Another day, another film by an aging French auteur that I expected to like more than I did. There was enough to keep me interested in Around a Small Mountain, but it was a lightweight, emotionally detached sort of interest, which started floating away as the end credits rolled.
The pace is so slow it took a while to slow down enough to meet it, but once I did I was able to relax, since Rivette and his editor (Nicole Lubtchansky, whose daughter Irina did the cinematography) lead us through this ambling journey with a sure hand. And I enjoyed watching Jane Birkin as Kate, a melancholy woman making a temporary return to the family circus she left years before after a tragic accident. Birkin is one of those magnetic people you can't help watching, even when she's doing something as simple as sitting on a riser or dyeing cloth. Which helps, since we mostly just watch her doing that sort of thing, or listen as she engages in a series of brief and prickly exchanges with Vittorio (Sergio Castellitto). A traveling businessman who fell for Kate on first sight, Vittorio stops for a while to court her in a beautiful old French town where the sparsely attended little show has set up its tent.
Vittorio gets drawn into the old-school circus act and so do we, since Rivette keeps showing bits of what appears to be a very French circus, more existential than exhilarating. The vaudevillian opening shtick he cuts back to most often holds just enough suspense to keep us interested but peters out in the end, much like the movie itself. Meanwhile, there are intriguing bits where you feel Rivette stretching the medium, sending his actors into a space to make a speech and then leave, as if the set were a theater, or switching the lighting as a scene plays out so you first see the couple in the foreground, then the background, then back again. I also liked the unobtrusive yet powerful music-free soundtrack, which gets its drama mostly from sounds like the roar of Vittorio's sporty car as it zips through ancient, empty streets or the crack of a whip. And though I didn't buy Kate's salvation by Vittorio, which is as close as this movie gets to a climax, I liked the odd and unexpected way that happened and the way their unconventional courtship skirts all the usual movie romance clichés.
But in the end, Around a Small Mountain felt stagey and slight, not so much a movie as a mood piece, or maybe a game played by a seasoned director to entertain himself between features.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.