JACQUES RIVETTE: THE QUOTIDIAN MADE FASCINATING
He is known for the unusual lengths of his movies, which some suppose is a bad thing. Well, all I can say is, a single minute of film time of an abysmal movie is one minute too long. On the other hand, a work can be so exquisite in its execution and exposition that you hate for it to end--which is exactly how I've felt about many of Jacques Rivette's works.
One of the greatest living filmmakers today, M Rivette came from that brash, idealistic, revolutionary group of film critics at Les Cahiers du Cinéma who put their money (or movie cameras) where their mouths were to become filmmakers themselves. It was Jacques Rivette who suggested the term mise en scène to replace "direction." The idea of an auteur whose mark was stamped on his filmic product flourished with these New Wave directors, a highly respected group composed of Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, the late François Truffaut, Alain Resnais, and Eric Rohmer. Agnès Varda was also one of the less conspicuous "members" of that spectacular band of young critics-turned-directors.
In the cinematic milieu as imagined by M Rivette, the characters are as three-dimensional as they come. He devotes much footage to showing seemingly trivial, quotidian bits in their lives. Through such authentic details, we find ourselves entering, inhabiting, as it were, the fictional world of these people. We learn how they prepare coffee, make the bed, smoke a cigarette, draw, sketch, fidget, fret, etc. We can only perceive them as actual, living and breathing human beings. M Rivette masterfully renders real life as more meaningful and interesting to us through, oddly enough, its most mundane activities. For the viewer open to this director's unique storytelling style, this transformed perception might be described as mystical.
I have just begun to admire the film genius of M Rivette. It started when I came across his magnificent and authentic retelling of Jeanne d'Arc's story. The soberly shot (but deeply moving) and historically accurate Jeanne la Pucelle has been regarded by many as second only in greatness to The Passion of Joan of Arc, Carl Dreyer's 1928 silent film classic. While I cannot see the painful Dreyer work more than once or twice, I can view M Rivette's epic several times and still find something fresh, new and interesting the next time around. M Rivette's conception of Jeanne is one I cherish dearly, played as she is with a fierce honesty by one of France's most esteemed contemporary actresses, the enormously talented and compelling Sandrine Bonnaire .
The cinematically très serieuse actress has taken on roles that call for strong, independent characters, first seen in Vagabond's Mona, directed by Agnès Varda. M Rivette has made a casting coup with Mlle Bonnaire as Jeanne d'Arc. The actress creates a charismatic Jeanne who is blunt, direct, self-assured and fully convinced of being sent directly from God; and yet we also get a very human, vulnerable heroine who weeps at the carnage of war, prays for the souls of her fallen foes, feels hurt when maliciously insulted by the English, cries out in pain at her wounding with an arrow, even crumples in fear and horror at the thought of being burned alive.
Mlle Bonnaire's Jeanne d'Arc also easily persuades us that the mere force of her personality could convince even the many hardened men-at-arms whom she met to submit to her leadership. Plain-spoken and impatient to get to the business at hand, seated on the horse as one born to ride, and handy with a lance, too, this Jeanne—a mere peasant girl with no education or military training--could not fail to impress men like the Duc d'Alençon and Dunois, the Bâtard d'Orléans, men who would be at her side in many battles and who would become heartfelt friends.
M Rivette's attention to authentic detail is in clear evidence. A fleeting but significant factual detail about the real Jeanne is also shown in one scene: she sups on a piece bread dipped in a cup of wine. The anointing and coronation of Charles VII at Rheims takes place in real time, set against a background decorated with simple but elegantly striking French blue carpets and wall hangings dotted with golden fleurs-de-lis, with glorious music written by the great Renaissance composer Guillaume Dufay and modern viola da gamba expert Jordi Savall, performed by Jordi Savall, La Capella Reial de Catalunya and Hesperion XX.
Unfortunately, those who missed the first theatrical version as screened in France will be ignorant of a full one-third of the original film. Conceding perhaps to the dictates of practicality and the needs of a different (certainly, non-European) audience, the director pared down the full six hours of Jeanne la Pucelle to a mere four for the commercial video release in the US. It might explain why the resulting film, despite its length, still betrays a slight choppiness to the flow of the narrative. On first viewing the DVD, I felt as if something were missing from the story. I can only assume that this seeming incompleteness is due entirely to the cuts made for the shorter release. Alas, one is left to wonder: what marvelous bits might we, the unlucky ones, be missing in the English-subtitled movie currently available to the general public on this side of the Atlantic? Oh, would that Jacques Rivette would authorize the full version (with English subtitles) for release here! (I finally acquired the complete set en français, a dismal duo of videocassettes made in Canada in 1995, with dark and muddy colors, fuzzy outlines, and non-letterboxed format! The things we put up with for the sake of our beloved films! Argh, the excised scenes should have been left in, methinks!)
Fortunately, Mlle Bonnaire would work again with M Rivette a few years after Jeanne la Pucelle, appearing in the gripping and highly intelligent psychological thriller, Secret Défense (incorrectly translated into "Secret Defense" by its video distributors in the US; the descriptions in the video blurb are similarly misleading). It would be another match made in heaven between director and actor.
Collaborating once more with Pascal Bonitzer on the screenplay with help from Emmanuelle Cuau, M Rivette tells a slightly modified version of the myth of Electra updated to contemporary times. Watch this for Mlle Bonnaire's understated performance as Sylvie Rousseau, a research biologist who finds herself enmeshed in a growing, dangerous web of secrets and intrigue that involves the enigmatic Walser, her deceased father's aide who also happens to be a family friend. Her portrayal of a woman transformed by unsuspected and unforeseen events bespeaks an acuteness and profundity of understanding rarely witnessed on the silver screen.
In the first third of the nearly three-hour film, M Rivette has thought fit to include several extended scenes of Sylvie purchasing a train ticket, picking out a couple of sunglasses, glancing about her while fussing with her belongings in the TGV, chasing a train about to depart, changing trains yet again, etc. Some viewers who failed to "get it" felt put out by these, finding them to be a complete waste of their time. Sure, nothing was going on--or were there, in fact, many things happening onscreen? Attentive audiences attuned to M Rivette's cinematic style saw more than just a series of useless details in these keenly observed, almost dialogue-free sequences.
It's these very same mundane acts that become such vital elements in this film. Watching Sylvie go about seemingly trivial chores and actions in her apartment, we feel that we know her better, that she's a real, three-dimensional being whose skin, practically, we slip into. Then there's a curious phenomenon that occurs: to be sure, the realism is convincing, yet at the same time M Rivette adds stylized drama--just a touch, barely perceptible--to the onscreen proceedings, so that it simultaneously feels like a documentary film and also doesn't. It isn't like a Werner Herzog documentary in which we believe the incidents to be nonfiction even as M Herzog fools us into accepting some completely staged scenes as real. No, the realism of M Rivette's world is both authentic and unreal, a cinematic sleight-of-hand.
And how, exactly, does he do it? Damned if I know. Therein lies the man's genius.
While M Rivette's film might demand more of the audience than would the usual fare at your neighborhood multiplex, the patient viewer is rewarded a thousand times over in the end. Secret Défense is not to be missed if you seek intelligence that is seldom seen in a cinematic genre often given to cheap, spine-tingling thrills.
In a switch to light, charming, Rohmeresque intellectual comedy, M Rivette brings us his latest creation: a tale of three couples, three men and three women, who, it might be said, are six characters in search of love. My reference to the Luigi Pirandello play, Six Characters in Search of an Author, is intentional and quite apt, and I'm sure that the obvious pun was not lost on M Rivette himself, for he does include a different Pirandello play inside the film.
In Va Savoir!, released in the US in 2001 as part of the New York Film Festival, the director uses a light touch in his depiction of the characters' messy love lives. Yes, there is a plot to speak of, but that element interests him less than the different characters themselves, with all their imperfections intact. It's their human side that he delights in exploring. Viewers of the film will leave the screening room feeling a bit lighter, having seen the humor in all our little foibles when it comes to l'amour.
Reflecting the offstage events are the onstage proceedings, those from Pirandello's Come Tu Mi Vuoi / As You Desire Me. The central character is Camille, a theatre actress back in Paris as part of a touring production of Pirandello's Come Tu Mi Vuoi. With a mixture of dread and excitement, she ponders visiting her former lover, Jacques, a philosophy professor still living in Paris. But Jacques' heart now belongs to the ballet instructor Sonia, his companion for the past two years. Does he still love Camille, who left him abruptly for Italy some three years ago? Does Camille really love Ugo, her Italian director, co-actor and present lover?
M Rivette's casting of Jeanne Balibar in the crucial role of Camille is once again an inspired choice. Keep an eye on Jeanne Balibar: this fine actress, with her theatrical background, her unerring sense of timing, her expressive eyes, body, limbs, and not the least, voice--in short, her entire being as an actress--creates a Camille recognizable to modern audiences for her slightly neurotic urbanite persona, one who might be a bit confused about her loves. Camille's centrality to the plot requires an actress who is not just competent, but also compelling in the role. This we get, and much more, in Mlle Balibar's Camille.
If his track record is anything to go by, Jacques Rivette may just have created a turning point in Jeanne Balibar's film fame especially in the US, given the wider promotion done for this artistic and commercial success (the latter is relative to M Rivette's entire filmography). It's not unlike the happy phenomenon that befell previous Rivette lead stars Emmanuelle Béart (after La Belle Noiseuse) and Sandrine Bonnaire (post-Jeanne la Pucelle; see above). We in the audience can only be thrilled about that development. (We hope, of course, that Mlle Balibar has the wisdom and good sense to avoid the lure and destructive influence of Hollywood.)