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Jacques Rivette at MOMI: Week 4

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Jacques Rivette at MOMI: Week 4

The Complete Jacques Rivette retrospective enters its fourth week at the Museum of the Moving Image (MOMI) with screenings of three of the director’s lesser-known 80’s works as well as a reportedly seminal masterpiece from the late 1960s.

An in-person case will be made for the latter film, L’amour fou (1968), by Chicago Reader critic and Rivette scholar Jonathan Rosenbaum, who wrote in his capsule review:

“[L’Amour Fou] centers on rehearsals for a production of Racine’s Andromaque and the doomed yet passionate relationship between the director (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) and his actress wife (Bulle Ogier), who leaves the production at the beginning of the film and then festers in paranoid isolation. The rehearsals, filmed by Rivette (in 35-millimeter) and by TV documentarist Andre S. Labarthe (in 16), are real, and the relationship between Kalfon and Ogier is fictional, but this only begins to describe the powerful interfacing of life and art that takes place over the film’s hypnotic, epic unfolding. In the rehearsal space Rivette cuts frequently between the 35- and 16-millimeter footage, juxtaposing two kinds of documentary reality; in the couple’s apartment, filmed only in 35, the oscillation between love and madness, passion and mistrust, builds to several terrifying and awesome climaxes in which the distinctions between life and theater, reality and fiction, become virtually irrelevant. In many ways this is Ogier’s richest, finest performance, and Kalfon keeps pace with her every step of the way. This film captures the dreams and desperation of the 60s like few others, and you emerge from it changed; it’s a life experience as much as a film experience.”

L’amour fou was the first of Rivette’s features to make use of an extended running time (255 minutes); by comparison, the three other films screening this weekend are a walk in the park, none of them longer than 131 minutes (interesting to note that Rivette has never made a feature film under two hours—we must adjust our preconceptions and prejudices accordingly). I was able to preview the director’s masterful adaptation of Wuthering Heights (1985), also called Hurlevent (which translates as “Howling Wind”). From my Slant Magazine review, contributed to the site’s ongoing Rivette feature:

“[Hurlevent] is one of Rivette’s most stripped down works; emotion is secondary to the film’s tight and taut surface (updated to the Cévennes countryside circa the 1930s) where passions flare imperceptibly and a romantic tragedy is performed as if preordained, though this is more than just Céline and Julie Go Boating’s haunted house melodrama played straight. Rivette’s characters are often held captive by the stage (whether real or imagined), so when Catherine (Fabienne Babe) and her farmhand lover Roch (Lucas Belvaux) run through the fields adjacent to an imposing stone homestead (one of the film’s two primary settings), there is a profound sense of meta liberation, of escape beyond the boundaries of narrative (the wind-strewn leaves of grass, counterpointed by the incantatory vocalizations of the Bulgarian choir Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares, might very well be located in the empty margins of the Book of Life). Certain of Rivette’s weaker films assume a window-dressed Christian pose (anxiety of influence, I think, from Hitchcock and Rossellini, among others), but here the spiritual inquiry is entirely genuine. The three dream sequences that near-invisibly signal Hurlevent’s beginning, middle, and end are as much a holy trinity as they are a thematic backbone; the characters wake from these becalmed and psychologically penetrating visions into a nightmarish reality of Escher-like doorways and windows that lead them over a prolonged and circuitous path to destruction.”

Acquarello of Strictly Film School has this to say about Le Pont du Nord (1981), which features the mother/daughter pairing (in service of a seemingly Quixotic quest) of Bulle and Pascale Ogier:

“Integrating the filmmaker’s familiar elements of whimsical, quixotic adventure (Celine and Julie Go Boating), integrated - but unresolved - conspiracy (Gang of Four, Secret Defense, and The Story of Marie and Julien), and liberated bohemianism (La Belle noiseuse, La Religeuse), Le Pont du Nord is an effervescent, ingeniously constructed, and infectiously affectionate paean to the city of Paris. From Baptiste’s (Pascale Ogier) hopeful sentiment of arrival after encircling the statue of the Belfort lion in Denfert-Rochereau (a symbol of French Resistance against the Germans) that is reflected in Marie’s (Bulle Ogier) literal awakening at a random intersection, Jacques Rivette juxtaposes the theme of rebirth against images of Paris in perpetual state of demolition and construction (a state of constant flux and transition that is similarly captured in Jean-Luc Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her) that mirrors Marie’s own existential state after being released from prison and an unresolved past of radicalism. Rivette further uses the recurring image of spirals - the serpentine form of a sculptured dragon, the weaving of spider webs (that also reinforces the deceptive, “non-mystery” quality to the film), the characters’ labyrinthine pursuit of the contents of a mysterious briefcase carried by Marie’s former lover, Julien (Pierre Clémenti), the district map of Paris (that Marie observes to resemble a children’s board game) - to illustrate, not only the inextricability of destiny, but also the inherent impossibility of starting over.”

The odd-man out among the group appears to be Love on the Ground (1984), a Jane Birkin/Geraldine Chaplin theater rehearsal riff that both Neil Young of Film Lounge and Pat Graham of the Chicago Reader find less than satiating. From Graham’s capsule review:

“Another of Jacques Rivette’s airy formal riddles (Celine and Julie Go Boating, Le pont du nord), involving role-playing artifice, Borges-like fantasy, and suggestions of the magical in a world that resists decoding. A trio of actors (Geraldine Chaplin, Jane Birkin, Facundo Bo) gather to perform a playwright’s work in an old, exotic mansion (the wallpaper interiors suggest Larry Poons run riot), but soon find life and theatricality revising each other strangely. Much expressionist-inspired shadow playing here, with a shaggy story line that somehow hangs on the iconographic contrasts of the female leads: Birkin sinuous and wandering, an indefinable androgyne; Chaplin slight, gamin, and precious (it’s not the first time Rivette’s located narrative in the physical and feminine). Unfortunately, not enough of it comes together, and Rivette’s playful openness occasionally results only in playful tedium.”

And from Young’s lambaste:

“Insufferably pretentious claptrap from the ever-erratic Rivette - whose last three films have been the sublime Secret Defense (1998), the so-so Va Savoir (2001) and the tedious Histoire de Marie et Julien (2003). Love on the Ground, in which a pair of actresses (Jane Birkin as Emily, Geraldine Chaplin as Charlotte) become entangled in the machinations of mansion-dwelling playwright Paul (Andre Dussollier), is cut from similarly shoddy cloth as Marie et Julien. Or, to be more precise, both are prime examples of what we should perhaps refer to as les habits neufs de l’Empereur: Rivette’s status as a giant of modern cinema affords him the license to pass off any old tat safe in the knowledge that at least some critics will fall over themselves to hail the complexity of his genius. ... The final straw (for this viewer) arrives in a typically clunky scene which takes place after Emily and Charlotte have fallen out - or is it their characters within the play who have experienced the schism? Fuming at her rival/enemy Charlotte, Emily seizes an egg between her palms and squeezes hard, sending a jet of yolk spurting over her face - a waste of food amid a picture which is, sadly, a waste of everybody’s time.”

Of course, Rivette fanboy David Thomson was no less harsh on the director’s post-Celine and Julie effort Duelle, which this viewer found to be a consummate and invigorating masterpiece. So perhaps with the benefit of some fresh eyes, Love on the Ground will find a little l’amour of its own.