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Duelle (Une Quarantaine) (1976)

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Duelle (Une Quarantaine) (1976)

“There were brought together under the Empire and in Paris, thirteen men all equally possessed by the same sentiment, all of them endowed with sufficient force to remain constant to one idea, sufficiently honorable not to betray one another, even when their individual interests conflicted, sufficiently politic to conceal the sacred ties which united them, sufficiently strong to maintain themselves above the law, courageous enough to undertake anything…”
— Honoré de Balzac, History of the Thirteen

“Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as a tragedy, the second time as farce.”
—Karl Marx

Play is free, is in fact freedom.
Play is not “ordinary” or “real” life.
Play is distinct from “ordinary” life both as to locality and duration.
Play creates order, is order. Play demands order absolute and supreme.
Play is connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained from it.
—Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens

“Do you play often? For a lot? Which game?”
—Hermione Karagheuz as Lucie, Duelle

“You’ll find one in every car. You’ll see.”
—Tracey Walter as Miller, Repo Man

References to films-as-dreams in film criticism have risen in inverse proportion to the actual dreamlike quality of the cinema, which is all but extinct. This seems intuitively correct, insofar as dreams are dissolved in waking awareness, so a conscious endeavor to construct the dreamlike certainly sounds like a foolish enterprise, and indeed it is often met with failure. The truth is even more intangible, I think: the “ordinary” movies that were seen before the Cold War—before the game changed, and the overarching, global conspiracies once thought impossible became commonplace, even somewhat sordid—seem the artifacts of a dream country as much as, for example, the more contemporary movies of David Lynch or Alain Resnais, for whom the oneiric is not a byproduct of traditional narrative, but becomes the narrative.

These “older films,” for lack of a better label, an unnumbered quantity of which are now lost (enhancing their stature as apocryphal wonders), were produced during times when story forms were being imported from other media, or invented anew, and are obscured from our vision by the confederation of nostalgia, memory, legend and dreams. In many cases, the artifacts with the most banal trappings—the B movie (e.g. Richard Fleischer’s Follow Me Quietly, Arthur Ripley’s The Chase, Edgar G. Ulmer’s Tomorrow We Live), the whodunit (e.g. Alfred Hitchcock’s Number 17, Jean Renoir’s La Nuit du Carrefour), the comic one- or two-reeler (which are legion and, consequently, defy summary)—blindsides us as they reveal themselves to be the legitimate oracles of hypnagogic, illusory illogic.

This brings up one of the universal drives that motivates cinephilia, the contradictory urges both to experience a mystery undiluted, and to solve it. For many, certain films are elevated because of this paradox—a film that is what it is, and what it isn’t. Appropriately, the surreal often selects a kind of prosaic truth-seeker as its avatar: explorers, investigators, detectives and similar figures—authoritative but alone, distinct from the miasma, looking for leads. Agents. (A lead is a thread that is pulled, in the hopes of provoking a revelation.) These people symbolize and are the desire to impose a pattern on the chaos. Marlowe, Maigret, Juve and Judex, Agents Dale Cooper and Fox Mulder, Nick and Nora, Philo Vance. The work of the investigators makes it possible to have, together in a single ring, the puzzle as well as its solution. The thrilling tales and pulp fictions are solved but not dissolved, acquired but not contained. There’s “another movie,” an unreal one that took place while you were watching the real one: the reward is that a film is more than the sum of its components. The viewer sees more than what’s onscreen, and hears more than what’s on the soundtrack. Perhaps this is what inspires some to view cinephilia with a lightly panicked suspicion: the idea that the cinema, especially that of the derelict era of volatile nitrate and rudimentary sound recording, represents the last vestiges of mysticism in our human life.

The fact is, films and dreams never have been, and are never going to be, the same thing, but films and spectators can interface in ways that spin independently of rigid, three-act etiquette. In rare cases, verbal inventory of these exchanges can sometimes prove difficult, not because we’re struck dumb with awe (although that may sometimes be the case), but because the conveyance, the quality of the transmission, even the information itself seems to have been sourced from a period before the framework of descriptive language was established, or even suggested. This, too, can unman.

If the birth of motion pictures as an art form can be traced back to the Lumière-Méliès dichotomy, i.e. the cinema as a recording of reality versus the exhibition of wondrous charms and effects, Louis Feuillade’s fictional forms, in particular the crime serials, pioneered ways to view the two fundamental impulses as a single, fused mutation. A new species. The thrilling tales of crime, sabotage and narrow escape are set in “the real,” usually in the physical city of Paris (presented for the most part with unadorned, documentary-grade authenticity), but the images are always infused with a dreamlike quality, and so too is the city. This “effect” is not achieved through mirrors, smoke, makeup or cutting, but by way of the viewer’s role as eyewitness to the strange narratives, which do not dissolve the integrity of the city’s sidewalks, parks and skylines, but show that all solid floors are porous, that all walls and doors are subject to filtration from the other side. A mirror is not a mirror; a window is entry and egress; rooftops become game arenas. A painting, curiously, is half-shielded by an elegant curtain. In the Feuillade matrix, the movie seems to be happening in two places: on the screen before us, and just past the edge of cognition.

This doubling is repeated in countless ways in Feuillade’s universe, which is rife with dual identities, an overlap between documentary and artifice, dead characters who return to life, paintings that conceal secret passages. His crime serials weld together meticulously arranged sets at Gaumont with real life on the streets of Paris, effectively cloaking our view of that city with the patina of a past that existed only in dreams. Given that Feuillade is one of Jacques Rivette’s spiritual forefathers, one can imagine the atmosphere in which the latter made his first films. Rivette deals with the anxiety of influence in a manner similar to his New Wave compatriots, Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, through visible contemplation, rather than denial, of his inheritance.

There is also the impulse to go beyond the progenitors of the moving picture, beyond even the writers and artists of the 19th century, beyond Aeschylus: in Rivette, characters often find themselves in states of absolute euphoria, or mania—sometimes induced, sometimes beset—during which they seem to be experiencing the familiar world as if they were prehistoric humans, or infants. Experience is shattered, torn up, hurriedly erased and redrawn. The primal-infantile dimension is crucial, for it’s here that the explorer is far enough away from the world to witness its infinite lattice of connective tissue.

But is it all an act? The Rivette model of the universe, which is delineated by his unique approach to narrative, performance, shooting, cutting and sound, but crucially the recurring variety of themes (including investigation, play, paranoia, as well as the mundane, workaday life of his large cast of Parisians) is not the one that has a center and a defined edge. It’s the one that you cannot exit without reentry, and in which all perfectly straight lines ultimately inscribe a perfect circle. Logically, in Rivette, if you “freak out,” as an exercise or as an affliction, you experience not a departure from Earth, from the human race, but an arrival.

The Rivette landscape is littered with an infinite variety of paradoxes, doublings, matched pairs whose components should dissolve on cohabitation but remain stable. One cause-effect that keeps coming up is the game that becomes real, and this happens almost subliminally in the director’s 1976 masterpiece, Duelle (Une Quarantaine): reconfiguring the premise of Celine and Julie Go Boatinga> (in which a Marilyn Monroe-Jane Russell-style pair of beautiful young women, meeting each other by chance, assume the role of amateur detectives in what may be a case of metaphysical dimensions) by turning the deceptively flaky protagonists of Rivette’s 1974 film into otherworldly opponents in a skirmish across planets, across dimensions. The film opens on playacting (dancing on a globe in the lobby of a decrepit hotel; the second girl arrives on the scene and, with minimal pretext, the new pair are inspired to embark on a little sleuthing) and some time passes before the first casualties appear, and it dawns on us that it’s been serious business all along.

Along the way, the film careens in, out, and across many of the spaces employed previously by Feuillade, and some others that recur in other of Rivette’s work: places of ritual and game, seedy dens of vice, dive bars, dance studios, open-air parks, bridges, hotel suites, metro stations and, memorably, an aquarium. The zones seem emptied-out, curiously underpopulated, as if crowds would disrupt the signal, break the spell. Each zone, too, is thoroughly exploited for its theatrical utility. Dance (legitimate dance and balletic movement sewn into the fabric of the actors’ movement) is performed as often as it is not, under a variety of circumstances (getting information, rearing to strike at one’s opponent), and while 99% of film and television stories are almost abjectly desperate in their compulsion to reassure audiences that characters are different from actors, that characters are earthly while movie stars are divine, and that everything is painlessly literal and dry of poetry, the characters in Duelle play make-believe so often (pretending to be drunk, to be naïve, to have been wounded) that the fantastic aspects of the tale literally consume what precious little was prosaic to begin with; the characters amplify the celestial qualities of their actors to mythic levels; and nothing but nothing is as it seems.

As I mentioned earlier, an inventory of the contents of the house doesn’t do much to convey the rhythm and style of Rivette’s wide-awake-and-dreaming style, which imbues every tableau with the sense and texture of a dream (of falling, of drowning, of being chased). You can survey his matrix of codewords, amulets and other objects of talismanic significance, and references to underground groups (before, they were The Thirteen, this time they’re the Salamanders), but a full assessment of Duelle must also take into account the “other movie,” the one we thought we caught a glimpse of, but never entered into view—the film beyond the door, behind the wall, and under the floor. Rivette grants permission to believe that his films often have a phantom twin with subtle gestures, such as the piano music, played for a private party, that turns out to be diegetically sourced. It’s a comic reveal—it’s not like you’re not free to laugh with Rivette—but it’s also not the last time the director tips his hand in this regard, pointing to the curtain but maintaining concealment.

Eric Rohmer’s most Duelle-like film, 1984’s Full Moon in Paris, pays visual and spiritual homage to Rivette in a number of ways—not so much the casting of the ill-fated Pascale Ogier (who died of a heart attack one day before her 26th birthday, in October of 1984, who worked with Rohmer first in Perceval le Gallois [1978]), but with its uncharacteristic (for Rohmer) vision of Paris as a series of twilit zones inhabited by dragging insomniacs, and early mornings of architecturally perfect but grey and depopulated urban landscapes, punctuated at a key moment by a full moon over the abyss, an insert that occurs three times in Duelle. Is Paris the most haunted city? In Alphaville, Godard was able to turn the city into an alien planet using only a few night shots and the power of suggestion, and Philippe Garrel’s 2005 Regular Lovers is nothing if not about the ghosts of 1871 and 1968.

The half dozen pages of notebook paper I scribbled across during a recent viewing of Duelle (a pristine 35mm print) are, of course, only slightly less adequate at capturing the power of the film than a fleshed-out review or essay. Curiously, each jotting summarized a piece of visual or aural evidence, individually retaining the character of a talisman, a prop from a magic show, a one-of-a-kind dress, jacket, or gown. Everything was charmed: it wasn’t just champagne, it was “the champagne in Duelle,” you put some behind your ear for luck. The tortoise, the red key and the red stone, the cracked mirror. All evidence of great, unfathomable truth, or a pattern of misdirection. Either way, I was an accomplice.

Jaime N. Christley spends his time with flickers and shades, filing his correspondence at Out, damned spot! and Unexamined/Essentials.