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Noli Me Tangere: Jacques Rivette, Out 1 and the New Wave

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Noli me tangere: Jacques Rivette, Out 1, and the New Wave

Lecture presented by Sally Shafto at the Australian Cinémathèque, Gallery of Modern Art, Saturday 29 August 2007, as part of the Breathless: French New Wave Turns 50 program. (1)

We are all rehearsing parts of which we are unaware (our roles). We slip into characters which we do not master (our attitudes and postures). We serve a conspiracy of which we are completely oblivious (our masks). This is Jacques Rivette’s vision of the world, it is uniquely his own.” — Gilles Deleuze (2)

Of the five key Nouvelle Vague filmmakers — Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette — Rivette is the most mysterious and the most secretive. I recently taught a class on the French New Wave, without however including a film by Rivette, for the simple reason that his films defy the conventional time slots of classroom viewing. Rivette, one quickly realizes, has a different relation to time and duration. His 1971 epic film, Out 1, for instance, lasts 12 hours and 40 minutes,. Referring to a group of his films from the 1970s, Rivette once said that he had “no desire to make anything similar to what was then being made in France.” (3) And in some ways, this statement holds true for his filmography in general. The first half of Out 1 plays off of the popular American adjective in the late 60s and early 70s: “in.” If something was “in,” it was hip, cool, or groovy, to use other qualifiers of that time. Rivette intuitively and lucidly sensed that his film, originally made for French television, would exceed all norms and indeed the film was rejected by the ORTF (Office de Radiodiffusion Télévision Française). Aside from its one-time screening at Le Havre in 1971, and screenings at the Rotterdam Film Festival (1989) and later the Berlin Film Festival, the film disappeared. It finally resurfaced in 2006 as part of the Jacques Rivette retrospective that has been touring internationally. The Latin subtitle means literally “Don’t touch me,” (4) further emphasizing the exceptional nature of the film and its difficulty in finding its public.

A committed cinephile who refuses to own a TV, Rivette consistently sees all the new releases on the big screen in Paris. His films reveal his deep knowledge of cinema, while remaining absolutely sui generis. With the exception of Truffaut, who at the time of his premature death in 1984 had made 26 films, Rivette has made fewer films than the other filmmakers of the French New Wave. To date, he has made 31 films, including his new release Ne touchez pas la hache (Don't Touch the Axe) 2007. As a point of comparison, Godard’s production rate verges on the bulimic, coming in at roughly 90 films, Chabrol has made 69, and Rohmer 51. (Incidentally, in these figures I am including shorts as well as feature films.) Of course, becoming a great filmmaker is not a game of numbers; Robert Bresson, in a career that spanned fifty years, produced just 14 films. Nevertheless, tallying up these figures is useful, not least because it underscores yet another difference between Rivette and his New Wave counterparts. Of those five filmmakers, Rivette has been clearly the slowest to hit his stride, and I would say that, aside from L’Amour fou 1968, Out 1 1971, and Céline and Julie Go Boating 1974, two of his best films are recent: Va savoir 2001 and Up, Down, Fragile 1995.

In the 1950s, Rivette and the young men who would later be identified as New Wave figures became friends, through talking about the movies. Barred entry into the filmmaking profession, they began writing about the movies for the film journal Cahiers du cinéma. Writing about the movies was, as Godard later said, already a way of making them. Truffaut subsequently credited Rivette’s short Le Coup du berger in 1956 as being the initial blow that led to the overthrow of the French filmmaking establishment. Curiously, while Rivette may have led the charge, he very quickly assumed the arrière guard as his friends Chabrol, Truffaut, and Godard met with critical and popular success with their first features. First it was Chabrol in 1958 with his two hits Le beau Serge and Les Cousins, and then Truffaut with 400 Blows that won at the Cannes Film Festival in 1959, and then Godard with A bout de soufflé in 1960. During this time, Rivette was busy making Paris nous appartient or Paris Belongs to Us that he began shooting in July 1958. When the film was released, finally, in December 1961, it flopped, in part no doubt because expectations for it ran so high. But already at this early date, the film reveals several of Rivette’s ongoing preoccupations, including the element of a conspiracy and an interest in the theatre, with the staging of a play within the film.

Following that experience, Rivette continued as an editorial board member of the Cahiers du cinéma, whose direction Eric Rohmer had assumed following the death of André Bazin in 1958. In 1963, Rohmer was amicably deposed as chief editor, and Rivette replaced him until 1965. Under Rivette, Cahiers renewed itself intellectually through interviews with Roland Barthes, Pierre Boulez, and Claude Lévi-Strauss. Rivette at this time also became involved in the theatre in a direct way. He has said that following the making of Paris Belongs to Us, the script of which he wrote entirely, he felt a kind of revulsion for writing his own scripts. In the 1950s, the young turks of Cahiers du cinéma had loudly and rudely criticized the filmmaking of the French Old Guard. Part of their criticism was based on the fact that these filmmakers relied on formulaic scripts by the duo Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost that were frequently adaptations of quality French novels. They demanded instead a new kind of personal filmmaking, based on the filmmaker’s knowledge of a subject. And at least initially, they insisted that a real auteur of the cinema was someone who wrote his or her own scripts. They also made an important distinction between a réalisateur, someone who realizes a cinematic project from someone else’s script, and a metteur-en-scène, a term borrowed from the theatre. A metteur-en-scène is like a conductor, responsible for organizing and filming everything to be put in front of the camera. A réalisateur is a hired hack, whereas a metteur-en-scène is a creator.

The Cahiers critics severely criticized the filmmakers of the Old Guard for what they considered to be their conventional and stale approach to filmmaking, relying on professional screenwriters. Figuring out how to negotiate the process of the script, without getting bogged down, was one of the biggest challenges that those young critics-turned-filmmakers faced. That challenge was all the more difficult because in order to be eligible for government funding in France you had then and still today have to submit a written script, which is usually a dialogued manuscript of 100 to 150 pages. Godard was the first to break with this tradition. At the start of shooting his first feature, he had just a brief outline of a few pages, indicating the general direction of the film. Every day, on the set, he would write dialogue for the actors and give it to them on scraps of paper. I would argue that of the five New Wave filmmakers, Godard and Rivette were the most influenced by the idea of painting. Both of them envied the freedom of the Abstract Expressionist painters to watch a painting unfold before them as they worked, open to chance and the unexpected.

 

As a reaction to his first film, Rivette decided to stage a production based on Jacques Diderot’s novel La Religieuse, where the dialogue came directly from the 18th century novel. The play with Anna Karina in the lead role was a success and in 1965, Rivette, with backing from Georges de Beauregard, decided to film La Religieuse. After being banned by the French government the film would become a succès de scandale, but ironically, during the shoot Rivette lost all interest in the project because he knew the text so intimately that he was unable to listen to the actors. For him, that was filmmaking-by-numbers.

On his next film, Rivette began, as he has so often since, not with a project to film but with actors with whom he wanted to work: Bulle Ogier and Jean-Pierre Kalfon. Rivette takes an especial interest in actors and he has often worked repeatedly with the same ones. In the 1960s, Ogier and Kalfon had experience in improvising in the theatre and in L’Amour fou Rivette, refused to write a script. (5) In this same film, Rivette did away with individual shots, instead relying on long takes. (6) 

Out 1 followed on from L’Amour fou; Rivette took his experiments with improvisation and the long take to the ultimate degree, filming a group of actors with no prior script and giving them only a broad indication of an overarching story, leaving the actors free to develop their characters as they saw fit. Rivette’s new status is clearly indicated in the credits for Out 1, where authorship is attributed to all of the actors and technicians, and his name is given no special predominance in the overall listing. Loosely based on Balzac’s Histoire des Treize [History of the Thirteen], the film features thirteen characters who had originally formed a group in 1968-69, and who try to conjure up that bygone utopia. By 1970, however, their secret society had fractured into several sub-groups, no longer capable of reuniting. In Out 1, Thomas is the director of a theatrical troupe and the character who is closest to representing Rivette. Thomas was one of the original leaders of the 13, and in the last scene of the film, he collapses on the beach with two of his disciples. He seems worn out and his actors attend to him with care, until he reveals that his collapse was all a hoax. In disgust, the two disciples abandon their patriarchal leader on the beach.

 

In Céline and Julie Go Boating, the initial impulse was to work with two actresses, Juliet Berto and Dominique Labourier. If in Out 1, Rivette attempted to kill or at the very least reduce the importance of the male author, in Céline and Julie he has concocted a feminist fable, partly authored by the actresses, where male authority is made to look ridiculous. In the film, Céline, a magician, and Julie, a librarian with an interest in magic, come together to perform a narrative rescue in the narrative-within-the-narrative, inspired by two stories by Henry James; so great are their narrative powers that they are able to save the little girl Madlyn from the evil forces around her in the haunted house.

If Out 1 is a parable for the aftermath of 68 groupuscules, then Céline and Julie anchors us in the blossoming of the women’s liberation movement in France that occurred in the wake of May 68. Note that the actress Dominique Labourier bears more than a faint resemblance to Antoinette Foucque, one of the leader’s of the MLF, the French women’s lib movement. Two years later, Rivette made another feminist fable. What’s unusual is the setting, a tale of female pirates where Morag (Geraldiine Chaplin) seeks to avenge the death of her brother. Noroît was a film even more “out” than Out 1, having never been screened before 2006.

In the mid 1980s, Rivette began working with Pascal Bonitzer and Christine Laurent who have since collaborated with him on many of his scenarios, the word Rivette prefers to use to describe his scripts. Bonitzer notes that since he began working with Rivette, Rivette no longer improvises in the ways he used to do. Bonitzer and Laurent are screenwriters and dialogists, and in contrast to a traditional screenwriter who would write a script but never appear on a set, they are present throughout the making of a film to adjust dialogue. (7) 

The story of Up, Down, Fragile is based not on two but three women, and the actresses who play them (Nathalie Richard, Marianne Denincourt and Laurence Côte) all participated in writing the scenario of the film. Nathalie Richard is Ninon, who tries to forget her past as a petty criminal; Marianne Denincourt is Louise, who has just recovered from a five-year coma and wants to understand her father’s shady past. Laurence Côte is Ida, a young librarian who was orphaned as a child and who wants to find her real mother. One of my favorite Rivette films, Up, Down, Fragile pays homage to American musicals. Despite its lighthearted treatment, Up, Down, Fragile touches on some serious subjects, only to abandon them. Louise in the end decides she does not want to know the extent to which her father compromised himself thirty years earlier; Ida, on the verge of perhaps discovering who her real mother is, decides not to pursue it. Instead, the secrets covering the lives of these heroines are consciously shunted aside. Top Secret/Secret Défense pushes this tendency even further by punishing its heroine, Sylvie Rousseau, for seeking the truth about her father’s death. Rivette seems obsessed with plots, conspiracies, and secrets, but ultimately his plots offer little closure. Instead, he seems to suggest that some secrets are better kept secret. Hélène Frappat, who has written the most perceptive study of Rivette to date, aptly titles her book, Jacques Rivette, secret compris [Jacques Rivette, Secrets Included]. (8)

 

Rivette was born in 1928 and his early life, up until 20 or 21, was spent in Rouen, a city that had known a high rate of collaboration during WW2. Could that troubled period in French history be at least in part the source of Rivette’s obsession with conspiracy? Hélène Frappat notes that:

At the end of the war, a general malaise hung over Rouen. The city was very damaged, but people’s way of thinking had suffered as much as the buildings. A large part of the population had supported the Vichy regime, notably the owners of the Rouen newspaper who had transformed this provincial daily, largely circulated in Normandy, into a collaborationist platform. In this sad city, young people dreamt of exile. (9)

France’s Vichy past continues to play a role in its national psyche. There was for instance an illuminating article on this topic by the journalist Gérard Courtois in Le Monde on August 9, 2007, entitled “Retro-Controversy: 1995, Vichy was also France.”

The pleasures of Rivette’s films are multiple. To return to the question of length, I admit my own initial wariness about Rivette’s penchant for very long films; initially, I thought he must have difficulty in editing! It is worth noting that Rivette has always, for his very long films, produced an alternate, shorter version for commercial purposes. Ultimately, the longer versions are invariably more satisfying: they give the viewer the opportunity to relax and get to know his characters. Although Rivette vehemently eschews psychological acting, his films do afford viewing pleasures comparable to immersion in a 19th century novel. Secondly, Rivette’s cinema gives pride of place to his actors, and more specifically to his actresses. While even the best of American actresses are continually sidelined in the perpetually male dominated Hollywood cinema, Rivette’s cinema showcases actresses, with their masculine counterparts serving as their foils. Juliet Berto, Dominique Labourier, Bulle Ogier, Marie-France Pisier, Bernadette Lafont, Geraldine Chaplin, Jeanne Balibar, Marianne Basler, Hélène de Fourgerolles, Laurence Côte, Nathalie Richard, Marianne Denincourt, Sandrine Bonnaire: these are some of the actresses who have worked with Rivette and they are all extraordinary. Finally, since its beginnings, Rivette’s cinema has been closely associated with the city of Paris. With the exception of Noroît, set in Brittany, these films evoke Paris geography so strongly that it is possible to imagine oneself there: Montmartre in Céline and Julie, the 13th arrondissement around the Salpêtrière Hospital in Top Secret, the 3rd arrondissement in Va Savoir, etc. (10)  Watching Top Secret several months ago at my home in Carbondale Illinois, the phone rang; so deep was my concentration on the film that, momentarily, I thought l was in Paris. In Out 1, when Renaud disappears, Lili’s troupe divides up the French capital in an attempt to find him. In this film, as in his others, Rivette gives us the impression that Paris, perhaps the most beautiful city in the world, belongs to us.

endnotes
1. A first draft of these remarks were written on the occasion of the Jacques Rivette mini-retrospective held at the Saint Louis Art Museum in 2007.
2. Gilles Deleuze, cited in B. Kite, “Jacques Rivette and the Other Place,” Cinema Scope, no. 30 (Spring 2007): p. 17.
3. Rivette in Hélène Frappat, Jacques Rivette, secret compris (Paris: Cahiers du cinéma, 2001), p. 151. Rivette is specifically referring to his Les Filles du feu project.
4. “Noli me tangere” is of course the phrase that Christ is recorded in the gospels as saying, when after his Resurrection, he appeared to Marie Magdalene. The scene is a well-known iconographic theme in Western painting.
5. Labarthe points out that this refusal dates already from the film before, Rivette’s documentary on Jean Renoir: Jean Renoir, le paton.
6. André S. Labarthe quoted in  Frappat, p. 135.
7. Pascal Bonitzer quoted in Frappat, p. 169.
8. Jonathan Rosenbaum’s edited volume from 1971 remains equally indispensable. See: Jonathan Rosenbaum, edited and with an introduction by, Jacques Rivette: Texts and Interviews, translated by Amy Gateff and Tom Milne (London: BFI, 1977).
9. Hélène Frappat, p. 53.
10. I note too that Rivette seems to have a fondness for libraries and librarians: the character of Julie in Céline and Julie, Ida in Up, Down, Fragile, and  in Va savoir, the Arsenal Library provides a wonderful set.

Sally Shafto is an independent film historian and translator based in France. After completing an MA in art history at Columbia University, she worked for several years at the Williams College Museum of Art in Williamstown, Massachusetts. She completed her Phd dissertation on Godard at the University of Iowa and later worked as a Research Associate at Princeton University. Since 2001 she has worked as an independent scholar in Paris, and is currently the English translator for the website of Cahiers du cinéma. She was also program director of the Big Muddy Film Festival at the University of Southern Illinois-Carbondale, devoted to documentary, experimental and narrative cinema in 2006. Her book, The Zanzibar Films and the Dandies of May 1968, was published in 2007; she has curated retrospective programs on the Zanzibar films at the Cinémathèque Francais and the Harvard Film Archive.

© Sally Shafto and the Australian Cinémathèque. Not to be reprinted without permission of the author and the Australian Cinémathèque.