In theory, from the vantage point of early spring, it would go something like this: four movies to be shot consecutively, each one an average-length feature to be filmed in three weeks; editing to begin after the fourth is shot, the four films edited in the order of their successive releases. For practical reasons, shooting order -- 2, 4, 1, 3 -- has to differ from editing and release order... In practice, from the vantage point of late July, the three-week schedules had to be abandoned once the separate films grew -- in scale if not in running time -- and Jacques Rivette is currently preparing to shoot the third film, No. 1 in the series.
Some preliminary ground rules: each covers the same 40-day Carnival period extending from the last new moon of winter to the first full moon of spring, when goddesses are permitted commerce with mortals. These 'daughters of fire' -- the title is taken from Nerval -- come in two varieties, Daughters of the Sun (fairies) and, Daughters of the Moon (ghosts). No. 1, a love story, will have a mortal (Albert Finney) as hero, a ghost (Leslie Caron) a heroine. No. 2, a film noir, pits a ghost (Juliet Berto) against a fairy (Bulle Ogier) while each searches for a diamond that can keep her alive past the allotted forty days leaving three mortal female victims in the wake. No. 3, a musical comedy conceived for Anna Karina and Jean Marais, will have a fairy playfully switching around the identities of three mortal men. No. 4, a Jacobean tragedy, sets two vengeful ghosts Geraldine Chaplin, Kika Markham) against a pirate fairy (Bernadette Lafont), with plenty of perishable mortals in between.
Some goddesses may reappear in separate guises in later movies, but each film is designed as a discrete unit. Live music from on-screen musicians will figure increasingly from one film to the next, in instrumentation as well as frequency. For the first time since La Religieuse, all the shooting will be in 35mm, in the same wide-screen ratio (1 x 1:85) as the former.
By necessity, the following reports are not of completed works but of tournages. Rivette's working methods change radically from one project to the next, making predictions extremely difficult; and from its inception, Les Filles du Feu has been in a state of constant evolution. Thus many of the projections here and below are subject to revision, and the events described relate less to the films themselves than to particular stages in their developments.
April 14, Paris: Arriving late morning in Parc Montsouris, not far from Cite Universitaire, I come upon Rivette and his crew shooting part of the final sequence of L'Oeil Froid (a tentative title later replaced by Viva, which is no less tentative (1)), a sort of duel at dawn between Hermine Karagheuz (Lucie, a mortal) and Juliet Berto (Leni, a ghost) in front of an imposing tree. Lucie is holding out an enormous diamond that glows an improbably bright and bloody red, a trick contrived with batteries and invisible wires. 'Red Magic,' Rivette says to me in English, laughing, between takes.
Both actresses are veterans of Out 1 and Spectre, Rivette's most extended experience with what he calls 'improvisation sauvage', but this time they aren't improvising at all. All 27 sequences in the film have been mapped out in advance by Rivette and a scriptwriter, Eduardo De Gregorio, and the latter and Marilu Parolini are writing the dialogue every day only hours -- sometimes minutes --before the players commit the lines to memory and deliver them for the cameras; if adjustments are made, it is Rivette alone who makes them.
There's no dialogue in the present shot, and while Karagheuz glints menacingly at the camera in red jacket and jeans, Berto is standing out of camera range in a flowing cape, looking quite a bit like a ghost. Some of her appearances, like those of the other goddesses, will be heralded by gusts of
wind, in interiors as well as exteriors, and theoretically her features will gradually grow whiter and paler over the course of the film while her lips steadily redder, until this climactic confrontation, when she assumes some of the pallor of the phantom princess in Ugetsu.
In some ways, the relaxed and congenial mood of the crew suggests a family reunion. Karagheuz has acted in two previous Rivette films, Berto in three and Bulle Ogier four; Parolini worked on L'Amour Fou, De Gregorio on Celine et Julie vont en bateau and the unproduced Phenix, and both
collaborated with Bertolucci on the script of The Spider's Strategy; the project has the same producer, Stephane Tchalgadjieff, as Out 1 and Spectre; the script girl worked on L'Amour Fou, and the stills photographer is Berto's sister.
During lunch in a nearby bistro, Rivette, quickly goes over the afternoon's handwritten dialogue, alters the order of two sentences, gives it back to De Gregorio so final copies can be written out for the actors, and then continues to talk about the movies he saw over the weekend. A rarity among directors, he keeps up with cinema as religiously as a daily critic, and not even a tournage will necessarily encourage him to swear off entirely. The story is told that on one occasion, when The Golden Coach first opened in Paris, he spent an entire day in the cinema, from first show to last -- testimony to a kind of dedication and endurance that may not be unrelated to the running times of his last four films.
While the crew sets itself up in the Labyrinth of the Jardin des Plantes -- a spiral footpath which leads up a hill overlooking the promenade and greenhouse -- for an afternoon of retakes, De Gregorio describes a few of the cinematic reference points at work in the film. Before shooting
started, The Seventh Victim, perhaps the most elliptical and troubling of Val Lewton's films, was screened for members of the cast and crew (three months later, for the next film, Moonfleet will be projected for comparable reasons), and film noir conventions are constantly kept in mind. Tomorrow's shooting in the adjacent greenhouse is partially prompted by The Big Sleep, just as a future meeting in an aquarium is, suggested by The Lady from Shanghai; and Kiss Me Deadly seems to be regarded as a locus classicus throughout.
The present scene is an earlier meeting between Leni and Lucie which will occur roughly halfway through the film; in principle, a series of short dialogues separated by jump cuts as they meet and walk along parts of the spiral path and elsewhere. Initially filmed near the beginning of shooting, this is being partially redone with different dialogue now that Rivette has had a chance to look at the rushes and rethink the mise en scene. The time will be dusk, the location rather dark under a network of branches: like the other ghosts in the tetralogy, Leni functions best at night, just as Viva, along with the other fairies, prefers the brightness of day.
By late afternoon, a light rain has started, but the crew goes on shooting well past official break-up time, in the cramped quarters of the curious little gazebo on top of the hill. There hasn't been enough time to secure permission from the park authorities to use this location, which Rivette selected on the spur of the moment, so there's a slightly tense and watchful mood as the camera makes 360 pans following Leni and Lucie round the small perimeter of the raised platform.
April 15: In the sweltering greenhouse, Viva (Bulle Ogier), the sun-goddess, meets Jeanne (Nicole Garcia), another mortal, known as Elsa when she works as ticket-girl in a dance hall. Will this scene between blondes 'double' the meeting between brunettes Leni and Lucie in the former's shadowy domain in the Labyrinth, which is planned to transpire two sequences earlier? Ogier, outfitted in a grey velvet pants suit with pink scarf and blouse, black gloves and stick the later concealing a mean-looking blade -- greets Jeanne in a film noir trenchcoat streaked with a yellow scarf. But if the actresses' costumes are correspondingly ethereal and earthy, the expressions playing over their faces often provides a strange contrast and counterpoint -- a paradox which seemed to surface at odd junctures in yesterday's shooting as well, when Lucie would suddenly take on an unearthly look or Leni would begin to seem human.
Once again, the characters walk while the talk, and the camera is frequently on the move as well. William Lubtchansky -- cameraman on Les Violins de bal and husband of Nicole, who edited L'Amour fou and Out 1 with Rivette -- is having to manoeuvre some fairly tricky tracks and hand-held turns in the narrow passages between the plants. At one point, he has to be pulled backwards by assistants and then swung around to one side while the women approach the parallel paths which converge at the tip of a botanical island, then criss-cross their positions. This shot, too, is a retake of something filmed three weeks ago, and among the many changes, it now lasts 50 seconds instead of 103. Jeanne begins all her lines with phrases from Les Chevaliers de la Table Ronde -- Cocteau is being quoted fairly often in the dialogue -- and continues in an increasingly dreamy and glassy-eyed manner while unseen birds chatter wildly around her. By the end of their exchange, she's gazing at the ceiling like a somnambulist: 'Elsa... Jeanne? Elles sont mortes. Il ne reste que moi. Invulnerable. De fer.'
After lunch, the crew drives to the edge of Paris, a grey neighborhood near Avenue d'Ivry --'Rivette likes it because it's depressing,' someone cracks, although the assistant director, Bertrand Van Effenterre, picked the spot. A poster displaying a pop singer is covered with tarpaulin for the background of the first shot in the scene where Lucie follows Viva. The composition, Lubtchansky notes, is a Delvaux; Viva, some distance away, descends a steep flight of steps and approaches the camera while Lucie stealthily slinks around corners and moves after her in sudden angular bursts, making staccato zigzag motions as she darts from one hiding place to the next.
The next shot occurs on an even bleaker adjacent street with decrepit turn-of-the century houses and peeling paint, Viva and Lucie approaching from some distance again. But this time something extra-ordinary happens: a portly middle-aged woman with hair the color of ashes and sawdust, unaware of the presence of actors and crew, wanders down the street after the take begins and stoops over to peep through a mail slot in a tin fence -- a Lumiere subject suddenly come to life. She steps back a bit, looks around: will she notice the camera on one side, the approaching actresses on the other? Rivette can barely contain himself; everyone holds his breath. She looks through the slot again, and just as she passes, Karagheuz has the ingenious idea of incorporating her as a prop, a temporary shield to hide behind... Lubtchansky declares it a successful take; certainly it's an unrepeatable one. The woman wanders off, still oblivious to the movie she's stumbled into, and I step over to the mail slot to see what she was peering at. The answer: nothing at all.
It's already starting to drizzle and grow dimmer when Lucie and Viva proceed down opposite sides of an underpass, away from the camera; by the time they're crossing a footbridge towards the camera over some railway tracks, it's mise en scene under a driving rain, Lubtchansky and camera protected by waterproof plastic, everybody else getting soaked. If improvisation in this movie is being denied to the players, it's none the less figuring in the writing, directing and spirited scampering about, the unwitting extras and the elements themselves.
April 16: Very elaborate tracking in a dingy, labyrinthine comer of Gare d'Austerlitz occupied by baggage lockers -- this location selected by Rivette. The camera moves 30 feet to the left when Lucie enters, following her in medium shot to a locker. A static, closer shot shows her opening it with a key, taking out a tiny box and shaking it (the diamond is inside). Shot three, starting in a close-up, has the camera precede her over 46 feet of curving tracks as she returns the way she came; after she leaves the shot, it tracks forward again as Viva descends a spiral staircase directly across its line of vision. All in all, one very small and complicated piece of a very complicated plot.
Between shots, Rivette amuses himself by cheerfully reading aloud from a copy of TrufIaut's recently published criticism, which someone has brought along. To translate freely: 'Fellini shows [in 8 1/2] that a director is first of all a man whom everybody worries from morning to night by asking questions which he can't or won't answer. His head is filled with small divergent ideas, impressions, new-born desires, and one requires him to deliver certainties, precise names, exact figures, indications of time and place.'
I offer here no more than the random gleanings of a casual observer, as I am convinced that any attempt at analysis on my part would be dishonest and as fraught with booby-traps as the undergrowth of criss-crossing wires on the floor of a film set itself. I am not a frequenter of films on location, but what most impressed me about my visit to Viva was the sense of there being two distinct narratives that I might follow: that of the film proper and that, even more intricate and mysterious, of the filming, a disjointed narrative that would nevertheless, and sooner than I anticipated, gather its own momentum, with its own dramatic highlights, comic relief, and so on. A film outside a film, as one says: a film within a film.
It is in the Hotel Meurice, a sumptuous old pile on the Rue de Rivoli and the terminus of an exceptionally circuitous route that has taken Rivette and his actors from the Jardin des Plantes to a working-class dance hall, from an aquarium to a gambling den, that I watch part of the shooting. There, camping in one of its mirrored salons, is a largely young and blue-jeaned crew, busy adjusting the arc lights, testing the boom that is perched over the set like a fishing rod, or lugging the camera, and William Lubtchansky, who is sitting on it, along heavy tracking rails. And there, at the far end of these rails, Rivette himself sits, cross-legged and patient, in the midst of this monstrous train set.
The shot being set up is somewhat complicated. Elsa (Nicole Garcia) nervously enquires at the reception desk for a certain Monsieur Pierre, the clerk offers her a seat and sets off in search of the elusive guest. After picking up this little scene in long-shot, Lubtchansky's camera, followed closely by Bulle Ogier as Viva, all in pearl-grey velveteen and as radiant with supernatural health and malice as the other girl is deathly white, begins a slow track to where Elsa is seated, passing a vacant chair beside hers, then turning, no less abruptly than Elsa does herself, to reveal that same empty chair now magically occupied by Viva, the actress having neatly slipped herself into it at the very instant it left the frame. As I watch this shot eerily turn first-person en route and twist its own tail with the minimum of fuss, I can't help thinking of certain equally beautiful 'shots' in sport: a hole in one, or one of those apparently effortless manoeuvres in billiards, thrilling even to one ignorant of the game. After four or five takes, Rivette is satisfied, the clerk returns to his desk, and the two
actresses to their own reflections.
It is during preparations for the following scene, in which Viva wickedly attempts to worm from Elsa the nature of her relation ship to the mysterious Monsieur Pierre, that I have a chat with Jean Wiener, who improvises at the piano throughout the film. In the 1920's, Wiener played the piano at the Boeuf sur le Toit, was friend to Cocteau and Stravinsky, 'discovered' jazz and in a general way, the seventh member of Les Six. Obviously delighted to be once more part of an avant garde, if so unlike that of his own generation, he confesses that though fully concurring in the idea of improvising during a tournage, his merry-go-round (or melancholy-go-round) waltzes and foxtrots being recorded simultaneously with the dialogue, it has puzzled him to see in the rushes, scenes in which he himself 'un vieux monsieur chauve au piano' is perfectly visible. He is even more bemused by Rivette's explanation: that, given the complexity of certain camera movements, it was the simplest solution.
As the shot is rather long in setting up in part due to the omnipresent mirror creating unwanted sources of light, in part to Rivette's increasingly evident concern with pure mise en scene, Wiener installs himself at his piano, tinkling out medleys of Gershwin and Kern that add to the strong silent-film atmosphere already present in the palmy decor of the Meurice, haunted by the ghosts of aviators, spies and sleeping Madonnas.
It is Nicole Garcia's scene, and she carries it off brilliantly. Drawn out by Viva, Elsa admits that she is not at all what she seems, that her name is not Elsa, but Jeanne, that she was merely 'befriended' by Pierre, and that she is nothing more than a hostess in a cheap dancing (this said with head cupped low in hands)... a dancing (pause) (turns from the camera-lens to stare directly into Viva's face)... Le Rhumba! Her monologue, like most of the script, was written just a few hours before the take, and is not only in the choice of the word 'rhumba' that I recognize the amusing, unsettling 'touch' of the film's Argentinian co-scenarist, Eduardo De Gregorio.
Garcia, a newcomer to the bande a Rivette, is all nervous tension, barely controlled, in striking contrast to Ogier, whose mannish dress and suave style suggest, to this observer, some odd mixture of George Sand and George Sanders. Here as elsewhere, Lubtchansky's camera is on the move, tracking into Elsa's ghostly features as if to force the confession out of her. It has become obvious that, in terms of camera movement, this (and the other three chapters of Les Filles du Feu) will be by far Rivette's most considered work date, with two principal poles of reference: Mizoguchi for the long takes and Ophuls, of course, for the frequent tracking shots. What this will mean in the context of the completed work is a mystery to me and, I suspect, to some of those most intimate with the project. I am no longer as astonished as I was by the small degree to which Rivette himself appears to participate in the actual shooting. My impression is of a director whose basic decisions have been made, one of which is to employ as little as possible the kind of improvisation for which he is famous -- except for the music, which may well affect the playing almost a good or bad audience will do in the theatre.
This said, Rivette remains Rivette; and the last shot that I witness, in which the two goddesses, Viva and Elizabeth -- played, in a gorgeous scarlet cape, by Wiener's daughter Elizabeth -- mock the naive pretensions of mortals, is a good example of how one take will often serve as rehearsal
for the next, the actresses accumulating or discarding detail at such a dizzy rate that, once it is over, I find I have no clear collection of what piece of business is or not in the final take.
The set is a table for two in one of the smaller salons, a table laden with ice cream, champagne and petits fours. Around it the two young women gaily disport themselves -- popping corks, feeding each other smeary chocolate eclairs, and making curious 'vroom vroom' noises a la Kiss Me Deadly -- with Wiener's sprightly accompaniment turning the whole thing into musical chairs. The first take, however, is wretchedly flat, the second a clutter of cute details. It is only with the third that the actresses start to scent out the scene's real possibilities and its rhythm, so much so that they cease, quite spontaneously, to block each other in front of the slowly tracking camera. Rivette does not guide them in either verbal or mimetic fashion, but between takes he will venture to advise against certain inventions and for others, so that, in the end, the shot will doubtless conform to all his first feelings about it.
Whatever else it may be, a film is also the record of its own tournage. In Rivette's case, the film set becomes a theatre of imponderables, which shape the result much as a sleeper's movements will govern the nature of his dreams; and from the evidence of interviews one realizes that the only guidelines of a Rivette film are those of tournage, the idea of a definitive form, at least until editing begins, being a nonsense. In the past (L' Amour Fou, Out 1) his overriding concern as a director has been to record the work's gestation, which tempts me to suggest that, though the 'legendary' 13-hour version of Out 1 may indeed be extraordinary, it must be less so than the six-week version, i.e. the tournage. From Viva, whose camera movements are plotted out in advance but whose dialogue is written the evening before, whose actors have specific things to do but whose music is improvised, one can have no idea what to expect.
Like any Rivette film, Le Vengeur (2) took shape gradually, drawing on a large number of deliberately chosen ideas and as many fortuitous circumstances. As important as Rivette's interest in Tourneur's The Revenger's Tragedy (drawn to his attention by Eduardo De Gregorio), and the curious traditions surrounding the period of Carnival, was the availability of Geraldine Chaplin and Bernadette Lafont together with that of a group of dancers from Carolyn Carlson's company. It must be kept in mind that Rivette often conceives a film around particular people; Celine et Julie began as 'a film for Juliet Berto'. Any casting decision is consequently of primary importance. Further, the selection of Brittany as a location arose as much from certain union allowances permitting a six day week outside Paris, as from a vague desire to spend some time in the country. Once the different ideas and practical considerations begin to sort themselves out and interact, the narrative itself starts to acquire definition. Even after shooting has begun, however, Rivette is enormously influenced by what he may discover the actors capable of achieving. Finding that an actor is able to do something he hadn't suspected, Rivette might add a scene at the last minute (if, of course, there is time, of all things the most rare and precious). One of Rivette's talents is his ability to begin rehearsing a scene without any fixed idea of how it will actually be played for the camera. The final outcome is invariably a product of close collaboration with his actors.
In this film, the elements of mise en scene, the use of costume, dance, and allusion, are so strikingly disparate that it would almost seem that Rivette purposely set out to amalgamate the most wildly divergent sorts of material. For the most part, the camera movements appeared to suggest an affinity with recent films of Jancso and with Fellini's procedures in Roma, but the things which the camera had to photograph plunge one into the world of De Mille, or even of Raoul Walsh's Blackbeard the Pirate. Certainly, the pointedly approximate nature of the costumes and the singular use of decor keep the players and the plot in a curious kind of cinematic limbo. The grating juxtaposition of assorted, eccentrically chosen verse from the play, with scenes that allude strongly to musical comedy, defies an attempt to comprehend the kind of synthesis that might eventually come to bear.
From watching different aspects of the shooting, even for so long a period as ten days, it is impossible to draw conclusions as to the final result. Nor must one rule out an alternative possibility: Rivette may be exploiting sharply contrasting effects in an attempt to keep the viewer in a continual state of discomfort as the gears grind joltingly back and forth. Considering the context, one is reminded of certain Renaissance plays where the tone remains so complex and ambiguous as never to be wholly tragic or wholly comic, where everything seems just barely contiguous, and where audience reactions remain confused and uncertain. There is no room here for improvised bits of dialogue and for the sorts of hesitations and temps morts that improvisation produces, effects which have been so remarkably utilized by Rivette in the past. While spontaneity is not sacrificed, the camera movements are of such complexity that great discipline is imposed on the actors.
Furthermore, while Rivette was present during the discussions leading to the creation
of the script, he allowed Parolini and De Gregorio enormous freedom. It would perhaps be more, accurate to say that Rivette 'relied' strongly on' material that they were able to provide independently of him. Virtually all the dialogue, with the exception of Tourneur's verse and one brief scene, was invented by the two writers. It seemed an ideal collaboration in the sense that, being intimately familiar with Rivette's work and methods, they were able to stimulate him to try things he might otherwise not have attempted.
In its broad lines, the film deals with a band of pirates led by Giulia (Bernadette Lafont) and infiltrated for purposes of revenge by Morag (Geraldine Chaplin) and her accomplice Erika (Kika Markham). As Morag wreaks havoc among the pirates, it becomes clear that she is a moon goddess waging war with a sun goddess -- who, is of course Giulia. There is no dearth of violent death; it abounds in the best Jacobean manner, until finally there are no survivors at all. There are drownings and throat-cuttings, poisonings and death by lightning. A special end was invented for Erika, who is mysteriously described as being 'eclipsed'.
The first two weeks of shooting took place, in the 15th century Chateau de la Roche-Jagu. Outside and in, the chateau had been so reconstructed and patched up that it had the air of having been built by an eccentric millionaire who wished to own a medieval castle as imagined by Paramount or RKO. Apart from this advantage of singularly recalling the Hollywood past, the rooms were large and gave the camera plenty of space in which to move.
While Tourneur's play may have been a starting point for Rivette and his writers, the transformations it underwent at different stages of preparation and shooting are so far-reaching that the play itself is of only minor importance. Rivette has retained the lushness of violence typical of Jacobean horror shows, but he has wandered far from The Revenger's Tragedy. At one point, Morag and Erika present a scene from the play to Giulia and her cohorts, the scene having been chosen because it represents a murder similar to one that they had recently perpetrated on a member of Giulia's band. But even here, the allusion is through Tourneur to Hamlet; not only is the play put on before the corrupt little court in the hope of eliciting a violent reaction, but except for a few fragments of. verse dredged up by the actresses -- bits of one line violently grafted on to bits of another -- the scene is presented in dumb show, modified by assorted cries, squeals and gasps. Their recitation is a parody of melodramatic excess; Erika chases Morag around the room, attacking her with a variety of lethal weapons.
Music plays an even more important part in Le Vengeur than in Viva. Here there are three musicians playing perhaps a dozen instruments between them, from traditional flutes and violins to more exotic instruments from Africa and South America. Their sensitivity is wholly remarkable; again and again their musical choice is exactly right. They articulate the performance admirably and, in turn, are very much influenced by the rhythms and tones of the actors. In the dumb show, they punctuate the actresses' cries, playing music of a marked 17th century color treated freely in post-Viennese fashion. There is no attempt to conceal them from the camera. In fact they have their own 'costumes', and are often in the frame by themselves.
An afternoon was spent filming a number of reverse shots, in which the pirates react to the little play. Their mirth changes to seriousness as they perceive that the death of one of their colleagues is being mocked. Giulia, unlike Claudius, innocent of the deed imitated by Erika and Morag, only begins to enjoy herself when she realizes that the play refers to recent events. Together with her two lovers, Jacob (Humbert Balsan) and Ludovico (Larrio Ekson), she laughs morbidly. Appalled at her callousness (and we know from Hollywood films that pirates can be a sensitive lot with a highly developed moral sense), the pirates rise up spontaneously; but Giulia' suppresses this incipient revolt by slitting the throat of a female pirate. This murder called for special effects one doesn't associate with Rivette, although Bulle Ogier bleeds quite a lot in Celine et Julie. An elaborate system of rubber tubes and little valves was employed, producing a distressing amount of gore. The victim's screams, while undoubtedly an anatomical: impossibility, added to the scene. It was all very horrible and unsettling.
A scene in which lines were drawn directly from Tourneur's play afforded a further glimpse of Rivette's methods in shaping a scene. The actresses had chosen a dozen verses from different scenes in the play that they were to recite as though encouraging each other to see their vendetta through to the end. In one of the attics of the chateau, beautifully lit to suggest daybreak Erika and Morag were to pace the length of the room and speak their lines alternately in an incantatory manner, as they approached the camera. When the scene was ready to shoot, Rivette announced his dissatisfaction with the idea. For the next two hours the scene was discussed and slowly took an entirely different form; the principle of singsong recitation was wholly abandoned and the lines were spoken much as they might be on the English stage. While Morag paced nervously back and forth, Erika sat on a bed, in an attitude of dejection. Both actresses spoke their lines with great intensity accompanied by highly wrought little sounds from the musicians. The effect was far more austere than the more ritualistic initial idea and extremely dramatic.
June 25-29: Fort La Latte, a 12th century fortress near St. Cast on the Brittany coast-entered by a drawbridge and surrounded by sea which is white and foamy against the rocks, green and translucent by the shore, blue and hazy in the distance. The last time a movie crew took over this spectacular location was nearly twenty years ago, for The Vikings, and a few placards from that invasion still linger in a nearby shed.
In comparison with what I watched months ago, Le Vengeur (again, a tentative title) seems even wilder and more disturbing; in its clash of foreign elements, a somewhat bigger risk and dare. The is the same as on Viva, the cast much more varied in terms of background and experience: Markham was Anne, the more worldly of the sisters in Truffaut's Les Deux Anglaises et le Continent; Chaplin worked for directors as different as Saura, Lean and Altman; Lafont is a seasoned New Wave and Out 1 veteran. Among Giulia's band, four members are played by dancers including Arno (Anne-Marie Reynaud) her lieutenant, while Anne-Marie Fijal, a pianist, plays her jester Fiao; Balsan was Gauvain in Bresson's Lancelot du Lac and Daniele Rosencranz was the female lead in Chabrol's Une Partie de Plaisir; the part of Elisa, a teenage pirate, is taken by Elizabeth Medvecky, Lafont's daughter.
Rather than try to be inclusive or to impose a continuity over several days of shooting, I will restrict myself to two of the more elaborate scenes I saw being filmed inside the fortress. But it might be relevant to quote two passages from a prospectus about Les Filles du feu written by Rivette a few months ago (the translation is mine):
"The ambition of these films is to invent a new approach to film acting, where speech, pared down to essential phrases, precise formulae, would play a role of 'poetic' punctuation. Neither a return to silent cinema nor pantomime nor choreography: something else, where the movement of its bodies, their counterpoint and inscription in the space of the screen, will be the basis of the mise en scene.
"To create by the movements of their bodies their own space, to take possession of and traverse the spaces imposed by the decor and the camera's field, to move and act within (and in function to) the simultaneous musical space: these are the three parameters according to which our actresses and actors will attempt to work."
On the battlements: Giulia's 'reply' to Morag and Erika's enactment of the scene from Tourneur is to stage a nasty bit of theatre of her own -- a swordfight between Jacob and Ludovico designed to convince Erika, who loves Jacob, that it is real. This is a pivotal scene in which Morag loses Erika as an accomplice, but I am around only for its preliminary stages, which consume parts of two separate afternoons of shooting and are disquieting enough in themselves.
The scene begins with Jacob and Ludovico entering from one side of the battlements, passing the musicians on their way, and rehearsing their swordfight -- a rehearsal which Balsan and Ekson have been rehearsing in their spare time, with a trainer, over the past few days -- before they retreat to a corner and rest. The camera pans with them throughout except for when they first take their positions, when it tracks away from them, moving approximately from medium to long shot.
The next two shots, running about 90 seconds each, follow the entrances of Morag, Arno and Fiao and their frolics as they play blindman's buff in the same spot occupied by the rehearsed fight, with Morag, as the blindfolded victim; the camera tracking as they dance about. Although Chaplin can see through her black blindfold, this is not apparent to the off camera bystanders when she enters, and here are several unnerving instants when she nearly topples over the edge of the vertiginous battlements as Arno and Fiao buffet her about like malicious children.
The musicians have been improvising visibly throughout the sequence, between as well as during each of the takes, so that each run-through of a shot becomes appreciably different from the one preceding it. In the next shot, also running close to 90 seconds, their apparent autonomy from the action is given a disconcerting wrench when Elisa enters, a mischievous grin on her face, and playfully hits a gong and taps a conga drum as she passes them. (A day later, I learn from one of the musicians that this was Rivette's idea.) Behind her comes Erika and Giulia, and a flute starts to play over the light percussion; the camera pans back to frame their entrance, finally settling on Erika as she stares blankly into space.
A stationary set-up shows Ludovico step up behind her with his sword, ready to provoke the fight, and jab her in the back. She cries out sharply, as though waking from a nightmare, spins around and steps to one side. By now it is the second afternoon, and a strong, flappy wind comes over the battlements from the sea (a few hours ago, it gave a love scene between Morag and Jacob on a hillside a distinct Wuthering Heights flavour); the mood is tense and edgy, and the musicians' playing becomes increasingly ceremonial in sound from one take to the next, suggesting some sort of blood sacrifice...
In the dungeon: Morag and Erika enter and stalk round the body of Morag's dead brother Shane -- who, for reasons that are unexplained, looks exactly like Jacob and is played by the same actor -- reciting lines from Tourneur (in English) which they will subsequently use in the scene that they stage for Giulia and her band. This time their delivery is strictly incantatory and ritualistic, their voices overlapping as Erika echoes Morag, repeating the same edited speech several times:
Now to my tragic business.
I have not fashioned this only for show
And useless property; no, it shall be a part
E'en in its own revenge. This very skull,
With this drug,
The mortal curse of the earth shall be
The musicians play off-camera in a cramped chamber behind the bright lights being used in this dank interior, stopping and starting their dirge -- a drawling bowed bass and a cymbal struck with mallets -- in accordance with the simultaneous pauses of Chaplin and Markham in their recitation and pacing. This accompaniment becomes increasingly hypnotic through all five takes, and I'm hardly surprised to hear from Markham afterwards that she wasn't even aware of the music playing, so completely had it become absorbed by and blended into the action of the scene.
The separate circular trajectories of the actresses round the body on the floor -- wrapped from head to foot in sailcloth -- and a hammock made of chains which hangs beside it, arc complex indeed, and my efforts to trace them in my notebook lead to an impenetrable jumble. Each take improves on the last as Rivette slows the action down and stretches it out: the first runs for 112 seconds, the last for 140. The script-girl informs me that the longest take. the film so far is 230 seconds; but this is nothing compared to a few separate shots of Michael Lonsdale's theatre group in the 13-hour, 16mm Out 1, which apparently ran over ten times longer.
The shot ends with both actresses kneeling beside the body and Morag drawing out her knife (there are some smiles from the crew each time Rivette says 'Cut'). In the next shot, which shows them tearing apart the fabric to look at Shane, the camera assumes a low angle and becomes mobile, pushed forward on wheels in a path which somewhat resembles an inverted S -- beginning at the top end of the figure and proceeding towards Shane's features in horizontal profile before panning up to Morag's face -- a manoeuvre that requires Markham to move our of her position silently when the camera approaches. No music this time, only the sound of ripping cloth as Balsan in his heavy corpse make-up gets unveiled through several retakes...
As Michael Graham suggests above, Rivette's route into a scene is often trial by error, and it appears that his customary method of composing a plot with his writers is to ask for a string of suggestions, systematically rejecting each of them until he arrives at what he likes. When I ask Geraldine Chaplin about his manner of directing performances, she describes a process which again seems similar: 'Rivette is very positive that he doesn't know what he wants. But he knows what he doesn't want -- and he's very particular, too. He's very tough. You have to invent thirty-five different ideas and show them to him like you were selling carpets, and then he says, "Okay, do that." But it's exhausting.'
This kind of aggressive passivity has led to a different formula for group collaboration on each of his projects, but in each case it appears to be grounded in the habits of a spectator-critic, a person more accustomed to watching and evaluating what he sees than to creating something ex nihilo for someone else to see -- a desire to experiment which seems born out of sheer curiosity, the question 'What would happen if...?' Perhaps this is why he usually places so much importance on editing, where questions can be asked and asked again. It will be interesting to see how much he can do with editing in these films, when so much of the footage is composed of long takes, the plots are extremely dense, and there evidently isn't enough material to make lengthy features out of them. Whatever emerges, one suspects that it will only extend the question about authorship that each of his films since L'Amour Fou has raised.
The closer emphasis and attention in Les Filles du feu on framing, composition, camera movements, actors' movements and all the other physical coordinates of mise en scene will undoubtedly produce some changes in what we suppose a 'Rivette film' to be, and in the process will likely raise more questions about many things than they begin to resolve. The excitement and adventure of a Rivette project is quite literally that of a leap into the unknown -- a form of suspense and suspension that begins when it is first conceived, grows and deepens while it is being filmed and edited, obstinately persists well past the point when the film is completed, continuing in the mind of each spectator who sees it and interrogates it in his own fashion.
- L'Oeil Froid and Viva were working titles for Duelle (1976).
- Le Vengeur was the working title for Noroît (1976).
Originally appeared in Sight & Sound XLIV no. 4 (Autumn 1974): p. 195-8.