Take One. It usually begins like this. A playful trombone bounds through the silence with an uptempo improvisation. After a moment, a few other horns join—clarinet, saxophone, and cornet, buzzing in sultry swing time, applying the melody that the trombone spontaneously implied to an actual hard-bop composition. Then add cello and violin with syrupy, bowed dyads. The bass and drums come in too, but a bit behind the beat. First they struggle to catch up with the horns, then they overtake them, then they’re playing much faster than the other instruments. The drums lapse into a jaunty ¾ beat and the rest of the players follow with a different song that fits this time signature. The cellist takes a solo, but in the middle of it the saxophone and clarinet decide to start an entirely separate composition. Everyone else follows them into it for a few bars, then halt for a drum solo. It ends with a series of propulsive, gunshot-like snare hits and the drummer yelling, “Salt peanuts!”
The above describes a concert I attended, given in a small club by Instant Composers Pool—an avant-garde collective of musicians from (mostly) the Netherlands who disrupt the typical flow of jazz performance with carefully timed schema to ensure democracy among their members and singularity in their live shows. This technique, however, and its tendency to thrust mismatched idioms upon the audience without much context, stripping them of the musical traditions they usually signify, reminds me fiercely of the films of Jacques Rivette. The uncanny beauty achieved so regularly by ICP has further helped me to understand how Rivette’s early work can manage such sensuality while appearing at the same time as though it follows a physics formula with half the math gutted from it.
We might as well take Céline and Julie Go Boating, for instance, from the get-go. The film’s peregrinating first half-hour establishes the odd, nearly incestuous, and unspoken relationship between the two titular women; if the lithe brunette Céline (Juliet Berto) drops a scarf while passing the ginger-haired Julie (Dominique Labourier) on the way to work, the latter must follow the former. (This scene begins the movie, crossing suspicion with curiosity so that we’re not sure if we’re watching a noir, or Alice in Wonderland, or a noir Alice in Wonderland.) If one girl draws in library books with red marker, the other must make fingerprints on a sheet with a tablet of red ink. If one girl is reading a book about magic, the other must be a cabaret magician.
The two women move in together and begin to melt into one another as the females in Persona do, but the parasitic partnership at the heart of that film is exchanged for playful confusion here. While the girls perform magic tricks and sing on a small stage in Montmartre, another narrative begins to bleed through in rapid cutaways: a chamber drama, something about a widower (producer Barbet Schroeder, hilariously sedate) with a sick daughter and two hot-to-trot sisters-in-law. This sense of colliding lives not only resembles the way that the ICP “trips” from one song into the next, but also the movies of Mike Leigh, which similarly follow a kind of unorthodox formula in order to appear spontaneous. Most of Leigh’s characters are the product of weeks of improvisation. But in Céline and Julie, it’s the editor who’s most developmentally mercurial.
Take Two. Remember Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead? Tom Stoppard took two of Hamlet’s minor characters, who might as well have been the same person, and built an adjunct world around them—but he constructed it shoddily, to imply that their existence consists mostly of waiting in the stage wings and guessing as to the particulars of their fate. Now imagine the same play without the benefit of a warhorse like Hamlet. Imagine that Stoppard makes up his own Hamlet, drawing on a few stories from Henry James, and then contains the action of this contrived fiction entirely within a single large house, outside of which life as usual seems to go on. This futzing gets us somewhere toward the middle of Céline and Julie, where the parallel narrative that was merely “bleeding through” before consumes the two main characters. They fight back, as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern did, with puns.
But Rivette takes it a bit further. Just as the meet-and-greet pacing ofRosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead insinuated the experiential problems endemic to the stage, Céline and Julie “projects” multiple stories to emblematize the relationship between screen and spectator. (If cinema can indeed “think,” Céline and Julie is an epistemological treatise.) Every morning, Céline or Julie rings the doorbell at a Parisian mansion, and she’s spirited inside. The scene cuts to hours later, where the girl is expelled from the entrance with enchanted candy suckers in her mouth. With their backs against a brightly colored wall, Céline and Julie then share the magical candy and are thus allowed to “relive” the day’s events inside the house.
Within what we’ll call the “Manor’d Narrative,” the women alternate playing the same nurse to Schroeder’s ill daughter and watch a series of events unfold multiple times within this privileged milieu. Schroeder’s character has sworn not to remarry since his wife’s death, but his ex-spouse’s siblings attempt to seduce him. They also play games with the little girl. They also drink champagne and the glasses break. Hands bleed. At the end of the story, the little girl is dead. Céline and Julie decide to save her, but to do so they must break character and alter the trajectory of the “Manor’d Narrative,” devising a new denouement as they go. That the stakes are so high is, I suppose, proof of how seriously Rivette took ad-libbing.
At the end of Stoppard’s play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern resign themselves to their impending execution, but the latter suggests that they must have at some level been in control of their respective destinies throughout the befuddling ordeal. “There must have been a moment at the beginning, where we could have said no,” he says. “But somehow we missed it. Well, we’ll know better next time.” That “next time,” and the fact that every actor who plays Guildenstern must utter it again and again, confirms what we have all along supposed as observers of drama (both that of others, and our own): that repeat performances may seem to provide opportunity to fix mistakes, but they mainly just torture us, forcing us to err in the same stances in perpetuity.
As we read our own lives as cyclical, and we can’t help but do so, fiction paradoxically becomes lifelike in that it does not change when it’s repeated. This is, too, the hell designed for the protagonist of Adolfo Bioy Casares’s The Invention of Morel, who’s doomed to watch a group of people preserved by film-like technology play out the same dinner party on an otherwise deserted island night after night. He falls in love with one of the guests, but she’s only a beautiful shadow. For him, as for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and us, there’s an infinite number of “next times” and also none.
Take Three. As Rivette’s longueurs immerse us in the world of Céline and Julie, they return us to, or at least remind us of, a time when all art was so immersive, when one might feel actually complicit in the outcome of a narrative. (At the age of seven I watched the Disney version of Wind in the Willows repeatedly and eventually became overcome with anxiety at the climax; I was so intimate with Toad’s wickedness that I felt guilty that I, too, had not been able to set him straight in act one.) Céline and Julie are only extras in the “Manor’d Narrative” (or, really, two women fulfilling the same extra role), but they become so invested in the story that they feel they can influence it, and Rivette indulges them. In the gut-busting final third, Céline and Julie enter the house simultaneously and tag-team the nurse’s part, mucking up their lines and causing general mayhem while Schroeder’s well-to-do widower and his wicked sisters-in-law appear oblivious to the changes. When the right moment comes, they rescue the fille before she’s injected with poison, and then take her boating to celebrate.
While on the water, another vessel carrying the trio of players Céline and Julie left behind in the “Manor’d Narrative” floats past, all of them pale and stone-faced, like eerie human driftwood out of Coleridge. The film’s clearly exfoliating the contrivance of these characters, a point underscored by their increasingly pallid skin tones throughout, but it also suggests both how fiction can leave an emotional imprint on life and also how it can seem buckled by realistic pressures. Even when films end happily, and in a manner which they have earned through storytelling competency, as a spectator and critic I tend to linger on moments in which characters are in peril more readily than those in which the tension of hazard is released. Third-act salvation feels obligatory because stories must end before dinner or bedtime; conflict and danger, on the other hand, feel more genuine because we are never truly out of their presence, and can’t very well speak to or understand those beyond life’s final curtain.
Fiction provides some vicarious relief for this, for what we gloss hopelessly as “the human condition,” just as someone suffering from phantom limb syndrome may trick his mind into believing that his ghostly arm is relaxing rather than clenching. (Céline and Julie is subtitled “Phantom Ladies Over Paris”.) But this can only go far. In Rivette’s unsettling ending the movie reboots, with Céline chasing after Julie this time, and the effect is unflinchingly purgatorial. Don’t let the women’s smirks and wordplay fool you: The fact that art is eternal often makes it more horrifying than life itself.