The World as Narrative: Interpreting Jacques Rivette
MK Raghavendra


For someone fascinated by Jacques Rivette, the critical writing yielded by his films is almost always disappointing. While the films never fail to be intriguing, reviews/critical essays rarely engage with Rivette's apparent intent -- 'apparent' because the filmmaker's purpose is never very clear. While there are innumerable ways in which cinema can be written about, the cinephile taken up avidly with a single filmmaker's oeuvre feels obliged, when examining different experiences, to identify the single thread bringing them together. In the case of Rivette's films this is an exceptionally difficult task because of the bewildering variety in his subjects and the seeming absence of a governing thematic concern.

Making sense of a film implies interpreting it but all interpretations cannot serve as the basis of an appreciation. There are, broadly speaking, four kinds of interpretation that are possible (1). In the first kind the perceiver constructs a concrete world out of the visual and aural data provided and creates an ongoing story within it. In doing so, she/he not only draws on filmic and extra-filmic conventions but also depends upon concrete items of information available to her/him and perhaps on precedents in the other disciplines. In the second case, the perceiver moves up a level of abstraction and tries to assign a 'point' to the story she/he constructs. She/he seeks out explicit clues pointing to the film's 'intention'. Whatever is discovered through these two kinds of interpretation constitutes the 'literal meaning' of a film. In the third kind of interpretation the perceiver constructs a covert meaning and the film is presumed to speak indirectly. The perceiver usually (though not always) constructs implicit meanings when she/he cannot reconcile an anomalous element with the presumed intention of the film.

Apart from the interpretations just outlined -- which all presume that the film 'knows' what it is doing, the perceiver may also be concerned with what the film divulges involuntarily -- an obsession or a phobia on the filmmaker's part or aspects that can be traced to economic, political or ideological processes. As opposed to the surface interpretation, the last kind is 'deep' interpretation although this depth has little to do with profundity. While surface interpretations presume that authors are still in some privileged position with regard to what the representations are, deep interpretations proceed from the notion that they have no such privilege (2). Surface interpretations, unlike deep interpretations, pertain to the way the intended audiences might understand a film.

The four kinds of interpretation do not correspond to degrees of 'sophistication' but simply serve different agendas. It is evident that the deep interpretation -- which yields the film's 'repressed' or 'symptomatic' meaning -- cannot become the basis of an appreciation. The literal meaning, which is the territory of the cinephile rather than the professional critic/researcher, is perhaps the kind of meaning most likely to assist in an appreciation.

The critics and Rivette

Although the kinds of interpretation just outlined serve different purposes/agendas, there is, in practice, much confusion in their employment, and difficult filmmakers like Rivette often become its victims. Rivette's films are always demanding but there appears to be a consensus that Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974) is among the films that are more accessible. If it is argued by cinephiles that the 'accessibility' of a film obliges the critic to first exhaust its literal meaning, it is deep interpretation that the researcher-critic still chooses. To cite a response to Céline and Julie Go Boating, here is a passage from a feminist critique that says more about the writer's preoccupations than about Rivette's film:

The internal story that Celine and Julie keep going back to is the so-called "masochistic" female fantasy, the drama of dominance and submission that originates in the nuclear family and in which everything revolves around the fact of male power. In that interior story the "child" is suppressed, both as a real child in the family and in the personalities of the stultified adults. The interior story resembles the depictions found in melodrama for the last two hundred years and which flourish today in TV's soaps, with the women competing for the man and the bourgeois comfort he can bring them. The "cues" are all too stable in that world; its patterns of destructive interaction are continually repeated (3).
The essay also includes a suggestion that Céline and Julie Go Boating is interpretable as a 'lesbian film'. While, to be fair, the author is unequivocal that her goal is not to make people 'like' the film but to use it as a pretext for reflecting on feminist film theory, there is a strange feature about many theory-based responses to Rivette. It is as though the filmmaker is actually required to assist in deep interpretation. Here is a segment from an interview in which the interviewer draws Rivette's attention to a mirror in a scene from Spectre:
Interviewer: Have you read Lacan's 'The Mirror Phase'? That shot of Bulle in front of the mirror near the end of Spectre reminded me of Lacan.

Rivette: I have read this very dense essay, but it has nothing to do with that shot. The mirror was in the house where we were shooting, and I used it. (4)
The interviewer is perhaps unaware of the insinuation here -- that Rivette is deliberately introducing into Spectre aspects gathered from theory to assist in its interpretation by theorist-critics -- and one wonders how someone like Nabokov might have reacted to a similar provocation. Since the agenda in deep interpretation, as these instances show, ignores the filmmaker's preoccupations, one why wonders why Rivette's films should be selected in the first place. Would not any film involving the friendship between two girls be, to a feminist-critic interested in gender issues and feminine bonding, as useful as Céline and Julie Go Boating?

A convincing argument has been offered as to why theory and interpretation should not be confused with each other:

Film theory speaks of the general case, whereas film interpretation deals with puzzling, or with highly distinctive cases of cinematic masterworks. Film theory tracks the regularity and the norm, while film interpretation finds its natural calling in dealing with deviation, with what violates the norm or with what exceeds it or with what re-imagines it. (5)
The responses cited earlier belong to critics whose primary interest is not in film as film. But even critics preoccupied with film form and film as art have not done better in identifying Rivette's recurring themes. It is, for instance, asserted that Rivette's films have an identifiable relationship with those of Fritz Lang (6) but it is still to be convincingly demonstrated that the literal meaning of Rivette's work is comparable to that of Lang's films. 'Solitude and togetherness' (7) may feature as conditions in which Rivette's protagonists are placed but they do not mark his films out more than they do those of many other filmmakers -- like Hawks, perhaps -- and it seems hasty to identify them as underlying themes. Most disappointing is when a critic like Peter Harcourt whose writing is even inspiring -- especially when writing about Fellini, Godard or Bergman -- fails to make much sense of Rivette (8). Harcourt compares Paris Belongs to Us to the existentialist writing of the period. He tries to understand the use of the play (Shakespeare's Pericles) as 'demystification of illusionist practice' by relying on one of Rivette's unhelpful remarks, and comments upon by the apparent irrelevance of the play to the lives of those rehearsing it. Like much of the writing on Rivette's work, he identifies random attributes without providing insights into how they come together in the films.

Rivette on Rivette

Since the manifest content of Rivette's films is so elusive, the next question is obviously whether clues can be found in his interviews that will help us approach it. An early criticism made against the directors of the French New Wave was that they are frankly autobiographical and that this helps them avoid the issue of choice inherent in true creation (9). While this is evidently true of some of Truffaut's work, one is hard-pressed to extend it to Rivette. Unlike many of the world's great filmmakers who put themselves into their works, there are few visible evidences of the personal in Rivette's films. More strikingly perhaps, Rivette's interviews contain little information about himself -- apart from his experiences in the making and distribution of his films. In contrast to filmmakers like Fellini who appear even eager to talk about themselves, Rivette's interviews rarely tell us very much about him. Also in contrast to the others, who have little to say about other people's films, Rivette seems to exist largely for cinema; it is more as an astonishing cinephile that an auteur with a personal statement that he emerges. Since there is no evidence that Rivette is reticent about himself, this could be due to the nature of the questions themselves. One of the aims in an interview is to understand the filmmaker's work through her/his person. But this implies that interviewers must commit themselves (implicitly) to an interpretation of the work before pursuing the artist with questions centered round it. In Rivette's interviews one hardly finds the interviewer committing herself/himself in such a way (10). When Rivette invokes a little known work of literature/cinema which might have provided useful clues for more exploration, the interviewer unfamiliar with the work tends to avoid further questioning (11). It is perhaps easier to approach an artist who draws from life rather than from texts and Rivette's concerns appear to be mediated entirely by other texts. But as if to confound people, Rivette also speaks of many of his films being 'autobiographical'. If this is true, this is perhaps in the sense that all art must reflect personal experience in some way.

Most of the directors of the French New Wave began as critics but (with the exception of Truffaut) they are not always lucid writers. This is as true of Rivette, who has strong opinions about films but does not emerge either from his reviews (in translation) or from his interviews as deeply analytical. This perhaps why the interviews rarely follow an observation to its end and tend to get lost in trivia. There is always the danger of artists who give good interviews becoming (in Pauline Kael's words about Fellini) works of art in themselves. While it is certainly beneficial for artists whose work is as difficult as Rivette's not to explain themselves it also frees the critic writing about his films from the obligation to take the filmmaker's remarks about them into account. I propose that since the films are not private utterances and we understand them through what we and the filmmaker know commonly, we are in as good a position to interpret them as Rivette himself is. It would therefore be advantageous for the critic to be wary of Rivette's interviews. Paris Belongs to Us is one of the least accessible first features in the history of cinema and not being understood is apparently a risk that Rivette has always been prepared to take.

Interpreting Rivette

Two features stand out in the films of Jacques Rivette and the first can perhaps be understood in relation to a remark made by Samuel Beckett about the virtues of a work legible on its own terms but completely inscrutable on any other. What this means can be argued about but it could pertain to the need for art to transcend (or render irrelevant) the context in which it is produced. It could also mean that literature should be independent of the history of ideas. Rivette's films, as brought out, have not been the easiest films to explain, but their legibility is not determined by our knowledge of their historical circumstances or the filmmaker's background. There is also little reason to believe that they owe anything to a pre-existing philosophical viewpoint. The films are intellectually demanding but all they appear to demand is intelligent engagement. If they are peppered with references to quotes from literature and/or various other films, it would appear that sense can be made of Rivette's films without deep knowledge of the literature and cinema to which his works allude. In this respect, he may be compared to Jorge Luis Borges whose fictions can be understood by readers who do not share his erudition. Jacques Rivette has other resemblances to Borges as well and comparisons will be made in the course of this essay.

The second feature about Rivette's films is the way in which they have gradually become more 'accessible'. Rivette has made a substantially larger number of films in the latter part of his career and films like La Belle Noiseuse and Secret Défense (1998) seem quite straightforward in relation to L'Amour fou (1969) and Paris Belongs to Us. The later films seem intended for a wider appeal than the early ones but it can be argued that the early films were made when there was clearly a different relationship between the filmmaker and the spectator. The nearly adversarial responses invited by filmmakers like Godard and Rivette in the sixties may not be possible today, when films need to virtually woo the spectator. Rivette is perhaps able to be more prolific today because Secret Défense passes for a simple (though 'overlong') thriller to spectators not inclined to grapple with its nuances. The Story of Marie and Julien may even be enjoyed as a supernatural romance from the same category as Jerry Zucker's Ghost (1990). Rivette's later films may appear slight to those unfamiliar with his oeuvre but this 'slight' appearance may be an escape provided to the indolent spectator by a more relenting (although not less exact) artist than the one of Paris Belongs to Us (12). Rivette is arguably the greatest artist working in cinema today but this will not be evident to audiences familiar only with his recent work, which is perhaps difficult to interpret without the knowledge of his early films and other aspects such as Rivette's obsession with theatre.

The purpose of this essay is partly to demonstrate -- through an inquiry into his motifs -- that Rivette has been consistent in his pursuits. In order to show this I propose to examine four films made over a large period, with the films chosen from different genres -- a strange film about a conspiracy (Paris Belongs to Us), a fantasy (Céline and Julie Go Boating -- 1974), a revenge thriller (Secret Défense) and a romantic 'ghost' story (The Story of Marie and Julien). These are among his most familiar films and it seems appropriate to derive a new meaning from his oeuvre by relying on the least esoteric examples. Rivette's first film Paris Belongs to Us will perhaps furnish us with the most useful clues because it was the film through which he announced himself to the world. To those who know these films well, my interpretation will involve a bit of storytelling. 'Knowing' a film includes interpreting it implicitly and a fresh interpretation perhaps justifies a retelling.

Paris Belongs to Us (1960)

Paris Belongs to Us (Paris Nous Appartient) is a film about a group of young people in Paris in the late fifties who appear to be embroiled in different ways in a worldwide conspiracy of some sort. Anne is a literature student and Pierre, her elder brother takes her to a party where she meets Philip Kaufman, an expatriate American escaping McCarthyism, and Gerard Lenz, a theatre director who is with a mysterious woman named Terry. The talk at the party is about the apparent suicide of their friend Juan, a Spanish activist who had recently broken up with Terry. Philip warns Anne that the forces that killed Juan will soon do the same to Gerard, who is trying, without financial backing, to stage Shakespeare's Pericles. Also discussed is a missing guitar recording by Juan, which Gerard wants for Pericles. Anne takes a part in the play to help Gerard, and to try to discover about Juan.

The information may not be entirely pertinent to the thrust of Paris Belongs to Us but the film was made at the height of the cold war and the title suggests the staking of claims upon the same space by ideologies in conflict. The group of young people in the film is split down the middle and there is little doubt about which group Rivette is with -- those broadly describable as 'anti-Fascist'. Still, his concerns do not appear 'political' and while his protagonists are apparently reacting to a political stimulus of some sort, the film is silent about the stimulus itself; the villains feared so much by the group are allowed to remain mysterious. In fact, the film could as well be about political paranoia as about political intrigue and the grotesque pencil drawings on Phillip Kaufman's walls announce this clearly.

Making clear sense of Paris Belongs to Us is undoubtedly a difficult task but a method is to seek out a line or two of crucial dialogue (13). Although the film is about a group of young people, Rivette's attention is largely taken up by the relationship between two of them -- Anne and Gerard Lenz. Apart from their getting more attention than the others, the two also appear to be the only normal persons -- not beset by fears and conducting themselves calmly. Gerard is apparently under threat but, unlike Terry and Phillip, his behavior does not suggest it. If Anne is young and innocent and placed in the analogous position of the spectator because she is unraveling the story, Gerard Lenz, because of his artistic/philosophical preoccupations, may be the receptacle of the films conceptual meaning. It is always appropriate to verbalize the concerns of the film through characters not in a condition of excitement because only then would the conceptual meaning be received undistorted, and only these two characters appear to suit the requirement. Since Gerard is preoccupied with Pericles it can also be argued that the production could be the likely place to conceal clues to the film's meaning and his remarks about it are therefore significant.

In describing Pericles to Anne, Gerard indicates that the play is patchy and appears to even lack teleology. It is his endeavor, he says, to bring the disparate threads together and reveal its hidden purpose. It can be argued that this description of Pericles applies roughly to the world of the film as well. This political world is a mysterious one but there appear to be two broad 'narratives' struggling for its control, one being liberal democratic and the other, right-wing and Fascist. What I mean by 'narrative' needs explaining and, to illustrate my meaning, the Darwinian model for evolution and the Biblical account of creation can be usefully viewed as narratives competing for control over the history of life on the planet. If this is conceded, we could say that the characters in Paris Belongs to Us have variously thrown their lot with two dominant narratives (each one corresponding to a political affiliation) struggling for control over the world -- as emblemized by Paris. We could say that the film is about the political world having become so impenetrable that one must believe in a 'narrative' regardless of how bizarre it might appear. For someone subscribing to liberal-democratic principles and outraged by Cold War rhetoric, a mysterious worldwide Fascist conspiracy was perhaps the most alluring grand-narrative around 1960.

Another clue inserted conspicuously into the second half of Paris Belongs to Us is a segment from Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) entitled 'Babel' and pertaining to the story related by Lang's heroine Maria. As the reader will know the segment is a variation of the episode from the Old Testament and pertains to the workers having lost contact with the planners, working to no purpose and, in their fury, eventually destroying the tower. The chasm between the workers and the planners in 'Babel' may correspond to the one between the characters of Paris Belongs to Us and the shadowy authors of worldwide conflicts. It can be argued that the greater the chasm between the planners of vast enterprises and their movers, the more the need for the lowly movers to generate narratives. Kafka's The Great Wall of China, while also invoking Babel, demonstrates how the disparity between planners and movers generates narratives to explain the enterprise of the Great Wall.

A key motif in Paris Belongs to Us pertains to Juan's guitar composition, which occupies approximately the same position in the film as Frenhofer's painting 'La Belle Noiseuse' occupies in the 1991 film. That film is about a retired painter struggling to regain his touch while painting a nude, and being successful only when he recovers an inspired but unfinished masterwork of his own and paints over it. If the act in La Belle Noiseuse is like using a ritual ingredient to impart magical qualities to a representation, Gerard Lenz's obsession with using Juan's guitar composition for his own production of Pericles carries the same urgency. Juan was the first victim of the political reality (perhaps) allegorized by Lenz's production, and sanctification by an element of the represented reality could render the enactment powerful. The sanctifying is as a nail from the original cross might a passion play -- and it testifies to an underlying belief in the prevalence of the real over art.

Another story with which Rivette's film has an interesting relationship is Borges' The Lottery in Babylon. That story is about the institution of a lottery to provide excitement to citizens of Babylon and about its gradual investment with omnipotence so that the benefits from it can be universal. Over time the lottery company begins to work so secretly that even its existence is disputed. This is how the story concludes:

That silent functioning, comparable to God's, gives rise to all sorts of conjectures. One abominably insinuates that the (lottery) Company has not existedÉ and that theÉ disorder of our lives is purely hereditary, traditional. Another judges it eternal and teaches that it will last until the last night, when the last god annihilates the world. Another declares that the (lottery) Company is omnipotent, but that it only has influence in tiny things: in a bird's call, in the shadings of rust and of dust, in the half dreams of dawnÉ. Another, no less vile, reasons that it is indifferent to affirm or deny the reality of the shadowy corporation, because Babylon is nothing else than an infinite game of chance. (14)
The conspiracy in Paris Belongs to Us perhaps occupies the same position as the lottery in Borges' story. Both are 'narratives of omnipotence' in which human agencies progressively usurp reality. Rivette's film, of course, does not conclude with the triumph of the conspiracy but the space of the narrative (till then confined to streets) abruptly opens out to nature -- birds flying across a body of water -- and the implications are perhaps the same as the lottery gaining influence over 'tiny things'. The narrative will encompass even the smallest aspects of reality.

Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974)

The second of the four films is as playful as Paris Belongs to Us is somber, but it still has a discernible relationship with the earlier film. Céline and Julie Go Boating (Céline et Julie vont en bateau) is a fantasy about two girls -- a librarian and an amateur magician -- who find themselves mysteriously caught up in the destinies of the residents of a house on one of Paris' quieter streets. Céline claims to have worked as a nanny at the house, about which both of them are curious, and a cyclical pattern emerges. Céline or Julie enters the house and emerges later, having forgotten whatever transpired during her stay but with a sweet in her mouth. They soon understand that sucking the sweet brings back fragmented memories of the events and we witness happenings that seem arbitrary at first but begin falling into place when they are recollected in different permutations after each subsequent visit. Gradually, we recognize that what is happening at the house is a recurring narrative of some sort and this 'Story' also becomes clear to Céline and Julie.

The Story (15) involves a widowed man and two women, both of whom seek to become his wife. The difficulty is that the man has a little daughter by his deceased first wife, who extracted a promise from him -- for the sake of their daughter -- that he would never marry again. Each of the two women is now intent on removing this impediment by killing the little girl. Since the unfolding of the Story is a cyclical occurrence, the girl is being murdered over and over, with Céline or Julie participating passively (as the nanny) in the constant unfolding. The nanny's role in the Story is predetermined and although the girls wish to rescue the child, this is impossible. The solution they finally hit upon is a supernatural one devised by the amateur magician. The two find the means to enter the Story together and the same potion that frees them from the shackles of the Story will also be fed to the little girl to extricate her from it. The two girls now enter in the Story together and, there being a role for only one nanny, the other is invisible to the man and the two women. After some comic encounters between the free and facetious 'nannies' and the three characters, who conduct themselves as always because they are constrained by the Story, the little girl is duly extricated and brought back into 'Reality'. The next morning Céline and Julie discover that what transpired was not a dream because the girl is still with them.

Rivette's film concludes on a strange note because, in the penultimate sequence, Céline and Julie take the little girl boating and discover, to their surprise, that the man and the two women are on the lake as well, although their motions are not those of real people but stiff, as though frozen. The final sequence of the film begins like the opening one -- one girl spotting the other one in Paris and following her when she drops various accessories as she hurries along (16). Only this time, the roles of the two girls are interchanged, Céline sitting on a park bench and Julie the girl who keeps dropping her possessions.

What Céline and Julie Go Boating is about has never been explained but there are clues suggesting that it is about reading a story, or perhaps spectatorship in cinema. The film is longer than Paris Belongs to Us and much slower and the reason is partly that Rivette introduces large real time segments, when nothing of dramatic significance happens but the camera is catching 'tiny things' -- a cat stalking a bird or the wind in the trees. In contrast, the happenings in the 'house' are all filmed theatre and Rivette, through this strategy, is evidently making a distinction between reality -- as physically experienced -- and a text that is perceived, understood and interpreted. The device of the sweets, I propose, is employed to separate the assimilation of the fictional data in the story and the 'making sense' of it.

Making sense of a narrative is a process following its reading -- largely immediate although not necessarily so. If the happenings in the house constitute a 'story' -- and not simply a narrative -- because of their completeness, their teleology and the intentionality in their assembly, recollecting them by sucking on the sweet corresponds to 'narrativity' or the active construction of the story by the reader/spectator from the fictional data available (17). Similarly, the occurrences outside the 'house', the segments dealing with Céline and Julie are also less of a 'story'. They have the appearance of a recounting that is not unified by an expressive purpose and the real time segments deliberately weaken their teleology (18).

To understand more about Céline and Julie Go Boating it may be appropriate to examine how it connects to Paris Belongs to Us. The earlier film, as I suggested, can be equally about paranoia as about a political conspiracy and, significantly, 'narrativity' has been described as a benign form of paranoia. The reader of a narrative (through identification/empathy) willingly assumes he is in the grip of processes outside of himself, designed to do things to him that he will be powerless to resist. The instant that narrativity ceases is also the moment when life outside the narrative resumes for the reader/spectator (19). The 'paranoia' exhibited by some characters of Paris Belongs to Us, in a sense, arises out of their narrativitous urge. Philip Kaufman and Terry interpret the actual world as they might a text and find themselves permanently trapped in processes outside their control, processes they are powerless to resist. Céline and Julie, in contrast, undergo only intermittent spells of narrativity and 'life outside the narrative' resumes after the interludes (20). But Rivette makes us understand that 'life' and the 'story' are not discrete because Céline and Julie remove the little girl from the coils of the story and bring her into their world, only to discover that the borders of the story have been expanded to include them.

It is difficult to interpret the closing segment of Céline and Julie Go Boating but there also is a suggestion that the cyclical character of the story of the man and the two women overwhelms their reality when the first episode of the film is repeated in the last segment. To draw another parallel with Borges, the conclusion is perhaps like the World becoming 'Tlön' in the fantastic story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, i.e. reality contaminated by fiction (21). To phrase this differently, the world is factual (the real time segments and the attention to physical detail are evidence of this assertion) but we comprehend it only as narrative, as a kind of fiction. Is it not feasible, then, that the fiction we make of the world will eventually corrupt it?

Both Paris Belongs to Us and Céline and Julie Go Boating are nominally about 'togetherness' and it would perhaps be useful to look at why the two films could not have been about 'solitude' or, to phrase it differently, why these films could not have featured the adventures of a single unaffiliated character. The reason, I think, is that such an approach might have made the films appear 'psychological', i.e. misunderstood as being about a particular state of mind instead of an exploration of the process by which we all interpret reality.

Secret Défense (1998)

The third of the four films is actually a retelling of the story of Electra with the narrative rearranged as a revenge thriller. Melodramas and tragedies contain the same story material as whodunits and crime thrillers -- heightened emotions, violence and moral polarization. The Russian formalist term 'fabula' (the story) represents the imaginary construct created progressively and retroactively as we interact with the text. The 'syuzhet' (the plot) is the actual arrangement of the fabula in the narrative. The syuzhet is a blow by blow recounting of the story as the film or the piece of fiction would render it. A detective thriller yields a fabula beginning with the planning of the murder and concluding with the criminal being brought to book. The syuzhet (the narrative as told) conceals parts of the fabula to create 'suspense' and sharpen the impact of the text upon the reader (22). Secret Défense therefore begins with Sylvie who works as a scientist being visited by her brother Paul, who brings disturbing evidence that their father, who they imagined killed in a railway accident when Sylvie was little, was pushed to his death by his deputy Walser, who now occupies his position as the head of a strategic, military-related enterprise.

Since Paul has convincing evidence of Walser's involvement and intends to kill him, Sylvie herself sees it fit to visit her father's supposed murderer. The rest of the film follows with Sylvie accidentally killing Walser's young secretary Veronique and Walser himself helping and sheltering her thereafter. Sylvie also meets her mother Geneviève who lives nearby and it comes out that there is more to the story than meets the eye. Geneviève and Walser plotted together and killed Sylvie's father on a train because he had used Sylvie's older sister to further his own ambitions, an act leading to the young girl's suicide.

The relationship between Secret Défense and the tale of Electra is evident from this recounting because Orestes, with Electra's help, killed his mother Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus for having murdered their father Agamemnon. Agamemnon had earlier sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to the god Artemis, so that the wind would start up and they might sail to Troy. But the resemblance stops here because neither Geneviève nor Walser dies; it is Sylvie who is killed accidentally after her initiatives bring nothing but misfortune.

If Secret Défense is simply considered as a revenge thriller there is no excusing its length -- it is 170 minutes long. Viewers often complain about the interminable train rides because Rivette includes real time segments on the Metro both in Paris and outside that appear to have little dramatic potential. A careful viewing nonetheless makes is clear that the train rides, the attention to everyday life as it is lived is crucial to the film. To provide the reader with an instance, Sylvie decides to eliminate Walser and gets herself a gun. She has, however, only a fuzzy notion of how a murder is done and acquires two pairs of dark glasses before boarding the train, perhaps as a gesture towards subterfuge. This next part of the film -- running to fifteen minutes -- is taken up with Sylvie on her way to Walser, her discomfort at the prospect of becoming an assassin. Where amateur killers in crime films, though beset by moral qualms, slip easily into such roles, Rivette focuses on how incongruous ordinary people might feel in dramatic roles alien to their banal, everyday routines. In Sylvie's case, she and Paul have apparently decided upon killing Walser although they don't even recollect their father clearly. They choose the course perhaps because they can think of no other. They have few ties with their mother, who lives alone, and discussing the issue with her is not considered. In Walser's country estate, a space once occupied by her family, Sylvie encounters Veronique to whom disturbed women pointing guns is as unfamiliar an occurrence as any and the predictable happens; it is Walser who conceals Veronique's corpse to save Sylvie.

While Rivette lavishes much more attention on the ordinary (yet fascinating) details of everyday life in Secret Défense than in the other two films, his purpose also remains more elusive. A complaint voiced about the film is the triteness of the plot and there is perhaps a clue actually concealed in this. The information that Sylvie's father virtually sold his 14-year-old daughter Elizabeth to secure a defense contract is not one designed to make the spectator gasp and this is compounded by the absence of particulars. Where a clever thriller might have played up the emotional angle and furnished details to make it plausible, Rivette refuses to do any such thing. I would like to argue that the final revelation is akin to one of Hitchcock's 'Macguffins', i.e. a plot device that motivates the characters, but has little actual relevance to the story. The device in Secret Défense, while bringing the narrative to closure, perhaps means nothing in itself. It is appropriate here to examine the actual segment in the film in which the information about Elizabeth is given to the spectator.

This segment, perhaps the most brilliant in the film, shows a short train journey undertaken by Sylvie and her mother together. Geneviève has already been told by Walser that Sylvie and Paul are seeking to avenge their father and Geneviève evidently has knowledge about her husband's death, information not yet divulged to her daughter. Instead of the sequence brimming over with the excitement of the dramatic information to be revealed, Rivette shifts the emphasis deliberately to the disparity between mother and daughter. It is as though the two women have little to communicate to each other. Much of the segment is taken up by the two looking at the passing landscape in silence. When the subject does come around to her husband's murder and Elizabeth as the reason, Geneviève is reluctant to talk about it. "Imagine the worst and you will be right," she says perfunctorily and the final revelation is hardly more illuminating. Sylvie also shows less persistence than a comparable character in a successful thriller might have. The two women part at the spot from where their father traveled to his death but they are neither anxious to meet nor inclined to discus their shared past again.

This segment, apt to disappoint those looking for a dramatic finale, makes it apparent that the thriller format of Secret Défense is actually misleading, that the film is not pitched at this level of excitement. The only way of interpreting the segment is that it points to the impossibility of 'knowing'. It is not simply that some secrets are not divulged but that it is impossible to wrench open truths about the world. This is not unrelated, I propose, to the inability of the protagonists of Paris Belongs to Us to know the truth about the conspiracy although, in the case of Secret Défense, the unknowable pertains only to an old happening. A key absence in Secret Défense is perhaps the process by which two law abiding people like Paul and Sylvie decide that liquidating Walser is the necessary step for them. If, unlike Paul, Sylvie is a fair person and seeks to understand more before condemning Walser, it is significant that the only satisfaction she gets is from an almost fruitless railway journey. If thriller aficionados are dissatisfied with the 'silly plot', I suggest that whatever Geneviève has to divulge about the past stands eroded to a bare plot outline.

Most adaptations of epics and tragedies in which the original characters are transplanted into the modern world tend to feed upon the prestige associated with the original. O'Neil's Mourning Becomes Electra, for instance, virtually claims the stature of Agamemnon and Electra for its protagonists. Rivette is more modest in his claims and Sylvie, Paul and Walser are, by all reckoning, small people. Rivette, I propose, simply chose the plot of Electra as something so familiar that it would even be clichéd (23). When Sylvie listens to a narrative about a crucial occurrence of several years ago, one likely to result in the most extreme decision of her life, all she apparently hears is a clichéd plot outline. This, I would argue, is an even stronger statement about 'knowledge' than the one in Paris Belongs to Us.

Whatever has been said about Rivette may make the filmmaker to seem too dryly schematic while, in actual fact, a film like Secret Défense is permeated by a deep melancholy. Rivette is not using his films to demonstrate the validity of a philosophical thesis about knowledge in the contemporary world. Such a design on the filmmaker's part would, I propose, even have made him a lesser artist perhaps because art would do well to be independent of the history of ideas. Rivette is preoccupied with the possibilities of human lives but his preoccupations are those of a storyteller.

The Story of Marie and Julien (2003)

In The Story of Marie and Julien (Histoire de Marie et Julien) Julien is a clock smith living alone with his cat. Marie is the girl he met at a party about a year ago, when the two were attracted to each other. Unfortunately, Marie was in a relationship with another man at the time and Julien was with another woman. But their respective relationships have since broken up and each of them is now alone. The two meet accidentally just after Julien has been dreaming about Marie.

The Story of Marie and Julien contains two separate -- though interwoven -- narratives and the first is about the Julien and Marie, with Marie stepping in and out of Julien's life. Marie has a strange presence and she seems obsessed with rearranging a room in Julien's residence, she lapses in interludes of complete withdrawal and she is afflicted by a strange inability to feel. Julien enquires after her whenever she leaves without notice and things come to light. Marie, it becomes evident, is really dead. Marie hanged herself after a terrible squabble with her erstwhile lover Simon. So vengeful had the girl been that she arranged circumstances for Simon to be blamed but Simon was himself killed soon after, in a road mishap. The dead Marie exists now with only the memory of the hanging and her obsessive purpose is to rearrange the furniture in Julien's attic to resemble the space of her death -- and hang herself all over again, though that is impossible.

While the principal story -- about Julien and Marie -- engages the senses overwhelmingly and also relies on the real time interludes characterizing the other films discussed, Rivette is almost perfunctory in the second story, making its purpose seem merely the facilitation of the first. In this second story Julien is blackmailing a woman ('Madame X') engaged in the selling of fake Chinese silk. It comes out that this woman had a younger sister Adrienne, also a suicide, and her ghostly self now haunts the older woman whom she hated and tried to frame for murder, like Marie did Simon. The purpose of the second story, it seems to me, is to define the limbo in which the dead are placed and therefore assist us in understanding Marie. The two dead girls, for instance, have conversations through which we learn about Marie's emotional condition and this could not have been communicated otherwise. If this purpose to the second story is conceded, it will be appropriate to interpret only the first one.

The ghost story proceeds according to conventions that need to be understood before going ahead with the interpretation. One of these stipulates that ghosthood is a condition that all dead people cannot attain. Only a human being who dies in a dark emotional condition -- or had an obsessive, unfulfilled desire -- becomes a ghost. A recurring motif in the ghost story, for instance, is the dead person seeking retribution who haunts a space or an individual. The Story of Marie and Julien follows the convention because both ghosts/revenants in the film are not only of people who took their own lives but who also died when overcome by deep rancor. Where it differs from other ghost films is in its defining the conventions openly -- through the story of Adrienne and Julien's blackmailing of Madame X.

Rivette's two ghosts/revenants are best understood as lives reduced to a purpose/teleology (24) because the sole memory that remains with each of them is the moment of her suicide and the emotions associated with it. While all ghosts are given obsessions in stories, most obsessions in ghost stories are linked to incomplete tasks. In Marie's case Simon is dead and her task is therefore complete. She is, unlike other ghosts, reliving the moment of reckoning again and again and there is therefore a suggestion that Marie is locked into a cyclical narrative. If the motif of life reduced to bare narrative makes the film resemble Secret Défense the rigid cyclical narrative makes it comparable to Céline and Julie Go Boating.

The dialogue in The Story of Marie and Julien emphasizes the chasm between Marie and Julien more than once. At the simplest level this can be understood as that between Marie's ghostliness and Julien's corporeality but the physical intimacy between the two downplays this difference. There is, however, another key aspect to the film which also finds an equivalent in Secret Défense -- the physical attention to the everyday, the real time interludes complete with minutely detailed background sounds. There are long, deeply affecting segments in The Story of Marie and Julien in which Julien works on his clocks while Marie either sleeps on a couch or stares into space, as though lost. When Marie exerts herself it is only to arrange the circumstances of her next death, at which she works obsessively. Drawing upon my observations about Céline and Julie Go Boating (which suggests a division between the world and a text) Julien and Marie find an analogous correspondence in life as physically experienced and life narrativized and/or reduced to teleology.

Rivette and theatre

The place of theatre in Rivette's films has been written about extensively by critics like James Monaco (25). Still, not attracting much notice is that his films are of two distinct kinds in their relation to theatre. One kind is straightforwardly 'theatrical' -- La Religeuse (1966), Hurlevent (1985) and Joan the Maid (1994). The other kind incorporates a stage production or a narrative text of some sort into the action. Some examples here are Paris Belongs to Us, L'Amour fou (1969), Céline and Julie go Boating and Va Savoir (2001). The first kind of film is 'theatrical' in the sense that Rivette resists showing what a spectator might not see in a theatrical production -- e.g. introspection as denoted by intimate close-ups. Rivette also excludes the real time sequences I noticed in Céline and Julie go Boating and that characterize many of his other films. Each 'theatrical' film is a relatively faithful adaptation of a pre-existing text -- even a historical one as in Joan the Maid. The difference in texture between the 'theatrical' films -- which depend hugely on gesture and on blocking -- and the others is visible but the complex question is why Rivette surrenders 'cinema' for 'theatre' in these ostensibly simple adaptations of pre-existent texts. As an instance, the best segments in Joan the Maid show Joan's interrogation by noblemen or clerics and they rely on blocking in a way that Bresson or Dreyer's renderings of the same events do not. These films of Rivette, incidentally, have not always received praise and even his admirers have responded to Hurlevent with puzzlement.

Still, if these films of Rivette are 'theatrical', there are differences between them and the more traditional 'filmed plays' -- e.g. Kozintsev's Shakespeare films, Olivier's Henry V (1944) and Zinnemann's A Man for All Seasons (1966) -- but this needs elaboration. As theorists like Andre Bazin reiterate, the human presence is everything in theatre. The 'filmed plays', perhaps for this reason, depend largely on a larger-than-life central presence. Works that do not provide it -- as some of Shakespeare's comedies, for instance -- do not usually succeed as filmed theatre. Rivette does not use a larger-than-life presence and relies entirely on blocking in his theatrical films. It is significant that when Joan the Maid provides him with the opportunity for a huge central presence, Rivette still declines to take advantage of it.

A factor to be considered with regard to Joan the Maid is whether a heroic enactment of a historical text does not interfere with our knowledge of the teleology of the text. No heroism on Joan's part in a film, for instance, would have the smallest effect upon her destiny. The same thing is true for a retelling of a familiar literary work through the medium of cinema -- as Wuthering Heights is retold in Rivette's Hurlevent. Here again, our knowledge of the original text imposes a fate upon the characters and Rivette's treatment underscores this. If the girls in Céline and Julie Go Boating enjoy 'freedom' only when 'outside the House' because the lives of the characters inside it are determined by a pre-existing text, the same is true of the characters in Hurlevent who are equally shackled by Bronte's novel.

Perhaps a way to understand his approach in the straightforwardly theatrical films would be to go back to the other films involving theatre, the kind to which Céline and Julie belongs. Céline and Julie, as I suggested, proposes a dichotomy between 'world' and 'text' probably arising from the need to interpret a world that resists interpretation. This finds correspondence in other (in my view, secondary) dichotomies noticed in his films --between rigid staging and improvisation, between Rivette's Langian side and his Renoirean side. But since Hurlevent is constructed like the happenings in the House are in Céline and Julie, is it not conceivable that (also like Joan the Maid) it is a meditation on a text and not an independent meditation on the world? If we were to understand Rivette's films like Secret Défense and The Story of Marie and Julien within this pattern (they make no explicit references to theatre), we could say that the protagonists meditate obsessively upon constructed texts under the misapprehension that they are meditating upon the world.

Rivette, like Borges, is perhaps overcome by the recognition that the world, as we know it, is largely a construction in which literature/cinema has played a determining part. Given this recognition, it is perhaps impossible for a litterateur/filmmaker to work ingenuously, exploring the world 'afresh' each time, as if literature and cinema did not already exist.


It is tempting to see The Story of Marie and Julien as 'more than a ghost story' because of our discomfort with art that makes no claim to prophecy or to a profound moral purpose. But unlike many other supernatural beings in cinema that are essentially manifestations of other issues (26), Marie is really a ghost/revenant. Rivette is an unusual artist in as much as the huge ambition in what he attempts as a storyteller is belied by the modest claims he makes for himself as a moralist -- though this may be the natural outcome of seeing the world as constructed by texts. It is perhaps because of this modesty that the conclusions of The Story of Marie and Julien and Céline and Julie are so playful and decline to promote a philosophical 'meaning' despite the formal rigor of the films.

We live in times when the persuasive power of artists is smaller than ever but demands for their commitment -- to causes other than their vocations -- are louder and shriller. Artistic endeavor (if it must be honest) should perhaps be skeptical of moral ends, if only because the artist has so little moral influence upon the world today. To Jacques Rivette the world, though impenetrable, is still everything. But unlike many other filmmakers who confuse the distinction between their worlds and the world his films have always proceeded from the position that the two are different.

  1. David Bordwell, Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989, pp 8-9.

  2. Arthur C Danto, 'Deep Interpretation', from The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art, New York, Columbia University Press, 1986, pp 51-53.

  3. Julia Lesage, Celine and Julie Go Boating: Subversive Fantasy, Jump Cut 24-25 (March 1981). [Available on Order of the Exile here] 4. John Hughes, 'The Director as Psychoanalyst: An Interview with Jacques Rivette', Rear Window 1 (Spring 1975). [Available on Order of the Exile here]

  4. No‘l Carroll, Prospects for Film Theory: A Personal Assessment, from David Bordwell, No‘l Carroll (eds), Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies, Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1996, pp 42-43.

  5. For instance David Bordwell notes Rivette's 'revision of Lang'. See David Bordwell, The Classical Hollywood Style, from David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, Kristin Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985.

  6. Jonathan Rosenbaum, Ragged but Right (1996) on Up Down Fragile. [Available on Order of the Exile here]

  7. Peter Harcourt, On Jacques Rivette (The Early Films), Cine-Tracts (Montreal), Vol. 1 No. 3 (Fall/Winter 1977-78), pp. 4l-52. [Available on Order of the Exile here] 9. Noel Burch, Qu'est-ce que la Nouvelle Vague? Film Quarterly Vol. 13, No. 2 (Winter 1959), p. 16-30. [Available on Order of the Exile here]

  8. Here, for instance, are some questions asked by the interviewer (s) about Celine and Julie Go Boating: a) 'How was Celine et Julie vont en Bateau prepared? What was the initial motive?' b) 'There seems to be a Hollywood aspect to Celine et Julie that's quite different from your earlier films.' c) 'Were cartoons an influence?' See Jonathan Rosenbaum, Lauren Sedofsky, Gilbert Adair, Phantom Interviewers Over Rivette, Film Comment Vol. 10, No. 5, Sept-Oct 1974; p. 18-24. [Available on Order of the Exile here]

  9. The literary work invoked by Rivette in the above interview to discuss Celine et Julie is the novel The Invention of Morel (Adolfo Bioy Cassares) which might have provided a good opening.

  10. There is a suggestion as early as 1981 that Rivette regards his later films as less ambitious. See Serge Daney, Jean Narboni, Interview with Jacques Rivette, Cahiers du Cinema, 323-324 (May-June 1981):p. 42-9. [Available on Order of the Exile here]

  11. As explained, the literal meaning includes a conceptual component or 'point' to the story constructed by the spectator. She/he seeks out explicit clues of various sorts, assuming that the film 'intentionally' indicates how this is to be read. A verbal indication could usually furnish such a clue as in The Wizard of Oz in which 'There's no place like home' is crucial. See David Bordwell, Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989, pp 8-9.

  12. Jorge Luis Borges, 'The Lottery in Babylon' from Labyrinths, Harmondsworth: Penguin 1964, p61. (translated by John M Fein)

  13. As is well known, the story within the story is adapted from two stories by Henry James -- The Romance of Certain Old Clothes and The Other House.

  14. This has been seen to echo to the behavior of the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland.

  15. Robert Scholes, Narration and Narrativity in Film, from Gerald Mast, Marshall Cohen (eds.) Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, Third Edition, New York: Oxford University Press, 1985, pp 392-393.

  16. It would, of course, be absurd to assert that this part of the Rivette's film is not governed by intentionality and that it is not a 'story'. The argument is that the melodrama within the house is a 'story' in a stronger sense than the one about Celine and Julie.

  17. Robert Scholes, Narration and Narrativity in Film, from Gerald Mast, Marshall Cohen (eds.) Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, Third Edition, pp 396-7.

  18. 'Life' and 'narrativity/text' perhaps correspond to Rivette's Renoirean and Langian sides commented upon by critics in interviews. 'ŇEvery Rivette film has its Eisenstein/Lang/Hitchcock side -- an impulse to design and plot, dominate and control -- and its Renoir/Hawks/Rossellini side: an impulse to "let things go," open one's self up to the play and power of other personalities, and watch what happens".' See Rosenbaum, Sedofsky, Adair.

  19. The story is about a massive conspiracy of intellectuals to imagine (and thereby create) a world: Tlšn. In due course the narrator encounters increasingly substantive artifacts of Tlön and by the end of the story, the Earth is Tlšn. The cyclical narrative is also a recurring motif in Borges' fiction Đ e.g. The Secret Miracle.

  20. David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film, London: Methuen, 1985, p 70.

  21. The plot, as we learn it, is about a highly-placed man, a 'monster of ambition', who sacrifices his young daughter to further his ambitions and is, in turn, murdered by his wife and her lover.

  22. 'A girl who dies at twenty-one is at every moment of her life someone who dies at twenty-one,' writes Borges. This is perhaps even truer of someone who kills herself.

  23. James Monaco, The New Wave, New York: oxford University Press, 1977.

  24. Banquo's ghost is, for instance, a manifestation of Macbeth's conscience. Similarly, the ghost of the princess in Mizoguchi's Ugetsu (1953) gives shape to the potter's aspirations.

An earlier version of this appeared in Phalanx: A Quarterly Review for Continuing Debate No. 2.