Jacques Rivette's Classical Illusion
Philip Watts

In a 1953 essay praising Howard Hawks, Jacques Rivette concludes with this startling line: "The father of Red River and Only Angels Have Wings is none other than Corneille" (Hillier 130). The parallel between Hawks and the author of the 1660 "Discourses on Tragedy" is not obvious, nor, for that matter, is Rivette's enthusiasm for the rules of classical theatre. Of all the filmmakers associated with the French New Wave, Rivette has consistently been singled out as the most unrelenting in his experiments with narrative, the most willing to stretch time and the spectator's patience, and the most likely to interrupt the logical sequencing of actions with what Serge Daney has called a "booby-trapped plot" (Daney 101). Why, then, the references here and elsewhere to Corneille?

My starting hypothesis is that film criticism in France from 1944 to the beginning of the New Wave, was dominated by a return of classical aesthetic criteria. Classicism is, of course, a forbiddingly protean term, which often serves more for its symbolic efficiency than its descriptive precision. Still, it can be useful to characterize the work of a group of critics who, though modernist in their sensibility argued for an aesthetic whose dominant values were order, simplicity, balance, restraint, a cult of beauty, and rhetorical transparency. André Bazin, for instance, while arguing for the complexity and impurity of cinema, nonetheless repeatedly used terms such as "balance," "order," "clarity" as positive descriptors of the films he defended. Indeed, these markers are at the very core of Bazin's defense of neo-realism. In his famous 1955 letter to the editor of Italy's Cinema Nuovo, Bazin writes that Rossellini's neo-realism is the art of paring the real down to its essentials, "in order to get at the totality in its simplicity" (What is Cinema? 101). And in his essay on Rossellini's Europe 51, Bazin reiterates this judgment calling Rossellini's film, "the equivalent of a strict and austere writing, pared down to the point of asceticism. Neo-realism," Bazin concludes, "attains the abstraction of classicism" (Bazin at Work 361). Now, this may be a particularly Jansenist understanding of cinema, but Bazin wasn't alone in turning to this terminology. In 1950, the communist critic Jean-Charles Tacchella wrote this about one of Alexandre Stolper's films: "Cinema has everything to gain in adopting aesthetic sobriety rather than spreading itself thin with dramatic imbroglios. The greater the purity of its action, the greater the film is [...] American cinema [...] never seems to be able to resist the temptation of accumulating secondary plots and useless effects. [Stopler's] film is pure [...] Its classical sobriety evokes that of John Ford's The Lost Patrol." Contradictions never bothered Tacchella. He cites The Lost Patrol to support his criticism of American film and drafts John Ford into the communist brigades. Still his use of terms such as "classical sobriety" is one more instance of a set of dominant aesthetic criteria that can be found everywhere in France from Rohmer's "taste for beauty" to Renoir's Golden Coach, from the covers of L'Ecran français to the back pages of Cinémonde.

Classical stylistic models may signal a form of cultural retrenchment by the critics of a nation on the verge of losing an empire and being engulfed by another. Praising the "classical sobriety" of a film -- whether that film came from Hollywood, Italy, Moscow, or Paris -- may have meant both recuperating it in a sort of aesthetic longue durée of the French national style and attempting, precisely at the moment of national revolutions against France, to throw, what Kristin Ross has called a "cosmetic discursive blanket" (114) over the crimes of colonialism. 1950s neo-classicism may also have been a response to the trauma of war, a desire for an aesthetic of order, calm and simplicity after the horrors of World War II. Perhaps, following Gilles Deleuze, we could say that the postwar neo-classicism was in keeping with General De Gaulle's ambition at the end of World War II to normalize France, restore national traditions and erase the internal conflicts that had split the country during the occupation (Cinema 1, 211). Certainly, both these effects were tied, in the minds of film critics, to an attempt to confer to cinema a cultural prestige that French literary culture was still unwilling to give to the movies.

Rivette's engagement with classical forms has to do with cultural prestige but also with questioning the distribution of identities and power in cold war France. For Jean Gruault, Rivette's friend and the screenwriter of Paris Belongs to Us, Rivette was "the world's greatest Corneille specialist" (144) and indeed, from his earliest criticism to Claire Denis's 1990 film Jacques Rivette le veilleur, Rivette is reading, referring to, reciting and rewriting Corneille. One of Rivette's first articles in the Cahiers du cinéma was "The Genius of Howard Hawks" published in May 1953. Ostensibly a review of Monkey Business, the article insists upon what Rivette calls the "fusing" (126) of comedy and drama in Hawks' films. A comedy such as Monkey Business "chronicle[s] the fatal stages in the degradation of a superior mind," while, according to Rivette, we laugh all the way through The Big Sleep (126). Now, for this fusion of tone to happen there must be a strict application of what Rivette calls "the rule of continuity" (128). Hawks' mixed tone can only work if there is "no flashback, no ellipsis" (128). Perhaps the word "continuity" here refers to "continuity editing." More likely, however, in writing "continuity" Rivette was thinking of "unity," and in particular Pierre Corneille's famous discourse on the three unities, published in 1660, and which has since held the place of the manifesto of French classical theatre. In describing Hawks' films, Rivette talks about time and place and says in particular that the characters in Hawks' films are "confined to a [three] settings" (129). This sounds very much like Corneille's prescription that the unity of place be respected by limiting the characters to "two or three particular places" (80). Rivette's formulation on continuity in Hawks is a very precise reiteration of Corneille's prescription of "unity of place" in the classical theatre. Indeed, two pages later, Rivette concludes his article by saying that though Hawks may be a modern, he is a realist who "gives the modern sensibility a classical conscience. The father of Red River and Only Angels Have Wings," writes Rivette, "is none other than Corneille" (130).

Two years later in a defense of Howard Hawks' ill-fated epic Land of the Pharaohs, Rivette writes that what ties together all of Hawks' films, what makes of the Hollywood director an auteur is precisely his heroes' "classical virtues -- nobility, insolence, ruse, intelligence," virtues, Rivette concludes, that are straight out of Corneille. Land of the Pharaohs can only be understand in comparison to Corneille's 1644 tragedy La mort de Pompée, a play revived in Paris in 1955 and, according to Rivette, just as misunderstood by French critics as was Hawks' late epic. The title of Rivette's short article, "Après Agésilas" allows Rivette to rework a somewhat obscure 17th century quarrel during which the satirist Nicolas Boileau skewered Corneille's last plays with the epigram: "Après Agésilas, hélas. Après Attila, hola!" To make things even more recondite, Rivette refers to Boileau by his rarely used surname Despereaux, and concludes by advising his readers to reject Boileau's criticism of Corneille and to admire the genius of Hawks' late works. Rivette's scholarly bravado, his antiquarian's delight in detail show the extent to which he inhabited Corneille's theatre as he was putting together his early theory of cinema.(1)

Rivette's work cannot be reduced to an instance of postwar neo-classicism, however. In April 1955, Rivette published his famous "Letter on Rossellini" in which he described the Italian director as "the most modern of film-makers," (192) and the terms he uses to portray Rossellini are strikingly anti-classical. In a telling moment in this article, Rivette sets up an opposition between films "which begin and end," and films that are like "rivers flowing" and "curtains falling to perpetuity" (194). Into the first category, Rivette places the films of Hawks, Murnau, Nicholas Ray, D.W. Griffith and Hitchcock, films that strictly adhere to the rules of their genres, that carry a story until "everything has been restored to peace and order," and that inevitably end in "deaths, marriage or a revelation" (194). These are films, in a word, whose plot is structured according to the rules established in Aristotle's Poetics and reiterated by Corneille in his three discourses on tragedy. These are the films which, Rivette tells us, end with a "revelation" -- Rivette uses the word "vérité," truth -- that is a moment akin to the truth of recognition, which, for Aristotle, and for Corneille after him was the deciding moment of plot. Opposed to this Aristotelian aesthetic are Rossellini's films which abandon "demonstration," and the "perfidies of argumentation" (199), in order to retain a secret at their core. "Rossellini does not demonstrate, he shows" "Rossellini ne démontre pas, il montre" (200).

This opposition between the logic of plot and the aesthetic of the image is but one of the forms that has made cinema into what Jacques Rancière has called a "contradictory fable." On the one hand we find what Rancière calls the "representative regime" in which signification is tied to the classical order and based on Aristotle's theory of mimesis and recognition. This "representative regime," is characterized by three elements: it strictly obeys the hierarchy of genres; it develops ordered narratives that lead toward a resolution; and it delivers moments of recognition, these instances of anagnorisis when a character passes from state of ignorance to a state of knowledge. (2) On the other hand, Rancière identifies what he calls the "aesthetic regime," initiated by the writings of Friedrich Schiller and more or less associated with romanticism and modernism. This silent revolution introduced an art which, far from respecting the hierarchy of genres, gives voice to everything that is perceptible and in which everything speaks, from Novalis's world of minerals to Duchamp's Fontaine. For Rancière, if cinema is a "contradictory fable" it is precisely because within the same film we can find traces of both the representative order -- in particular the well-ordered construction of plot, with a beginning a middle and an end -- and of the aesthetic regime -- these moments when the film seems to break away from its logical construction and replaces recognition with mystery. And it is precisely these moments that allow the work of art to participate in a reconfiguration of the social and political order of the day.

This tension between plot and appearance, between proving and showing structures Paris Belongs to Us, and allows us to understand Rivette's film as a work of art that questions and redistributes the images and discourses of its times. Paris Belongs to Us is articulated along a fault line between a Corneillian plot -- "with a beginning and an end" -- and a story that rests on "secrets." This is Rivette's classical illusion and it is precisely at the moments when Paris Belongs to Us slips from the classical plot into the realm of misrecognition that we can understand Rivette's movie as a brilliant reflection on the secrets and plots of the cold war.

Rivette enthusiasts like to point out that he filmed Paris Belongs to Us over the course of three years, from 1957 to 1960, with film stock lifted from Claude Chabrol and money borrowed from François Truffaut. The film is long -- 139 minutes -- and languorous, but remarkably faithful to rules of plot as Aristotle defined them and Corneille reiterated them. The movie tells the story of Anne Goupil (Betty Schneider) a young theatre student, who meets and befriends a director, Gérard Lenz (Gianni Esposito). At the funeral for a dead Spanish revolutionary, Anne is warned by Philip Kaufman (Daniel Crohem), an American journalist kicked out of the US by the House Un-American Activities Committee, that Gérard's life is threatened by an international conspiracy of neo-fascists. Failing to heed the warnings, Anne doesn't rescue Gérard who kills himself. In the end, the mystery of the conspiracy peters out and Anne finds out that it was perhaps her brother Pierre who was responsible for Gérard's suicide.

In his recent book on the New Wave, Michel Marie proposes what he calls a "series of choices" made by filmmakers that constitute the "New Wave aesthetic." Among these is the refusal of a "pre-established shooting script" in favor of "improvisation in the conception of sequences, dialogue and acting" (70). Though Rivette's first feature certainly responds to some of the choices outlined by Marie of the New Wave aesthetic -- natural locations, a small crew, newer actors such as Jean-Claude Brialy -- the script of Paris Belongs to Us, co-authored by Jean Gruault, is not only a "program-script" (77), it mimics the classical plot. First, the plot fits the fundamental criteria of classical tragedy: it has a beginning, a middle and an end. More than this, the main character, Anne Goupil undergoes the two events that constitute the life of the tragic character: reversal and recognition. Reversal: when Anne fails to prevent Gérard Lenz's suicide, her fortunes go from good to bad, and she suffers a fate she does not deserve. (3) Recognition: Anne discovers that her brother may be responsible for the death of the man she loves, though, as we will see it is precisely at the moment of recognition that Rivette's classical plot breaks down. (4) Rivette even seems to be teetering on the edges of bienséance which relegated all violence off-stage. The two acts of violence we do see -- a pedestrian run over by a car and the death of Anne's brother -- are strangely bracketed. The first is given to us in a montage sequence so abrupt that we, and Anne, can never be sure of what we've seen. The second, the death of Anne's brother, is presented as a sequence of Anne's imagination. Every other murder, every other death including Gérard Lenz's suicide, is "rapporté," told by another character and confined off-screen.

Paris Belongs to Us is also very much a film of its time, an idiosyncratic cold war film noir that engages the atmosphere of paranoia, plots and suspicion of 1950s Europe. From the very first sequences, Rivette's film carries echoes of earlier films such as Notorious (1946), Berlin Express (1948), The Third Man (1949), or even the contemporary North by Northwest (1959). We follow a young woman through a world of political conspiracy, left-wing revolutionaries, a fascist revival, international deception and the threat of world wide nuclear apocalypse. In one of the first sequences we hear a character shout out: "No one will escape [...] The entire world is threatened." Early on, Philip Kaufman tells Anne: "I'm going to tell you something. The world isn't as it seems [...] The whole world is threatened. What we believe is only an appearance. The real rulers of the world hide and govern in secret." And later, another character tells Anne, "[This is] the greatest conspiracy that has ever existed and this time it is on a worldwide scale." For Michel Marie the film was "a lucid premonition of the French Organization of the Secret Army (OAS)" (83). For Deleuze, Rivette's films reveal that "cinema as art itself lives in a direct relation with [...] an international conspiracy [...] This conspiracy is that of money" (Cinema 2, 77).

Certainly, the conspiracies in Paris Belongs to Us can seem wide-ranging and easily allegorized, but Rivette's film is also anchored in the time of its filming. The events begin in June 1957. There is a reference to Senator Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee, characters talk about the bombing of Hiroshima and the possibility of another atomic devastation, and in one scene we hear Americans at the bar considering the presidential ambitions of then vice-President Richard Nixon -- one says "I don't think Nixon has enough experience..." and then his voice tapers off. (5) What is more, identities are distributed according to what could be called a cold war geography, as Paris in Rivette's film becomes a stage for international intrigue: Anne Goupil, the main protagonist, is French, as are her brother and Gérard Lenz; Philip Kaufman is from the US; Terry Yordin (Françoise Prévost), the film's femme fatale, spent her childhood "between New York and Paris;" Juan is from Spain; Tania Fédine from Russia; Mina the actress is from Germany; Birgitta from Finland; and Karoly from Budapest. Paris Belongs to Us reproduces one of the dominant structures of cold war cinema, the inscription of nation in the flesh of characters and the compartmentalization of characters according to national identity and political belonging. We were, we still are, in blocks -- the train compartment, the neighborhood, the nation, the civilization. (6)

In its enumeration of nationalities East and West, in its references to international intrigue, in its constant reiteration of fantasies of worldwide conspiracies Paris Belongs to Us also evokes another cold war structure, the political revelation, the public coup de théâtre, the moment when the traitor is unmasked. Rivette's movie is almost a send up of what historian Richard Hofstadter labeled in 1963 the "paranoid style" that came to dominate political rhetoric during the cold war. (7) A constant invocation of an imminent apocalypse, references to a hidden machinery of influence, and, perhaps most of all, a claim to truth and to interpretative mastery, all these elements reappear in Rivette's film. And when one of the characters tells Anne "[this is] the greatest conspiracy that ever existed" it is hard not to hear an echo of Joseph McCarthy's dramatic 1951 revelation of "a conspiracy on a scale so immense..." Rivette's film reconfigures the paranoid style, and Hollywood cold war thrillers, but differs on one key point. While the paranoid style promises recognition -- "I hold in my hand" McCarthy said in 1950, "a list of 205 cases of individuals who appear to be card-carrying members of the Communist Party..." -- Rivette forestalls and eventually refuses it.

At the end of the film, Anne Goupil, as tragic hero, is set to undergo her moment of recognition. She understands that her suffering resulted from the actions of, in Corneille's words, "someone tied to [her] by proximity of blood or love," in this case her brother who lays dying in the woods. But precisely at the moment of recognition, the film leaves her and us with a series of questions: not only is she unsure of what lead she has been following throughout the film, but at the end she hears a series of contradictory revelations -- the worldwide neo-fascist conspiracy may or may not exist, Juan, the Spanish revolutionary may or may not have killed himself, Anne's brother Pierre may or may not have pushed Gérard to suicide, Terry Yordin may or may not have killed Pierre in the woods. Even Philip Kaufman, who had started everything for Anne by telling her of a worldwide conspiracy, says, near the end of the film: "Je ne suis sěr de rien." A statement echoed in the final shot of the film in which we see geese taking flight, a scene that evokes Ozu more than Hitchcock and signals the film's retreat from interpretative mastery. Paris Belongs to Us takes the form of a cold war thriller with no resolution. Furthermore, even we as viewers are unsure of the truth value of the images we see. Paris Belongs to Us is shot, for the most part, in the realist style of the New Wave. Still, the moment of recognition, when Anne sees her brother being shot is constructed as a flashback, a 10 second sequence of internal focalization, entirely constrained within Anne's imaginary. The film's crucial recognition scene is composed in a style that challenges what in the 1950s and 1960s were still the dominant criteria of realism and cinematic verisimilitude, and refuses to take its place in what André Bazin had called "the continuum of reality" (What is Cinema? Vol. 1, 37).

In her 1990 documentary, Jacques Rivette le veilleur, Claire Denis films Rivette on a Paris rooftop, reciting the last lines of Corneille's last play Suréna (1666): "Suspendez ces douleurs qui pressent de mourir." Denis's parallel is apt: Rivette and Corneille were both from Rouen, both were in their late period as artists, Corneille was 72 when he wrote Suréna, Rivette was in his 60s and beginning to work on his late masterpieces, Haut Bas Fragile and Va Savoir. But Corneille has been with Rivette from the beginning, making the most modern of New Wave directors also the most engaged in classical forms. Should we conclude as Paul de Man did in the late 1960s, that modernity is stuck in a double bind in which "[t]he more radical the rejection of anything that came before, the greater the dependence on the past" (Blindness and Insight 161)? Or with more recent film theorists for whom cinema's relation to literature is one of repression and symptomatic resurgence? (8) Both these models depend upon structures of repression that may not be the most productive. Seen today, almost 50 years after it was made, Paris Belongs to Us can be reclaimed as something other than a symptom. Rivette's film makes the case that through its engagement with the past, through its contradictions, an aesthetic event works to reconfigure everyday life, suspend forms of intellectual mastery, question systems of domination and repair our understanding of the world. In this, Rivette's classical illusion is as present as ever.

Works Cited

Bazin, André. What is Cinema? Vol. 1. Trans. Hugh Gray. Berkeley : University of California Press, 1971.

------. What is Cinema? Vol. 2. Trans. Hugh Gray. Berkeley : University of California Press, 1971.

------. Bazin at Work : Major Essays and Reviews from the Forties and Fifties. Trans. Alain Piette and Bert Cardullo. New York: Routledge. 1997.

Cave, Terence. Recognitions: A Study in Poetics. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Corneille, Pierre. "Discourse on the Three Unities." Théâtre complet. Tome 1. Paris : Editions de la Pléiade, Gallimard. 1954.

------. "Discourse on Tragedy." Théâtre complet.

------. "Discourse on the Utility of the Parts of a Dramatic Poem." Théâtre complet.

Daney, Serge. La Maison du cinema et le monde. Vol. 2. Paris : P.O.L., 2002.

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 1: The Movement-Image. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

------. Cinema 2: The Time-Image. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989.

De Man, Paul. Blindness and Insight. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983.

Gruault, Jean. Ce que dit l'autre. Paris : Julliard, 1992.

Hofstadter, Richard. The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays. New York: Knopf, 1965.

Kline, T. Jefferson. Screening the Text: Intertextuality in New Wave French Cinema. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992)

Marie, Michel. French New Wave: An Artistic School. Trans. Richard Neupert. Malden: MA: Blackwell, 2003.

Rancière, Jacques. L'inconscient esthétique. Paris : Galilée, 2001.

------. La Fable cinématographique. Paris: Seuil, 2001.

Rivette, Jacques. "Après Agésilas." Cahiers du Cinéma Vol 9, No. 53. (December, 1955).

------. "The Genius of Howard Hawks" trans. Russell Campbell and Marvin Pister in Jim Hillier ed. Cahiers du Cinéma: The 1950s. Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985.

------. "Letter on Rossellini" in Hillier.

Ross, Kristin. Fast Cars Clean Bodies. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995.

Jean-Charles Tacchella "Un Homme veritable": une leçon de cinéma, une leçon de courage" L'Ecran français 281 (30 November 1950) 10.

  1. "Boileau" reappears in Rivette's Paris Belongs to Us as the name of the corrupt theatre director who takes over Gérard Lenz's production of Pericles. Literary quarrels die hard.

  2. Rancière also develops his thoughts on recognition in L'Inconscient esthétique a work which takes Corneille's 1659 play Oedipe as the exemplar of the "representative regime."

  3. Rewriting Aristotle's Poetics Corneille states: "The tragic hero through error or through human weakness, suffers a calamity that he does not deserve" ("Discourse on Tragedy," 35).

  4. Again, following Aristotle, Corneille reiterates that calamity should befall upon the tragic hero because of the actions of someone tied to the him "by proximity of blood or love or friendship," and that this proximity should constitute the recognition scene at the end of the play ("Discourse on Tragedy" 42). On Corneille and recognition see Terence Cave (99-100).

  5. Jean Gruault who has screenwriting credits with Rivette on this film, had just come out of several years as a member of the French Communist Party, during which time, he had played with the theatrical troupe Les Pavés de Paris in a traveling play about Henri Martin, a French sailor jailed in 1952 for his stance against the French war in Indochina.

  6. This enumeration of a cold war demographics occurs in one of the early scenes of Jacques Tourneur's Berlin Express in which the voice-over narration lists the nationalities of the different passengers in a train from France to Germany: in compartment A the American, in compartment B the French woman, in C the German, in D the Soviet soldier, etc. Tourneur's film is also about the threat of a fascist revival in postwar Germany and a plea of sorts for international cooperation as the cold war looms.

  7. Hofstadter's main target was McCarthyism and the American right, but he claimed that the paranoid style has existed "throughout modern history," in every nation and along the entire political spectrum (6). In Rivette's film, it is the French left that reproduces the paranoid style.

  8. See for instance T. Jefferson Kline's thesis that "If literature qua adaptation was repressed in [the New Wave directors'] work, it had an uncanny way of returning in another form" (3).

Originally appeared in Contemporary French and Francophone Studies September 2005, vol. 9, no. 3. (Routledge/University of Conneticut, 2005), p. 291-99.