitly that the whole story could have started with a reversal of each woman’s role, the confrontingly arbitrary portrayal of their coming together is foregrounded. This possible reversal is also explained by the fact that neither protagonist exhibits really distinct character traits, and what few indications there are become quickly broken down as the two repeatedly “exchange roles” at the mansion house, the magicians’ theatre/bar, and beyond. (There is even a scene, again echoing an equivalent one in Persona, when Céline pretends to be Julie in arranging a romantic assignation with the latter’s hapless beloved.) This all suggests that rather than an affirmational, perhaps feminist film, Céline and Julie could in fact be about the dual lie of identity and distinct subjectivity.
The interest, or question, of a feminist essaying and politics literally becomes celestial in Duelle, through two glamorous but ultimately vengeful goddesses. In very different ways, Céline and Julie and Duelle offer a kind of cartoonish, superhero portrayal of women. But if in the first they still appear real in part, in the second they certainly no longer are (and meanwhile, “real” women pale into insignificance).19 Meanwhile, Noroît can be read as an intensely challenging and ambiguous political film through its portrayal of an authoritarian, cult-like organisation run by a woman.
One of the striking ambiguities about Rivette’s 1970s cinema, again demonstrating a generative modernist paradox, is that at the very height of his experiments the question of the director’s own authorship becomes especially elusive and suspect. With Out 1, particularly the long version, the extensive role of improvisation, not only in terms of dialogue but also any overt purpose to a scene, means the film is very much collaboratively and democratically authored – again resonating with key principles driving much late-‘60s artistic and political idealism. In the lengthy theatre scenes, Rivette “directed” neither his actors nor cinematographer/cameraman, Pierre-William Glenn. Throughout Out 1’s shoot, he was apparently like a scientist overseeing an experiment with no idea of its possible outcomes, standing far back from the action and giving the actors and cinematographer no instructions.20 The lengthy sequences later in Out 1, for example those between Sarah (Bernadette Lafont) and Emilie (Bulle Ogier), exhibit a remarkable tension borne of the fact that neither actor had any idea what the purpose of the scenes were, appearing hesitant to speak.21 Very late in the long version of the film, when the two women sit on a bed at the massive Obade house and Ogier says, “Stop looking at me like that”, in response to Lafont’s quietly sinister expression, we are seeing another “acting exercise” at work even as a narrative has now been theoretically progressing for over ten hours. Here, the exercise is actually even more radical and vertiginous than in the theatre scenes, now entirely without guidelines.22
As a result of Out 1’s extreme commitment to improvisation, authorship and creativity are thoroughly dispersed. What is thereby starkly demonstrated is a truth about all cinema but rarely foregrounded beyond Hollywood credit rolls: a film is the product of tens, hundreds, and sometimes even thousands of people. So why follow the romantic, literary convention and credit one person as its author? In the longer version, the cinematographer’s role takes on increased authorial importance due to his very lengthy sequence shots being left largely untouched. With the radically foregrounded nature of Spectre’s aggressive, fragmentary montage regime, one could easily argue that the editor and actors, as well as cinematographer, are the primary authors.23
In Céline and Julie, authorship is especially complicated. The narrative’s initial gesture might seem similarly requiring a “hand of God” act by an unseen author (who thereby becomes “seen”) like the arbitrary passing of the note initiating Out 1’s intrigue, here occurring only a minute or so into the film. But the remaining three-plus hours often feel like Berto/Céline and Labourier/Julie are in control of proceedings. Yet lest we get too romantically or politically carried way with the idea that the film is about two women taking authorship of the film away from its male director, the looping mansion house melodrama can be read as invoking the notion of an intensively “self-reflexive” film director, making his version of Persona or 8½ (Federico Fellini, 1963). Yet it is the women who discover and appear to have control over this film-within-the-film labyrinth-like essay on both cinematic construction but also spectatorship. Both authors and audience, after taking alternate turns playing the same role in each day’s mansion “shoot”, they “go to the movies” (or watch television) in their apartment that evening. If Céline and Julie appears a comparatively conventional “art film” with more designated self-reflexive direction than the overtly “choral” Out 1, especially considering the heightened role of gender, Rivette remains an elusive figure.24
With their more operatic dimensions, Duelle and Noroît address questions of authorship rather differently again. The former virtually parodies the whole idea through the goddesses whose obscure schemes play havoc with “normal” people. The latter provides a more absurd-yet-serious parable through the figure of the dictatorial leader who is both desired and hated by her actors or subjects. When they literally put on a theatre performance for her in one scene, it soon falls apart due to the sadomasochistic relationships in play. Noroît‘s final sequence starts with another, more ritualistic and Ancient Greece-invoking theatrical performance on the castle roof, which soon escalates into a deconstructive, hallucinatory version of an archaic-yet-modern dance.
Be it Out 1’s radical stress on collaborative improvisation, the more intimate and perhaps recognisable essaying of creation between director and actors in Céline and Julie, or the overtly supernatural and demonic portrayals in Duelle and Noroît, authorship is examined and exercised from diverse, collective angles. Never successfully affirmed, lacerated via multiple inputs, such a figure is associated with creative but also often confronting, even hideous, power. The paradox is stark, but again properly familiar: the cinematic author at the very peak of modernist ambition is ripped to shreds by the radical human and filmic materials of such cinema in action.25
Rivette’s initial desire in making Out 1 was to further explore the filmed theatre rehearsal work he began with L’amour fou, only adding the Paris Belongs to Us secret society angle much later. 26 Also extending both previous films is Out 1’s further essaying of the Shakespearean theme dating from his debut feature, of social reality being a stage upon which everyone plays out a performance of conscious or less conscious, largely pre-given, roles.
With its more foundational emphasis on improvisation, Out 1 exhibits “grain” in its performative presence and processes. This framing of performance makes clear something that is true of all films featuring human presence: those aspects that go beyond a given role and conscious performativity, the “grain” of an actor’s bodily presence and movement. The way Michael Lonsdale carries his large, rather hunched frame, walks with slight pigeon-toe effect, how he moves his small hands, and of course the “grain” of his voice, it is impossible to delineate the actor’s tics from Thomas’ – or, from the overall visual, textural and performative character of Out 1. Likewise in the late Obade discussion between Sarah/Lafont and Emilie/Ogier, is the almost frightening atmosphere a result of the former’s vaguely threatening gaze, the latter’s palpable nervousness, the overdetermined strangeness of the ramshackle coastal mansion, or the film’s own grainy, opaque “documentary”-like 16mm textures and Rivette’s insistence that the actors improvise the scene based on nothing? In the long Out 1, the role of actorly and filmic improvisation is far more clearly signposted as a major theme stemming from the early hours being dominated by rehearsal sequences. Almost entirely devoid of these, by exhibiting a both increasingly integrated but often more startling unpredictability thanks to the radically more fragmentary, and palimpsestic, editing regime, Spectre generates a starkly different mode of filmic performance.
Performance is played out on a more intimate and focused scale in Céline and Julie. With the writing credits including both lead actors, improvisation is still clearly crucial, and for much of its running time we seem to watch two actors moving through Paris rather than characters, exhibiting eccentric, slightly manic behaviour of unknown cause. When Julie/Labourier improvises a replacement magician’s performance at the bar in lieu of Céline/Berto (who is busy performing in the mansion house “movie”), she delivers to her male audience a stream-of-consciousness comedy routine mixed with feminist invective that appears totally spontaneous, unrelated to a particular “character” and the film’s loose plot.
More recognisably “cinematic” in most ways, Duelle and Noroît also ratchet up the theatrical emphasis further, evicting the remaining “noise” of the outside world (including “theatrical” rehearsal or preparation) in the interests of exponentially stylized performance. This is matched by a new stress on especially “performative” mise en scène. Both filmic and human performance styles seem to shift away from overt improvisation and direct sound. The move to widescreen, and often a greater distance between camera and actor, means that the central women are presented via a more “whole” bodily incarnation as they assume a more purely fantastical role. For all their new artifice, central to both films is the overdetermined and innate granular presence of Berto, Ogier, Lafont, and Geraldine Chaplin through their bodies and voices.
Following the more everyday-meets-fantasy incarnations of “super women” in Céline and Julie and potential queer readings thereof, with Duelle the central female figures are more overtly performed as lesbian archetypes presented via now more sadomasochistic, mythic incarnations. Their goddess version of femininity in the process suggests a more overtly camp version of gender. Noroît goes even further in both camping and queering up its central protagonist. What would be the Pirate King in a “normal”/straight genre version of this fantasy story is replaced by the highly sexualised and rather androgynous Giulia/Lafont. The presentation of gender is so performative as a result of an excessive “theatrical” mode matched with the most operatic, excessive costumes seen in Rivette’s cinema, following Céline and Julie and Duelle, Noroît can also be read as completing a camp and queer trilogy essaying and deconstructing gendered identity and sexuality.27 With every gesture of her leather-clad body, again suggestive of sadomasochism but with a purple twist (as opposed to black or red costuming) invoking a newly ambiguous “drag” dimension, Giulia/Lafont is forever putting on a show for her minions. Like everything else in the film (except the musicians who we see playing live in the background of every scene what would normally be “non-diegetic” music), here gender and sexual identity are not “real”.
10. The Web
Both master theme and foundational operative principle across Rivette’s 1970s cinema can be found or seen in the same element or quality – which I call the web. This evokes the whole question of connectivity in all its dense, mischievous, and ambiguous effects – potential creativity, communication, and belonging, alongside enforced alterity, inside-outside alienation, and sinister oppressiveness. The web’s most obvious and commented-on iteration is the notion of a conspiracy, scheme, secret society, or network in many of the films – and the intrigues around what kind it may be, who is involved, to what end, and whether it actually exists. Sometimes, strikingly in Paris Belongs to Us, this is given a satisfyingly political slant at least party based in reality (the 1950s resurgence of right-wing power in Europe at the USA). As I have suggested, despite Out 1’s apparent connections to May ‘68, it is never confirmed what kind of political conspiracy is in play (the group could be a right-wing rearguard organisation seeking to ensure “1968” never occurs again, enabled by operatives living inside various vocational networks associated with radical idealism). The more vital aspect of conspiracy, however, irrespective of hopeful or oppressive intonation, is the knife’s-edge role it plays in enabling narrative suggestion.
In Out 1, Colin – who some critics see as a kind of stand-in for the viewer – is unsure whether a conspiracy exists, and/or whether he a member of “the 13”. But the dialogue quoted at the top of this article when Colin visits Warok (Jean Bouise) late in the film, makes clear that the conspiracy is like narrative (or God) for the desiring believer. Without it, there is nothing. The quote also shows that the question of conspiracy isn’t just about a literal organisation “behind things” but also the broader question of connection: the ability and desire of humans to be “part of something larger”, no matter its benign, idealistic, or threatening nature. Colin’s desperation in the film, given added pathos in his desire for Pauline/Emilie, who he seems drawn to as a result of her appearing to know something about, or be part of, the conspiracy he so desperately wants to confirm, is one the detective-viewer likely shares. At first there appears a mutual attraction before she, or the web, insists on Colin’s rejection. 28 There must be a conspiracy, or the film/life is meaningless! Even the more apparently “insider” figures don’t seem to know if it really exists, and just as importantly are not shown to be consistently in the loop or in control of events. The web shows fidelity to no one, no matter how apparently important they appear to be at a given moment. With its opaque cycle of connectivity and dispersal, apparently arbitrary evictions occur at the same time as fresh realignments or incorporations are in train.29
The web of conspiracy/narrative – being utterly indivisible since the first passing of the note from Marie to Colin – reaches very different end points in each version of the film. In the first Out 1, it ultimately appears to move on from – or evict – Thomas, who is for most of the film its central would-be patriarch/author. Finally at a loss to explain Igor’s reappearance, he has a kind of breakdown on the beach following his troupe’s dissolution – both events combining to rob him of his epistemological and creative power – as two of his actor/minions try to help their fallen author/God. In Spectre, meanwhile, there are no breakdowns, thereby making the film less “dramatic”. 30 And nowhere to be found in Out 1: Noli me tangere is Spectre’s final shot featuring Colin trying and failing to get an Eiffel Tower tourist trinket to swing 13 times, upon which he mutters: “It didn’t work.” As this rather auto-deconstructive conclusion seems to confirm, conspiracy/narrative may be far more regularly foregrounded in Spectre, yet this makes it less real or functional.
Céline and Julie has its own twin-track conspiracy via the women’s own complicity – a secret bond the film is both partner in and denied full access to – and the strange mechanism of the mansion house “movie”. But in the relationship between Céline and Julie there is the real sense of a more idealistic connection or web-formation, in a way that separates the question of pleasure and meaning from narrative per se. Much of the enjoyment in the film is a result of the overall mood evoked by these figures’ moving through their version of Paris – which, for a while at least, seems to belong to them.
If some commentators, and Rivette himself, suggest that with Out 1 he wanted to parody the conspiracy theme from his debut film,31 in the case of Duelle it is truly mocked but with an interesting new twist. Here, conspiracy is literally cosmic – science fiction, astrology, or religion. To affirm it, and thereby any semblance of narrative, we must “believe”. Yet the role of magic and the supernatural in Rivette’s films is both extensive and elusive. Here it really takes off, making the viewer think about connectivity typically driving stories in films, the vast bulk of which are no less farfetched or unlikely than here.
Noroît provides its own mythic portrayal, critique, or incarnation, of the web, with a refocused political iteration so that a scheme or “order” is seemingly built – and its human participants groomed – on the leader’s whim. But this regime has apparently inspired a plot to overthrow the “pirate” matriarch by a guerrilla-type agent (Geraldine Chaplin) who has ingratiated herself into the boss’ affections, but despite ample opportunities seems unable to kill her. In the film’s crazed conclusion, hierarchy/rebellion, connectivity/separation, and order/chaos, become even more hopelessly jumbled. All roles, identities, and networks within this film’s crazily mischievous yet rigorously constructed, creative and nightmarish web culminate in a wild performance reaching a fever pitch of demonic proportions.
Powering the true mischievousness of his films’ myriad conceits, the web both covers and seemingly connects everything, select figures in the film, or alternatively undermines the same thing. How we decode the connections and dispersals onscreen, and whether they exist, it remains a generally open question if the web embodies a nightmare playing out (that of relationships or politics) or the only reasonable hope for human life (the same). Here is Rivette’s secret, elusive, and forever mischievous key or weapon. Equal parts playful and sinister, and endlessly creative, at each juncture it threatens to take effect or disappear in a puff of smoke.
If Rivette’s web is inextricably associated with belief, as personified by Colin in Out 1, to believe in conspiracy/narrative is also to assert the demonic. Itself not rendered in simple negative terms, closely allied with the sense of play and magic that pervades these films as shown through the child-like whimsy and occult dabbling of the women in Céline and Julie, by Duelle and Noroît such a dimension has replaced reality itself. Generating or behind this magic and supernatural “play”, dialectically combining both impulsive-Dionysian and intellectual-Apollonian dimensions, can be sensed a demonic or alternatively nihilistic force enforcing arbitrary attraction and repulsion.32
Lurking in the shadows, often far from the action, is an elusive figure at whose feet we cannot lay the total credit or blame, but who has played the crucial role of setting this experiment of connection-dispersal in motion. Constantly hiding behind this cinema’s elaborate, delicately orchestrated improvisations, foregrounding both human and filmic performance, the director oversees at a distance the diverse spinning of an intimate yet perhaps vast or endless, labyrinthine cinematic web and the narrative, thematic, and political questions thereof. Our prankster and jester (the distended “joke” is also invoked in the Out 1 quote and elsewhere),33 the films’ impishly smirking ringmaster embodies the most prodigious, diabolical but impossible-to-pin-down kind of genius – one, as so often happens, with a foot on the devil’s turf.
Through the figure of the demonic in these films, we reach their utopian dimension. This is a cinema devoted to creative play and challenging pleasure, always vertiginous and often connected via at-best ambiguous links comprising a truly generative web: a foundational, guiding principle crossing everyday and “movie” life. As Out 1 so extensively details, in its radically splintered and diffuse way, effecting communion and dissolution at every turn, this is all borne of a stubborn refusal to accede to conventional forms and ideas. Here is a cinema of utopian formal-aesthetic, and perhaps even also political, impulse. That the price we pay for such revolutionary pleasure and possibility is relentless ambiguity and a close-yet-veiled brush with the demonic, or perhaps the void, is exactly as it should be. Nothing could be more genuinely romantic, more modern, or more hopeful.
- As readers familiar with Out 1 know, 13 would be more apposite. By complete coincidence, an earlier draft of this essay featured 13 sections!… The conspiracy or organisation never being clear, however, there could easily be additions and subtractions. For now I will leave “number 13” blank for the reader to fill in. (It would, after all, be inappropriate for the network to be too complete or legible.) ↩
- That most of Rivette’s films are at last available on DVD or Blu-ray (with English subtitles) should not blind us to the fact that for a long time much of his 1970s work was very hard to see, especially for non-French speaking audiences. This somehow matched the image we have of the filmmaker as perennially “unknown”, his work “out of time”. Despite starting his first feature in 1957, before any other Cahiers du cinema-aligned director, the delayed completion of Paris nous appartient/Paris Belongs to Us (1961) meant Rivette somehow “missed the boat” of potential French New Wave stardom, and was only able to make two more films in the explosive (for many filmmakers prolific) 1960s. Of his five films made between 1970 and ’76 only Céline and Julie go Boating, Rivette’s “hit”, has enjoyed comparable ease of access. The first and last film, meanwhile, received no commercial release at the time in France. None of which would matter much if this cinematic caché were not truly astonishing in its innovations and pleasures. That its ultimate emergence would occur almost simultaneously with Rivette’s own death is striking indeed. The literal and figurative elusiveness of his films chiming with our sketch of Rivette as a private, rather mysterious figure – despite his taking part in many important interviews (not to mention his public role as Cahiers editor and key contributor over many years) – is evoked by Michael Lonsdale, a key actor in Out 1, in the 2015 documentary by Robert Fischer and Wilfried Reichart, commenting with a smile that he never heard of anyone visiting the director’s home or even knowing its whereabouts. Fischer and Reichart (directors), Les Mystères de Paris: ‘Out 1’ de Jacques Rivette revisité/The Mysteries of Paris: Jacques Rivette’s ‘Out 1’ Revisited, Germany: Fiction FACTory Filmproduktion, 2015, Carlotta DVD/Blu-ray Out 1 box set. ↩
- The director recounts this in the 1990 interview footage contained within Fischer and Reichart’s documentary. (Ibid.) ↩
- Jonathan Rosenbaum is perhaps the most prominent critic to stress this interpretive angle. He writes: “Seen as a single work, or at least as two versions of the same work, Out 1 strikes me as the greatest film we have about the counterculture of the 1960s.” Rosenbaum, “Out 1 and its Double”, Carlotta DVD/Blu-ray booklet essay, 2015. ↩
- It was with some astonishment, and humour, that I discovered the definition of “inout” quoted at the head of this article from Dictionary.com. This “programming” definition of the term evokes with uncanny precision the operations both of “inout” as I describe it but also the larger theme of the web (explored more precisely in its own designated section ahead). The “caller” when applied to Rivette’s cinema is especially evocative, the most relevant figure here perhaps being the author – whoever/however we might define this – or perhaps the viewer. (This important issue is also explored ahead.) ↩
- I am thinking here of modernist texts or artworks as frequently characterised and defined by idiosyncrasy, contradiction, unresolved dialectical conflict, and elusiveness. ↩
- Duelle and Noroît were two of four planned films to be made almost simultaneously, each featuring women and becoming more formally experimental. Rivette had a breakdown days into filming the third in production (designated the first in the series, and hence the least avant garde), Histoire de Marie et Julien/The Story of Marie and Julien, a project resuscitated and filmed (with different actors but the same loose script and title) over 25 years later and released in 2003. The intended tetralogy thereby became what Adrian Martin calls a “broken trilogy”. Martin, “The Broken Trilogy: Jacques Rivette’s Phantoms’, LOLA Issue 6: “Distances” (December 2015). ↩
- Rivette makes this suggestion in 1973 German television interview footage shown within Fischer and Reichart’s documentary. (Op. cit.) ↩
- In its long original version, Out 1 can be defined as a “serial” work associated with television. Following eventual screenings on French and German television after the creation of a definitive edit (and subtitle: Noli me tangere) by Rivette in 1989-90, the whole film is today finally available to watch both on DVD/Blu-ray but also on Netflix, following restoration and high definition transfer, thanks to its original subdivision into approximately 90-minute segments. The 13-hour film now plays like an almost surreal “middle finger” corrective to the much-discussed narrative and character-obsessed “quality TV” it sits besides on Netflix. ↩
- English critic Jonathan Romney, for example, admits his occasional annoyance at the various “indulgent” shenanigans of the protagonists – or actors – while otherwise immensely admiring the film. “Jonathan Romney on Rivette and Céline and Julie Go Boating“, video introduction, BFI DVD edition of Céline and Julie go Boating, 2006. ↩
- I am referring here to the fact of the mansion house “film” seeming to tell the same story with minor variations (and actors) and likewise also Céline and Julie itself. This is strongly suggested by the latter’s concluding images, which appear to show the first sequence and narrative potentially beginning again but now with the roles reversed, as Céline becomes the seated character who chases the running Julie (before a final close-up of a cat which has possibly hatched both these scenarios.) ↩
- For a detailed account of the film’s relationship to various strands of avant garde theatre and more, see Adrian Martin and Cristina Álvarez López’s written text and accompanying video essays commissioned by the 2015 Melbourne International Film Festival, “Paratheatre: Plays Without Stages (Parts I-IV)”. ↩
- This is why Rosenbaum argues that each incarnation of Out 1 follows completely different trajectories, with the long version starting out as a documentary and gradually becoming a fiction, whereas Spectre does precisely the opposite. (Op. cit.) ↩
- Colour is important across Rivette’s 1970s cinema, and increasingly central. Following the black-and-white L’amour fou, Out 1 announces colour in a bold yet also gradual way. After the fairly muted blues, browns and blacks of the rehearsal sequences, once the camera is outside on the street the palette enlarges with “excessive” colour, first in the form of Frédérique’s (Juliet Berto) knitted, organic but multi-hued shawl. Yet the film’s historical and cultural setting – not only bars and streets circa 1970 but also variously coded bohemian and “hippie” interiors – means that such excess meshes seamlessly with its attention to “period” detail. (Even though the décor and occupants of Pauline’s Les Halles book shop, L’Angle du Hasard, look far more “San Francisco” than Paris, as Ogier notes in Fischer and Reichart’s documentary. (Ibid.)) ↩
- In addition to Rosenbaum (Op. cit.) and other critics, Rivette himself and also Michael Lonsdale emphasise the connection to May ’68 in their respective 1990 era and 2015 interviews within Fischer and Reichart’s documentary. (Op. cit.) ↩
- Julia Lesage offers a thorough account of the feminist and potentially lesbian aspects of the film in a lengthy article teasing out Rivette’s cinema for its radical properties in regards to both politics and form. Lesage, “Céline and Julie Go Boating: Subversive Fantasy”, Jump Cut, no. 24-25 (March 1981). ↩
- In this reading, what are for Romney the central characters’ irritating, indulgent aspects takes on a more interesting function as suggesting the general “retreat” into identity and lifestyle concerns and pleasures so often associated with the 1970s as the revolutionary energy and potential associated with the late ‘60s gradually ebbed away. ↩
- This description of serialism describes both a weekly soap opera in which, to the outsider, “nothing changes”, and an avant-garde work. ↩
- Hence the enormous gulf between Ogier and Berto’s presence on the one hand and the “everyday” figure of Lucie (Hermine Karagheuz). Although ultimately the hero of the film for much of its running time, this hotel night desk worker seems especially small, bland, and hollowed-out compared to the goddesses. The same is true of the more glamorous Jeanne/Elsa (Nicole Garcia). ↩
- This account is drawn from comments by Pierre-William Glenn, Bulle Ogier and others in Fischer and Reichart’s documentary. (Op. cit.) ↩
- In Fischer and Reichart’s documentary, Ogier talks about how difficult she and Lafont found these scenes, despite their being good friends, as Rivette not only suggested no dialogue but declined to tell the actors what they should be discussing or what the purpose of the scene was. (Ibid.) ↩
- In the early rehearsal scenes, Thomas is heard giving his actors instructions for the theatre exercises. ↩
- Out 1: Spectre’s final credits (from 1972) declare it to be “un film par”/”a film by” every on- and off-screen agent involved in the production, listing them all alphabetically. Even though both cuts of the film use the same collaborative 1970-shot footage, and despite the actors’ improvisations being more overtly central to our experience of the long version, Out 1: Noli me tangere‘s credits (copyrighted 1990) do not attribute authorship at all. (“Uncredited” co-writing for the film is sometimes attributed to Rivette and his invaluable off-sider Suzanne Schiffman, and even according to Internet Movie Database – for those who favour the literary adaptation angle – Honoré de Balzac.) ↩
- Meanwhile, the film’s writing is credited to its seven central on- and off-screen agents. ↩
- On screen and off, Rivette’s 1970s output is the result of truly idiosyncratic yet also highly collaborative, democratic, dispersed authorship. Another key figure complicates this story further still. Excepting Céline and Julie (produced by Barbet Schroeder), these films could not have been made without the remarkably progressive enabling role of Bulgarian-French producer Stéphane Tchalgadjieff. Out 1 was born thanks to Tchalgadjieff seeking to meet Rivette after being so impressed by L’amour fou to inquire about his future plans. When Rivette described his radically uncommercial idea of a film going “much further” into the realms of theatre rehearsals, and of unlimited length, the young would-be producer – who had never made a film before – vouched his immediate support. Not only did this enable Rivette’s most adventurous films to be made – and which together received limited commercial screenings in France – and now many decades at long last easily accessible, but in the process also became a kind of avant garde star-producer of work by such luminaries as Marguerite Duras and Robert Bresson. ↩
- Rivette (speaking in 1990), Fischer and Reichart’s 2015 documentary. (Op. cit.) ↩
- While I am not aware of these three films being grouped together in this way in any critical accounts, the role of camp and queer aspects in Duelle is addressed by David Ehrenstein, “Duelle”, Senses of Cinema, no. 43 (May 2007). For a wider discussion of this dimension of Rivette’s work very much tied to and limited to the mid-‘70s period as seen in Duelle and Noroît, see Adrian Martin, “The Broken Trilogy: Jacques Rivette’s Phantoms”, op. cit. ↩
- The last moment in which Colin’s ultimately unrequited love for Pauline/Emilie is wrenchingly played out occurs when he pretends to “freeze” on the street after seeking to follow her home upon her commanding: “No further!” Colin’s initial attraction is inherently bound up with what he perceives is her role within or knowledge about “the 13”. When he asks her two questions about this (saving the third and final one for later, after she has reduced the number of questions she will answer down from five) she answers with riddles. ↩
- The long outdoor conversation between Thomas and Etienne (Jacques Doniol-Valcroze) on the topic of whether to reactivate the group of which they are apparently members reveals that neither man really knows if it was ever real while for now still retaining a sense of influence over events. Here Thomas is at the height of his pomp, pontificating with aristocratic confidence. A second Seine-set meeting with Etienne, Lucie and Thomas shows the latter’s power starting to wane as she reprimands his carelessness in destroying key documents intercepted from Emilie, who appears to have broken ranks by sending incriminating materials to the media (or suggesting that his claiming to have done so is suspicious). Emilie herself seems part of the group but perhaps not fully. (In addition to the above Seine-set scene in which she is discussed as a rogue element in need of discipline, Emilie’s possibly marginal membership of the group is hinted at earlier on by stolen conversations between her nanny and Thomas about Emilie’s missing husband, Igor). Meanwhile, Warok seems to find the idea of the organisation and his role in it primarily an amusing distraction, while Lucie’s demeanor implies some more “professional”, serious vision. But the web is faithful to no one, even those who appear its most central figures. Late in the film, Thomas finds himself increasingly frustrated as his power recedes further (along with his theatre work). When he asks Warok if Colin has just visited his apartment (as we have just witnessed in the scene from which the quote at the top of this article is taken), Warok lies for no apparent reason than his own pleasure at further deepening the conspiratorial web’s confusion, or undermining Thomas’ confidence in his role. In the final moments of both versions of Out 1, when Emilie claims to receive a phone call from her long-missing husband Igor (an unseen group member), now Thomas seems entirely out of the loop, totally flummoxed by this turn of events. ↩
- In Rivette’s long cut there was also a second breakdown that would have more closely invoked the viewer, a lengthy scene featuring Colin violently smashing up his apartment that was removed in 1990 following the director’s assembling a definitive long version. In the interview from that period excerpted in Fischer and Reichart’s documentary, the director also talks about how Lonsdale’s role in the film was the most impacted by the Spectre cuts, whereas he had been the virtual protagonist of the first version. (Op. cit.) ↩
- Discussing the conspiracy theme as a late addition to Out 1 in the 1990 interview experts from Fischer and Reichart’s documentary, Rivette describes it as somewhat of a joke. (Ibid.) Rosenbaum addresses the notion of Out 1 offering a “parody” of Paris Belongs to Us’ central conspiracy idea. Rosenbaum, “Out 1 and its Double”. (Ibid.) ↩
- In one sense, Rivette’s 1970s work offers an unusual, avant garde brand of horror film. In Out 1’s final hours, and in a very different way the early theatre rehearsals, an unpredictable and at times sinister mood often prevails, reaching a peak with the Obade conversation between Emilie and Sarah and the even more bizarre discussion between the latter and Colin at the rehearsal space when some of her lines and one of his are played backwards. Beyond the question of politics, Out 1’s conspiracy could easily spill over into a kind of satanic cult. Even in the lightest film, Céline and Julie, the scenario playing out inside the mansion always seems on the verge of tipping over into horror territory, and at times the women playfully indulge in occult-type alchemy and symbolism. Meanwhile, Duelle and especially Noroît more fully fuse elements of cult horror with modernist art cinema. ↩
- Rivette also almost constantly smiles in filmed interviews as if he finds the whole discussion very humorous. Meanwhile, perhaps Warok is the director’s Out 1 stand-in. When his blank lie to Thomas about Colin’s visit is revealed (upon Thomas quickly thrusting open the apartment door to find Colin eavesdropping), Warok sounds quite pleased as Thomas shouts in frustration. ↩