The Essential
Jacques Rivette
translated by Liz Heron

The cardinal virtue of this film [Angel Face], like The Moon Is Blue, which follows it chronologically, is that it frees us from certain preconceptions about its director. Our increasing familiarity with the clever ambiguity of his themes and the extraordinary fluidity and subtlety of his camera movements would soon have brought us to the point where we would be unable to see beyond them and would run the risk of reducing the great talent of Otto Preminger to what are, it should be said, modest dimensions. First of all let us be grateful for these two films for proving to us, by their lack of pretension, the starkness of the sets and the improvised quality of the photography that -- if it were ever in doubt -- there is more to Preminger than the mere ability to get the best out of skilful scripts, excellent actors and the technical resources of well-equipped studio.

So we should compose our eulogy to poverty, (1) even were its sole advantage the necessity of ingenuity to conceal it and so stimulate creativity. Would it not be a good thing to subject every establish film-maker to it just once? It is well known that wealth dulls sensibility; what other test is left for the talent that has no self-doubt?

With equipment that, compared with the technical resources of Twentieth Century-Fox, resembles that of the amateur film-maker, Preminger reduces his art to the essential, to the skeleton that not so long ago was artfully fleshed out by the charms of the image and the opaque architecture of script and mise en scene. Here the elements of cinema are almost stripped bare. In contrast to the heavy-handed treatment so beloved of the Selznick or Metro productions, Angel Face and The Moon Is Blue are to Preminger what Two People is to Dreyer, what The Big Heat is to Lang and Woman on the Beach to Renoir: the most conclusive proof of his talent, or the genius, of a director. Let me make myself clear: I am not saying that these two films are his best -- they are the ones that gives us the best means of approaching the others and the secret of their director's talent, the ones that confirm what we could already suspect: that this talent is first and foremost the function of a specific idea of cinema.

But what is this idea? And why should I be so mysterious about it? I no longer know what I think of Preminger; to put it in a nutshell, he intrigues rather than excites me. But I want right away to make this the first, and not the least, of my praises: the number of film-makers who have the merit of intriguing us is not, after all, so great.

I can see very well that this would be the right moments for a predictable elaboration of the theme or the characters. For instance, Jean Simmons's role, and its analogies with or divergences from some of our director's other heroines etc. ÉI can see that very well, but the devil is whispering in my ear, 'Is it really important; is that false and criminal purity not the very site of convention and artifice?' This banal character, for I shall indeed proclaim her as such, is also fresh and surprising. How does this come about, if not by some mystery that is contained in the script?

Furthermore let us take care to overvalue the often debased wonders of mystery. But this utterly enigmatic film makes no pretence of being otherwise: it should be pointed out at once that the really quite simple initial enigma is reinforced by a second which is impenetrable. If half the action remains a mystery, it is rather that the solution offered by the logic of the narrative has no correspondence with the emotions aroused: an interest outside that of the plot continually rivets our attention on the gestures of characters whose images at the same time prove to use the lack of any real depth. Yet it is depth they aspire to, depth of the most artificial kind, since it does not come from the suspect, questionable subtlety of human being, but from art itself, from the use of every means that the cinema offers the film-maker.

I would never lay it down that a director should choose as a pretext the script that will allow him one more opportunity to film, to direct actors, to be creative. Did I say script as pretext? I do not think that this really applies here, but that nevertheless Preminger does see in the script primarily an opportunity to create certain characters, studying them with painstaking attention, observing their reactions to one another, and finally drawing from them particular gestures, attitudes and reflexes -- which are the raison d'etre of his film, and it's real subject.

It is not that the theme is a matter of indifference to him. I am now going to offer praise indeed: Preminger is not one of those who can turn their hand to anything; it is easy to see what he is interested in here, through the alteration of successful passages with others of unruffled awkwardness. It is difficult to imagine an exegesis of Preminger based on a comparative study of the anecdotes, easier to see it working through a study of certain constants which would be not so much narrative elements as the obsessions of the auteur who knows which themes suit him best. (2)

One can ask what he brings by way of conviction to the story: does he believe it? Does he even try to make us believe it? Its improbabilities are certainly not unconvincing: it is often the very moment when the improbable erupts -- Laura brought back to life, Doctor Korvo's self-hypnosis in the mirror -- that one can least refuse it credibility. But in this film where formal spells like those of Laura or Whirlpool are forbidden, the real problem is not so much to make an unbelievable story believable, as to find, beyond dramatic or narrative verisimilitude, a truth that is purely cinematic. I enjoy a different idea of the cinema more, but I also ask that what Preminger is trying to do be clearly understood, and it is subtle enough to hold attention. I prefer the possibly more na•ve conception of the old school, of Hawks, Hitchcock or Lang, who first believe in their themes and then build the strength of their art upon this conviction. Preminger believes first in mise en scene, the creation of a precise complex of sets and characters, a network of relationships, an architecture of connections, an animated complex that seems suspended in space. What tempts him, if not that fashioning of a piece of crystal for transparency with ambiguous reflections and clear, sharp lines or the rendering audible of particular chords unheard and rare, in which the inexplicable beauty of the modulation suddenly justifies the ensemble of the phrase? This is probably the definition of a certain kind of preciosity, but its supreme and most secret form, since it does not come from the sue of artifice, but from the determined and hazardous search for a note previously unheard; one can neither tire of hearing it, nor claim be deepening it to exhaust its enigma -- the door to something beyond intellect, opening out on to the unknown.

Such are the contingencies of mise en scene, and such the example that Preminger seems to offer, of a faith in the very practice of his art which enables him in another way to uncover his greatest depth. For I would not want you to imagine that his is some abstract aesthete's experiment. 'I love work more than anything,' he told me. I do believe that for Preminger a film is in the first place an opportunity for work, for questioning, for encouraging and solving such problems. (3) The film is not so much an end as a means. Its unpredictability attract him, the chance discoveries that means things cannot go according to plan, on-the-spot improvisation that is born of a fortunate moment and dedicated to the fleeting essence of a place or person. If Preminger had to be defined in one word it would really best be metteur en scene, even though here his stage directing background seems to have influenced him a little. In the midst of a dramatic space created by human encounters he would instead exploit to its limit the cinema's ability to capture the fortuitous (but a fortuity that is willed), to record the accidental (but the accidental that is created) through the closeness and sharpness of the look; the relationships of the characters create a closed circuit of exchanges, where nothing makes an appeal to the viewer.

What is mise en scene? My apologies for asking such a hazardous question with neither preparation nor preamble, particularly when I have no intention of answering it. Only, should this question not always inform our deliberations? An example would be better: the heroine's nocturnal stroll among the traces of the past, kin to Dana Andrews's stroll among the dead Laura's possessions, is, in theory, the unmistakable classic temptation of the mediocre. But Preminger is more than author of this idea, he is the one who invents Jean Simmons's uncertain footfall, her huddled figure in the armchair. What could have been banal or facile is saved by a striking absence of complaisance, the hardness of the passage of time and lucidity of the luck, but the stark, heart-rendering, obvious presence of a cinema that is sensitive to the core.

Thus The Moon Is Blue was less the brilliant execution of a witty comedy by a skilful director of actors than -- through the constant inventiveness of word and gesture, through the precision with which the characters' absolute freedom is encircled -- the clear affirmation of a power that is more moving than any fable. If ever a film was the expression of the practice of mise en scene for its own sake, it is this. What is cinema, if not the play of actor and actress, of hero and set, or word and face, of hand and object?

The starkness of these films, far from endangering the essential, accentuates it to the point of provocation. And what could compromise it -- the taste for appearances, for the natural, the clever surprise of the accidental, the search for the chance gesture -- all this nevertheless meets up with that secret side of the cinema, or of man, which keeps them from nothingness. I can ask no more.

  1. Rivette's 'eulogy to poverty' is a recurrent theme in his writings in the 1950s; see, for example 'Letter on Rossellini' (1955) [available on Order of the Exile] and particularly his contributions to the 'Six Characters in Search of auteurs' discussion (1957).

  2. This fascination (Laura, Whirlpool, Angel Face), cross-examinations (Laura, Fallen Angel, Whirlpool, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Angel Face), rivalry in love (Laura, Fallen Angel, Daisy Kenyon, Angel Face, The Moon Is Blue). (Author's note.)

  3. Cf. Jean-Luc Godard, 'Bergmanorama', Cahiers 85, July 1958, translated as 'Bergmanorama' in Godard on Godard: 'One is always along; on the set as before the blank page. And for Bergman, to be along means to ask questions. And to make films means to answer them.'

Originally appeared in Cahiers du cinema 32 (February 1954); p. 42-5. Reprinted from Cahiers du cinema: The 1950s, ed. Jim Hillier (Harvard, 1985). Translated by Liz Heron.