JACQUE RIVETTE: BABEL AND THE VOID at Cinematheque Ontario (317 Dundas West), from Friday (February 9) to March 11. Rating: NNNNN Rating: NNNNN
It's a tribute to their own dedication and the French health care system that 50 years after they first stepped behind the camera, four of the five core directors of the French New Wave aren't just alive, but still working. Eric Rohmer is completing a new film at age 87, and the 78-year-old Jacques Rivette has a new film showing in competition at Berlin this week.
Rivette is the most elusive of the New Wave directors. Some of his films have the apparent structure of, but never work out the implications of their own paranoia. His characters are often actors (the principal characters in Paris Nous Appartient, L'Amour Fou, Out 1, L'Amour Par Terre and La Bande Des Quatre all come to mind), and while we often see them working on productions, the actual completion of those projects never seems too important to the characters.
Unlike his colleagues, Rivette's production has been erratic, even spasmodic: six years between the release of his first and second features, Paris Nous Appartient and La Religieuse, then that astonishing burst of activity between 1969 and 72, when, among other things, he directed the longest feature film ever made, Out 1, a film so rarely shown that its Cinematheque screening will be its Toronto premiere, 37 years after the fact.
Okay, so why should you be interested in the most obscure of the Cahiers du Cinema cabal? And why are his movies so damned long? No, seriously. Rivette has made more three-hour movies than most people, and more four-hour movies than anyone working regularly in commercial cinema - though, like Godard, his relationship to modern commercial filmmaking is peripheral.
Perhaps the easiest way into Rivette's universe is via his first film, Paris Nous Appartient (Friday, February 9, 6:30 pm), which introduces almost all of his concerns, including the self-absorbed paranoia of the characters, the abortive thriller structure and the way that acting works less as a way to inhabit a character than as a mode of presentation. (In Rivette's world, theatre is not a metaphor for life, but life may be a metaphor for theatre.)
Later this week, check out Céline Et Julie Vont En Bateau (Monday, February 12, 6:30 pm) , wherein Juliet Berto and Dominique Labourier investigate strange goings-on in an old house, if it isn't all a dream. It's Alice In Wonderland informed by French literary theory, but it's also goofy-girly enough to have been the inspiration for Desperately Seeking Susan. No, really - Susan Seidelman has said so.
If you wish to delve into the heart of Rivette's world, look around the weekend of February 23, which begins that Friday evening with a screening of his four-hour-plus L'Amour Fou (February 23, 6:30 pm), the story of splintering relationships set against two theatre productions. Indeed, Rivette actually financed the rehearsals and productions, and in those scenes the "director" on screen is the one directing the actors.
Saturday and Sunday (February 24, 4 pm; February 25, 1 pm) mark the Toronto premiere of 1970's 13-hour epic Out 1: Noli Me Tangere. That's not a typo. It's the longest movie ever made, and for decades it's been almost impossible to see. I've been trying for about 28 years, ever since I discovered Rivette at Jonathan Rosenbaum's Rivette And His Context series at New York's Bleecker Street Cinema in 1979.
And the following Tuesday (February 27) is the alternate cut, the four-hour Out 1: Spectre, which is less a condensation than an alternate film organized from the same material.
Rivette's films are, on the one hand, highly theoretical. He thinks about cinema as deeply as does Godard, which can occasionally lead to bizarre pronouncements like "Showgirls is one of the best American films of the last few years" (www.sensesofcinema. com).
This also means that all of his films are experiments of one sort or another - experiments in duration, in narrative form, studies of characters who exist solely as forms of presentation. This is particularly true in Céline And Julie, but also in La Bande Des Quatre (March 1, 6:30 pm), about four acting students who find themselves in an apparent thriller plot when one of their number disappears. ("Who am I?" is always an implied question when a film's characters are actors). Rivette's fondness for experimentation probably also explains why so many of his films exist in at least two cuts.
The alternate cut creates an interesting issue. Aside from Out 1, La Belle Noiseuse exists in two fully realized versions. Both the four-hour version that premiered at Cannes (February 16, 6:30 pm) and its spectre, the two-hour Divertimento (March 4, 6:30 pm), will screen in this series.
Cinematheque also offers the full-length six-hour cut of Jeanne La Pucelle (March 11, 1 pm), with Sandrine Bonnaire as Joan of Arc. A four-hour cut by Rivette is immortalized on North American DVD. Oddly, Cinematheque has chosen the traditional 125-minute theatrical cut of L'Amour Par Terre (Wednesday, February 14, 8:30 pm); the recent French DVD includes a cut 40 minutes longer and even more peculiarly structured.
Like Godard, Rivette is not for everyone. He's never had any mass appeal, and his late films only seem more commercially straightforward than his early films. There is no film quite like Secret Défense (March 9, 6:30 pm), which looks like a revenge melodrama but is a complex moral study.
What's missing from the Cinematheque series is context. Rivette was a major critic as a young man, and we gain from the ability to see his own films surrounded by those that influenced him.
But this is a small complaint, given the extreme rarity of so much of the series. I don't think L'Amour Fou has screened in Toronto in 20 years, and many major Rivette films are not available on DVD from any source.