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By Matías Piñeiro
Love’s reach does not to everything extend, for it cannot shake or break the stab of Death.
Yet little can Death take
if in a loving heart the fear of it subsides.
Nor can Death much take at all, for it cannot
drive its fear into the heart where Love resides.
That if Death rule over Life, Love over Death.
—Macedonio Fernández, “I believed”
Over more than 60 years, Jacques Rivette was credited for “mise en scène” on his films. While his rejection of the terms “réalisation” or “direction” may have derived from a historical imperative to keep the flame of the politique des auteurs burning, it may also point towards an essential predisposition of this most evasive member of the nouvelle vague. The concept of mise en scène emphasizes arrangement rather than creation; it minimizes the notion of a single author and the channelling of the world in a single direction. It involves a degree of uncertainty that eclipses the cult of personality, the intimations of property and control that inhere in the conventional notion of authorship, and changes the focus to an attitude of observance, a recognition and appreciation of particular unities of time and place.
With the single, subtle semantic shift of “mise en scène,” Rivette highlighted the importance of encounter and interaction in his cinema. In Claire Denis’ Jacques Rivette, le veilleur (1990), Rivette, when asked about the loneliness that seems to attend his particular status as a filmmaker, answers clearly and assuredly that he has never felt alone. For this metteur en scène, making a film is the opposite of being alone: it is, precisely, an excuse to get together, an invitation to connect to the world. Putting together certain elements in space and time, a film becomes a document of the energy liberated by that series of unions, or reunions.
Rivette’s films derive their pulse from the present-tense vibrations developed during shooting, the amalgam of actors-crew-place-time-frame-sound. The multiple combinations of these factors make it impossible for his films to resemble each other; they are each the sum of their respective detours. Adhering to Roberto Rossellini’s dictum that form not be conceived in advance, Rivette doesn’t cultivate a distinctive “look” for his films. Rather, he is constantly escaping a look; like Alice in Wonderland, he is always moving forward to the next marvellous sight.
There is, however, a dramatic diagram that Rivette returns to repeatedly as a catalyst: the duel. In Rivette’s world, adventure emerges from the collision of pairs, but the outcome is rarely decisive. Like the protagonists of Joseph Conrad’s The Duel, Rivette’s characters meet again and again in this ritual of confrontation. This diagram appears most explicitly in Duelle (1976), with Juliet Berto’s Queen of the Moon and Bulle Ogier’s Queen of the Sun battling over a magic diamond. In a more earthly context, variations on this figure recur in the drunken confrontation in Va savoir (2001), the modelling sessions between Michel Piccoli and Emmanuelle Béart in La belle noiseuse (1991), the husband-wife conflict (complete with self-inflicted wounds) in L’amour fou (1969), or even the banter between Michel Simon and Jean Renoir in the joyful duel of fools that is Jean Renoir, le patron (1966).
As in any duel, there must be an arena, and Rivette makes sure to give his duellists plenty of space. Rivette’s interest in Mizoguchi, Preminger, and Dreyer during his years at Cahiers du Cinéma indicates the coherence and persistence of his spatial preoccupations. Wide-angle lenses, minimal editing, and distant camera positions predominate. Close-ups are used with moderation—they are too powerful. When they occur, the world trembles: they mark moments of fracture in the narratives, as in Histoire de Marie et Julien (2003) or Céline et Julie vont en bateau (1974). (Hands are another signal of passage in Rivette’s films: hands covering a face, or magic rings put on fingers, enable entrances to alternate or parallel worlds.) Stairs and bannisters, their presence prolonged in the frame by the ghostly shadows they cast against the walls (with William Lubtschansky’s cinematography evoking an impossible cross between a Fritz Lang noir and a Howard Hawks comedy), serve as reminders of the vertical axis—one that is less frequented in the cinema, accustomed as it is to moving sideways. Stairs open the frame to the ups and downs of camera movements, and, most importantly, imply an offscreen space—a part of the world that remains hidden, a mystery that can achieve multiple prolongations.
Rivettean duels can be epic or farcical, but they always eschew the conventional method of shot and counter-shot. Instead, the duel tends to be displayed in a single shot sustained in time and place, so that Rivette can highlight the empty space between the bodies, chart the variations in distance, and evoke the invisible energy that courses between them. In Out 1 (1970), Juliet Berto tries to bring the points of two daggers together. A magnetic force seems to prevent her from making them meet; the shot concentrates on the small gap between those points, until the daggers eject themselves from Berto’s hands and clatter to the floor.
This interest in photographing the invisible forces between two opposed bodies is also evident in scenes containing only one element. With only a single pole of energy in the shot, the frame itself becomes magnetized in counterpoint, camera movements now reacting to the game of energies: in Hurlevent (1985), the sudden tracking-in and -out shot on Olivier Cruveiller as he recovers consciousness after the opening dream sequence; Bernadette Lafont in Noroît (1976) stalking through the castle while the camera seems to track fearfully away from her, transforming every room into a potential stage for her machinations; or the simple pans in concert with Pascale Ogier’s karate moves in Le pont du Nord (1982), a kinetic response to the stillness and passivity of Bulle Ogier’s sunbathing.
The movement of Rivette’s frame is not, however, attached to the physical movements of his characters so much as to the energy generated by their bodies. Like Gérard de Nerval’s mystical inquiries into magnetism, Rivette’s camera is attempting to reveal a secret organization of the world, and the attraction and rejection of bodies produces an invisible and variable energy that transfigures Rivette’s mise en scène. When Sandrine Bonnaire dies in Secret défense (1998), the shot doesn’t track out as it would in more conventional films, for easy pathos: it tracks in, compelled to follow this mass of energy as it decreases till extinction; as the energy fades out, so the shot reduces itself. The opposite happens in La religieuse (1967) when Anna Karina finds comfort in loving Micheline Presle: as they walk hand in hand, the camera doesn’t track in to emphasize the moment, but moves back to make room for this growing passion; energy expands, taking up more space, and so the camera tracks out.
Invisible forces haunt people’s desires, and cinema can work around this paradox of the visible-invisible, as well as the exposure of characters’ emotions through their relationship to space. In Jeanne la Pucelle (1994), Sandrine Bonnaire moves across a vast courtroom trying to discern the Dauphin, her successful singling of him out from the crowd seeming less divine inspiration than attunement to his radiating energy. In La bande des quatre (1988), Inês de Medeiros, in a blind trance, finds her way to a secret key hidden in a dark corner of her house. Bounded within Rivette’s carefully demarcated geographies, these series of attractions and repulsions produce a sensual tension that leads the characters towards more undiscovered countries than are dreamt of in those geographies. For Rivette, the frame is a membrane rather than a border. From the paranoid and rushed walks in the streets of Paris in Paris nous appartient (1961), to the hysterical trespassings of Joe Dallesandro and Maria Schneider in Merry-Go-Round (1983), to the floating slow-motion movements of Jean Babilée against Bulle Ogier in Duelle, to every one of Nathalie Richard’s dances in Haut bas fragile (1995)—especially the one with Marianne Denicourt around a flight of stairs, the two performers extending their arms up and against a wall while descending together—most of Rivette’s characters attempt to unfold themselves past the limits of the frame, to other, unknown spaces beyond.
Sometimes, they even try to go beyond physical possibilities. Parallel worlds are proposed through the subversion of time and space. Céline et Julie vont en bateau explores this idea most explicitly in those sequences where the two protagonists inhabit the phantom house, but there are moments of “parallelism” even in Rivette’s less overtly fantastical films. In the most impossible kind of continuity, the beginning of La bande des quatre shows a character reading a book in a café, paying her bill, walking down some streets and into a building, waiting in a hallway, entering into an in-progress rehearsal of a Marivaux play, climbing onto the stage and breaking into her lines. Further examples can be found in the anticipatory projections of André Dussollier and the silent steps of László Szabó in L’amour par terre (1984), or the conclusion of 36 vues du Pic Saint-Loup (2009), where over a series of fading lights against a black background we hear narration about the destinies of every character.
For a filmmaker who, in his contemporary review of Kapò (1960), famously condemned spurious “art” as a betrayal of reality, Rivette in his own work views art as the natural medium of (and gateway to) new realities. Taking to a very concrete level André Bazin’s ideas on the fundamental impurity of cinema, Rivette “pollutes” his filmic scenarios with other artistic disciplines (music, dance, painting, theatre), relishing the possibilities that these performative encounters can produce. Musician Jean Wiener plays the music for each scene of Duelle live on the shooting stage; Roberto Plate’s paintings intervene in the main décor of L’amour par terre, stimulating camera movements and tinting the tone of the film; in Haut bas fragile, dance communicates the characters’ states of mind; Bernard Dufour painting (in the role of Piccoli’s hand) in La belle noiseuse incorporates a different experience of time (and a different experience of art) into the film’s dramatization of the encounter between artist and model; the circus acts in 36 vues du Pic Saint-Loup nurture the body of the film and Jane Birkin’s conflict; theatre in L’amour fou, Out 1, La bande des quatre, Paris nous appartient, and Va savoir transforms these films into immersive experiences that blur the definitions between narrative and experimental filmmaking. Cultural hierarchy and snobbery evaporate in the face of the power generated from these amicable duels between cinema and its neighbouring arts. In Rivette, there is no need to translate one art form into another; his films simply display one art exposed, naked and unafraid, in front of another one, a moment of encounter captured in time and the energy of this complicity projected onto a screen.
This generosity and openness counterpoint the paranoia that is the motor of the Rivettean universe. Though the centre of a plot can be a void, Rivette’s characters find in that empty space a starting point. Movement comes from their suspicions about what could be occupying that centre—a conspiracy, maybe? In this sense, North by Northwest (1959) is not far from Out 1 or Paris nous appartient: all three films move inexorably towards figures of dubious existence—George Kaplan, les Treize, Juan—and can only continue moving precisely because of those figures’ inexistence. If Samuel Beckett’s characters can only exist by continuing to speak, Rivette’s characters keep moving for the same reason: they go from one side of the city to the other, wandering around big houses or turning their cramped bedrooms upside down to find the centre of their particular plot. Some, like Bulle and Pascale Ogier fabricating their storylines from a map of Paris in Le pont du Nord or Jean-Pierre Léaud insisting on the existence of the Treize in Out 1, aspire to be creators of their own centres; others, like Juliet Berto and Dominique Labourier in Céline et Julie or Geraldine Chaplin in L’amour par terre, seem to achieve the lucid recognition of being characters inside a narrative.
This lucidity, painfully achieved by Anna Magnani in the last scene of Jean Renoir’s La carrose d’or (1953), has an inverted correlative in the spectator of Rivette’s films. There seems to be a sort of continuity between what happens in front of the camera and what happens behind it. This continuity reaches the spectator when the film just seen has become part of his or her experience. This is the enchanting power of Rivette’s films: in the process of watching them, you may recognize yourself on the screen. At that moment, a force strikes you. You have become a member of a Rivettean conspiracy. Just as the characters in his films become aware of their existence as fictional creatures, now you as well have been given the key to unlock your own parallel worlds of phantom cities, paranoid accomplices, magnetic fields, and eternal love.