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Six Characters in Search of Love


Jacques Rivette does Rohmeresque comedy in his nearly-three-hour bit of amusing yet intellectual fluff.

There's a wordless sequence in Va Savoir! (2001) that deserves inclusion in the list of "memorable moments in cinema." It's the one that occurs later in the film, and has our theatre actress anti-heroine Camille discovering an "escape hatch" in the room in which her ex, Pierre, has locked her. Now running late for her next theatre performance, she climbs through the skylight and onto the roof that gives us a view of the Parisian cityscape. Then slowly, you start to feel a certain foolish, childish giggle sneaking up on you as you follow Camille, wearing those infernal white sandals that go clack-clack! clack-clack! as she tramps all over the rooftop, her body twisted in puzzlement, one arm akimbo, the other mussing her hair, as she looks around her, searching with mild annoyance for a ladder by which she might descend safely to street level.

And that's just one of the uniquely Rivette moments that echo a teensy bit of Jacques Tati's simple, everyday silliness—a more grown-up version, if you will—in this playful French comedy. While some may mistake this for just another frothy Eric Rohmer confection depicting the complexities of love among the French middle class, director Jacques Rivette's hand shows itself quite clearly here. Few filmmakers can pack so much wit, humor and absurdity in extended shots of actors doing nothing much else than walking, without benefit or distraction of dialogue. Segments such as this of the purely visual (sometimes aided by sound effects) are only a few of the fun things in store for the curious viewer.

So, you might ask, how did Camille end up in that room? And why did Pierre lock her in? I shan't be giving the answers away, but I will let you in on the set-up:

After an absence of three years, Camille returns to Paris, this time as star of the Italian touring production of Luigi Pirandello's Come Tu Mi Vuoi / You Desire Me, staged, directed and acted in by her Italian lover, Ugo (Sergio Castellitto). Being back in Paris causes deep anxiety in the mildly neurotic Camille, who is given to expressing her thoughts aloud when by herself, à la Hamlet or Macbeth. Her ex-lover, the philosophy professor Pierre (Jacques Bonnaffé), still lives in the city. It was she who dropped him like a hot potato to go off to Italy three years before. We are not made truly privy to the reason for her sudden escape, but we could make an educated guess from the tiny clues scattered about.

After much vacillation Camille finally decides to stop by the old flat, hoping to meet Pierre face-to-face. She encounters not Pierre there, but Sonia (Marianne Basler), Pierre's femme. Camille retreats, reconsiders her plan, and settles on pursuing that personal meeting with Pierre.

We see that Pierre is a true creature of habit. Three years after their last meeting, Camille has no trouble tracking him down. She spots him sitting on his favorite park bench, reading his favorite paper, Die Welt. Their conversation is brief, slightly awkward but not without affection, and for better or worse, it's not the last they'll be seeing of each other during Camille's Paris stop.

Meanwhile, Ugo spends his off-theatre hours combing the libraries of Paris in search of an unpublished work by 18th century dramatist Carlo Goldoni. How fortunate he is to receive the kind assistance and very friendly attentions of a young, pretty university student named Dominique in the first library he visits (she later reveals to him her odd nickname of "Do"; Hélène de Fougerolles plays the part to breezy and charming perfection). Ugo soon finds himself increasingly smitten with Do.

We also meet Dominique's unscrupulous and enigmatic half-brother, Arthur. Arthur may or may not be interested in Sonia, who, as we already know, is Pierre's current flame. Their liaison is the shadiest and least "romantic" of the lot. Much later, Arthur also tries to link up with Camille, whom we also know to have other interests in mind.

Thus forms the basic web of attractions and distractions, products of the fickle, odd longings of the heart, body and soul among this sextet. It isn't as complicated as it sounds, and director Rivette eases you into the tale through a series of utterly ordinary, unhurried scenes of social intercourse. A stolen ring pops up much later, more as a plot device and symbolic object than anything else. Intercut between the scenes of "reality" are odd scenes from the Pirandello play and backstage goings-on.

An example of M Rivette's elegant depiction of the quotidian is the deceptively light pre-dinner chitchat among Camille, Pierre and Sonia at Pierre's flat (Ugo arrives late for the dinner). Through the wit, perceptiveness and economy of the lines, we are given ample clues as to each character's background, and current and recurrent mental and emotional obsessions. M Rivette even slips a bit of slapstick humor into one scene, which will leave you with a broad, knowing smile.

Ugo's problems, meanwhile, are not limited to the play's discouraging box office returns, nor to the frustrating search for Goldoni's play that may just be hiding in the musty, disorganized, antiquarian library inherited by Dominique's slightly off-kilter mother, a woman who never passes up a chance to offer Ugo a bit of her baked goodies. (Catherine Rouvel does the mother with a delightful ditzyness).

While helping Ugo locate the lost manuscript, Dominique says, "Strange things happen in this library." Indeed. Although she actually refers to something else, her comment might apply equally well to the not-so-innocent remark she makes when Ugo asks why she is staring at him. Her unvarnished response causes the flustered Ugo to break down into a confused, disbelieving sigh of "Ahhhhhh…!"

To be sure, the flirtatious young student provides a compelling distraction for the director, and what is Ugo to do when Dominique later decides to return his advances in kind? He isn't blind to Camille's resurrected interest in her former lover, so one might think that, all being fair in love, he could be forgiven for indulging in a "Parisian chance" (as Dominique so tastefully puts it). Here M Rivette delights us with surprise in the choices the dilemma-ridden director makes.

Through Sergio Castellitto's understated turn as the besieged Ugo, we see how his quasi-naïve, gentle manner and his thoughtfulness might have drawn both Camille and Dominique to him.

Jacques Bonnaffé's portrayal of the the slightly pretentious Pierre has an authentic humanity that avoids stereotype. Towards the latter part of the film, we even grow empathetic with the poor fellow and the actions he takes. He was, after all, the slighted "dumpee" to Camille's "dumper" three years before.

Funny, but I could swear that Hélène de Fougerolles (Dominique) was kidnapped from the set of an Eric Rohmer shoot. Young, intellectual, university creatures like Dominique, who also happen to be très jolies, are almost obligatory in a Rohmer film. Given the situation, Ugo's later actions prove even more astonishing. Those who've seen the film will know what I mean.

The darkly handsome Bruno Todeschini plays Arthur with either a falsely menacing tone, or an innocent sincerity, depending on the situation. He strikes us as a troubled young man, and till the very end, we remain uncertain about the true nature of his relationship with half-sister Dominique.

As the outwardly calm ballet instructor Sonia, Marianne Basler's initially opaque character grows more intriguing with time, as we learn of unpleasantness in her past, things she might wish to banish from memory.

The vital part of Camille is reserved for the excellent theatre and film actress Jeanne Balibar. Camille provides the central core of interest, and ballast for the plot that could easily have gone off in all directions at once. Mlle Balibar carries much of the film on those quirky, bony shoulders of hers, which she uses, like the rest of her dancer's body, her doe-like eyes, and her slightly quivery, sonorous voice, to expressive and humorous effect. She embodies the entire spirit of delightful, intelligent farce that infuses each moment of the film.

M Rivette includes the Pirandello play to mirror, perhaps, the offstage events, as a kind of parallel backdrop to our sextet's shenanigans. The play relates the story of an amnesic woman trying to sort out who she is, as she returns to a husband she does not remember. In the play, the question of identity is explored. Can one really know anyone? Our six characters think that they do know the people around them. (Viewers unfamiliar with the play may find these staged scenes to distract more than enlighten. Nevertheless, the film loses little by their exclusion. On the other hand, paying closer heed to the play's excerpts in another viewing might not be a bad idea.)

The threads of relationships will intertwine in various and unexpected ways; some ties will be forged and some also broken. Eventually all the messy entanglements sort themselves out. In the finale, the cast moves wholly into the world of the theatre. M Rivette stages a whimsical and comically absurd dance (in a scene reminiscent of Max Ophuls' La Ronde) that closes this comic tale of romantic mishaps on a light and pleasant note (actually, to Peggy Lee's cool, sexy and vibrant rendition of Senza Fine / Without End). Here "real life", cinema and theatre all blend into one another.

Our protagonists come away a bit wiser for all their preceding couplings and uncouplings, taking decisions based on a lot of uncertainties. How do we know when we truly love another, or when another truly loves us? As the film's title might suggest, love still remains beyond the understanding of mortals, least of all by those enmeshed in it. We can only watch its consequences play out, those strange and sometimes wonderful things we are driven to do—or prevented from doing—for the sake of love. Our characters all fall victim to human frailty in matters of the heart—for who can truly fathom the inner workings of that mysterious seat of emotion and desire?

While the final sequence may please many, it may also disappoint some, especially those used to literal onscreen storytelling. Few, though, will deny that they had fun on the cinematic journey towards that gentle dénouement .

Credit for the sparkling script goes to Christine Laurent, Pascale Bonitzer and of course, M Rivette himself. Many thanks are due William Lubtchansky, for the pictures of a leafy Parisian park in all its springtime loveliness, the bright and vivid colors of a modern stage play, the comforting dull sheen of the large wooden tables at the library, the relaxed intimacy of a small dinner, and other milieux all meticulously, perfectly illuminated and photographed.

At the helm of it all, using a sure but light hand is the master himself, Jacques Rivette. His well-known penchant for encouraging improvisation among his actors gives this film a stimulating spontaneity within a disciplined framework. He may have completed some seventy-four birthdays by now, but he retains an irrepressibly optimistic and youthful spirit in Va Savoir! that also betrays a kindness and understanding that come only with true wisdom.

And all the forgoing has been a most miserable, wordy and roundabout attempt to simply say that this film, folks—Va Savoir!—is a genuine comedic delight you shouldn't miss.


Random film notes:

Running just under three hours (154 minutes), this film might be one of the shorter ones in the entire Rivette filmography.

The title in English is given officially as Who Knows?, but Go Figure! seems a better choice.

Unlike a lot of non-English-language DVDs, this one does give you the option to turn off the English subtitles.

And for those who really need to know, the video transfer is flawless, presented in widescreen format, and the French dialogue and Italian stage lines are digitally rendered in Dolby Surround. Besides the usual scene selections, a few movie trailers are also included.


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