The entirety of the fifth weekend of The Museum of the Moving Image’s Jacques Rivette retrospective is given over to the near-mythic eight episode serial Out 1 (1971), receiving its much-belated stateside premiere a full thirty-five years after its completion. Demand was so high for the screenings (the first four episodes show on Saturday, December 9th, the remaining four on Sunday, December 10th) that tickets have already sold out. (I’ve been informed by curator David Schwartz that the museum has scheduled an encore showing of the serial, same four-episode per day presentation, for March 3rd and 4th of next year.) If I put much stock in the death-of-cinema proclamations that have been making the rounds these past few years, I might view this as a heartening resurgence of a supposedly moribund form of cinephilia, of a celluloid-obsessed pasión that a good number of writers (doing their best Hemingway-era Gertrude Stein by way of Marx-era Margaret Dumont) would have us believe fizzled out with the very counterculture that Rivette chronicles in Out 1.
When you immerse yourself in the retrospective beat, it quickly becomes clear that this viewpoint’s all so much bullshit. Perhaps cinephiles have retreated more and more into themselves of late: Even with the occasional interruptions (dis)courtesy of indiscriminate old-biddy bag crinklers and fumbling oopsie-doodle cellphone owners, going to these films now is very much like attending a highly introspective religious ceremony. We’re more internalized now (in part, I’d argue, because of an increased amount of external stimulus and distraction that we rarely ask for), but that doesn’t mean we aren’t observant and attuned when the opportunity presents itself. In spite of all the generational proclamations to the contrary, I express my heartfelt belief in the perpetual continuance of our cinephilic longings, and—if we’re to take Out 1 as evidence—I think Rivette believes it too.
Rivette’s films typically indulge the ultimate of all conspiracy theories (the idea that everything is connected and nothing is connected—an ideological outgrowth, I suspect, of his highly dubious belief that “everything an actor does is interesting”) and to no really resonant effect beyond a short-term commentary on a particular moment in time. Rivette isn’t much of a forward-thinker: he’s stubbornly grounded in the here and now, and this is as much a liability as it is a benefit. In the case of Out 1, it’s a benefit. For most of its thirteen-hour running time (in fact, for all but its last two seconds) Out 1 is a prolonged death-rattle, as much a document as a fiction, that charts the demise of the individual and collective members of a Parisian cultural movement scattered to the wind (implicitly, we’re led to believe) by the lingering turmoil of May ’68.
The characters are many and easily categorized at the outset. They’re either members of dueling theater troupes, one led by Michèle Moretti’s Lili, the other by Michael Lonsdale’s Thomas, rehearsing plays by Aeschylus (Seven Against Thebes and Prometheus Bound, respectively) or they’re resolute loners like Frédérique (Juliet Berto) and Colin (Jean-Pierre Léaud, precognitively channeling Borat Sagdiyev) who wander the streets and hustle city residents for cash. The first episode is all setup, though it plays to Rivette’s strengths as an observer of ritual. As much as these people are disconnected from each other, there’s something in their movements through the film’s space—always treading a fine line between sanity and insanity—that simultaneously suggests they are all entrapped in a self-same web of deceit and paranoia. When Frédérique nonchalantly pulls out a gun at the episode’s close (as it takes Céline and Julie three hours to go boating, it takes near twelve hours for this antique revolver to fire a single shot) the dividing walls have been breached and the slow collapse of Out 1’s tenuous civilization begins. Were it not already taken, a good alternate title for Rivette’s film might be Babel.
The destruction of the characters’ world in Out 1 is slow and ponderous, often a result of their own willful and stagnant ignorance. Thomas’ troupe, ever in search of an elusive epiphany, enact so many mock-pagan acting exercises over the course of the film that they effectively lose sight of the play they’re supposed to perform (a trope taken from Rivette’s highly flawed L’Amour fou and improved immeasurably upon here). A similar fate befalls Lili’s troupe, so obsessed with the minute details and mechanistic technique of performance that they unwittingly allow an infectious greed to get the better of them. Colin moves continually forward on his own quixotic quest—attempting to unravel the mystery of the film’s Balzac-derived shadow group, The Thirteen—until he basically just stops (according to Jonathan Rosenbaum, Rivette cut out a significant climactic sequence where Colin has a nervous breakdown because it too closely touched on Léaud’s own personal problems). The only character who follows things through to an actual end (and a tragic one at that) is Frédérique, yet her final moments—where the sleepy-eyed Berto channels her inner Feuillade—are thrilling in ways that bring about perverse sort of emotional closure to Rivette’s opus.
Yet this suggests that Rivette is following traditional narrative byways in Out 1, which is not at all the case. This is a more generous and inviting film (equal parts neorealism and Lewis Carroll) that lives up to the complex implications of its now-removed subtitle, Noli me tangere. The story goes that Rivette placed this Latin slogan (which literally translates as “touch me not”) on the Out 1 workprint as a sort of half-jest after the French television station that commissioned the film refused to air it. It no longer appears on the well-preserved 16mm print that is reportedly the only existing version of the complete film, but the phrase’s absence speaks volumes, especially in light of its source—a line of dialogue from the New Testament’s Gospel According to John, Chapter 20, Verse 17, spoken by Jesus Christ to Mary Magdalene (“Jesus said to her, ’Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”). Even in revised standard English the verse retains its density; like Out 1 it simultaneously sets up and smashes a variety of oppositions, though the question lingers in its aftermath: What remains? Perhaps that half-rhetorical can be answered—per another Rosenbaum observation—by the final, resurrective line of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow, which the final seconds of Out 1, from a visual standpoint, quite evidently resemble: “Now everybody– –”