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Rewriting Documentary: Claire Denis’s Jacques Rivette: The Night Watchman

The emphasis on locations is where Claire Denis begins to rear her creative head.

Rewriting Documentary: Claire Denis’ Jacques Rivette, le veilleur

Claire Denis supporters are warned upon approaching Jacques Rivette: The Night Watchman that the imagery for which we have come to love her is only here in embryonic form. Those lucky few stoked by the fires of her recent documentary Vers Mathilde are in for a disappointment when presented with the less front-and-centre visuals of her second completed work: analysis is also somewhat tricky, as I have no idea how much of the format was inherited from the program Cinéma, de notre temps (of which it is an entry), and how much was influenced by the film’s celebrated critic interviewer Serge Daney. Still, Denis’s tactile, environmental approach is clearly in evidence here; of a piece with her early work, it suggests both the location specificity and the unmoored personalities that dot films from Chocolat to I Can’t Sleep.

The film opens innocently enough with the nouvelle vague master wandering the rooms of an art gallery: the art is that of semi-abstract artist Jean Fautrier, and we alternate between his juicy, sensual canvases and Rivette wandering the vast space of the rooms. This, however, is a ruse, and we suddenly smash-cut to the director and Daney at a café, where the critic reveals that the gallery visit facilitates the interview. Fautrier is discussed in terms of his desire to re-define the face; this is contrasted with Rivette’s own refusal to use close-ups or heavy montage to emphasize faces or items close up. The director claims that he never had the interest or the “talent” to do such editing theatrics, and the film goes from there, as Rivette and Daney wander from café to café and points in-between, discussing Rivette’s background and his artistic concerns.

The emphasis on locations—on the battery of coffee joints and the streets in between—is where Denis begins to rear her creative head. Where a standard interview program would de-emphasize the location in favor of the talk, here they are part of the talk—influencing our perception of Rivette in subtle ways. At one point, he and Daney are walking down a busy traffic laneway (one wonders why the drivers aren’t apoplectic at their slowing things down), and Denis’s camera suddenly splits off from the figures to travel down another road. The picture suddenly becomes a shot from Le Pont du Nord of Pascale Ogier circling a lion statue in a scooter; this turns into a shot of Jean-François Stévenin driving up on his own BMW motorcycle and beginning an interview. The insistence on spatial continuity is remarkable in a form that normally uses the visual as bland means to an end—and in its way it boldly rewrites how documentary can be used to comment on subjects.

This relates back to the film’s catalogue of Rivette’s qualities, chief among which are his lonerish tendencies. Bulle Ogier is seen and heard describing him as the last person with whom you go “on the town” for a “back-patting” good time—he’s private and withdrawn, and the film represents this by swallowing him up in the city or otherwise emphasizing his smallness. In the first part, “Day”, it’s largely performed via the wandering through the streets of Paris and thus explores the transitory nature of existing in a large urban metropolis swarming with architecture and people; in “Night”, he’s sitting on the top of a building, gazing over its railing or sitting in low light. The effect is to consider this person as a sort of transient with no home or country, wandering about or loitering in public space instead of staking out some personal terra firma.

This makes Rivette of a piece with early Denis heroes. Those initial films are obsessed with overwhelming locations (the remote African household of Chocolat, the nightclub/restaurant/cockfighting complex of No Fear, No Die, and especially the Paris of I Can’t Sleep); they’re also obsessed with people who don’t exactly belong to those surroundings (Chocolat’s uprooted whites with “no past, no future”; the equally unanchored black cock trainers in No Fear, No Die; practically everyone with a part in I Can’t Sleep). That last film most explicitly parallels Jacques Rivette: The Night Watchman: both are films about a city that does not notice you and which fills you with a profound loneliness, full of people as atomized as Rivette (though with considerably less cultural capital) lost in an urban no-man’s-land that swallows them up.

Sadly, the film is less compelling than most of those works of fiction. Though the intimacy achieved with Rivette is considerable, the overall effect is less decisive; one feels a fumbling for a theme and a style rather than a surgically precise zeroing in. Part of the issue is that Denis has to get out of the way for Daney to impose his own order on the proceedings, meaning she has to constantly adjust to his input instead of simply letting her own freak flag fly. Unlike the genuinely collaborative enterprise of Vers Mathilde, where Denis likened herself to a fellow dancer with choreographer Mathilde Monnier, there seems to be less give-and-take between the two authors of the conversation; though the director betrays no discomfort with the arrangement, there is a sense that two sensibilities are struggling for supremacy rather than working in concert for an organic experience.

But even if the early film doesn’t stand up to her recent documentary triumph, the two films together suggest a unified approach to the form that makes her a subject for further contemplation. Neither Vers Mathilde nor Jacques Rivette: The Night Watchman sits still in its contemplation of its artist-subjects: they are both as concerned with the space surrounding the personalities under review as with the personality itself. And they make Denis’s documentary output extremely provocative in what they do with a hitherto prosaic form that strives for objectivity. If nothing else, her Rivette film suggests new paths for a genre more tied down than most to explanation and the illusion of non-interference, and what can happen when dry reportage gives way to the personal essay.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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