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Interview: Michael Lonsdale on Jacques Rivette’s Out 1, May 1968, & More

We spoke with the actor about Out 1, his political investments during May ’68, and how France’s current government is a “sad” state of affairs.

Interview: Michael Lonsdale on Jacques Rivette’s Out 1
Photo: Carlotta Films

In Out 1, you’ll find actor Michael Lonsdale just about any way you’d like him: writhing on the floor, being lifted in the air by an acting troupe, politely refuting a loony reporter played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, or simultaneously crying and laughing while sitting alone on a beach. Director Jacques Rivette’s film is a tour de force of mixed emotions and broken promises, but with a peculiar formal rigor, especially since Rivette placed his actors on sets and gave them no instructions whatsoever, allowing them to devise the film’s premise, dialogue, and interactions as they wished. As Lonsdale tells it, this made him “a bit anxious,” but he more than welcomed the opportunity to be “free to do exactly what we felt and wanted.”

On November 4, Out 1 opens at BAM in New York City in its full, 775-minute original cut, which is being deemed its “world theatrical premiere,” despite the film being previously shown in various versions. Newly restored and as deeply bonkers as its legend suggests, Rivette’s film is the work of a group of artists completely disentangled from all notions of filmic convention, economic caution, and censored expression. I spoke with Lonsdale about the film’s production, his political investments during May ’68, and how France’s current government is a “sad” state of affairs.

How did you originally become involved with Out 1? What was the process like when you were contacted about the film?

The director rang me up because he had seen me in several films and on the stage. He said, “I’m making a film, completely improvised. Would you be interested?” I said, “Yes, I love improvisation.” So we met and I was very much interested by that proposition, because I also knew I had many friends in the film—Bulle Ogier, Bernadette Onfroy, Jean-Pierre Léaud—and it was a wonderful experience because you absolutely don’t know what you’re going to do. [laughs]

It feels absolutely open-ended while watching it. Did Rivette initially explain the film would be for television and that it would run nearly 13 hours?

Yes, completely. But I was told 12 hours, not 13. [laughs]

He was close.

I saw the completed film twice, but it was cut into two six-hour parts, and then six two-hour parts for television. But they didn’t want it. They didn’t put it on the screen.

Did you attend the film’s premiere in 1971 at the Maison de la Culture in Le Havre?

No, I didn’t. I wasn’t in Paris at the time.

That screening has been described as a “religious pilgrimage” because the attendees apparently walked from Paris to the provinces to see it. It was also the only projection of the film’s 16mm unprocessed color work print. Because of this, it’s become legendary.

I did not know that.

Did you know Rivette or his work prior to making this film?

No, I didn’t know his films. I hadn’t seen any of them. So I can’t say anything about that. But I love improvisation. I still do. For me it’s the way I like to be acting, you see. I have some words to say, of course. And when the director doesn’t say anything on how to be acting, I sort of like to improvise something.

I wonder if you could talk a little more about that, because in this film your character, Thomas, seems to be a man in pursuit of purity with this performance of Prometheus Bound. Is improvisation, likewise, something close to acting in its purest form for you?

Improvisation was easy with Bulle Ogier because she can improvise very easily, but it was more difficult with Bernadette Lafont because she didn’t know what to say. [laughs] So we’d say to her, “Say something.” She couldn’t! When she acts, you know, she’s wonderful. She was, now she’s gone. But she was completely lost and couldn’t say anything. That’s why her part isn’t very long in the film. I decided, yes, to be a man who’s directing some Greek tragedy, you know. Aeschylus. That’s the idea, you see. And in those years we had been working with the Living Theatre in Paris and a Polish man named [Jerzy] Grotowski. He came here and showed all sorts of work we can do with ourselves. And it was very interesting. So I sort of started to work, before the play, doing exercises. And that’s where you see us in this film on the floor, screaming. [laughs]

Was there any rehearsal for these scenes at all?

No rehearsal whatsoever. Ready to shoot? Action!

How about reshoots or do-overs to better capture an idea?

Always one take. There was never anything we tried to do twice. Rivette was always happy with it. [laughs]

Rivette has said, “Anything actors say and do is interesting.” That seems generous, to say that anything would be interesting, but I imagine that means you were free to do whatever you liked while shooting. Did he provide any guidelines or restrictions at all?

None of that. We were free to do exactly what we felt and wanted to do. There was no problem about that. So some days it went very easily and was very interesting, some other days there was not quite the invention. So then we would stop and make something else. It was very wonderful, you know, because we felt so free and could do anything we wanted.

Is that what makes working with Rivette unique? How did the experience compare to your films with François Truffaut, Louis Malle, or Luis Buñuel?

Working with them was okay too. [laughs] They always helped me, so I was very happy. With Orson Welles too. I met some wonderful people working on those films. It was a strange feeling, you know, with Rivette. I was happy to do it, but a bit anxious. Is it going to be meaning something interesting? But we had to do it, either way.

What was the climate like on set with it being post-May ’68? Was there a clear sense of the film’s political aims and what it was trying to accomplish on those grounds?

I don’t think anyone knew what it would be or how it would work. It was wonderful and a bit dangerous sometimes because it wasn’t always very good, but it was a wonderful feeling to be free and do anything you wanted, straight away.

What was your relationship with political activism before and during May ’68? Were you involved with any of the student protests or affiliated movements, for instance?

Oh, yes. We were working toward the revolution, you see. It was wonderful. People in the streets, they used to meet and talk, and most were ordinary people, so clever and intelligent. I used to say to many of them: “It’s a pity you’re not in parliament, because we could use what you’re saying.” Everything seemed to be possible then. Everything we liked and wanted. I was working with Peter Brook at that time on Shakespeare and we had to do the revolution in the morning and then we would rehearse the play in the afternoon, and then at night it was back to the revolution. So we didn’t sleep anymore. [laughs] We were in a sort of invention, a very strange and brilliant happiness, living all of that. Saying things which were so clever and intelligent. It was an unforgettable season and year.

Looking at Out 1 now, as a finished film, do you see it as related to or responding to that time of invention and happiness?

No, just that we had the opportunity to do things we couldn’t do before. It was quite pleasant. We were a bit like children, we wanted to play, not discuss or think about the thing we had to do. Just play and be happy.

Have you spoken with Rivette about the film recently or after it was made regarding its legacy?

No, no. We didn’t have much to say. Only that we were happy with it.

As an actor, how do you take the experience of making a film like this and apply it to other roles? Were you able to explore these acting techniques in subsequent films?

Never anything like in this film. You know, before the cinema spoke they had very long films, some 16 hours long. But after 1931, this is the only film to be like that. On television you have stories that go on for a long time. But it’s not the same thing. It’s a strange possibility to see the film in 12 straight hours. Rivette used to say about watching the film: “Oh, you can go out, smoke a cigarette, order lunch, and come back one hour later and it’s okay.” [laughs] In Japan they have the Noh theater and you speak during the performance. You can go out and come back. We touched real liberty there.

Do you think that liberty is wholly in the past or can it still be accessed? I ask because, in 2008, Nicholas Sarkozy said he wanted to “liquidate the legacy of May ’68” and blamed the soixante-huitards for “moral and intellectual” relativism in France. Do you still seek to regain these kinds of liberties in your current political life?

I am a Christian and I believe in something else. The political life here, I don’t understand very well. I’m not very proud of the chief of our government. There are too many people who aren’t true and corrupted. There are some people who continue what was learned in ’68. It still goes on. But we don’t know exactly who to believe, in France. There’s nobody absolutely great leading this country. It’s very sad.

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