Jacques Rivette at MOMI: Weeks 7 and 8

Secret défense feels in many ways like a culmination—Rivette’s ideologies and obsessions distilled to a perfect essence.

Jacques Rivette at MOMI: Weeks 7 and 8

The closing two weeks of the Museum of the Moving Image’s Complete Jacques Rivette retrospective feature screenings of two films covered in a previous article (Divertimento and The Gang of Four), as well as three other works of recent vintage (Secret défense, Va savoir, and The Story of Marie and Julien), the first of which is an essential masterpiece.

Secret défense feels in many ways like a culmination—Rivette’s ideologies and obsessions distilled to a perfect essence. Sandrine Bonnaire stars as Sylvie, a medical scientist who discovers that her father’s death five years prior might not have been accidental. Reduced to the level of genre, the film could be characterized as a revenge thriller, with Sylvie murderously seeking out her father’s former business partner Walser (Jerzy Radziwilowicz) after her brother Paul (Grégoire Colin) produces a supposedly damning photograph that implicates this Mabuse-esque entrepreneur as his killer. Yet the photo retains an unhealthy ambiguity; like a similarly “damning” line of dialogue in Coppola’sThe Conversation, its meaning differs from person to person. At heart, it proves nothing concrete, but its implications are poisonous nonetheless. Rivette doesn’t merely flip his characters’ switches—he allows time to pass, lets the virus settle in. We observe Sylvie’s routine and, in the process, we get a sense of her world, a Paris subsumed by distorting and dissociative technological advances (even voices on the other end of a telephone possess an eerie and unnerving clarity).

No mistake that, in these early scenes, Sylvie is shown searching for a cure to an unspecified cancerous ailment; little does she realize that she herself has been infected with an age-old disease: quite simply, the desire for absolute knowledge. Rivette and his collaborators (Pascal Bonitzer and Emmanuelle Cuau) reportedly based Secret défense on the tragedy of Electra, and the film (at nearly three hours) does have the arc and insight of a great Greek myth. Indeed, the film’s final images—which first shatter and then reclaim a quite literal proscenium—suggest that this is both theater and cinema simultaneously, so how fortunate to have a performer as capable as Bonnaire at the center of it all. Equally adept whether in close-up or long shot, Bonnaire navigates Rivette’s mise en scène with a near-imperceptible dexterity. Among her many bravura moments, perhaps the finest ones occur during the extended train set piece (locomotives second only to cats on Rivette’s list of outward preoccupations) where Sylvie travels to the countryside to kill Walser.

It’s as distressing a rail journey as the one that closes out Mikio Naruse’s Yearning, with Bonnaire (a Gallic complement to Hideko Takamine) expertly delineating Sylvie’s attempts to distract herself from the task at hand. She sits silently, orders a drink, rebuffs a fellow passenger’s stares, and nervously paces just to the edge of courting suspicion. Action (or its lack) defines Sylvie’s turbulent state of mind—when the gun she conceals finally goes off (killing an unintended target) it is less a release than a self-inflicted wound that ushers her interior confusion to the pale and pallid surface. Poisoned by an ambiguous image, she forces her amorphous desire for revenge into a reality that cannot contain it. Actions have consequences (as some diseases cannot be cured): Sylvie’s decision not only strips away her protective sheen of complacency, revealing the sickly layerings of guilt underneath, it also points the way—totally, terribly, tragically—to her inevitable demise.

I consider The Story of Marie and Julien a lesser Rivette offering—a watchable, ultimately unfulfilling ghost story that the director had originally intended to make in the 70s as part of his unfinished Scenes from a Parallel Life series, with Leslie Caron and Albert Finney in the title roles. In this incarnation (which stars Emmanuelle Béartand Jerzy Radziwilowicz), the film’s most interesting character is a cat named Nevermore, a moniker that none-too-subtly references Rivette and his co-scenarists’ indebtedness to Poe. For this and Va savoir (which I have yet to see) I turn to others for comment. From Michael J. Anderson’s Senses of Cinema essay on Marie and Julien:

“In the septuagenarian director and former critic’s latest work, Histoire de Marie et Julien (Story of Marie and Julien) (2003), the ubiquitous presence of fiction moves beyond mere formal matrix, however, to become the actual subject of the art. The film surely represents a dissection of the process of fiction which is particular to cinematic art. Indeed, Rivette’s narrative is shaped by a consideration of the three discrete stages of filmic creation: the conception of the idea (pre-production), its actualisation (production) and its final molding through the process of editing (post-production). Thus, Histoire de Marie et Julien is a film about filmmaking, which one is tempted to read nevertheless in terms broader than pure didacticism, which is to say a film that teaches its viewer about the nature of the art form. To be sure, Rivette’s is a work that cues its audience to consider not only the creative layers of the process of narration, but also the creator’s place within this construction, which naturally implies Rivette’s function in the creation of this specific film. Hence, it would not be unreasonable to attach the tag of “personal” to Histoire de Marie et Julien given both the narrative’s recourse to referencing the creator in the process of creation, and also the director’s biography.”

A second take from Acquarello of Strictly Film School:

“Jacques Rivette creates another refined and sublimely enrapturing composition in The Story of Marie and Julien, a film that ostensibly chronicles the relationship between a brooding, reclusive restorer of antique clocks and occasional blackmailer named Julien (Jerzy Radziwilowicz) and the elusive object of his affection, a beautiful and enigmatic woman named Marie (Emmanuelle Béart) whom he had once known at a time when both were emotionally unavailable. As the film opens, a pensive Julien sits on a park bench and begins to experience an unsettling, prescient dream involving his passing acquaintance, Marie, and in the process, betrays a sense of regret and missed opportunity at their seemingly star-crossed romantic fate. Now, a year later, his haunted, unrequited melancholy now seems entirely reconcilable when he runs into a hurried Marie once again while she rushes to catch a bus at a busy intersection and he, to an appointment with the subject of his blackmail: a woman called Madame X (Anne Brochet) who had perhaps murdered her sister. Illustrating familiar Rivette imagery of interweaving parallel realities, manifestation of the subconscious, and elliptical mystery, the film evolves into a gorgeously hypnotic, slow simmering, and smoldering tone piece on chance, connection, and destiny.”

Rivette scholar Jonathan Rosenbaum’s dismissive capsule review of Va savoir from The Chicago Reader:

“Having won more mainstream accolades than most of his other work combined, this enjoyable romantic comedy by 73-year-old Jacques Rivette may be his first real hit (1991’s La belle noiseuse is the only other contender). I can’t begrudge this fine director a rare commercial success, but aside from Hurlevent(1985) this is the only one of his 20 features that I have no desire to see again. After showing much distinction as a modernist (1960-’76) and a postmodernist (1978-’98) Rivette has made his first premodernist film: it’s fluffy, sometimes funny, and likably acted by Jeanne Balibar, Sergio Castellitto, Marianne Basler, Jacques Bonnaffe, Helene de Fougerolles, and Bruno Todeschini(call it Rivette Lite or, because it involves an Italian production of As You Desire Me being staged in Paris, call it “Six Characters in Search of Billy Wilder”). But it lacks the scariness, the mystery, and even much of the curiosity of Rivette’s better work; if you can’t stand something like Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), there’s a good chance that you’ll love this one.”

And a more positive take from The Village Voice’s J. Hoberman:

“A leisurely comedy with high slapstick interludes, Va Savoir starts onstage, with Ugo rehearsing Camille in their current production. His company is staging Pirandello’s As You Desire Me with a blond-bewigged Camille as the amnesiac heroine played by Greta Garbo in the 1932 Hollywood version. The plays unfolds throughout in bits and pieces, usually before a disastrously empty house. Meanwhile, as Camille wanders around the city hoping to encounter Pierre, Ugo rummages through various libraries in search of a lost text by Goldoni—and is picked up instead by the enigmatic Do. The ensemble is brilliant, but the movie belongs largely to Balibar. With her bemused perpetual smirk, this actress (who has appeared in films by Olivier Assayas and Raúl Ruiz) can be hard to cast. Rivette takes her harlequin face as an element to accentuate and, half the time, has her posed like one of Picasso’s sad clowns—her thin body subtly contorted as she clutches her shoulder blade or waist. (At one point, she even wears a diamond-patterned dress.) Va Savoir has its own unhurried pace and unpredictable humor. This is the sort of comedy Robert Altman could only dream about. The various alliances shift; the dialogue goes in and out of Italian. There are more dramatic complications than connections, and a reversal in nearly every scene. Serene and witty, it’s a cerebral farce in which doors are forever opening and closing, sometimes on another world.”

And with this, the last of the House’s Rivette retrospective articles, we also close a door. A few thanks are in order: To David Schwartz and Tomoko Kawamoto of MOMI who provided access to screenings and screeners, not to mention information about the smallest technical detail. To the Out 1 crew—Aaron Hillis, Glenn Kenny, Charles Taylor, Stephanie Zacharek, A.O. Scott—for making the two-day press screening experience just that much more enjoyable (and regrets to Reverse Shot writers, and Rivette spelunkers, Michael Joshua Rowin and James Crawford for not introducing my bleary-eyed self in person). To Matt, of course, for sanctioning this series of articles, with extra thanks for letting me do simultaneous (and still ongoing) coverage for Slant. And to the man himself, Jacques Rivette, for a goodly amount of inspiration and perspiration, happily more of the former than the latter. Final word, then, to Charlie Taylor, who sums it up best:

“The critic James Harvey once wrote that the relaxed performances in “Rio Bravo” achieved the status of “pure behaving,” in other words, behavior that was completely natural and relaxed in front of the camera. The length of a movie like “Rio Bravo” can’t be justified by its simple plot any more than the epic lengths of Rivette movies can be justified by their plots. (At two and a half hours, “Va Savoir” is relatively short; “Celine and Julie” runs three hours and 20 minutes, “La Belle Noiseuse” four hours, “Haut/bas/fragile” two hours and 50 minutes, the uncut “Out One” 12 hours and 40 minutes.) But Rivette’s elastic, expansive sense of time allows us to enter into his movies, to savor them. His great gift to moviegoers has been to allow us to live in the cinematic moment of his films as we are watching them and to send us back out into the world with a heightened awareness of the lyricism that can exist in seemingly quotidian moments: what it feels like to walk in a park taking in the surroundings, to stop into a bar for a drink, to sink back into the comfort of your apartment at the end of a work day. Rivette makes life seem like a gift.”

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

Keith Uhlich

Keith Uhlich is a writer living in Brooklyn. His work has been published in The Hollywood Reporter, BBC, and Reverse Shot, among other publications. He is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle.

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