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Jacques Rivette at MOMI: Week 3

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Jacques Rivette at MOMI: Week 3

The Museum of the Moving Image’s complete Jacques Rivette retrospective moves into its third week with screenings of three more recent features: Up, Down, Fragile (1995), a musical homage to Stanley Donen’s Give a Girl a Break; La Belle Noiseuse (1991), Rivette’s four hour Cannes Grand Prize winner about the tempestuous relationship between a painter and his model; and Joan the Maid (1994), a two-part film, starring the great Sandrine Bonnaire, that deals with the rise and fall of Joan of Arc.

(Addendum 11/26/06: What follows was written before MOMI’s screening of Joan the Maid, which I did not attend, where it was discovered—as curator David Schwartz mentions in this thread’s comments section—that the UK distributor who imported the print mistakenly listed its running time at 237 minutes. What screened today was apparently the full version of Rivette’s film. I leave the information as I wrote it here because a bastardized version does still exist, though it may only be in the form of the Facets DVD and/or a print that may still be in circulation.)

Joan the Maid is screening last of these three, but I’d like to bring it up first because of some distressing news regarding the print provided to MOMI.

I was able to preview the film on a dual-tape screener ported over from the Facets DVD. In total, the two parts played at 228 minutes, 112 minutes for the first part (Joan the Maid: The Battles) and 116 minutes for the second (Joan the Maid: The Prisons). The print imported to MOMI from the UK totals 237 minutes for the two parts, a difference of 9 minutes that I attribute to the dread 4% PAL speedup, which occurs when a PAL to NTSC video transfer is not done progressively (this is unsurprisingly par for the course for Facets video releases). By this rationale, part one should run approximately 116-117 minutes; part two approximately 119-120 minutes.

Yet this is not the only issue. Further research, specifically my perusal of the Criterion Forum message boards,revealed that the UK distributors of Joan the Maid cut the film without Rivette’s permission. I’ve since determined through the film’s IMDB listings (see links above), that part one should run 160 minutes (a current loss, when the film is projected, of 44-45 minutes) and part two should run 176 minutes (a current loss, when the film is projected, of 55-56 minutes). I suspect that the cut print MOMI has acquired is possibly the only English subtitled print available (addendum 11/25/06: or perhaps not—thanks to Jim Flannery); because of the challenging nature of Rivette’s work, not to mention his relative obscurity, the retrospective is understandably take-what-you-can-get in this regard. Thus far, the lesser known Rivette films—Duelle and Noroît in particular—have been shoddy, red-hued prints, drained near-completely of full color. An unfortunate trade-off, but I’m thankful that, to my knowledge, I’ve been able to see some representation of these films as Rivette intended.

So what, then, of Joan the Maid? I can report that I watched the screener tapes with no knowledge that they were cut and the two parts played beautifully. Even in this bowdlerized form, Sandrine Bonnaire’s very mortal and earthly performance (quite wonderfully antithetical to the Saint Joan of movies’ past) took hold, and I could understand why the film, in toto, is held in such high regard by those who have seen it. But I’m hesitant to review Joan the Maid in any further depth because of what I now know: that close to two hours of Rivette’s epic have been mysteriously vanished without the creator’s consent. Use this information as you will—at the very least, I figured it should be passed along to all prospective attendees. If anyone has any information to add, please do mention it in this article’s comments section.

No worries, to that end, about La Belle Noiseuse (though Rivette did edit and approve a shorter version, entitled Divertimento, from alternate takes: this version will screen at the retro in a couple of weeks). I vividly recall Siskel & Ebert devoting a lengthy segment of their television series to the film, and I’ve longed to see it since, though when I finally did preview it I found it terribly disappointing, a clear case of much ado about very, very little. From my Slant Magazine review, posted in the site’s ongoing Rivette feature:

“Jacques Rivette’s much praised Cannes Grand Prize winner vacillates between genuine insight and didactic mystique-of-the-artist bullshit. It is most fascinating in its setups and silences; the delayed introduction of the painter Frenhoffer (Michel Piccoli) owes a clear debt to Hitchcock’s Under Capricorn (a favorite, much deservingly so, of the Cahiers crowd) and the artist’s sittings, especially the first, with the physically striking Marianne (Emmanuelle Béart) are masterful disquisitions on the tempestuous relationship between creator and subject. Unwilling to settle for anything other than a masterpiece, Frenhoffer’s every brushstroke cuts like a knife; the creation of the titular portrait is nothing less than a slow-burning and violent act of transference, the extraction of a soul to canvas—and one, fittingly, to which we never bear final witness. But it is all-too-clear, particularly in several on-the-nose expository moments, that La Belle Noiseuse began life as a joke, one extending from a character’s monologue in Rivette’s prior film Gang of Four.”

Jeremy Heilman of feels differently:

“By methodically examining the rigors and contemplation that go into creating great art, French New Wave master Jacques Rivette, has created something of a masterpiece himself in La Belle Noiseuse. The film begins unassumingly in a hotel courtyard where we see a young man stealthily sketching some seemingly oblivious English-speaking tourists. As Rivette’s camera continues to pan, however, we find that our casual artist is actually the subject of another’s art. A woman on the hotel’s balcony furtively snaps a photo of him, but is noticed by sketcher, who becomes visibly irate. As soon as he confronts her, though, it becomes immediately apparent to us that most of this incident was a ruse. The two artists are lovers, and their coyness was entirely put on. Spurned by the excitement of their charade, they retire to the bedroom. The stunt even continues a bit farther than planned when one of the tourists watching this amorous French drama unfold says to another in mock culture shock, “Well, what do you expect?” This seemingly frivolous episode resonates throughout the rest of the film, since it manages to say much about the relationship between an artist and subject, the secretive, similar natures of art and love, and the need to sometimes create an environment where ever-fleeting inspiration might strike. It’s these themes that come to the fore during rest of the long journey that La Belle Noiseuse takes.”

I was not able to preview Up/Down/Fragile, though I am very curious to see Rivette try his hand at a musical, especially in light of Duelle and Noroît, which contain their fair share of stylized song-and-dance interludes. Rivette scholar Jonathan Rosenbaum reviewed the film on occasion of its Chicago release:

“A whole hour of Up/Down/Fragile passes before the first song-and-dance number. But during that hour Rivette takes a lot of steps—in metaphysical, stylistic, musical, directorial, and choreographic terms—tracing the passage between real life and musical numbers. The same sort of steps are taken throughout the remaining hour and a half of Up/Down/Fragile, sometimes leading up to or away from musical numbers, sometimes not. The metaphysical, stylistic, musical, and directorial steps Rivette takes have everything to do with his legacy as a film critic, despite the fact that he wrote and published criticism only between 1950 and 1969. As the most indefatigable moviegoer of all the Cahiers du Cinéma critics who became directors—a distinguished group including Olivier Assayas, Leos Carax, Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, Luc Moullet, Eric Rohmer, André Téchiné, and François Truffaut, among others—he knows MGM musicals like the back of his hand. But he doesn’t express his knowledge in specific homages or references the way an American cinephile normally would. For Rivette this knowledge is precious because it enhances and poeticizes real life, not because it offers an alternative or escape. Consequently the movie has a documentary roughness—a respect for real durations, for moments that are empty as well as full—that would have been unthinkable in a 50s MGM musical. Moreover, none of the songs is especially memorable, either melodically or in terms of performance (it’s no surprise that there isn’t a sound track album), nor is any of the dancing up to snuff by Hollywood standards. Indeed, some European critics have dismissed Up, Down, Fragile for precisely these reasons, and I have little doubt many of their American counterparts would do the same. Tough luck for them.”