Jacques Rivette's Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974) remains for me, and at least a few other people, the most accomplished film since mid-century. I wrote about Celine in these pages some time ago (December, 1982); since then Rivette's later work has begun to be shown on American screens, particularly at Chicago's Film Center. It is now possible to get an idea of the director's work from the mid-Seventies through the early Eighties, a period that includes two first-rate works. Duelle (1975) and Le Pont du Nord (1981) manifest Rivette's usual preoccupations: with reflexivity (films about film), with human imagination, with the atmosphere of city life. A director seldom gets rid of his fetishes, but he can find something new to do with them. Rivette's recent work is striking for its freshness.
Part of Celine's attraction was in its contrast between a fictional world—a literal House of Fiction— and the life outside it. Duelle develops from a similar opposition, treated differently however. The action occurs during the forty days of Carnival, which begins with the last new moon of winter and ends with the first new moon of spring. During this time the gods may descend and mix with human beings; several divine personages decide to visit Paris where a legendary diamond, the Fairy Godmother, is rumored to exist.
The lucky immortal who gets control of this gem can remain on earth as long as he desires. The mortals who know about the Fairy Godmother—Pierrrot (Jean Babilee), his sister Lucie, and the mysterious dance-hall hostess Elsa (Nicole Garcia)—are anxious to keep it out of immortal hands. We have only to meet some members of Rivette's pantheon to understand why. The sun-goddess Viva (Bulle Ogier) and the moon-goddess Leni (Juliet Berto) are tyrannical, deadly guests. They have the charisma we associate with movie stars—also the egos. Human intimacy and kindness can hardly survive in this glare. If the goddesses stay around, life will be intolerable for everyone but them.
The story is told in thirty sequences, each bringing to the foreground one or two of the main characters. The rival deities arrive; each attempts to enlist Pierrot in her service but fails. The intrigues shift from a hotel lobby where Lucie, with Pierrot's assistance, balances on a giant globe; to a sumptuous private room at a much more upscale hotel where Viva and an associate act out a Mad Tea Party; to the dance hall where Elsa toils; to an aquarium where Lucie (I think) discovers the corpse of Leni's first victim; to other picturesque locales.
A pianist plays in the background; the actors respond to his turns of phrase as he responds to theirs. The overall effect is quite different from the spacy high comedy achieved by Celine. Rivette seeks to recreate narrative as a delicate, luminous ritual, as a synthesis of motions and phrases neither preconceived nor bound by the conventions of improvisation ("hesitations, provocations, etc." as our director writes—apparently with reference to American method acting and its offshoots).
Do Rivette's aspirations sound a little precious? They are certainly not original with him; precursors are numerous in French literature, theatre, and opera of the last hundred years. Recognizing the tradition might help us get comfortable; so might counting from one to ten and thereby slowing our pulses. After a showing of Duelle at the Film Center in 1983, there ensued a discussion between Rivette's producer, Stephane Tchalgadjieff, and an angry man in the audience who complained about the movie's "amateurish" editing. Tchalgadjieff replied that Rivette was one of the great editors in the film world . . . but no real dialogue was going to be possible.
Hollywood films are edited tightly, with a hurtling efficiency seen at its best in action pictures like The Wild Bunch. I remember a sequence from All That Jazz where the Bob Fosse/Roy Schneider character is viewing a rough cut of his own most recent project and keeps looking for a quicker, snappier rhythm (we can already see this man's heart attack coming). Rivette is worlds apart from all that. Each scene in Duelle is like the magic diamond that everyone's fighting over; we feel that we've entered the crystal, that we're being refracted in a way that could go on forever—and if we like this feeling we relax even more, if we don't we draw up tight and eventually go look for a theater that's showing Beverly Hills Cop.
Once we find the proper attitude of attentive gravity—of taking seriously what might easily seem silly, droll, or cute—rewards come our way. Duelle has a cumulative force. It builds towards sequence fifteen at its center, the only scene where the five protagonists are present all at once. By this time Rivette has established his characters and their relationships. As each of them enters the mirror-lined dance hall (this film is full of mirrors—but perhaps you already guessed that), the lines of action become more and more complex. It is part of Rivette's skill that the viewer needn't lose track of what is going on, that he can follow these interweaving intrigues to the climactic moment when the two goddesses confront one another. The hall goes dark: petulant Viva and brooding Leni throw off their mortal disguises, assuming the regalia and bearing of divinity. They track each other about a hidden center, whispering maleficent spells. Rivette's synthesis of phrase, movement, and music reaches its apotheosis.
After its Chicago premiere, Dave Kehr made a striking comment about Duelle. "Ultimately, of course, the subject of Duelle, a film about two fantastic beings fighting to become real, is Duelle itself (Chicago, December, 1983). On reflection (appropriate word) I think this is true: Rivette has never made a more self-illuminating, self-mirroring movie. A certain mystery remains: why should one hermetic film be a bore and another not? Duelle has the advantage of being about more than itself, especially in the long diminuendo from sequence fifteen to the end. In the extraordinary moment when Leni and Viva take over the gathering at the dance hall, they become so absorbed by their personal rivalry that no one else seems to exist. We apparently reach the heart of the film, the duel of the title. ("Duelle": the nonexistent feminine form of a masculine verb, as Jonathan Rosenbaum observes.)1
But there is that other duel with which we began, between fragile human desires and the goddesses' need to escape their transcendent sphere. It is less the opposition of Viva to Leni than of mortal to immortal that determines the shape of the film. The fantastic beings want to achieve reality. Those who are already real want a little breathing space. Leni and Viva are finally subdued by Lucie, whose name suggests light—not light from some specific source (sun, moon—projector?) but light (I believe) as an inborn principle of consciousness and right action. Lucie's triumph is represented by a means far different from the dazzling pyrotechnics of sequence fifteen. It occurs in long shots, in a pervasive, unplaceable dawn over a long expanse of green garden. The film has had its fling, and in its last moment the earth seems to replace it. Another magic trick: of a different quality, however, than the ones which preceded it. Lucie balances on the world.
Duelle was supposed to be the second of a four-film series. The other three films never got made. By the time of Le Pont du Nord (1981), Rivette was working with infinitesimal budgets. Le Pont is rawer than Duelle, whose plush look was offputting for some longtime Rivette fans. It is also bleaker. To quote from the Film Center's deadpan plot summary, "Marie (Bulle Ogier), a newly-released convicted bank robber with a vague terrorist background, together with young friend Baptiste (played by Bulle's daughter, Pascale Ogier), becomes involved in a perverse, clandestine conspiracy masterminded by Marie's elusive lover, Julien (Pierre Clementi)."
The conspiracy takes the form of a game. Snakes and ladders began as a Hindu recreation, a rather serious one. We throw the dice and, depending on the results, either climb a ladder or slide down a snake. The ladders represent virtuous acts, the snakes evil ones. Human will, here as so often in games, is represented by chance, by what Rivette elsewhere calls “l’angle du hasard.”
Marie and Baptiste play snakes and ladders not on a board but over the landscape of Paris. Following mysterious instructions, they move from one enigmatic locale to another (there is a particularly striking sequence in the ruins of what must be an abandoned industrial site). Julien, their contact, disappears for long periods, only to return with a new version of the rules or of the game's rationale. We don't trust Julien. How could we, since he is Pierre Clementi, the great thug-dandy among French actors, veteran of such perverse extravaganzas as Belle du Jour and The Conformist? By the end of Le Pont du Nord, Julien will have betrayed Marie and left Baptiste to face the secret police ("Maxes") who are closing in on her.
The artifice of Rivette's plot is qualified and transformed by location shooting. At the film's beginning there is a wonderful sequence showing Baptiste riding her motorcycle round and round a Parisian traffic circle with an elaborate monument at its center. (I wish I could have identified the monument.) The sequence communicates obsession—but does so in a graphic, immediate style. This mixed tone sustains the movie. There is a technical reason for Rivette's emphasis on such scenes: he hasn't the budget to shoot indoors with complicated lighting. From necessity emerges form and situation. Marie is conceived as a claustrophobe; she has the owner of a bakery bring two croissants to the door, so scared is she of entering and being trapped. Rivette the impecunious filmmaker and Marie the ex-con wander through a city which is all outside, which is in this sense appropriate to outsiders.
One more reflexive device. It works because it evokes an historical moment that links the director with his cinematic fantasies. We should remember that Rivette was part of the New Wave when it was new. He worked as an assistant to Jean Renoir, wrote for Cahiers du Cinema along with Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer, and Chabrol, made four shorts in the early Fifties, then (1960) released Paris Belongs to Us, just after the success of Breathless and The Four Hundred Blows.
The Sixties was the period when Rivette found his voice, his subjects, his actors; it was also the time when film became fashionable (as opposed to popular). This is the ambience described in Paris Belongs to Us and capitalized on in subsequent Rivette films; not only are movies revealed to have a past (a sequence from Metropolis is shown at a party in Paris), they are also a phenomenon of the moment. Until the late Sixties movies counted in a way they don't today. Never mind when the bottom dropped out. There have been wonderful films during the last fifteen years, but both here and abroad they seem like freaks rather than part of a scene. Le Pont du Nord chronicles the absence of a scene: it describes what it's like when one's group grows smaller, when one's access to the larger culture is cut off.
Paris does not belong to us. This insight is part of Rivette's films from the beginning, but it is often circumvented: in Celine the city becomes a field for play, for recreating reality by means of an intoxicating friendship. Duelle—just a year later—is already starting to qualify such hopes. The city becomes a field of combat where the privilege of reality, of being and remaining real, is won or lost. Le Pont du Nord describes a Paris less permeable than ever to human imagination. The atmosphere of reflexive artifice serves a different purpose than before. We last see Baptiste holding off a Max by karate-chopping at him—and then he starts trying to show her better methods, so they are fighting for real and at the same time becoming teacher and student. Meanwhile someone watches them through a telescope, from whose point of view this final scene is filmed.
I like the conception. Baptiste does what she can; she goes on fighting. The Max who instructs her is looking for an efficient opponent; he teaches her less from generosity than from inner compulsion. Perhaps he is seeking his own conqueror, an impulse displayed elsewhere in Le Pont du Nord. As for the mysterious surveillance, it was suggested to the director by some chance scratches on the film stock, which he chose to interpret as manifesting the presence of a prying lens.
What the scene shows is Rivette trying to break from his outsider role, to identify with the whole of a situation. He is Baptiste but also Max—and the surveillance, while not identical with the film, is closely related to it because it assumes the same angle of view. The outsider who wants to imagine a whole, to understand a society comprehensively, must engage in stunts like this one. Reflexivity leads not to narcissism but to omniscience. I would expect a colder, broader, and less hermetic tone to future Rivette films, given Le Pont du Nord's extraordinary conclusion. There is talk of Rivette making a movie in America—if and when he can raise the money. Indeed, it may be the right moment for this particular artist to cross the Atlantic. Le Pont du Nord makes a good bridge.
1To expand Rosenbaum's comment: the sound of "duelle" suggests "deux" plus "elle"—there is the ghost of a pun on "two women."