A first circle appears (or a segment of one). Let's call it A, since it is first to appear, though it never ceases throughout the film. This circle is an old theater, which serves as a school where some young women are rehearsing the roles they will play (Marivaux, Corneille, Racine) under the direction of Constance (Bulle Ogier). The difficult thing here is for the girls to express authentic feeling -- anger, love, despair -- with words that are not their own, but those of an author. This is the first sense of play: Roles.
One of the girls, Cecile, has left a house in the suburbs to four other girls. She has gone to live elsewhere with the man she loves. The four girls will live together in the house, where they will experience the repercussions of their roles, as well as end-of the-day moods and personal postures, the effects of their private love affairs (to which they only allude), and their various attitudes toward one another. It is almost as if the girls had bounced off the wall of the theater to lead a life which they vaguely share in the house, where bits of their roles are carried over, but spread out in their own lives, with each girl minding her own business. You no longer have a succession of roles governed by a program, but rather a haphazard chain of attitudes and postures following several simultaneous stories that do not intersect. This is the second sense of play: the Attitudes and Postures in their interconnected day-to-day lives. What ceaselessly inspires Rivette is both the group of four girls and their individuation: comic and tragic types, melancholy and sanguine types, graceful and clumsy types, and above all. Lunar and Solar types. This is the second circle, B, inside the first, since it partly depends on the first, by receiving its effects. But circle B distributes these effects in its own way, moving away from the theater only to return to it endlessly.
The four girls are pursued by a man whose identity is unclear -- a con-artist, a spy, a cop -- looking for Cecile's lover (probably a criminal). What's it all about? Stolen IDs, stolen art, arms trafficking, a judiciary scandal? The man is looking for the keys to a locked chest. He tries to seduce each of them in turn, and succeeds with one. The three other girls will try to kill him: the first will try theatrically; the second, coldly; and the third, impulsively. The third girl will in fact beat him to death with a cane. These three scenes are Rivette's greatest moments: absolutely beautiful. This is the third sense of play: Masks, in a political or police conspiracy that goes beyond us, which no one can escape, a kind of global conspiracy. This is the third circle, C, which has a complex relationship to the other two. It prolongs the second circle and is intimately intertwined with it, since it increasingly polarizes the girls' attitudes, providing them with a common measure as it casts its spell on them. But it also spreads out over the whole theater, covering it, perhaps uniting all the disparate pieces of an infinite repertoire. Constance, the director, seems to be an essential element in the conspiracy from the beginning. (Is there not a blank period in her life spanning several years? Does she ever leave the theater, where she hides Cecile's naughty boy, who is probably Constance's lover?) And what about the girls themselves? One girl has an American boyfriend with the same name as the cop; the other girl has the same name as her mysteriously missing sister; and the Portuguese girl, Lucia, who is the epitome of the Lunar type, all of a sudden finds the keys and possesses a painting which is probably real... In short, the three circles are interwoven, acting on one another, progressing through one another, and organizing one another without ever losing their mystery.
We are all rehearsing parts of which we are as yet unaware (our roles). We slip into characters which we do nor master (our attitudes and postures). We serve a conspiracy of which we are completely oblivious (our masks). This is Rivette's vision of the world, it is uniquely his own. Rivette needs theater for cinema to exist: the young girls' attitudes and postures constitute a theatricality of cinema which, measured against the theatricality of theater, contrasts with it and emerges as perfectly distinct from it. And if the political, judicial, and police conspiracies weighing on us are enough to show that the real world has become a bad movie, then it is cinema's job to give us a piece of reality, a piece of the world. Rivette's project -- a cinema that opposes its theatricality to that of theater, its reality to that of the world, which has become unreal -- rescues cinema from the theater and the conspiracies threatening to destroy it.
If the three circles communicate, they do so in places which are Rivette's own, like the back of the theater, or the house in the suburbs. These are places where Nature does not live, bur has survived with a strange grace: the undeveloped parts of a suburb, a rural stretch of city street, or secluded corners and alleyways. Fashion magazines have managed to make perfect, frozen pictures of these places, but everyone forgot that these places came from Rivette, having been impregnated with his dream. In these places conspiracies are hatched, young girls live together, and schools are established. But it is also in these places that the dreamer can still seize the day and the night, the sun and the moon, like a great external Circle governing the other circles, dividing up their light and their shadow.
In a certain way, Rivette has never filmed anything else bur light and its lunar (Lucia) and solar (Constance) transformations. Lucia and Constance are not persons, but forces. Bur this duality cannot be divided into good and evil. Hence Rivette ventures into those places where Nature has survived to verify the state in which the lunar and the solar subsist. Rivette's cinema has always been close to the poetry of Gerard Nerval, as though Rivette were possessed by him. Like Nerval, Rivette tours the remains of a hallucinatory Ile-de-France, tells the story of his own Daughters of Fire, and vaguely feels the conspiracy of an indeterminable madness approaching. It is not a question of influence. Bur this encounter makes Rivette one of the most inspired auteurs in cinema, and one of its great poets.