On Jacques Rivette (The Early Films)
Peter Harcourt

Unlike Godard whose work always enjoyed a fashionable prestige amongst specialized audiences, Rivette's output was initially so slender and its reception so precarious that he seemed, at least in the early days, the cinéaste maudit of modern times. Yet Rivette's early films are exemplary because, in their great tentativeness and open-ended quality, they are films we can learn from. They are films that might inspire other filmmakers to go their different ways towards discovering equally challenging forms. One of the discouraging quality about works so intellectually structured as those of Godard is that they seem to use up the very forms they discover. As he kept implying before his Dziga-Vertov period, Godard tended to bring each of his films to an absolute end: FIN -- du cinéma, as the closing title in Weekend has it. Fin du cinéma bourgeois is no doubt the correct political reading of this kind of blague -- the end of a cinema of entertainment. Nevertheless there is the feeling in so much of Godard's early work of a progress towards closure, towards a world, both aesthetic and political, which is really devoid of viable alternatives. In my reading of Rivette, he adopts very different cinematic strategies.

The three major films of his early period all involve some kind of search, within which is built the struggle to put on a performance -- a performance of a classical text that belongs to the past. Pervading these twin ingredients is also the sense of inescapable paranoia, of a kind of conspiracy that interferes both with the search and with the performance and which makes all the characters uncertain about their relationship to one another. Moreover, the films end in non-achievement: the performances don't take place and the sense of conspiracy remains. As Ken Kelman once suggested while talking about Paris Nous Appartient, the film "expresses the fatalism and doubt of our time as no other film has done." (1) And yet in all Rivette's films there is also the feeling that this search will continue, that some sort of struggle will carry on.

Though extremely drab visually and somewhat lifeless in many of its aspects, (2) Paris Nous Appartient was a challenging beginning. Even while making it, Rivette knew that he was making a difficult film, one that would "please only one person in ten;" but he had no intention of idealizing his characters or even of taking them as especially "typical:" "They are all tragic puppets, taking themselves too seriously, living in a sort of dream-world and sickened by the real world which they can't reform." (3) Yet with hindsight, we must be excused if we see the characters in Paris Nous Appartient as rather more typical than Rivette intended. They seem typical both of the alienation endemic to the sensitive intellectual living within the consumer values of contemporary society and, more particularly, of the Parisian intellectuals' sense of personal responsibility, nurtured as they were on the existential philosophies of Camus and Sartre that were so much a part of the thinking of that time.

As Rivette's films are so long and as they build up their structure of implication as much from a network of interwoven representational gestures as from more deliberately formal elements, it is impossible to take one or two representative moments as standing for the film as a whole. Furthermore, as each of his three major works seems like a refinement of the film that preceded it, it is difficult even to talk about one film as a separate entity. However certain questions can be asked.

First of all why do all of his films centre around a theatrical representation? Rivette has offered a number of explanations. On the simplest level, "it's always exciting and effective to film someone who is working, who is making something; and theatrical work is easier to film than the work of a writer or a musician." (4) But there are more demanding explanations. Theatrical representations are important for Rivette

... because they are about truth and falsehood, and the cinema is the same. Films are necessarily an enquiry about truth by means that are necessarily false -- the subject of the performance. And to confront this element straightforwardly as the subject of a film -- that's frankness, so you have to do it. (5)
In other words, Rivette's theatrical representations within his films enable us to witness an artistic work in progress and to remind us of the means by which theatrical illusion is created as Rivette himself is creating a cinematic illusion. But unlike what Truffaut is pretending to do in La Nuit Americaine (1973) and Godard is genuinely doing in films like Deux ou Trois Choses que je sais d'elle (1967) and Vent d'Est (1970), Rivette's frank declaration of the falsehoods necessary for achieving" truth" is not simply theoretical: it is not just a "demystification of illusionist practice;" for in Rivette, this examination of the conventions of illusionism serves other purposes as well.

These purposes seem contradictory. On the one hand, the plays -- all derived from classical theater -- seem irrelevant to the lives these people lead. Perhaps this is why the innumerable rehearsals we see throughout the films never seem to progress. In Paris Nous Appartient, it is the same scene from Pericles that we witness over and over again; and in L'Amour Fou (1969), while the framing shots in the dressing rooms at both the opening and closing of the film imply that some kind of performance is about to take place, in the rehearsals we see, the actors never make more than the most fragmentary progress, not even to the point of memorizing their lines. Finally, in the fragment of Out One: Spectre (1971) which is available to us, neither of the plays gets beyond the most preliminary, improvisational stage.

A more extended essay could establish the thematic relevance of each play for the film that contains it -- Pericles, for Paris Nous Appartient; Andromaque, for L'Amour Fou; and both Prometheus Bound and Seven Against Thebes for Out One: Spectre. Moreover to move from the thematic to the metaphoric level, there is the sense in all these films that those who have a secure role in the plays have a relatively secure role in their lives.

In Paris Nous Appartient when Anne (Betty Schneider) loses her role as Marina in Pericles, her life becomes even more alienated that it was previously; and in L'Amour Fou when Claire (Bulle Ogier) walks out of her role in Andromaque, she walks out of the security of her relationship with Sebastien (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) who is simultaneously director of the play, leading actor, and her husband. She is then replaced by Marta (Josée Destoop), Sebastien's former wife. For a while, Claire continues to attend rehearsals, whether out of interest or out of an increasingly paranoiac desire to spy on the others is not made clear; but what is made clear is that she becomes more and more separated from the others, especially from Sebastien. She begins rehearsing her part alone at home into a tape recorder, before moving on to assemble evidence against Sebastien in her gradual move towards a nervous breakdown, towards the isolation of madness.

Sebastien too seems dependent for his stability upon his confidence with the play. The more domestic matters worry him, the less attention he can bring to his work and the more distraught he becomes. Finally, after his extended attempt at a reconciliation with his wife comes to nothing, we see him utterly defeated -- alone in his devastated apartment, too passive now even to answer the telephone. He seems to have lost all sense of purpose, all interest in his play, and all sense of relationship to the outside world.

The films ends with the same shots that had opened it, with the sense of separation and emptiness -- Claire travelling away on a train; Sebastien as if defeated, in his apartment; the characters of the play, in costume and make-up, as if ready for a performance; and then that slow tilt down from those few spectators in that huge arena onto an empty stage as we hear, as if from some other space, a baby crying -- as we had heard as well at the opening of the film.

Thus the form of L'Amour Fou is entirely circular, its predetermined end inscribed in its beginning. Within this circle of defeat, the attention given to Andromaque might seem to represent the need for some sort of collective activity, some certainty of social existence that might free the participants from too great a dependence upon their merely private selves.

For instance, in L'Amour Fou the attempted reconciliation between Claire and Sebastien itself takes the form of a kind of guerrilla theater -- seeming at times to anticipate Claude Faraldo's Themroc (1973) in its sense of reversion to a more primitive state of existence, breaking down the walls that artificially divide people in modern, civilized, Parisian apartment living; at other times anticipating Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris (1972) in its sense of a couple trying to work out all their identity and existential dilemmas through an extraordinarily concentrated and isolated sexual exploration of one another (although in L'Amour Fou within a much more complex structure than we find in Bertolucci's film). In L'Amour Fou what they do during this extended weekend together is to act out little dramas, paint pictures on one another and on the walls, change their living room into a kind of African Safari, and dress up as hillbillies -- all this in between more tender moments of making love.

This is an extraordinary scene in the film, very physical and very violent, and in many ways in undecipherable contrast with the rest of the film. Yet the point about such a private drama must be finally that it leads to nothing -- to Sebastien's separation from his play and to their separation from one another. "We've played too much. I don't want to see you anymore," Claire finally explains, with tears in her eyes. "Go away." It is as if in a quite different way from Godard and Gorin in Tout Va Bien (1972) Rivette realizes that a couple cannot work out their problems all alone, isolated from the world outside. They have to be related to other people, to other activities -- in Rivette, invariably, to some kind of art.

In this context, what "art" seems to imply is a set of ground-rules, a series of "codes" which one can transform as one wishes in the process of appropriation but which are necessary to begin with to hold people together. "What is theater?" asks Sebastien at one point in L'Amour Fou -- "A game of masks." By extension the idea of masks might also refer to the security given to us by definable social roles.

Throughout L'Amour Fou with its jumbled narrative sequence, there are a series of café shots of the theater group -- drinking talking and laughing together. These appear to have been shot with non-synchronous sound, the actual words somewhat indistinct, as if the sound of one such gathering has been laid over the images of another. This effect has, of course, no single interpretation; but for me personally it emphasizes the impersonality of collective cultural work. Like the African drum beats that form the rhythmic basis for some of the improvisations of Seven Against Thebes in Out One: Spectre and which carry over on the soundtrack to accompany a very different kind of balletic miming for the Prometheus rehearsals, there is the sense here of something beyond the merely individual.

By these speculations, I don't mean to imply a transcendent ideality. It is just that culture, which involves art but also athletics, sustains and makes meaningful the lives of the people who partake in it, who make the effort to become part of such a group endeavour. Collective activity of whatever kind, liberates the individuals from the merely existential self. It involves them in ritual, in some sort of play. (6) In Rivette's world, this activity seems more meaningful when there is a text to work from -- no matter how irrelevant its own cultural values may seem to be to those of the world that his characters inhabit, no matter how little progress they make in realizing their project. As Lili (Michelle Moretti), one of the actresses in the Seven Against Thebes, explains at one point in the film, she left the Prometheus group because she didn't want to present it. She simply wanted to work on it with Thomas -- "so we'll be whole," as she explains. Similarly (to stay with Spectre for a moment), Thomas (Michael Lonsdale) explains to the ever enquiring Colin (Jean-Pierre Léaud) that there are no particular parallels between Prometheus as a play and Balzac's L'Histoire des treize -- which is yet another text that plays an important part in the film. But later on, to someone else Thomas suggests that these texts, while not in themselves important, supply the energy pour faire bouger les choses -- to get things going.

For Godard/Gorin, the small hope that emerges for the couple at the end of Tout Va Bien rests in their ability to "re-think themselves historically." For Rivette the hope seems to lie with an attachment to something outside of oneself. This something is always associated with the past, with a classical text. This text can then be transformed, even primitivized; for theater is often given a tribal feeling in Rivette. This is especially true of Spectre; but even in L'Amour Fou, the gongs and costumes and the two black actresses give the performance of Andromaque a strongly African flavour, as if invoking a past even more distant than the time of Racine.

I don't think these allusions reference a sense of tradition such as T.S. Eliot or F.R. Leavis might define it; but not unlike Godard/Gorin, it is a concern with "history," as if the past might contain a key to our confusions. This statement leads me to the other element that is central to all of Rivette's work, even to La Réligieuse (1966) and onward to La Belle Noiseuse (1991) -- a sense of the quest.

Like the theatrical performances, the activity a quest provokes may be more important than the object sought after. In Paris Nous Appartient, Anne spends the bulk of the film trying to locate the music that the vanished Juan had recorded for the performance of Pericles; but when she finally finds it, she scarcely listens to it. Similarly in L'Amour Fou, Claire's conviction that she must have a particular kind of dog -- an Artesian Basset -- sends her into a fury of ludicrous enquiries; but when Sebastien presents her with a kitten, she completely ignores it and finally, in a moment of fury, throws it out of the apartment.

But in L'Amour Fou, the real quest relates to Claire and Sebastien's search for a meaningful relationship together -- a relationship they never achieve. For Claire personally, the quest might have been for a meaningful role in life, which nevertheless ends in flight -- all those shots throughout the film of her train ride away from Sebastien, away from Paris. For Sebastien it might have been his play, which by the end of the film he seems to have abandoned.

In Out One: Spectre, the questing presence is lodged in Colin, the character created by Jean-Pierre Léaud. Like Anne in Paris Nous Appartient -- "the little girl has no ideas of her own," as she describes herself to her brother towards the opening of the film -- Colin is the "neutral" observer, the "innocent" enquirer. He has no practice of his own, apparently, other than the desire to understand. He is not involved in either of the theatrical productions nor with the conspiratorial group which, in Colin's mind, is somehow related to Balzac's story, L'Histoire des Treize and which becomes further entangled in the undecipherable riddles of Lewis Carrol, hinting at a meaning that cannot quite be grasped. He is so neutral in fact, so removed from direct involvement in his own investigations that, throughout the first third of the film -- in the four hour, twenty minute fragment that is available to us -- he presents himself, even when alone, as a deaf mute, as if trying to avoid the intellectual self-deceptions of language.

In this film there is much "doubling" of the action, with complementary texts presented simultaneously yet with very little narrative relationship between them. Colin's role is somewhat paralleled by that of Frédérique (Juliet Berto), the amateurish con girl whose quest seems simply to survive, by whatever means she can. Yet by the end of the film, she is left alone in her chambre de bonne, apparently contemplating suicide; while Colin has abandoned his interviews and his attempts to form a relationship with the enigmatic Pauline (Bulle Ogier) and is, like Frédérique, alone in his room. He seems to have given up language again, or at any rate words. He has renounced his attempts to articulate meaning as he sits on his bed, in classic lotus position, flicking his little Eiffel Tower key-chain back and forth, counting out again and again a series of numbers, trying to persuade his trinket to come to rest on the apparently magical treize.

Like the theatrical performances or the compulsive painting in La Belle Noiseuse, the quests in Rivette's films seem less important than the way they provide energy pour faire bouger les choses. That is one reason why the finished painting in La Belle Noiseuse, which we have spent almost four hours anticipating, is withheld from us at the end. For Rivette, the process is more important than the product.

So it is with the quests. They are often ridiculous or else seem irrelevant and they generally fail. Is this the source of the paranoia that pervades Rivette's films? Why is there this sense of conspiracy governing these people's lives, as if acting upon them in ways that they cannot understand? This is the third crucial question that we must consider when we contemplate Rivette's films.


Once again, any attempt to answer this question must be both tentative and speculative. Perhaps it can best be attempted by dealing with another characteristic that Rivette's films have increasingly revealed -- the multiplicity of texts that make up their structure.

L'Amour Fou, for instance, is not one film but two. There is Rivette's film, shot on 35mm with a standard French wide screen aspect ratio, employing for the most part within individual scenes the conventional practices of illusionist cinema.

For instance, conversations between Claire and Sebastien are shot conventionally. Medium close-up, one-shot, action/reaction shots make up the bulk of their first meal together -- a scene that culminates with a long shot of the two of them from the side of the table; while another meal is photographed largely in units of two-shot, action/reaction shots -- again in a conventional way. A more extended analysis of the film could, I am sure, make something of the stylistic difference between these two meals. My point here, however, is that these scenes are handled with the standard cinematic syntax of conventional cinema -- clear, authoritative, self-effacing (as in Rohmer or Chabrol), focusing our attention on the apparent reality of these two people's lives.

Within this film, however, making us aware of its traditional conventions, is another film, shot on 16mm with the standard 16mm aspect ratio -- hand-held probings in the movement of hands and the expression of faces, grainy, inquisitive -- minutely examining the rehearsal of the play. In narrative terms, it is a documentary being made on Sebastien's staging of Andromaque; but in terms of our response to the totality of L'Amour Fou, this footage has a more complex effect.

The different conventions of these two films which are, throughout L'Amour Fou, freely intercut with one another, make us aware that there are, in fact, conventions being used, that there is, indeed, a film being made. As Sebastien explains about the conventional Alexandrines that form the basic metric unit of Racine's play: "You have to speak them as if they don't exist. Then they will have a force of their own." Unlike Godard who questions his conventions directly, either by drawing attention to them on the sound track (as in Deux ou Trois Choses) or by subverting them (as in Vent d'Est), Rivette simply interweaves two totally different conventions, using them unselfconsciously to create his two types of different illusions, leaving them to interact with one another like two separate characters, allowing them to acquire a force of their own.

In this way the intercutting is used to emphasize both the similarities and differences between the theatrical presentation -- the "declared" illusion which we see being created; and the narrative text of the film -- the "submerged" illusion, the story of Claire and Sebastien, which is presented to us more directly as if really there. For instance, at one point within the submerged illusion (the 35mm footage) we see Claire with her recorder, recording the part that she has decided to drop: "Where am I? What have I done?" This question, although derived from Andromaque, obviously at this moment relates to Claire's own life -- to her relationship to her acting and to her future with her husband. But when we cut from this moment, to the hand-held 16mm rehearsal of the play and hear Marta saying the same lines, we are faced with a complex response, both formally and psychologically.

This response can involve us in a series of conceptual questions which relate to the conventions of classical theater, to the 16mm conventions of cinéma-vérité, to conventional illusionist cinema, and finally, to reality itself. For Rivette is questioning both art and reality. To what extent is the way we voice our thoughts dictated by the linguistic culture which we have inherited? How do we relate to one another, even in real life, unless our culture assigns acceptable roles to us, unless it provides us with a language, unless it helps us find the words we have to speak.

These epistemological questions are taken even further in Out One: Spectre. (7) This film is supposedly a collective creation, the various characters devising their own roles based on ideas supplied by Rivette. Originally designed with the hope of a television transmission consisting of eight parts, its total length runs for almost thirteen hours! Meanwhile the four hour spectre of the original that was prepared for theatrical release consists of four separate stories, bits of which intersect at various points in the film. These four stories are linked together by the ever-enquiring Colin, whose hopeless quest for comprehension leads him to go about like a journalist (or a vérité filmmaker, if we wish to establish a link with Rivette's previous film), interviewing everyone, trying to find things out. Vous êtes vraiment partout, as Thomas says to him at one moment in the film.

Basic amongst the stories are two separate attempts to stage two different Aeschylus tragedies, each apparently in highly improvisational ways. In fact the Prometheus Unbound production, controlled by Thomas, seems to have more in common with a kind of therapy session than it does with conventional drama. There is a lot of mime and two or three extraordinary scenes in which the characters seem to be striving to invent a primitive pre-language. They seem to be struggling to free themselves from the conventional meanings which the passing of time has laid over certain words, in order to understand more completely a particular line from the Prometheus play. These pre-language exercises move through an extraordinary escalation of word shouting and wrestling on the floor -- again as if attempting some sort of inner freedom. "Don't think my silence is from pride," is the line that they are finally shouting -- a line which a fuller analysis of this film could establish as far from arbitrary. Then this moment of improvised violence is followed by a completely silent, touching session -- the actors sitting on the floor, stroking one another's cheeks.

Of course this sequence is not continuous in the film but is intercut with, and therefore affected by, the other stories in the film, especially by the other theatrical group. The sound of one rehearsal as I have said, frequently overlaps with the visuals of another, rather like intercutting of the 35mm and the 16mm sound in L'Amour Fou.

There is thus a kind of Makavejev quality in Rivette's sense of theater, by which I mean a recognition that we have to revert to more primitive forms of expression in order to free ourselves, if only partially, from the false notions that our civilized expectations have forced upon us. Colin's quest also seems just as rigorously an interrogation of language.

What are the conventions that make words meaningful? Is Lewis Carroll's nonsense any more nonsensical than the ordered rationality of Balzac? Does the linear rationality of words mystify and exclude experience as much as it clarifies and reveals it? This seems to be the question indirectly asked by all Colin's scribblings on his blackboard in his room, the sub-text of his quest, so to speak. It also seems to be the basic question asked by the entire film.

A Balzacian (appropriately played by Eric Rohmer) seems to have all the answers to all the questions that Colin poses to him about the inapplicability of Balzac's story concerning a conspiratorial group of thirteen people in relation to the complex society of today. His answers all make sense in relation to the upright, uptight professorial tradition from which such answers spring -- the man who knows, sharing his "knowledge" with the man who doesn't, in the best (and worst) professorial tradition. But his answers make no sense at all in relation to the totality of Out One: Spectre.

Throughout this film, Rivette frustrates our need for understanding by playing tricks with the conventional cinematic codes. Just as he cuts between the 35mm and 16mm footage in L'Amour Fou, so in Spectre he combines and contrasts his four stories in a variety of unsettling ways. Jonathan Rosenbaum has commented on the wide range of acting styles that Rivette manages to contain within his film: "Spectre's surface is dictated by accommodations, combinations and clashes brought about by contrasting styles of playing." (8) But there are also extraordinarily varied styles of shooting, linked together in a most disorientating way.

For instance, some of the domestic scenes -- principally Thomas's visit to Sarah (Bernadette Lafonte) at Obade on the sea and his visit to Pauline (Bulle Ogier) and her family -- these scenes are shot with virtually a static camera, in long sustained takes. It is as if they are simply recording the "theatrical" improvisation that the characters are creating for us, the film itself creating nothing on its own. Other scenes -- principally Thomas's rehearsal scenes -- are shot very much in a cinéma-vérité style, like the 16mm footage in L'Amour Fou -- hand-held, working in close to the characters, following their movements, selecting from them the details that Rivette wants us to see.

Finally, there are other sequences that are shot and cut in a quite conventional way, according to the time-honoured techniques of continuity editing, except with one recurring difference. In Spectre, with his four interwoven stories, Rivette will take a glance right from one of his characters in the midst of a conversation and match it perfectly with a glance left from another character -- except that it is a character from a different story! Thus while employing at times conventional cutting, Rivette subverts it by dislocating us in this way. Furthermore, the continuity of cutting when it is used in this way implies a relationship between the characters that the narrative ignores. Thus this device, amongst others, reinforces the feeling that we have throughout the film of an urgency of motivation, even though its purpose is unclear.

Out One: Spectre is punctuated by sequences of black-and-white stills -- sequences that are accompanied by an electronic hum which sounds like a censorial bleep. These are the "scars" I referred to earlier, caused by cutting down the original to the version we now know. They are even somewhat described as such by Rivette himself, as an aid to continuity in the shortened version:

... in the four-hour version we made use of black-and-white stills, either as a recall or an ellipse, a connection or a pause; in some cases the stills match with moments already seen, in others with scenes to come, occasionally with sequences that have been removed from this version entirely. (9)
Like the plaster-of-paris statues in Godard's Le Mépris, the only valid signs that remain of Homer's now vanished world, it is as if Rivette's stills suggest traces of the unavailable film -- that "invisible, legendary work," as Rosenbaum has called it. (10) Furthermore, by an odd irony that Rivette could not have intended, the stills within Spectre seem to build within the film's structure hints of its own ruins, the sense of moments frozen and dead, of the illustrations that will appear in all the books and film magazines which will be read by all the people who will never see the film. Thus it is as if in Spectre, throughout its challenging and many-styled form, the progress of the film is repeatedly interrupted by these reminders of the only way that for most of the world the film will be known.


In the films of Jacques Rivette, from where does their pervasive sense of conspiracy spring? This is the question which I began with a few moments ago. I think I am now approaching an answer, provisional and speculatory though it must be. (11) It seems to me that it springs from the inadequacy nowadays of the answers to all the questions that we ask ourselves, to the recognition, sometimes conscious, sometimes dimly felt, that the cultural forms which we have inherited, the forms of our language, of our art, of our social relationships, are inadequate to enable us to become the kind of people we want to be.

Culture is now too multiple, texts too numerous, and the class implications of our inheritance too obvious, for people to feel at ease within their own environment. In his early work, Godard attempted to deal with the incomprehensibility of the world through the projection of his own wit and through the transcendence of romantic love -- giving his films a lyrical quality which his growing political awareness obliged him, for many years, to reject. Rivette, on the other hand, faced with the same problems, has been attracted to the sense of a world conspiracy -- a Langian view of Paris as a huge Metropolis, managed by a handful of madmen and technocrats. This might be a political issue as, arguably, it is; but in Rivette's films, it is never named as such. His view is more Kafkaesque. "The real masters have no names," as Phillip (Daniel Crohem) explained to Anne in Paris Nous Appartient.

Helped immeasurably, I am sure, by Jean-Pierre Gorin, the work of Godard's middle period dealt in increasingly political terms -- with the problems of contemporary capitalism through a Marxist analysis. He uses the Marxist concept of alienation, to define our society as made up of individuals who are emotionally unrelated to the work they do, to the high-rise structures of society that contain them, to the social, sexual, and political roles that they are expected to play.

Inhabiting the same world, Rivette has taken another route. Less political on the surface, I think his films could be seen in the same political way, certainly as part of the same thrust of protest. Rivette's first film (and there is only one film to put against a dozen by Godard) seemed unsatisfactory because of its dreary addiction to riddles, because of its irrational capitulation to the source of evil as a mystery without solution. While a similar charge could be brought against the next three films, I think the effect is very different -- far more unsettling in what I have called an exemplary way.

What Spectre represents, finally, is a most disturbing examination of our classical epistemology, an attack on the confidence with which we assume we know. This attack tends to undermine the very basis of language. It raises questions about the way language is used as a weapon by the class that controls it. Language thus imposes an ordering of existence upon another class who are kept in their place by being failed out of the system if they do not master the literary codes by which "intelligence" is measured.

This analysis makes even more sense in international terms. It is even more sharply relevant to the way that Europe and now the United States have dominated third world peoples by means of their mastery of the apparent rationality of language and its handmaiden, technology. Thus, Eurocentric cultural values have become the standard by which a country is considered "developed." With all their art and scientific capabilities, these values provide the consolation prize for the political imperialism by which they have been enforced.

Thus in Western thinking the sanctity of individual consciousness, so valued in humanistic art, has gone hand-in-hand with monopolistic capitalism -- the obverse of the same individualism so valued in our culture. Though never stated directly in his films, it is as if Rivette realizes that the old fashioned individual notions of inwardness, the purely personal existential quest, leads one to no effective knowledge but simply to ever increasingly multiplied images of oneself -- like the room with mirrors that Pauline eventually finds herself in towards the end of Spectre where all she finds are multiple reflections of herself.

Through the collectivity of its creation, through the multiplicity of its interwoven stories, through its explicit examination of the nature of language -- simultaneously verbal, theatrical, and cinematic, Out One: Spectre contests many of the cultural values by which many of us have lived. It contests especially that innocent confidence in the value of this cultural inheritance of our non-ideological reading of the classical texts of the past.

Spectre presents us with attempted re-readings of two dramatic texts -- re-readings which (as I have said) involve aspects of primitive, pre-classical conventions. It also presents us with a number of separate yet randomly interlinking narrative structures which challenge our sense of the conventional linear plot (Pauline's bookshop is called, in fact, l'Angle du Hasard). Furthermore, both through Thomas's rehearsals and Colin's insistent enquiries, it offers a rigorous interrogation of the nature of language. On a single viewing the film might seem inscrutable. But it isn't really. As Anne says of Pericles in Paris Nous Appartient: "It's a bit loose, but it all ties together on another plane."

On what plane? On the plane of epistemological enquiry -- the plane on which we attempt to "read" the signs of our civilization and attempt to relate them to the traces of other signs left over from the past. Hence the relevance of all the texts that we find throughout Rivette's work -- with a force similar to the texts we find scattered through-out Godard. What do all these signs signify? What did they signify for another age? What can they really mean to us now? What work must we do to make them meaningful? This is the problem of all the theater directors in all of Rivette's films, as it was the problem for Fritz Lang when trying to bring to life the values of Homer in Godard's Le Mépris.

In Jonathan Rosenbaum's helpful account of the film, he refers to Colin's closing comments as "expressing an anguished agnosticism towards all fiction directing a stare into the face of an intractable reality." (12) But it is not just fiction involved here: it is epistemology itself. As Rivette has said about the title of the film: "There are so many readings possible that finally there's none." (13) Except that that itself is a reading. Things simply make no sense. They don't cohere. We don't really feel in control of our lives. It is as if there is some exterior force acting upon us, as if there is some kind of conspiracy. Yet the film is not without coherence, any more than our lives are not without explanations for the way they have developed.

Once we have reached the stage where we see the world as inscrutable, where we begin to question those elements of our culture which we have been encouraged to accept as "natural," we are on the way to thinking about it analytically which (I have come to realize) must mean politically, historically, materialistically -- that is to say, if we are interested in change and in working towards a feeling of increased control. Similarly, once we have a feeling of increased control, once we have ceased to accept all the narrative conventions that a saturation viewing of Hollywood films have trained us to "read" so easily that we think of them as "natural," we might be on the way towards experiencing new forms. By reducing the fragments of his fiction to a series of unfamiliar hieroglyphs that have to be puzzled out as if a foreign language, Jacques Rivette confronts us directly with this kind of problem.

Rivette's films are thus challenging in unexpected ways. So many of the individual scenes might seem to be conventional and the style transparent, yet the films themselves are not. It is as if Rivette has successfully combined the gestural qualities of Renoir's cinema -- the cinema of spectacle -- with the structural complexities of Eisenstein's cinema -- the cinema of écriture. As he himself said in 1968:

I truly believe that the cinema's only role is to disturb the audience, to contradict all ready-made ideas but even more those established patterns of thought that underlie those ideas. We have to stop the cinema being reassuring. (14)
At the same time, unlike the theoretical implications of so much radical thought about the cinema today, Rivette is not content simply to overthrow the notion of spectacle. This is why, for all his concern with innovation and with disturbing the audience, he can conclude that Cahiers du Cinéma interview with the statement that "Renoir is the person who has best understood the cinema, even more than Rossellini, even than Godard -- more than anyone." (15)

Rivette's personal quest has been, to quote again from that extended Cahiers interview, "to find an equivalent for the cinema of the recent experiments by Stockhausen -- a mixture of constructed and accidental elements which necessarily implies time, duration." (16) This quest has been, to my mind, supremely realized in Out One: Spectre, not only in the way the film has been presented to us but in the way we are invited to respond to it. The leisurely pace of many of its sequences, plus its extended length (even in the shortened version) necessitates a lot of work on the part of the audience, a constant attempt to correlate conflicting elements and to combine them together on our own, personal reading of the film. As one French reviewer concluded: "Out One is without a doubt the first film that requires participation in its own development (even of the story) simultaneously from the actors, from the director, and from the audience as well." (17)

  1. Ken Kelman, "Swan Song, 1960," in Moviegoer (New York) No. 2., Sum-Aut. '64, p.61

  2. As Rivette himself is well aware. See Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris) No. 204, Sept. '66, p.15.

  3. Louis Marcorelles, "Paris Nous Appartient," in Sight & Sound (London), Vol. 28 No.1, Winter '58-'59, p. 34.

  4. In Cahiers du Cinéma No. 204, p.7.

  5. Ibid, p. 15.

  6. See "Entretien avec Jacques Rivette," in La Nouvelle Critique (Paris), No. 63 (244), April '73, p. 70.

  7. For a helpful account of the film, see Jonathan Rosenbaum, "Work and Play in the House of Fiction," in Sight & Sound (London), Vol. 43 No.4, Aut '74. pp. 190-194.

  8. Ibid, p. 191.

  9. "Jacques Rivette, Interviewed by Carlos Clarens and Edgardo Cozarinsky," in Sight & Sound (London) Vol. 43 No.4, Aut '74, p. 196.

  10. Jonathan Rosenbaum, "Work and Play," in Sight & Sound. p. 191.

  11. Rivette would appear to attach very little conscious importance to it himself. He sees the idea of a "complot" chiefly as a fictional convenience, "to connect all the elements." See "Phantom Interviews over Rivette," by Jonathan Rosenbaum, Lauren Sedofsky, & Gilbert Adair in Film Comment (New York), Vol. 10 No.5, Sept./Oct. '74, pp. 18-24.

  12. Rosenbaum, "Work and Play," in Sight & Sound, p. 192.

  13. "Phantom Interviews," in Film Comment, p. 22.

  14. In Cahiers du Cinéma No. 204. p.20.

  15. Ibid, p. 20.

  16. Ibid, p.20.

  17. Ibid, p.20.

An earlier version of this article originally appeared in Ciné-Tracts (Montreal), Vol. 1 No. 3 (Fall/Winter 1977-78), pp. 4l-52. Revised May-June 2007.