Jacques Rivette and the Other Place, Track 1b
B. Kite

  1. A submerged territory between the world of magical mystery and the flatland of impossible reality.

  2. The Other Place was here but now it's not.

  3. Paris -- playground and empty shell.

  4. Conspiracy and theater -- not separate or opposed but facets of the same central structure, windows into the Other Place.

  5. The magic bag -- capable of turning itself endlessly inside-out, the better to contain the unbounded.

  6. The street, the stage, the hidden passage.

  7. The career tracks, the lines of development.

  8. Beginning again -- the alternate path of development, at a tangent to history, that runs through the theater.

  9. Babel -- the ways in which networks of power infiltrate and corrupt even those proto-utopias conceived in opposition.

  10. What we are/what we become: Roles, attitudes/postures, masks.

  11. Play (magical, tedious, creative, destructive, puerile, revolutionary, deadly) and the play space (the pen for identities adopted and shed).

  12. The game of Go: Players begin with an open grid, but as the game progresses moves must increasingly be made in response to the larger patterns already on the board, either to fill in gaps or exploit them in order to break up the formation.

  13. The pieces in play:

    • The Thebes group (the folded bodies; beginning in the hollow forms of ritual, using words and gestures as structures to occupy)

    • The distribution of messages from destiny

    • The Prometheus group (the struggle to begin in meaning and reinvent ritual)

    • Preparing the messages, stamping the inscription

    • Prometheus -- coming to speech

    • The stamping, the stamping

    • Prometheus -- "'s hot" -- the dissolution into scattered formations

    • The torn pages, the stuffed envelopes, the maps of destiny

    • Prometheus -- the narrative postulates, the play positions -- "How was it for you?"


Learning Machine

The first episode of Out 1 also introduces us to the film's mode of construction, in particular its chunky idea of time. At the start, each scene is its own event, a block of time and space, and the edges remain unpolished, so the general effect for the viewer stands at a far remove from the fluid communicative spaces perfected by Hollywood in the '30s and '40s, in which every corner of the storyworld is potentially open to the narrative intelligence. Rather, in their slablike formations, these early scenes are reminiscent of the set of basic terms that commence Wittgenstein's language games, isolated units that initially communicate only through rough addition -- this AND this AND -- without, as yet, any principle of general connection.

The sequences themselves are built of subsidiary slabs of action occasionally (1) cracked by intrusions of extreme difference, so a shot lasting several minutes will be broken by an insert lasting perhaps a couple of seconds -- so quick, and so opposed to the mode of concentration established by the long takes, that it seems nearly subliminal, a sharp cut and blunt foregrounding of the narrational machine that is the film itself, and whose intelligence should not be identified as Rivette's own. Instead, we recognize Rivette's hand acting in comparative isolation at three points in the process: before the action, when he drew the grid of connections; in the midst of the process, as the author of the notes Colin receives and hence agent of the fictive germ; and afterward, when, through editing, he constructed the machine that will process the process in turn. We'll call it the Out Machine.

This machine is, to some extent, the ultimate fiction he creates in respect to the material, since it has its own character and story. It is, to begin with, capable of learning, a sort of artificial-intelligence program set to work to discover on its own the principles of constructing and connecting space and plots. When, at the end of episode two, we're given for the first time, in Lili and Lucie's conversation in the car, a shot-reverse shot exchange of close-ups between two characters, it stands as a particular point of discovery, a new principle in the lexicon. And because the closeups are not perfectly matched with the medium shot of both women, each shot retains a bit of the character of its own block of time, imperfectly grafted into a dubious continuity. The identity of this hypothetical machine is open to question -- it might be cinema itself, rendered amnesiac after a blow to the head or a fall from a height, reenacting the process of coming into its own (non-syntactic) language with the means and materials available in 1971.

As such, the machine's representative within the film is Colin, not the secret societies, as we see already in the first episode, where his repetitive gestures echo the machine's presentation of its starting materials (stamp AND stamp AND). Accordingly, Colin is allotted the first insert of the film: a closeup of one of his envelopes. As Morgan Fisher's 2003 film ( ) beautifully demonstrates, inserts are the secret seedbeds of movie narrative. Fisher's film consists exclusively of inserts culled from Hollywood movies of the studio period -- letters and calling cards, darting eyes and retreating hands, newspaper headlines and loudspeakers, coded messages and receptive ears, hat brims and handbag snaps, tall bottles of wine and small bottles of poison, the barrel of a gun and a drop of blood on carpet -- arranged according to a computer-generated algorithm. Even ripped from their native environments, however, these shots continue to communicate, to spread webs of information, precisely because they are designed to offer little but information, to encapsulate a narrative transmission with a minimum of distracting detail.

Of course, when inserts are removed from their context, as Fisher does, or placed in a context where they form a rule rather than an exception, as in Bresson, their plastic attractions are overwhelming, "as beautiful as a bathroom," as Luis Bunuel once said of something else. But this elegant functionalism is the frame for a hook, an important piece of information meant to pull the plot forward. So it is with Colin's envelope, and only in retrospect do we realize that its inscription carries both a lie ("I am deaf and dumb") and a promise ("I bring you a message from destiny"), and that both offer an augur for the future of the Out Machine, corrupted almost from the outset by incommensurable data. But initially, only the promise is visible, and this assigns our machine a lineage and a model of operation -- the idea that in working toward the revelation of a hidden order, our machine might function a bit like what Tom Gunning calls Fritz Lang's "destiny machine." (2)

All narrative proceeds by means of raising questions and forestalling answers. If the mystery/thriller genre happens to be fertile ground for investigating the processes of fiction itself, it's because it makes these questions overt, transforms them into the very stuff of the film. In this sense, the opening flurries of action in Lang's Dr Mabuse, der Spieler and Spione might be taken as miniature models for every plot, as well as illustrations of Deleuze and Guattari's paranoid regime of signifiance. In these prologues, abrupt violence and mystifying chains of cause and effect lead to an inevitable question, presented via intertitle in Spione: "Who is responsible for all this?" And the query is answered, literally, by the face of the despot-god, the secret center. Our machine is less fortunate.

Exploding Machine

"A lot of people think that Eisenstein was the greatest editor, because he had some theories about it, but this is not true. Chaplin was greater, I think, in editing, only it is not so obvious. Chaplin was more precise than Eisenstein, and the man after Chaplin who is the most precise is surely Rivette." -- Jean-Marie Straub

Every editing decision in Out 1 is interesting, and consideration of these individual decisions in relation to the larger structure is one of the facets of the film that most fascinates on repeat viewings. But since I'm only sketching the outlines of the behemoth, let's jump from the head to the tail, leaving the body otherwise untouched.

From a starting point of rough addition, our machine has gradually acquired new strategies for organizing its materials and even moved toward a fluidity of expression. However, with the scope of its trajectory premised on a vanishing target, our machine fails ever to locate a center of signifiance, and is driven to madness and incoherence in its final operations, as it begins to:

-- Produce phantasms (such as Sarah's aggressive appearance to Emilie in the last episode -- "Stop looking at me like that" -- in which it seems that Sarah herself has become the ghost whose presence she had sensed earlier in the film)

-- Garble its communications (as in the meeting of Sarah and Colin, where portions of her speech are reversed on the soundtrack. And then again, in symmetry, the bursts of Colin's harmonica which periodically drown out the colloquy of Emilie and spectre Sarah. (3)

-- Throw up empty units (such as the sublimely incommunicative shot of an intersection that keeps popping up during Lucie's conversation with Warok. It stands as the obverse of the insert, the (relatively) pure transmission of data, as an obstreperous non sequitir. Though since the film's initial insert of Colin's envelope is premised on a lie, it might also be seen as its outgrowth -- not a narrative hook forward but simply a declaration of street and nothing but street, an attempt to retreat from the increasingly unresolvable complexities of the film's fictions and return to the perhaps illusory Eden of the Lumieres' first forays, a time when one could film a train entering a station and have it mean no more or less than a train etc. And, in fact, this particular intersection holds a privileged place in the film as the site where Quintin attempted to use the same power of number and measure that led to his lottery win to cause the city to draw or reveal Renaud. But the city won't be drawn, and Quintin is forced to abandon his efforts and submerge himself in its flow. If Paris belongs to anyone, it isn't him, and these later appearances are further expressions of insistent otherness.)

How can the process end? Only on recognition of its own futility, with a final image drawn from an earlier episode of Marie, one of the actors in the Thebes troupe, standing guard beside a tutelary goddess (Athena?) -- another seeming non sequitir that draws, variously, laughter, applause, and expressions of dismay from audiences. In fact, it is the logical culmination of the machine's (failed) recovery process -- it has traced the fictive germ back to its source (Marie's fixed observation, outside and in the corner of the frame, of one of Colin's early cafe recitals, and then her casual transmission of the first of the notes), and realized that the center of the story was always elsewhere, always outside and other. These figures, little noticed for much of the film's length, stand waiting at a door unopened. Abort program and end transmission.

Ghost Machine

In this light, Spectre is less an abridged version of Out 1 than its sequel -- a new machine constructed to process the material once again, according to different algorithms. Where Out 1 works with blocks of time, Spectre functions through intersections, setting up series of simultaneities that become increasingly impossible over the course of the film. The narrative emphases too change in the retelling, pushing some characters, such as Frederique, to the rear and bringing others, notably Thomas, to greater prominence.

Rosenbaum calls its principles of construction "Langian," which is quite right since it's premised on the sets of questions posed and "answers" supplied through juxtaposition that provide the forward pull of films such as M and The Testament of Dr Mabuse, and that remain among Lang's preeminent contributions to the movie toolbox. (4) As Rivette said, the goal was "to use this as precise, as tight and as formal a manner as possible. To try to find as many formal principles as possible, visible or invisible, for getting from one shot to the next. Some are very obvious, others happened by chance and we noticed only afterward."

Throughout its length, though, Spectre is subject to other intrusions -- black and white stills accompanied by an electric hum. According to Rivette, "They should be seen as a kind of machine, an electronic computer that interrupts the general dream of the characters in Spectre." Since these stills point variously backwards to scenes we've witnessed, forward to scenes to come, or (and increasingly toward the end) simply outside, to scenes no longer present, I suggest that these are emanations of the first machine, Mark Out 1, and that it, in fact, is the spectre haunting Spectre, sending forth isolated data fragments almost as distress signals, fragments which complicate and corrupt the second mechanism in turn. But the Spectre machine doesn't explode, it simply winds down to a standstill, doubled in Colin's attempt to confirm that Paris spins under the sway of the 13 through yet another magical operation -- gently swinging a tiny Eiffel tower like a pendulum, and waiting until it comes to a stop after the thirteenth arc. Which it never does. "It didn't work."

The Other House

"Of course, thanks to the house, a great many of our memories are housed, and if the house is a bit elaborate, if it has a cellar and a garret, nooks and corridors, our memories have refuges that are all the more clearly delineated" -- Gaston Bachelard

What if the Other Place were a house?

The Rivette House is a unique construct, a contribution to the permanent architecture of cinema (5). It would be interesting to read his work solely through the various houses it occupies, but I'll just sketch some shared characteristics. We've already glimpsed a few prototypes: the chalet of dubious revelations, dead ends, and new beginnings at the close of Paris nous appartient is an early example, and the bedroom of L'Amour fou might be the Rivette House in miniature, in its primary paradox of being both clearly demarcated and open to fantastic transformation. But it's in Out 1 that the construct first comes into its own, in the haunted beach house which seems to act as a mysterious relay for the Other Place.

So what can we say of the Rivette House? Taken in general, we can ascribe to it the following traits:

It is suburban. Paris is a place of transience, where only the landmarks hold their places, because its ownership is constantly contested by shadowy forces. (Bachelard: "In Paris there are no houses, and the inhabitants of the big city live in superimposed boxes.") The Rivette House is located in the sprawl of not-Paris, where mystery is quieter, being parceled out in closed domains, untrafficked streets, and weedy lots.

It is intricate and rambling, and its multiple floors, narrow stairs, obscure garrets often give it a sense of being larger inside than out. It has three or four levels. (Bachelard: "If I were the architect of an oneiric house, I should hesitate between a three-story house and one with four.... One floor more, and our dreams become blurred. In the oneiric house, topoanalysis only knows how to count to three or four.")

It has a history, and that history is somehow inscribed in its walls. But the past to which it connects is imperfectly remembered -- even to its inhabitants much of the time. And there's a hint that its position in time is indeterminate, and that the house sits at the intersection of past/present/future.

It is heimlich, the better to contain the unheimlich. It is carefully, even pedantically, made known to us. The tour we're given at the start of La belle noiseuse is another deliberate setting forth of materials, one space shown and placed beside another to enable the viewer to quickly master the topography and traverse the rooms in imagination. Our guide tells us that her own favorite is the "Chimera Room" ("because it's useless"). We will return to that particular room later, noting now only that the Rivette House typically contains within the known such a locus of the unknown. Cf also the locked wing of Out 1, where the mysterious bust that migrates throughout the beach house finally comes to rest at the center, and parallel oval mirrors figure an opening to the Other Place. Or again, the hallway between worlds located somewhere inside the House of Time (Stopped and Repaired) in Histoire de Marie et Julien, where the revenant learns the rules of the game and acquires "the forbidden sign."

But the best-known of these uncanny domiciles is undoubtedly that of Celine et Julie vont en bateau, where it serves as the shell for an eternally looping melodrama drawn from a novella by Henry James, entitled, neatly enough for our purposes, The Other House. This selection, which must be credited to Rivette's collaborator Eduardo de Gregorio, is singularly apposite in yet another way, since the book itself inhabits an intermediate zone between fiction (prose) and theater, cultivating a hybrid in literature running in advance of, but parallel to, Rivette's own cine-theatric splicing.

James originally planned The Other House as a play, and the work maintains a peculiar fealty to that medium, retaining a standard three act division and curtailing any roaming propensities of the narrational intelligence by rooting the story-eye to a single spot for each scene. Metaphorically, one might compare this strategy to some varieties of early cinema (eg Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son), where the camera plants itself unblinking at a static, distant position from an elaborate, interlocking choreography. Characters enter a zone of the seen, exchange dialogue, then exit untrailed into a capacious "offstage" space where, as in Greek tragedy, the central act of violence (here, the murder of a child) occurs.

But James combines this spatial limitation with an interior fluidity: Within this lighted zone, the narrational intelligence is given a degree of access to the psyches of individual characters, its bounded course inflected by varying points of view, creating a trajectory which, if spatialised and seen in large and from overhead, might look something like that of a moth trapped in a shoebox. Since no writer more rigorously plotted the angles of narrative vision, and in particular their varying degrees of incidence with internal psychologies, we can see James making a unique experiment here -- one much like that undertaken by Rivette in such films as La religeuse and Hurlevent -- exploring the properties of one medium by adopting the conventions and constraints of another.

Frozen Fictions

"In the theater of the past that is constituted by memory, the stage setting maintains the characters in their dominant roles. At times we think we know ourselves in time, when all we know is a sequence of fixations in the spaces of the being's stability -- a being who does not want to melt away, and who, even in the past, when he sets out in search of things past, wants time to 'suspend' its flight. In its countless alveoli space contains compressed time. That is what space is for." -- Bachelard

In the progressive serial that constitutes the first track of Rivette's career, each installment ends on a metaphysic cliff-hanger. The following entry critiques its predecessor by jumping beyond its divisions and finding a yet further brink on which to balance. In this series, certain films hold privileged positions, advancing the progress while also serving as scenic points from which to view where we've been and how far we've come -- a retelling under new auspices of "the story so far." We'll call them mirror points.

Celine et Julie is the first of these. Here, the two lines of development mentioned earlier in relation to La religieuse are conjoined and made manifest: the mainline of experimental effort (sometimes figured as rehearsal) pitched toward, formed in relation to, but never reaching the Other Place (imagined as variously the locus of conspiracy, the realm of ideals, and the site of achieved performance), and the shadowline, which is not of but in theater, grafting the stage onto the world and placing its actions under the sign of embodied ritual.

Since the way of looking I'm trying to construct here constantly threatens to violate its subjects by rendering their operations too tidy and retrospectively coherent, it's important to note that its nexus remains stubbornly paradoxic, the Other Place being defined as always and everywhere other and opposed. C&J gives the Other Place an external grounding in the world -- we'll call its manifestation here the Other House, in deference to James -- but inside its walls, other rules apply.

The Other House has often been identified with cinema itself, since we initially encounter its story (always the same story, screened once a day) as an editing exercise -- disordered fragments gradually assuming linear form through the active (puzzling, hypothesizing, kvetching) spectatorship of Celine and Julie, who here take on the assembly function of the Out 1 machine. But just as that earlier contraption short-circuited on the discovery that it had misidentified its materials, so C&J find themselves unable to solve the mystery of the Other House with their given fragments, even once they've been pieced together in proper order. Instead, they must penetrate the image and enter the Other House fully aware, searching behind the scenes for occluded information and creating a new and evolving present from its frozen fiction.

Once they do, we're no longer at the movies -- the prompter's initiatory thumps and the applause of an unseen audience tell us unmistakably that we're back in the theater. And here we're finally given exactly that spectacle the earlier films had denied: achieved performance, where the figures are no longer in flux, but locked into their roles and gestures. The last section of C&J makes manifest an opposition that had earlier existed only in implication, the dichotomy of play and fiction. Outside the house, Paris seems a playground, and to truly and finally belong to us, as it does to C&J, who reconfigure it through their games. The two women are above all else unserious, and remain so through a stubborn refusal of role. Both take the stage at different points, but Celine performs her magic act with an overt insolence that disdains any commitment to its gestures -- she becomes Brechtian in her boredom, literally "playing" a part while forestalling any identification with it. And Julie, of course, takes the stage as Celine, another indication that they wear their multiform beings lightly enough to share them between themselves.

But the eternally unspooling story of the Other House is a finished fiction. Ritual, in the form of ceremonial magic, allows C&J to enter the Other House in its zombified "present," but only play allows them to leave it. Through mugging and mockery, they make an opening in its lugubrious repetitions, and find a way out -- but a way out into what? Perhaps into a realization that brings one stage of Rivette's exploration to a full stop. L'Amour fou, Out 1, and much of C&J itself might be seen as attempting to effect an impossible enchantment: to create a living center of instability in the fixed flow of a film. By incorporating rehearsal but refusing achieved performance in favor of free play outside of assigned roles, Rivette may have been trying to discover a means by which movies could remain mutable and retain a degree of independent agency apart from coercive fictions. No quest could be more quixotic, but that in itself indicates the extent to which these films push toward the impossible. In that push lies their surprise and danger, above all in the impression that they're often on the verge of succeeding, that these recordings of past places and people might open up to reveal an eternally present utopia of unbounded being, where play remains eternally unfixed and fluid. We should never discount the extent to which Rivette takes magic seriously -- it's no accident that it's such a frequent tool and reference for his characters. Each of these films stands as an attempt to work magic.

In C&J, this operation is represented through the heroines' attempt to rescue a living creature (little Madlyn) from a dead fiction. It seems strange to suspect a kind of despair in a film as lively as C&J, but in its ending is an admission that play itself becomes fixed -- becomes, in fact, fiction -- through repetition, whether in the form of reenactment or rescreening. In the film's coda, as C&J replay their initial encounter, now in reversed roles, we see how it is that the inhabitants of the Other House could with impunity intercept their boat ride: They have always belonged to the same world, and escape is impossible. (6) And with the Other Place, as heretofore conceived, revealed as a haunted house, one we've always occupied unknowing, what else to do but step directly into the parallel life?

The Unheard Chord

It would be unfortunate not to mention at some point, however belatedly, Rivette's strength as a critic. While he could be every bit as nasty as Truffaut, his primary thrust is enthusiastic -- even if the film under consideration is unredeemable, it may serve as an occasion for developing a unique idea-construct, and beyond that help to define a set of praxis options for the cinema of the future. So the fact that one discovers, in retrospect, coming attractions for Rivette's future films in these pieces isn't a sign of short-sight, self-centrism, or incommunicable eccentricity on his part. Still less is it evidence that his career hewed to tracks laid down at the outset (predestination is the perfect conspiracy). Rather it's an indication that Rivette took, and continues to take, the films he voraciously views as objects for use, glimpsing by lightning flash various frames of possibility, some of which he later exposes to the steadier flicker of his own projection.

Take, for example, his 1954 piece on Preminger's Angel Face, entitled "The Essential." While admitting that he aligns himself with a different institution ("I prefer the possibly more naive conception of the old school, of Hawks, Hitchcock, or Lang, who first believe in their themes and then build their art on the strength of those convictions."), he proceeds to define the Premingerian parameters with a growing excitement and conviction that almost (but not quite) seems to outstrip its object. In doing so, he provides provocative formulations for his strategies for his early run of films, through C&J: "The film is not so much an end as a means. Its unpredictability attracts him, the chance discoveries that mean 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.... 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."

This certainly suggests a cinema at some distance from Preminger's polished facets and internal divisions, but this crystalline aspect of the films also comes in for consideration -- and casts some forward light on the next stage of Rivette's career:

Preminger believes first in mise en scene, the creation of 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 the 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 use of artifice, but from the determined and hazardous search for a note previously unheard; one can neither tire of hearing it, nor claim by deepening it to exhaust its enigma -- the door to something beyond intellect, opening out onto the unknown.
The crystal of "The Essential" migrates in time into the plan for a series of four films called Scenes de la Vie Parallele, and is figured in miniature as the magic stone at the center of Duelle. And that series was in turn explicitly envisioned as the inverse of Out 1, as Rivette later told Serge Daney and Claire Denis in the documentary Jacques Rivette, le reveilleur: "After Out, it seemed impossible in my films to talk about the contemporary world, what we call the real world. And at that time, I wanted more than anything to work on fiction, fantasy fiction films.... What came next were stories that were very different with one thing in common: the total refusal of France in the '70s. It was something I suddenly didn't want to see anymore."

And contra-Out in another way as well, as he wrote in his prospectus for the series, since "during shooting each 'unit' (each block-sequence) will be subjected to a method designed to break down not only conventional dramatic techniques but also the more recent conventions of improvisation, with all the prolixities and cliches it entails (hesitations, provocations, etc. ...), and to establish an ecriture based on actions, movements, attitudes, the actor's 'gestural,' in other words. The ambition of these films is to discover a new approach to acting in the cinema, where speech, reduced to essential phrases, to precise formulas, would play a role of 'poetic' punctuation. Not a return to silent cinema, neither pantomime or choreography: something else, where the movement of bodies, their counterpoint, their inscription within the screen space, would be the basis of mise en scene."

The realization is the same as that which brings Celine & Julie up short -- that such targeted immediacy contains in turn its own dead forms and eternal repetitions. In addition, there's a growing suspicion that the "free play" of improvisation often founders on the reduced and stunted notions of being that underlie it, as the actor may tend to turn to generalized codes of behavior to create a "truth" that denies its own artifice through the cliches he mentions (I stumble over my speech to telegraph my immediacy and perfected imperfection. I provoke because it is disagreement and tension that makes a scene, and anger and recrimination are among those displays afforded a greater truth-value in these received notions of the human, etc.)

But although Rivette disavows choreography, Duelle (the second film of the proposed series, but the first shot) seems in many respects a dance film. Or rather a film of varied and occasionally converging choreographies -- from Pierre's explicit acrobatics, to the melodramatic movement repertoires of the goddessses and their acolytes, to the lurching undead who thread the spiderweb of the nightclub's dance floor, to the elegant and largely unaccustomed fluidity of the lines and tangles drawn by his mobile camera. Within these interlocking dances, the task of the heroine (Hermine Karagheuz) is as much to find a way to move as it is to resolve a mystery, as Rivette demonstrates in the medium shot that opens the film: Karagheuz with arms akimbo and face transversed with a rapid flux of feeling, merging from excitement to uncertainty. Only when the camera pans down do we discover the cause of her strange stance and sudden adjustments: she's attempting to balance on a globe of stars.

A Crack in the Mirror

Duelle, like the film that follows it, is crystalline in another way as well: It's a shining example of what Deleuze calls "the crystal-image" in Cinema 2. For Deleuze, such images are characterized by the way they render instinguishable the actual and the virtual -- say, the face and its mirror reflection -- and instead compound mirror images (as in the mirror-maze sequence at the end of The Lady from Shanghai, where the body is lost amid multiplying reflections) or set actual and virtual in a relay, continually overturning into each other (as in Last Year at Marienbad, where multiplying potential realities float free of normative determinants).

The crystal image, therefore, lies in the liminal, and this is precisely the territory of the Vie Parallele. As Rivette announced in his prospectus: "Evolving parallel in time, the four stories are all divided into three main sections, corresponding to the three lunar phases (from new moon to full, return of the new moon, then finally full moon again -- therefore with the same number of transitions from darkness to light) which circumscribe the forty days of Carnival [which traditionally marks the period of transition between winter and spring -- therefore between death and new life]." And Carnival is the time of reversible hierarchies, where the fool and the king exchange roles, and mutable identity, as the mask and the face trade places (the mask doesn't become the face, since to do so would be to nullify its essential qualities as shell or covering, but rather subsumes it, so the locus of interest is the new identity, not any sort of hidden center).

The Vie Parallele isn't the Other Place, but rather an interval or bridge between that realm and ours, where the goddesses of sun and moon are set at liberty to walk our world, according to the anterior myth created by Rivette and De Gregario. And since this is the time and place of reversible hierarchies, the narrative here is the obverse of that found in many of Rivette's earlier films: Where those protagonists sought to penetrate the Other Place, these interlopers seek to escape it and enter our world. But since the Other Place is always defined as "not here," it makes sense that its position would change with vantage, each realm functioning as the Other Place for those who don't occupy it. The Vie Parallele is situated at a point equidistant from their Other Place and our own.

Deleuze goes on to define "crystal states," using as examples filmmakers whose entire body of work demonstrates a particular conception of time and the relation of the actual/virtual. Much of Rivette (and Duelle and Noroit especially) seems to lie between the first two of these: the "perfect crystal" of Ophuls (a contained world with no outside, where scenes and events endlessly reflect back on each other) and the "cracked crystal" of Renoir (where the mirrored world contains an escape hatch -- a flaw which leads back to "reality"). (7) Rivette's is a crystal which yearns to be cracked, which dreams its flaw as a "line of flight." (Hence the significance of Pierrot's "forbidden gesture" in Duelle, the magical pass that cracks the dance-hall mirror.)

Since cinema lies in the conjunction of moonlight and mirrors, it's no surprise to find that the Vie Parallele resides here: These are the most overtly movie-haunted of Rivette's films. Duelle's "sinister hotel and seedy dance hall, " its emerald aquariums, night-blue trestles, and eerily deserted parks are a movie-landscape formed from bits of Lang, Sternberg, Feuillade, and others that has grafted itself over the Paris of the distasteful '70s and remade it into the vision of the city that might have floated in the mind of a young movielover emerging from the Cinematheque and seeing the sidewalk anew through the lens of the film that has just concluded (that just keeps rolling).

It's an intensive investigation of the method of Out 1's Thebes troupe -- trying to find a way to occupy an established repertoire of gesture -- but instead of taking Aeschylus and the weight of ancient ritual as its ground, the film works instead with a distillation of Hollywood melodramas, spy stories, policiers, pirate movies, even musicals. The playful underlying hypothesis: The gods now walk, often undetected, in the interstices of cinema, and could we but modify the blinking of our eyes in order to see not the movie images but rather the dark intervals that separate them, perhaps we would find them there, trying to break through. Not Prometheus himself, but his offspring, the "daughters of fire," to give the series its original title. Their Carnaval is our movie, forever extinguished with the arc lamp and born again at the next screening, "In the name of the Salamander."

The Crystal Skull

A further measure of the contiguity and distance of Renoir and Rivette, according to Deleuze's paradigm: "'Where then, does theatre end and life begin,' remains the question always asked by Renoir. We are born in a crystal, but the crystal retains only death, and life must come out of it, after trying itself out."

But if those tryouts never settle on a form, we're left fluctuating between the reflective surfaces of the crystal, and only death points a way out, as in the mirror maze of Lady from Shanghai, where the proliferating guises can only be cracked by a bullet. Noroit marks the end point of this initial track of inquiry, as the jewel of Duelle is reconfigured as a poisoned skull.

The film carries a continual sense of playing out on multiple levels, an obscure ritual being enacted behind the scenes and only occasionally emerging into the open. So the surface tale -- a power struggle between female pirates in pantsuits -- lies parallel to another, in a foreign tongue and alternate medium: the Jacobean drama The Revenger's Tragedy, variously credited to Tourneur and Webster (there is dispute). And beneath both of these, a third narrative, drawn from the Vie Parallele mythos and only peeking out at the cryptic conclusion.

The Revenger's Tragedy was an inspired choice of background text (and one that again we can credit to de Gregario, truly the hidden hand of these films), since revenge tragedy and comedy are the genres most concerned with masks and disguises, even if the former inverts the latter's affirmation of union and fecundity by substituting desolation for generation and remaining centered on the skull beneath every mask, every skin. The carrion landscape of The Revenger's Tragedy itself, where purities remain nominal and love is a rhetorical cover for lust and corruption, which themselves barely conceal omnipresent death, offers a singularly corrosive example. The governing emotion is disgust. The vehicle of the protagonist's vengeance is the poisoned skull of his fiancˇe, who was murdered for resisting the advances of a lecherous Duke. He addresses this emblem of the departed only as the final truth beneath flesh and forms:

"Does every proud and self-affecting dame
Camphor her face for this[...?]
.....see, ladies with false forms
You deceive men, but cannot deceive worms."

In line with the genre's ongoing play of false faces, it is also uniquely concerned with theatricality and embedded fictions (the play within a play of Hamlet of course, and here too the final slaughter is carried out during a "Masque of Revengers"). But where C&J created a separate stage for its tragedy in the Other House, the parallel narratives of Noroit are co-present, or rather present by turns, the elaborately choreographed mise-en-scene capable of turning any space into theater on the spot, with little more than a shift in lighting.

There is no outside to these interpenetrating layers of fiction, and the true culmination of this first half of Rivette's career occurs in a scene midway through the film, when Geraldine Chaplin explicitly "performs" the play for her nemesis. It is both theatrical production at long last and emphatic non-production, executing a series of shifts in tone and impulse (between laughter and madness, rage feigned and seemingly felt, and murder mocked and nearly enacted) so dizzying as to leave one unsure of the ontological ground beneath one's feet at any particular moment. The boundary between theater and the world, Bazin's "fiery frontier" of the footlights which "gives rein to Dionysiac monsters while protecting us for them," had been eroded in some of Rivette's earlier films. Sometimes, its terms had been reversed, carving stages from reality and setting up smaller boxes for protoplasmic mutations. Rehearsals had often pointed beyond, without ever reaching their obscure goals. But however tenuous it became, the boundary retained its nominal place as a marker, a way of gauging our position. Here it is erased completely.

This sequence is the true mise-en-abyme of Rivette's oeuvre, the moment when the horror of fixed identity meets its opposite: a nightmare of being unmoored to anything beyond poses, where the single action that could break the chain of echoes and reflections carries death in its wake. That's what it means to be trapped in the crystal, that's what happens when "We've played too much," as Claire announced.

Sometimes, it ended like that.

Switching Station

What's next? The nervous breakdown, which plays such a prominent part in the Rivette myth, and the premature termination of the Vie Parallele series (though really it's hard to imagine where it could have gone after Noroit). (8) Then, a period of retreat and silence, less broken than figured by the cul-de-sac of Merry-Go-Round, a peculiar thriller on the edge of exhaustion, where short bursts of frantic, almost incoherent movement are interspersed with much longer intervals of stasis and curb-squatting (reportedly, Rivette himself tried to bolt the production at several points and was only kept on the set under extreme duress -- that's exactly the mood and motion of the film, a stifled spring).

Then, a new beginning in Pont du Nord (1981), a film which might equally be called "Paris Belongs to Us," though it turns that earlier film inside out, substituting for its interior world of mazes and warrens and nuked environs a wholly exterior game-board city, with stone lions standing sentinel against the invasion of the "Maxes," sinister forces of control which spy on the citizenry through the encroaching eyes of billboards and ad hordings. Were the film better known, I suspect that it would be as loved as C&J, and furthermore serve to inspire an international cult of urban hopscotch on the grand scale.

Someday I would like to write about some of the films of Track Two at greater length, but since they build on and tunnel under the forward line of the earlier films in a zigzagging itinerary, they better lend themselves to individual investigation. One brief stop at another mirror point on the way out: 1991's La Belle noiseuse, which emerges in this light not as a film about painting but rather one that uses the act of painting as the frame for a parable for Rivette's own career and trajectory.

It's a self-portrait of the artist in autumn, probing some very tender spots, such as the question of whether that first track of inquiry was abandoned due to failure of nerve, and whether his true and dangerous inspiration ended along with it. "If I go all the way, you can see blood on the canvas," warns the painter Frenhofer, played by Michel Piccoli, and he has grown wary of shedding blood. His great, unrealized work is called "La Belle noiseuse," but "it doesn't exist, it's just an idea. I gave it up." At one point, he had pushed at the boundaries of the possible, but he has since retreated to a safer distance. As his wife puts it, "Ten years ago you stopped searching, you got scared just when you should have gone all the way." Or as he himself says: "the famous point of no return -- that's what I can't reach anymore."

The Rock/The Seed

Frenhofer is inspired to begin the impossible work again by Marianne, the fiancˇe of a visiting admirer (and rival artist). She will be his new "beautiful nuisance." The body of the film lies in the relations between artist and model, their negotiations of space and terms, their struggles for dominance, and the movement from control to collaboration.

It should be clear from this that Rivette is here exploring a very sensitive topic indeed, his own relations with his actor-collaborators, and the psychic toll taken by these joint investigations into the limits of being and the possibility of essence lurking beneath proliferating poses. "I want to break you up to see the inside. I want the invisible," Frenhofer announces. "I'm going to crumble you -- we'll see what's left."

After Frenhofer's attempts at control through rigid, even sadistic, posings, come to a dead end, Marianne asserts herself, and initiates a more fruitful period in the process (like the bedroom of L'Amour fou and the rehearsal spaces of Out 1, the studio here becomes both open theater and playground, open to impulse and transformation). But though the dynamics have changed, Frenhofer's quest remains the same: he's on the hunt for core being, and it may be that it only reveals itself if freely offered by the subject. Again, his wife is undeceived: "Is it really possible to capture a whole life just in a few strokes of a painting? That's actually what he's looking for -- yes, shameless. It's not the flesh that's shameless."

The collaboration is a success, and he unveils the finished canvas to Marianne, who reacts with horror at the essence she confronts: "I must go before they find out. I saw it, a thing that was cold and dry -- that was me." But Frenhofer has another surprise in store. Recognizing the devastating power of his portrait, the cruelty of transfixing a fluttering form with the steel pin of a butterfly collector, he hides the painting in a niche in the studio and bricks up the hole. (9)

Overnight, he produces a new painting in its stead.

This hidden portrait has an analogue in the scene Rivette removed from Out 1 following its initial screening, the mental breakdown of Leaud's Colin. Rosenbaum, who calls it "one of the most powerful scenes in the entire serial," describes it: "the sequence, punctuated by a few patches of black leader, shows him crying, screaming, howling like an animal, banging his head against the wall, busting a closet door, writhing on the floor, then calming down and picking up his harmonica. After throwing away all three of the secret messages he has been trying for most of the serial to decode, he starts playing his harmonica ecstatically, throws his clothes and other belongings out into the hall, dances about manically, and then plays the harmonica some more. Dramatically and structurally, this raw piece of psychodrama suggested certain parallels with the sequence relentlessly recording Jean-Pierre Kalfon's self-lacerations with a razor in Rivette's L'Amour fou -- a disturbing piece of self-exposure in which the fictional postulates of the character seem to crumble into genuine pain and distress, representing in both films a dangerous crossing of certain boundaries into what can only be perceived as madness."

Since Leaud (who later described Rivette's methods as "vampiric") did in fact suffer a severe nervous breakdown some years later, Rivette's deletion can be seen as an act of tact and compassion, but the missing scene also radiates a question that carries over to La Belle noiseuse: What if essence exists, and can be captured? Or: What if being is inherently indeterminate, but by progressively stripping away layers we force it to declare itself, removing Schrodinger's poor cat from its box, and in doing so commit an ultimate injury on the subject, condemning him or her to live in this fixed face? What if the search for essence is a black magic?

I suspect that this scene and these considerations were very much on Rivette's mind during the filming of the Denis/Daney documentary, shot during the preparation for La Belle noiseuse, and that they underlay one of his more cryptic confessions in that film:

"For me, the character is always linked to the actor, and I don't want to violate the actor.... Because the rapport doesn't come from pre-written fiction but from fiction that takes shape during the shoot, where there's a kind of contract with the actor. Maybe it's the price I pay for this contract. That means that there are certain things that I don't feel capable of dealing with because that would be a kind of violence. So I leave it to people to guess. Or perhaps the actor takes it on himself to give the audience a glimpse of a secret that will not be disclosed."
The ultimate Other Place lies here, in this notion of hidden essence. This is the center, real or imagined, that attracts and repels Rivette, and his work is a long dance of advance and retreat toward, against, and around it.

Frenhofer's new painting, the faux noiseuse, depicts Marianne lying on her side and curled in on herself, only her back and spine available to the viewer. It is a return to the rock, a horizontal repetition of the initial image of Out 1. By disposing of her identity, he has restored her to the germanitive state, giving her the choice of freezing into the face she had seen in the other portrait or sprouting anew in utterly unexpected formations. In the Chimera Room, the "useless" space, she makes her decision. Offered the option of returning to her old role, she forges instead a way out, and the film ends on the affirmation of her "No."

  1. More frequently in Spectre, which is built less of slabs than shards.

  2. I'm altering Gunning's usage a little, since he speaks of these machines as operating within the worlds of these films, while I'm shifting the emphasis toward the operations of the films themselves, considered as dynamic entities.

  3. It should be apparent by now that Sarah is the locus of the impenetrable in the film and an active agent in the subversion of boundaries. She earlier disrupts the rehearsals of the Prometheus group by corrupting their games with her own, which remain resolutely private and opposed -- she ruins the process by "injecting reality into fantasy," as one of the actors puts it, and thus refusing to occupy a play position. But the nature of the position she does in fact hold remains opaque and seemingly changes according to context -- as an emissary of the Other Place, she remains Other in every situation. The interpenetration of reality and fantasy flows in both directions, as Sarah manifests variously as fantastic in reality and too real in fantasy. And through her interventions, these distinctions erode. If Colin is the representative of the machine's ordering impulse, Sarah is the figure of its madness.

  4. The "Who is responsible for this?" answered by the face of Haghi in Spione's prologue might be taken as a quick and easy means of educating the audience in this montage schema, offering an obvious example of a completed Q&A circuit. But Lang's variations on the pattern become increasingly baroque and ingenious, reaching a peak in Testament, with its interlinking chains of queries, deceitful responses, and obfuscated answers, where the data supplied through the splice is quite correct, but the audience is not yet in a position to recognize it.

  5. According to Pascal Bonitzer and Christine Laurent, collaborators on many of Rivette's later films, finding the right house can take more time than casting the roles. As Bonitzer says, "The houses in Jacques' films are always chosen for the way in which they will exert a strong influence on the screenplay.... They are all existing houses, real houses, with a history that the director makes use of...." Adds Laurent: "They become everybody's childhood houses."

  6. Isn't it? We might ask the cat which confronts us in the last shot. Since cats are such notoriously intractable, "undirectable," animals, filmmakers who clear a space for them, such as Rivette here or Vigo in L'Atatlante, are adopting a very particular posture toward the world, one which inherently abjures complete control and welcomes contingency as a collaborator. In this light, the cat-killing in Tarr's Satantango becomes significant indeed.

  7. We can gauge his position through this line in Deleuze: "According to Renoir, theatre is inseparable -- for both characters and actors -- from the enterprise of experimenting with and selecting roles, until you find the one which goes beyond theatre and enters life." It's just that "going beyond" that's the hitch, since Rivette is never enough at home in life to be sure of its existence.

  8. He made a fascinating return to the material in 2003's Histoire de Marie et Julien, but this is very much a product of his later career, and as Rivette has affirmed, not at all the film he would have made in the '70s. That film, that time, those possibilities, haunt it and add to its lingering air of sadness and loss, a mood not quite mitigated by the surprising about-face of its conclusion.

  9. Of that painting, we glimpse only a foot, in homage to the rather different parable Balzac told in the story which inspired the film, "The Unknown Masterpiece." Balzac's painter has also pushed past the point of no return, but he has brought back a work which is largely unrecognizable to his contemporaries: "'I can see nothing there but confused masses of color and a multitude of fantastical lines that go to make a dead wall of paint.'" But there is one thing more: a perfect foot.

    Is the painting indeed a failure, an incoherent outcry from a Dedalus lost in his own labyrinths, or is it something else -- an artwork of a future age, perhaps a premature impressionism, transported to a time that doesn't yet have eyes to view it? Balzac's tale closes on this tantalizing ambiguity.

Originally appeared in Cinema Scope 32 (Fall 2007): 43 - 53. The first section of this two-part piece appeared in Cinema Scope 30 (Spring 2007): 12-21, and is also available on the site to read.