Much like my thoughts on Playtime from some weeks ago, this piece was originally intended to be finished and posted much earlier in the summer. As usual, personal obligations obliged me to put it on the backburner. So, for better or for worse, here it is now, only 5 months or so late. Also, this piece is dedicated to those who shared in the adventure – Jake, Sara, Miguel and Ignatius.
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“What connections can be found between two French serials made almost half a century apart? Aside from the fact that both of them appear on my most recent "top ten" list, I'm equally concerned with the issue of why such pleasurable, evocative, enduring, multifaceted, and incontestably beautiful works should remain so resolutely marginal -- unseen, unavailable, and virtually written out of most film histories except for occasional guest appearances as the vaguest of reference points. The problem isn't simply an American or an academic one; although no print of either serial exists in the United States, it can't be said that either film has received much attention in France either -- or elsewhere, for that matter. Yet both are major testaments to the joys of spontaneous filmmaking and the complex adventures these entail, for their viewers as well as for their makers.”
I can look back now and see that the genesis of virtually every idea I hold about film connoisseurship and its relation to politics and society was contained in this brief opening salvo. That something could be pleasurable and unavailable made no sense to me at the time- it seemed not only counterintuitive but just plain stupid: why not release films that people might want to see? The vast web of interconnected causal factors that work to marginalize undesirable works or ideas would eventually come to light, at least for this once naïve, perhaps now to cynical, viewer. I might add (cynically) that many years after Rosenbaum’s essay neither work is any more available than it was back then (nor is the rest of Rivette’s output; not one of his first 9 features is available on DVD in the US, although I have a crummy vhs copy of Celine and Julie Go Boating, his 6th film). But (optimistically) while I bemoan Out 1’s still marginalized status, I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that even one screening of this mysterious film monument is a step in the right direction, and ample proof that criticism of Rosenbaum’s kind can and should perform a pedagogic function above and beyond the strictures of the Sunday leisure section.
Rivette’s first feature, “Paris Belongs to Us”, could be said to lay the template for Rivette’s early work – improvisatory, cobbled together, low budget and in black and white, with a rare feel for location shooting that defamiliarizes while retaining a semblance of realism, a network of characters that interact in sometimes recognizable, sometimes bizarre ways. I’ve never seen his second feature, The Nun, based on a Dideroit novel and which I understand was something of a bid for respectability, perhaps comparable to Welle’s “The Stranger”. Most Rivette enthusiasts don’t speak very highly of the film, but I would imagine that it’s worth a look. L’amour fou comes next, a searing account of a theatre director trying to stage an adaptation of
“Rightly described by Dave Kehr as Jacques Rivette’s “breakthrough film, the first of his features to employ extreme length (252 minutes), a high degree of improvisation, and a formal contrast between film and theater,” this rarely screened 1968 masterpiece is one of the great French films of its era. It centers on rehearsals for a production of Racine’s Andromaque and the doomed yet passionate relationship between the director (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) and his actress wife (Bulle Ogier, in her finest performance), who leaves the production at the start of the film and then festers in paranoid isolation. The rehearsals, filmed by Rivette (in 35-millimeter) and TV documentarist Andre S. Labarthe (in 16), are real, and the relationship between Kalfon and Ogier is fictional, but this only begins to describe the powerful interfacing of life and art that takes place over the film’s hypnotic, epic unfolding; watching this is a life experience as much as a film experience.”
The last sentence of this brief review seems necessary to understanding the importance of Out 1, this notion of “life and art interfacing”, “epic unfolding” and a “life experience as much as a film experience”. Inevitably, when one speaks of Out 1, they are immediately questioned as to why one would subject themselves to such a “task”, the presumption being that spending that much time with a work of art is a waste of precious time. Critic Robin Wood equates this notion to a capitalistic determination of film-as-commerce, i.e., if time is money, then anything that takes up that time must prove itself worthy of our monetary expenditure. He also mentions that, pace the film’s avant garde aspirations, that such a length is not even justified by an epic narrative, ala The Deer Hunter, Gone With the Wind, The Godfather, etc. Wood writes: “the “unjustified” length of the film(s), then represents an act of cultural transgression. The question, “why this length?” should immediately provoke a reciprocal one: why the standard length?” His point is clear: the standard length of films is largely determined by business considerations, as well as an underlying assumption that films should be more “entertaining” than say, a novel, or anything that requires more than one sitting to consume. I should add that any of the time based mediums, theatre, opera, even dance recitals, are subject to this tyranny of assumption based thinking; the novel, under the assumption that few people will read one from cover to cover in a matter of hours, gets a little more leeway with regards to length, yet people still balk at the notion of a “long” novel, presumably something over 800 or 1000 pages. But part of Out 1’s significance is this notion of a life experience – spending so much time with a certain set of people, fictional or otherwise, creates a new kind of understanding and complicity that is impossible to create using shorthand. I’ll let Rosenbaum briefly describe the film’s structure:
“Each of the serial’s eight episodes is titled as a relay between two characters, suggesting a chain of successive links: “From Lili to Thomas,” “From Thomas to Frederique,” “From Frederique to Sarah,” “From Sarah to Colin,” and so on. The explanation of who these people are is much of the story–and because their identities keep changing, we’re often confounded. Lili (Michele Moretti) and Thomas (Michel Lonsdale) are in separate theater groups, each preparing plays by Aeschylus, Seven Against
Each of these sections take up about an hour or so a piece, using incredible long takes with a usually mobile, but sometimes static, camera set up. The film begins with two different rehearsal scenes, and my limited understanding of theatre history perhaps hampers any full understanding of the proceedings, but it is clear that narrative is not particularly relevant here. The actors writhe about, scream, and in the case of the Prometheus group, involve converging on a mannequin done up in a bizarre costume. These seem to be avant garde acting exercises, and Rivette’s connection to underground theatre has been well documented. Admittedly, these are the most difficult scenes in the film to sit through, and there doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason behind their duration. In other words, if these scenes were arranged differently, or were shorter and/or longer, the film would still function in much the same way. Nevertheless, is it our position to chide the filmmaker for a perceived inconvenience, or is it an audience’s job to try, instead, to understand why the artist has placed a particular scene in a particular place?
Of the various story threads, several are quite interesting, even if the never eventually add up to an adequate resolution – resolution and closure being so important to our notion of narrative, and one more thing that Rivette is determined to undermine. The two theatre groups eventually abandon their rehearsals and become involved in a mystery involving someone who has stolen money from them. Michael Lonsdale, his large, bulky frame suggesting simultaneously a sedentary yet spry figure, will eventually be revealed as part of the conspiracy that plagues Jean Pierre Leaud’s Colin, and yet it is a conspiracy that means nothing to us: we don’t know the rules, the players, or the consequences. Juliet Berto has never been better than in Rivette films (see also Celine and Julie Go Boating); by contrast, I’ve never felt that Godard knew what to do with her and her particular brand of energy (specifically, he renders her quite bland in La Chinoise). Her interactions with her various marks are highly enjoyable, not in the least because she seems to be having so much fun herself. Eventually, Berto’s part of the narrative is interrupted by her character’s abrupt murder. Jean Pierre Leaud is typically charming. His early scenes, blowing a harmonica loudly into people’s faces until they give him their change, are hilarious. And it’s just another case of subterfuge when his deaf-mute character begins speaking quite clearly. His obvious romantic interest in Bulle Ogier’s café/bookstore/radical character leads to much conversation, but nothing else, and his increasingly dark obsession with unraveling a mystery cum riddle that might not even exist seems a reasonable counterpoint to the audience – sitting there in the dark, wondering what to make of all of this. Bulle Ogier and Lonsdale will eventually make their way to a sea side villa, where another mystery, involving a missing man and a locked room, come to light. Critic Jonathan Romney has put it quite succinctly: “Out 1 is magnificently uncontainable: too many characters to track, too many connections between them, too many blind alleys, and, above all, too much contradiction.”
What then, you might ask, is the point? Certainly, you wouldn’t suggest a film that doesn’t mean anything? A film that takes an entire day to watch? That is willfully, even perversely, anti-narrative, and that ends pretty much where it started? As critic Fred Camper mentioned after the screening to an incredulous fellow viewer, one who couldn’t believe what he had just sat through, “Out 1 is like all the great films – it is trying to make sense of the world we live in”.