The Director as Psychoanalyst: An Interview with Jacques Rivette
John Hughes

Reproduced from Rouge, edited by Helen Bandis, Adrian Martin and Grant McDonald. Published in Rouge 4 (2004) as "John Hughes On (And With) Jacques Rivette" by Jonathan Rosenbaum. Available online at

I met both Luis Buñuel and Jacques Rivette for the first time during the 1974 New York Film Festival, and the real critical meat of the affair seemed to be the fact that the only films in the Festival worth panting over (although Bresson gave us a sigh, Fassbinder a tortured frown) were Buñuel's difficult and severe The Phantom of Liberty (1974) and Rivette's pair of epic comedies: Out 1: Spectre (1972) and Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974). It was clear that final honours were to descend on either the Wise Old Owl or the Cheshire Cat, although the former remained classical and courteous, while the latter (in Spectre) had become one of cinema's greatest metaphysical pranksters. Luis had purified The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) in order to evoke The Milky Way (1969), while Jacques had merged the epic L'Amour fou (1968) with the convoluted concerns of Paris nous appartient (1960). But it was too early to think of ultimate honours, perhaps because the two directors were so dissimilar. At least one thing was certain a few moments after I began to speak with Rivette: the Cheshire Cat is really Lewis Carroll in disguise.

JOHN HUGHES: Out 1: Spectre is an exercise in the art of merging fantasy with (or perhaps of making it emerge from) what seems to us as 'reality'. It's hard to imagine what the original TV-oriented version of the thirteen hours would do to the mind. It's a cinema with a magic that reminds us of both Godard and Griffith, the surreal and the glowingly real. Jonathan Rosenbaum has, I think, revealed the central dialectic of Spectre. It's Lang (Fate) versus Renoir (freedom).

JACQUES RIVETTE: Oh, you could point to a lot of other great directors. But the principle of the story of Spectre could have come from one of Lang's early films. And one might also say that spirit of the actors is that of Renoir. When we began to shoot Céline and Julie, we continually thought of Renoir and Hitchcock, but only in order to give the film a certain initial orientation. Because of the improvisational nature of Out we almost never thought of other directors.

JH: But Spectre looks like a more controlled film than Céline and Julie in many ways.

JR: Yes, of course. This is because the shorter version is a kind of montage of carefully chosen elements from the thirteen-hour totality of Out. Nevertheless, we shot Out in a very adventurous way. We told the actors only the essential aspects of each sequence, and the rest was improvisation. In Céline and Julie there is almost no improvisation, the scenes were carefully constructed beforehand, and the racy, zigzag character of the film is completely premeditated.

JH: You mentioned Hitchcock in reference to Céline and Julie, but weren't other influences equally important? For example, in the meeting-in-the-park episode, the style reminded me of Nick Ray, while the content was pure Hawks.

JR: Yes, but I was wondering what Hawks film you had in mind?

JH: Any of his reversal-of-sexual-roles comedies. Perhaps Bringing Up Baby (1938).

JR: No, I wasn't conscious of that at all. The guiding principle of Céline and Julie is very conventional: it is the spirit of traditional comedy. The changing of roles and costumes, the discovery of the other within the self, etc., are aspects of classical comedy and especially of the commedia dell'arte which probably influenced Hawks as much in Bringing Up Baby as it did in me in Céline and Julie. The interplay of roles that takes place between the two girls is similar to the costume-changes of Columbine in the commedia dell'arte.

JH: Would you agree with the Eric Rohmer character in the film who seems to see the Balzacian conspiracy theme as a kind of Hitchcockian MacGuffin?

JR: Oh, maybe, but it's very hard for me to answer that! I don't know! ... Anyway, before the shooting of Out, Balzac's History of the Thirteen was a point of departure for both myself and the actors. But when the shooting had begun we found that the story had become reality in the individual characters and their interrelationships. Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark followed a similar parabola: it began as a kind of joke and was then taken apart and reassembled amidst the improvisatory momentum of the film.

JH: But these elements are more than accidental, for they also relate quite clearly to your earlier films. You know, of course, of that old idea that chance equals necessity...

JR: I don't know if I agree with that as a generalisation, but it is certainly applicable to cinema.

JH: The notion of chance, of unpredictability, is present in the final, and perhaps the most important, image in Spectre: Jean-Pierre Léaud's toying with the tiny Eiffel Tower reproduction. Each flick of his finger causes the toy to oscillate an indefinite number of times, but he refuses to count any higher than thirteen, which is the number of supposed 'conspirators' whom Léaud is hunting. It also seems to represent Freud's obsessive-compulsive syndrome, which is certainly related to Léaud's (Colin's) hysteria and paranoia.

JR: This was an unimportant scene lost somewhere in the middle of the thirteen-hour version. When I began cutting up Out, I first decided what were to be the first and last shots of Out 1: Spectre. I knew right away that the scene with Léaud and the toy would have to be the end. The meaning which it has in Spectre, and to which you have alluded, is totally different from the impact of this scene in Out.

JH: What happens to Colin in the longer version?

JR: There is a sequence where we see Colin near madness, banging his head against the wall. (1) Then he recovers mysteriously and visits his old friend, Warok (Jean Bouise). He says that he has understood and transcended the story of the thirteen, that it doesn't bother him any more. He says that he intends to lead a happy life in the future, but after he leaves Warok we see him dancing madly about in the streets with his harmonica. Then we see him begging, posing as a deaf mute as in the beginning of the film.

JH: Is there any political significance to Colin's paranoia? After all, Hitler was someone who was anxious to expose conspiracies...

JR: And he wasn't the only one! ... However, I wasn't really thinking of Mr. Hitler. But you know there are a great many paranoiacs in Paris...

JH: Speaking of politics, I felt that Céline and Julie, on at least one level, marked an advance beyond Out and your previous work. I was very impressed by the way in which Juliet Berto and Dominique Labourier, in the midst of the dream-sequences in the house, suddenly become aware of the confused network of class relations that exist there. They become servants...

JR: Perhaps. I don't know. The world 'politics' is too wide an idea for me. But in some of the sequences in Out we thought of certain political implications. The Berto character is politicised in the sense that she speaks differently, her language patterns differ from those of the other actors. She has a 'popular', although not necessarily proletarian, type of speech. She is a marginal kind of character who gets caught up in the centre of events. But neither Spectre nor Céline and Julie present political ideas in their traditional sense. The characters are totally fictional, but we did try to connect them a little with the contemporary realities of life in Paris.

JH: But the ending of Céline and Julie is a revolution of sorts -- although perhaps deriving out of the Groucho category of Marxism... At least your work is a healthy demystification of what I call 'the school of the return of the repressed'.

JR: You mean Freud's notion of the return of the repressed instincts? What do you mean?

JH: You know, Last Tango in Paris (1973), La Grande Bouffe (1973), many contemporary films that show the bourgeoisie regressing to the hilt in excrement, food and sex. Although I admire these films to a certain extent, it seems to me that you (and others, such as Buñuel and Godard) have gone on to a more analytical awareness of this tragicomic genre.

JR: Yes, and do you know how the return of the repressed applies to Out? During the editing we had a lot of fun dealing with those characters, such as Pierre and Igor, who are spoken of in Spectre but who are never seen! Where Igor is spoken of in the film you quite literally have the repressed returning!

JH: Yes, Igor is the 'Other' in Jacques Lacan's or R.D. Laing's terminology... You know, the long scarf that he leaves behind, and the fact that Bulle Ogier fears that he may strangle her...

JR: But that was all improvised! It was a nice day, the sun was perfect, and we shot about an hour's worth of improvised dialogue between the two girls. I like this way of shooting because the unexpected can overwhelm your preconceptions. At a certain point, the actor, like the patient in psychoanalysis, falls into a kind of trance and says things -- such as Bulle's talk about the strangling -- that suddenly become an integral part of the film. I then select such moments from the footage and add them to the final version. I think that the cinema, even at its most naturalistic, is always secretly involved in levels of dream and fantasy, and that we must see the so-called director as a kind of psychoanalyst. Like the psychoanalyst, the director does not talk, he listens -- but this is, of course, just a metaphor.

JH: The black-and-white photos of the actors that continually break into Spectre allow us to look at their fantasies in a different way. Are they a form of distanciation device?

JR: Yes, they are very important -- I spent most of the editing time of Spectre selecting them. They should be seen as a kind of machine, an electronic computer that interrupts the general dream of the characters in Spectre.

JH: Did Jean-Pierre Oudart's conception of 'suture' influence your use of these photographs? Your awareness of the film as dream-fantasy and of the psychoanalytical aspects of point-of-view certainly are close to Oudart's ideas.

JR: I read Oudart's suture articles after finishing the editing of Spectre. But for some time his ideas had been in the air within our little circle in Paris. So I suppose there is some kind of connection, but I couldn't specify any direct influence. Roland Barthes' S/Z was also in the air at the time, but I didn't read it until much later. I have read a great deal of Lacan, but he's very difficult...

JH: Have you read Lacan's 'The Mirror Phase'? That shot of Bulle in front of the mirror near the end of Spectre reminded me of Lacan.

JR: I have read this very dense essay, but it has nothing to do with that shot. The mirror was in the house where we were shooting, and I used it.

JH: But the theme of mirror images is as important in your work as it is in the very Lacanesque films of Marguerite Duras...

JR: I admire her work, and it might interest you to know that her next film [India Song] is being shot entirely through a mirror! By the way, did you notice the exercises of the acting troupe in Spectre?

JH: Yes, where one actor mirrors the other's gestures. As in that old Marx Brothers bit...

JR: Precisely. It's an exercise from Grotowski or Peter Brook or the Living Theatre. We call it 'The Mirror Exercise'. There's a lot more of that in the thirteen-hour version.

JH: The way that the stills both break into yet maintain the continuity of the takes in Spectre reminded me of Renoir's experiments with multiple cameras in The Testament of Dr Cordelier (1961) and Picnic on the Grass (1959).

JR: Yes, but of course there is a difference. I only used one camera. The idea of continuity is for me a problem concerning the duration of the take. I like to cut just before the emotional momentum of the shot is exhausted.

JH: I'm very interested in the kind of colour impressionism that I find in your new films. It reminds me of Duras and of Jean-Marie Straub's Othon, and I think this impressionism involves an openness to colour and light that is original and astonishing. The play between blues and browns in Spectre runs the gamut from total accident to total control...

JR: Both Spectre and Céline and Julie were shot in 16mm. We used the Eclair camera and a Nagra for the sound. At least part of the impressionism you see in Duras and Straub (who, by the way, was totally hypnotised by a screening of the thirteen-hour Out) comes from their low-budget techniques. I aim at something a little different in my recent films, you might almost say that I am trying to bring back the old MGM Technicolor! I even think that the colours of Out would please a Natalie Kalmus [Hollywood colour consultant 1933-49] -- although the print of Spectre at the Festival was too dark, it favoured those blues and browns too much... I used the zoom in Céline and Julie only in order to move the camera closer for successive takes. As for lenses, the technicians on the set called me 'Mr. Twenty-Five' because I almost always use the twenty-five millimetre lens!

JH: Cinema has, over the years, produced its share of 'epics', and yet we usually think of the medium as having a dramatic, as opposed to epic, orientation. Shakespeare as opposed to Homer. And yet your recent films are unabashedly epic in scale, although this is counter-balanced by a certain intimacy...

JR: In all of my films I have been fascinated by the interaction between a great many characters. You might call this an epic approach in contrast to a restricted focus on only a few characters. I like the audience to be aware of a great many characters hanging about on the edges of the action. And yet I have been influenced by the theatre a great deal, as you can see in my films. Before making Paris nous appartient, I read many plays by the Jacobean dramatists: Ford, Cyril Tourneur, etc. The Revenger's Tragedy was very important to me at that point. Do you know Raymond Queneau?

JH: Zazie, etc.

JR: When you called my work epic a moment ago, you reminded me of Queneau's theory that there are two categories of the novel: those that derive from the Iliad, and those that descend from the Odyssey. The former have to do with battles and strife; the latter concern themselves with strange voyages, with discovery and return, and with the way these things are reported. My films are obviously epic in the Odyssean manner.

JH: In other words, Rossellini instead of Vidor and DeMille.

JR: Or Dostoyevsky as opposed to Balzac.

JH: Speaking of Rossellini, have you seen The Age of the Medici?

JR: No, The Rise to Power of Louis XIV is the only one of the late films I have seen. But I would like to...

JH: Rossellini's films are of course all concerned with inward and outward voyages, and in The Age of the Medici he journeys into the metaphysical obscurities of Renaissance perspective. Is this not also present in the conclusion of Spectre where Ogier's multitudinous reflections throng the mirror, and then suddenly her shoulder cuts into the frame?

JR: I don't know. I'll tell you after I see The Age of the Medici. By the way, our discussion of the epic and dramatic principles neglected the cinema. I, for one, have been very influenced by the theatricality of a director like George Cukor.

JH: A Double Life is a strangely complex Cukor film that always makes me think of L'Amour fou.

JR: I can hardly remember that one, but Sylvia Scarlett has always been important for me.

JH: The acting style in your new films is certainly Cukoresque.

JR: Yes, but I go a bit further in the direction of improvisation. After we had decided on the conception of a scene in Out, we would shoot immediately, without text or rehearsal. There was, however, usually a text and very often rehearsals for Céline and Julie.

JH: You've seen a lot of Straub's work. Isn't it strange that you and Straub begin with totally opposed ideas of the importance of the text, and yet you end up with...

JR: The same thing! Of course, I admire Straub a great deal.

JH: Despite (or perhaps because of) the paranoid character played by Léaud in Spectre I was amazed at the control of this most brilliant of actors -- his acting style is totally Brechtian. The very madness of the character he played enabled Léaud to shape an utterly lucid style, which at times resembled the techniques of Chinese theatre.

JR: All of the actors I work with are 'physical'. They act more with their bodies than with their faces. I don't like actors who are heavily into psychology.

JH: Are you very much aware of Brecht?

JR: Of course, but the Chinese theatre effect comes (for me) as much from the Japanese cinema as it does from Brecht: Mizoguchi, Ozu, etc. I have also found that my best actors are like beautiful animals. I found that Berto is just like a cat. Léaud has the suppleness and beauty of movement of some unknown, beautiful beast.

JH: What inspired that very erotic shot of Berto with the two daggers? Were you thinking, perhaps, of Anna Karina and the scissors in Pierrot le fou (1965)?

JR: It's possible. It probably derives from similar sequences that preceded it in Out. We got together to shoot a scene, and somebody came up with the two daggers, along with other props that we didn't use. I asked Berto to play with the daggers in a way that would illuminate the character of Frédérique.

JH: Michael Lonsdale, as one of theatre directors in Out, says that Pierre would be able to play the part of Prometheus. Lonsdale is almost omniscient in relation to the other characters, is he not?

JR: Lonsdale is very important; he is the fulcrum or axis by means of which I was able to play with the interrelationships of the characters. Lonsdale himself was very involved in the performances of the other actors, and after the filming of the exercise sequences he would often discuss the film in ways that reminded me of the Renoir with his actors. Lonsdale is, in a sense, the central metteur en scène figure in Out, and he could certainly become a fine film director in his own right. And he will always be a formidably intelligent and aware actor.

JH: The surrealism that is latent in Spectre bursts forth in Céline and Julie, especially during the final 'boating' scenes. Were you thinking of Buñuel?

JR: No, not really. But now that you mention it, I was very moved by the interplay between dream and reality in Discreet Charm. You are probably right about that. This interplay provides, for me, a great deal of fun during the shooting. And shooting a film should always be a form of play, something that might be seen as a drug or as a game. Even during the 'breakdown' scenes near the end of L'Amour fou I was not being tragic as many people thought. I was joking, having fun, and so was Bulle. It's just a movie, not some kind of cinéma-vérité!

JH: Céline and Julie is certainly a fun movie...

JR: Yes, but there is also a certain terror. Not in the tradition of Frankenstein films but more in the line of Jacques Tourneur. I Walked with a Zombie, Cat People, etc, are films that are intelligent and also stunningly crafted.

JH: In both of your new films there is a use of the close-up that reminds me of something you once said about Nick Ray...

JR: I don't discuss my previous writings, and I disagree with or have forgotten most of them. I still admire Rossellini, Ray, Renoir, Hitchcock, but I now have entirely different reasons for liking them.

JH: The strange blend of Lang and Renoir (or Ray and Rossellini) in Spectre is nowhere more evident than in the conversation between Lonsdale and the others under that Langesque blue bridge (although it also resembles the bridge in Party Girl) that appears near the end of the film.

JR: It's over the Seine at the point where you drive past the large building that contains the offices of the State-owned French television network. They are the ones who refused to show the original thirteen installments of Out.

JH: There's a smaller version of the Statue of Liberty near that building.

JR: Yes, there's a little Statue of Liberty at that very spot. Perhaps because there is very little liberty to be found in the French television offices.

  1. This sequence was subsequently deleted by Rivette from the complete version of Out 1 publicly presented in 1989. (Rouge Ed.)

Originally appeared in Rear Window 1 (Spring 1975). Reproduced from Rouge, edited by Helen Bandis, Adrian Martin and Grant McDonald. Published in Rouge 4 (2004) as "John Hughes On (And With) Jacques Rivette" by Jonathan Rosenbaum. Available online at