Around a Small Mountain isn’t one of the great Jacques Rivette films, but it shares a lot of qualities with the director’s best work: a heady sense of play, an air of mystery, and a preoccupation with improvisation as a way for characters to create meaning and shape their own narratives. An 85-minute lark for the octogenarian filmmaker, making it his shortest feature by at least half an hour, the film unfolds, excepting a brief trip to Paris, in a mountainside village whose main attraction is a family-run circus. No three-ring extravaganza, this circus is a single-tent affair in which clowns enact the same slapstick routine night after night for a crowd of no more than a couple dozen. Into the void comes a pair of outsiders, meeting not-quite-cute when Kate’s (Jane Birkin) car breaks down and Vittorio (Sergio Castellitto) pulls up in his red coupe, connects two wires under Kate’s hood, and zips off without a word. As the two “displaced people” pass several days in the vicinity (for Kate it’s her first time revisiting the circus her father founded since the tragic on-stage death of her lover 15 years earlier, and for Vittorio it’s just one more stop on his endless wanderings), they circle around each other, nursing an obvious attraction.
Rivette’s in a playful humor here, using the circus setting to stage a round of set pieces with the performers plying their trade for their audience’s (and that of Rivette’s) amusement. At first these performances seem staged simply for their own sake, but they soon come to take on larger thematic importance. Rivette gives us three glimpses of a running routine involving two clowns, a series of plates and a gun. The fourth time we see the setup, one of the clowns—in a coma from too much drink—has been replaced by Vittorio. Immediately, he breaks all the plates, rendering the routine impossible to conduct and forced into a round of improvisation, the new recruit adlibs a verbal pas de deux with his partner. Thus routine—associated with the decline of the circus and the general unhappiness of its performers—gives way to extemporization and its possibilities for positive change.
This improvisatory spirit finds full expression in the film’s central ploy, where Vittorio stages a bit of “the play’s the thing” recreation for Kate’s benefit. Reenacting the incident that caused her lover’s death, with Kate cast in the lover’s role, Vittorio proceeds by catharsis, forcing the woman to relive the circumstances of the tragedy. By taking control of the stage, he alters the narrative of the past, manipulating ancient misfortune into a harmless act of entertainment, and thus simultaneously shapes the conclusion of Rivette’s film. If the terms of this catharsis unfold a little too neatly, then the ambiguity of the ending belies such easily schematic plotting. Kate will return to her life with more or less a degree of success, Vittorio will move on, continuing his endless questing, and maybe they’ll meet again. But what matters is that they met once under the bright lights of the circus ring that, to quote Vittorio, and in words that might apply to any of the stages and performance spaces so vital to Rivette’s cinema, “is the most dangerous place in the world, but also the place where everything is possible.”