Arrow Video: The Jacques Rivette Collection (1976-1981) - Reviewed

Back in college I took a course on the French New Wave cinematic movement, spanning much of the filmographies of Jean Luc Godard, Andrew Bazin, Francois Truffaut, Jean Cocteau, Jean-Pierre Melville and inevitably the international directors the movement would inspire.  The impetus behind this experimental movement in European art cinema, La Nouvelle Vague, was characterized by innovative editing and cinematographic techniques, a loose mixture of neorealism and surrealism and a vast, often fluid rearrangement of narrative chronological storytelling.  Arguably the most well-known director influenced heavily by this movement is Quentin Tarantino though many other artists including Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg would follow in the footsteps set forth by the movement with manifestos such as Dogme 95 or Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s dabbling into New German Cinema.

One director who seems intrinsically linked to the genesis of the French New Wave movement as well as frequent writer for the celebrated film periodical Cahiers du Cinema yet remains all but completely unknown to western cinephiles however is Jacques Rivette.  Credited by Truffaut as one of the founding fathers of the French New Wave movement, Jacques Rivette is known for his often daunting running time, freeform improvisation with near completely abstract narrative structure, a penchant for fantasy, anachronism and a heightened reality.  Though largely unknown and not achieving (at the time) the same degree of critical and commercial success as his contemporaries, most now have begun to reassess the film critic turned filmmaker’s oeuvre with a newfound reverence and respect for his uncompromising, iconoclastic and often playful approach to the French New Wave. 

For Arrow Video’s forthcoming blu-ray boxed set, three of Rivette’s least seen and among his most labyrinthine films have been brought together with newly restored 2K digital remasters.  Each film loosely connected by their production history, fantastical and abstract nature cloaked in mystery, innovative costume design and largely populated by strong willed female characters locked in some sort of metaphysical or even interdimensional battle, these are films that represent many of the magical possibilities foreseen by Jean Cocteau with the deliberate shoestring production approach mastered by Jean-Luc Godard.  Watching one of Rivette’s film is less of a conventional narrative you can easily explain to others as it is a swan dive in surreal narrative experimentation with an ocean of possibilities and interpretations to be had.  With this, let us take a look at three of the fantastical auteur’s most confounding yet enthralling films here together now for the very first time.

Duelle (1976)

The first of what was intended to be a four film series, Rivette’s Duelle is kind of like the fantastical Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus, right down to characters reaching through mirrors into alternate dimensions, if it were filtered through the manic and playful energy of Francois Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player.  The loose and often malleable fantasy tale of two goddesses, Viva the Sun (Bulle Ogier) and Leni the Moon (Juliet Berto) who descend from the Heavens to modern day (at the time) Paris, France in search of a magical diamond which will allow them to remain on Earth, Duelle is a freeform smorgasbord of neo noir, French New Wave contradictions, aggressive surrealism, magical realism and a labyrinthine plot that’s easy to lose yourself in.   

There’s also a wealth of gothic horror mixed in, notably involving the numerous chase sequences of women following one another down corridors.  Though it seems to take place in modern day, the costume design and elegant camera movement suggest an otherworldly air of cool that manages to rival, say, Jean Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai.  Take for instance the colorful costume design with one of the film’s central characters, Viva, encircling a card game with her top hat, cane and high heeled boots.  In a sequence echoing Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon, we watch Viva being followed by a hotel clerk who may or may not have witnessed a murder, filmed in languid long takes which are less interested in advancing the plot than creating a mood of mystery and intrigue.  Further still, characters seem to vanish and reappear out of thin air, echoing the still hotly debated coda concluding Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up

Later the film, though set within seedy nightclubs, hotel lobbies, aquariums and casinos, grows increasingly otherworldly with characters encircling one another while more magical elements come into play.  By the film’s end we’ve witnessed numerous interdimensional battles between spiritual forces in the universe yet Rivette presents it as real as the sun rising and falling with day coming into night.  All of it is wildly experimental to the point of being alienating yet Rivette’s female protagonists (or antagonists?) maintain our intrigue as though we’re talking with them in a fantastical landscape despite looking very like modern day Paris.  Probably the most accessible of the trilogy, Duelle shows Rivette at his most metaphysical and for all of it’s tense confrontations oddly comes across as the most playful of the three.  Not all of it makes clear cut sense and the less clarity we and the characters are allowed, the further we’re drawn into this cosmic war between good and evil?


Noroît (1976)

Functioning as a loose companion piece of sorts to Duelle with many of the kindred themes of confrontation and battle though with a greater propensity for abrupt moments of brutality and violence, Noroit transposes Revenger’s Tragedy into a kind of modernist take on medieval vengeance.  Even more confounding than Duelle with juxtapositions between color and black-and-white ala Lindsay Anderson’s if… which bore it’s own distinction of experimental free cinema, Noroit glides freely between French and English though neither language is intended to make sense of the impenetrable dialogue shared between the characters. 

Far more musical in form than Duelle, this pirate tale of revenge is often expressed through bizarre ritualistic dances, an atonal avant garde band in the background of many scenes of action, and a bevy of characters whose motivations are as murky to the viewer as they are to one another.  The use of music to create a mood of ambiguity and unfocused menace with some scenes where we’re not sure if the characters are acting out or actually working towards an act of violence is key to keeping the viewers on their toes, not certain on where the film is leading them.  Like Duelle, Noroit depicts strong willed women locked in a kind of mortal combat, at war with one another without making their motivations entirely clear to the viewer.    

Considered the director’s greatest work, Noroit takes the anarchic impetus behind the French New Wave movement and subverts the medieval revenge fantasy thriller to such a degree that the film plays not as a straightforward narrative but as a series of disconnected vignettes that may or may not gel together in summation.  As with Duelle, Noroit sports an inspired costume design and fully exploits the mountainous terrain amid the same locations used to film The Vikings, presenting a world of the past characterized by attire from the future.  Just as you start to think you know what it’s really about, Rivette once again pulls the rug from beneath the viewer, leaving much open to interpretation and intentionally little to grasp on.


Merry-Go-Round (1981)

On the cusp of beginning what was intended to be the third film in a quartet of features, Jacques Rivette began filming Marie et Julien, a love story of sorts featuring Albert Finney and Leslie Caron.  Three days into the shoot, however, Rivette suffered a nervous breakdown and after abandoning the production, plans for it and the fourth film were scrapped altogether.  A year later, Rivette decided instead to make a new improvisational freeform film with Last Tango in Paris star Maria Schneider and Flesh for Frankenstein star Joe Dallesandro which would incorporate elements of the first two films into what ultimately became Merry-Go-Round.  Stretched out close to three hours, this mysterious and beguiling tale comprised largely of chase sequences, past and present, real and imagined, is arguably the director’s most difficult and trying work to date.

Almost completely off the cuff and often made up on the spot, Merry-Go-Round plays like a detective thriller on acid as both we and the two leads consistently lose track of the plot, narrative structure, their own senses of self and often times their own motivations.  If Rivette’s aim was to blast away at the mundanities of conventional cinematic storytelling, Merry-Go-Round blows it into oblivion and then some whether anyone is still watching or not.  Less of a tightly constructed and engaging mystery like Duelle and Noroit, Merry-Go-Round meanders between sand dunes, forests, plain fields, in between being chased by dogs, snakes, knights in shining armor, and more often than not, each other. 

Regarded by Rivette himself as one of his lesser works, the film is notable for being something of a troubled production as neither the then recovering addict Schneider nor Rivette were pleased with how the shoot was going.  You get the sense watching Merry-Go-Round that we aren’t seeing the work of a master surrealist’s explosion of genre clichés but a loosely strung together series of scribblings that never really coalesces into something watchable.  Curious for Rivette completests but difficult to recommend to the average viewer, Merry-Go-Round represents a lower point in the director’s career that’s worth a look if only once before, like Rivette, ultimately leaving that chapter behind for good.


- Andrew Kotwicki