Now over the Out 1 hump (though the legendary serial will have an encore presentation next March), the Museum of the Moving Image’s (MOMI) Complete Jacques Rivette retrospective enters its sixth week with four screenings, one of which is absolutely essential viewing. The Gang of Four (1988) features Bulle Ogier as the delightfully monikered Constance Dumas, an acting teacher who is quickly revealed as something of a quiet tyrant, one who inundates her all-girls performing troupe with a damaging “art-is-life” philosophy. Anna (Fejria Deliba), Claude (Laurence Côte), Joyce (Bernadette Giraud), and Lucia (Inês de Medeiros) are the titular group of young women who travel, day-in/day-out, between their suburban co-operative and Constance’s Paris-based acting school (its blood red walls always-and-often seething with barely contained threat). Rivette emphasizes the cloistered nature of a performer’s life through several interstitial sequences, filmed inside constantly moving trains to nowhere (they might be pendulums futilely swinging back and forth between the same two points). In stark contrast to the liberating outdoor photography of Rivette’s Le Pont du Nord (1981), The Gang of Four is a work composed primarily of near-suffocating, hollowed-out interiors that might almost reflect the characters’ psychological states of mind if there were, indeed, any psychology to reflect.
Outwardly these women are full of life, as curious and given over to exploration as Rivette’s most famed female duo, Céline and Julie. Their camaraderie is infectious, but it turns out to be an unwitting pose, for Constance has so blurred the girls’ ability to distinguish pretense from actuality that they react to each and every real-world situation with a performer’s myopic mindset. Due to the transgressions of their classmate Cécile (Nathalie Richard), the womens’ circle is infiltrated by a cop of many faces (Benoît Régent); at first, he’s as much of a performer as they are, spinning elaborate tales of deceit and deception (including one about a future Rivette subject: the fictional artist Frenhoffer and his painting La Belle noiseuse) as a means of ingratiation. But when his numerous masks fall away and his true intentions are revealed, the girls are unable to deal with him in any realistic context. They react to this interloper as if he is nothing more than a fictional construct and so dispose of him according to Constance’s precepts (in a sequence rife and resonant with some of Rivette’s most disturbing implications about the line separating life and art).
It’s easy for men (at least for those of us who adhere to Andrew Sarris’ cherchez la femme philosophy of cinema) to raise women up as ideals, proffering a macho form of feminist ideology that we blindly believe to be progressive (a future dissertation title for those interested in the subject’s pursuit: “Do Women Need to kick ass to KICK ASS?”), and I think it is exactly this mindset that Rivette is examining in The Gang of Four. Working from the outside in, Rivette and his actresses transform these vacant shells of people into tragically flesh-and-blood human beings. If we respond to their contrived camaraderie (as any cinemagoer is wont to do), our reactions are nonetheless tempered and kept in check by the very fact of the characters’ humanity, which is revealed slowly and disturbingly, layer by layer. No mistake that Constance’s theater suggests a sort of womb—these girls are nurtured over the course of The Gang of Four, finally birthed, at its climax, into a world of absolute uncertainty, into a place where all things familiar are tossed to the wind and they must fend for themselves. The ultimate effect is a frightening one, akin to loosing several of H.R. Giger’s aliens into the general populace, though perhaps more disturbing (and simultaneously elating) is Rivette’s implication that, beneath their varied facades, this quartet possesses an ever-mutating sense of rhyme and reason, a collective conscience of sorts that, in Constance’s absence, might not be so easily molded to murderous consequence.
The Gang of Four was the only film I was able to preview, so I leave thoughts and analyses of the rest of the weekend’s screenings to others. The little-seen Merry-Go-Round features Joe Dallesandro and Maria Schneider in what the Museum capsule describes as “an elaborate mystery, [in which] a New Yorker [is] summoned to Paris to search for a missing woman.” Part of an account from JoeDallesandro.com:
“As Joe points out, Merry-Go-Round was heading for the same running time stratosphere. And this on top of the tensions that were running high on the set because no one knew what direction the haphazard project was going. There were also off-camera personal crises complicating the lives of stars Dallesandro (drugs), Maria Schneider (suicidal ideation), and the director himself (on the verge of a nervous breakdown). It was only when Joe fell off a motorcycle and injured his coccyx that fate happily intervened on the frustrating shoot. “I didn’t want to, but it was the doctor’s advice that I stop,” Joe recalls. “I’m the kind of actor that if there’s a limb hanging off me, I’m still going to work. The only way any of us could have left the film and got a breather from it, though, was for me to be accidentally injured like that, where the insurance then came in and paid everybody. That’s what happened. Everyone got paid while I was healing. Rivette was going nutty, and Maria was attempting suicide, and so my crack-up gave us a week to calm down and get it together. Rivette was trying to make this movie last forever—we shot a ton of footage—and it was turning out to be one of those 24 hour movies.”“
The last two films are shorter versions of longer Rivette works that the director himself helped to create (Rivette considers them both separate entities, removed from their extended counterparts and to be judged accordingly). Divertimento is a two-hour version of Rivette’s four-hour Cannes Grand Prize winner La Belle noiseuse, created only from alternate takes and unused footage, while Out 1: Spectre is a four-hour abridgement of the thirteen-hour Out 1. From Vincent Canby’s New York Times review of Divertimento:
““Divertimento,” opening today at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, is a straight-faced bit of tomfoolery sent out under the name of Jacques Rivette. He is the French director of “La Belle Noiseuse,” the hypnotically beautiful, numbing four-hour film, released here in 1991, about the angst of a great, if severely blocked, painter. ... Unfortunately, the artist’s personal problems are the creakiest part of “La Belle Noiseuse.” “Divertimento” is now a sort of classy soap opera, with more soap than opera. Michel Piccoli is still very fine as the aging painter and Emmanuelle Béart a vision as his model. The re-editing has not helped Jane Birkin’s performance as the artist’s aging waif of a wife. The eliminated material gave the audience some sense of what she was up against: living with a self-centered artist who put his art ahead of everything. In this new cut, she appears to be the kind of drudge who asks to be stepped on so she can be noble by not complaining. She would drive Lassie to drink.”
And Jonathan Rosenbaum, slightly more forgiving:
“For all its limitations as a depiction of the way artists work, the longer version owes much of its power to its sense of duration, which ultimately brings one closer to the characters; this snappier, slicker version, more fluid as storytelling, has plenty of virtues of its own, but it’s less likely to linger as long in the mind. Both versions can be read as a sort of apologia on Rivette’s part explaining why he’s backed away from the obsessive intensity of his 60s and 70s work. But he’s still a master, and even this relatively minor effort shows why.”
Zach Campbell offers an excellent read of Out 1: Spectre. From his write-up on Elusive Lucidity:
“One of the most interesting things I came away with from the film was triggered by a comment that Dan [Sallitt] made between reel changes about how Rivette and Rohmer both make a lot of films about characters trying to figure out some big truth. The major difference as I see it, however, is that Rohmer’s characters are searching for what we might simplistically call a ’center,’ a stable something that might dictate moral or ethical behavior. Rivette is interested in esoteric knowledge and its presence on the fringes of everyday life: he’s both gnostic and skeptic (we might say he’s skeptical by virtue first of his fascination with performance & improvisation, and his relative disinterest in “naturalism” or psychology) whereas Rohmer’s approach speaks of his much more historically old-fashioned (i.e., conservative) ideas about society & truth. Where we go from there, testing and challenging and unpacking this observation/supposition, well, I’m not sure ... but I thought I’d throw it out there.”
And Rosenbaum again, to close things out:
“Complicating the textual status of Out 1 still further is the 255-minute Out 1: Spectre (1972), which Rivette spent the better part of a year editing out of the original material—not so much a digest of the longer film as a different work with a substantially different structure and tone. Part of the fascinating difference between the two films can be seen in the ways that identical footage can often carry disparate meanings and perform radically different dramatic and narrative functions according to its separate placement in each film. (The opening shot of Spectre, for instance, occurs almost three hours into the serial. One of the more striking differences in the long version is that Michel Lonsdale, the director of one of the film’s two theater groups, emerges as the central character—not only because of his role in guiding his group’s improvisations and psychic self-explorations, but also because his ambiguous role as a rather infantile patriarch becomes pivotal to the overall movement of the plot.)”