LOUIS MARCORELLES: "Didn't the cinema once reach a sort of state of grace, which it has lost today?"
JACQUES RIVETTE: "Yes... but since it is lost, it isn't worth talking about".
--Sight and Sound, Autumn 1963.
The career of Jacques Rivette has entailed the exorcism of those consequences of the cinema's 'fall from grace'. It has entailed the rea1ization of two films, whose merits reside less in their completed state than in their conceptual essence; they would hardly qualify their creator for everlasting glory. One, PARIS NOUS APPARTIENT (1959), suffers from an angst attributable to the atavistic power exerted on the young director by the cinema of ANGEL FACE and BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT, two films on which Rivette wrote reviews for Cahiers du Cinema. The other, LA RELIGIEUSE (1964), incorporated to a certain extent within its structure this atavism, canalising the outcome, into artistic statement; its formal organization reduced the hysteria of PARIS NOUS APPARTIENT to a sobriety generated by fatalism. If L'AMOUR FOU (1968) sets Rivette among the best directors anywhere, it is due to the completeness of this exorcism; as in MADE IN U.S.A. (1967) of Godard, that exemplary film maudit, the ghosts of Hitchcock, Lang and Preminger, which have haunted the New French Cinema for the last ten, years, have finally been laid to rest, by L'AMOUR FOU. The classical tradition has outlived its uses; but Rivette rejects that tradition, paradoxically, only because he absorbed its principles, received with thanks all that it has had to offer.
I: 'Ce qui etait passionnant, c'etait de susciter une realite qui se mettait a exister d'elle-meme...'
It could be said of PARIS NOUS APPARTIENT that Rivette misunderstood the themes that he propounded, negated his content by its formal design. What strikes one immediately is Rivette's relationship to Preminger, both thematically (the freedom/constriction inversion and its necessary acceptance of illusion), and stylistically (the objective observation of action). But, paradoxically, the relationship is demonstrated by its misuse. In the Preminger of BONJOUR TRISTESSE (1957), for example, tragedy is attained by a final acceptance of universal responsibility, and a galling sense of loss. Preminger's style allows his characters, within their limits, to forge their own destinies, accepting always the possibility of respect and its consequences, as well as allowing the spectator to make up his own mind about the action. But, in PARIS NOUS APPARTIENT, Rivette commits the error of Jean Seberg in the movie of Preminger; from a balcony, he observes his characters through binoculars, comforting himself with the belief that this is a necessary objectivity. Yet, Preminger is at one further remove, observing the act of observance, while Rivette is consumed by the illusory freedom of individual choice. With no, one to observe him (except the impotent spectator), he pretends to offer us a reality in a universe where characters can forge their own patterns of thought and behavior, while all that we in fact see is a schematization of this behaviour, a mockery, however well-intentioned, of Preminger's synthesis of ethics and aesthetics.
Rivette's mistake, ultimately, is his approach to formal technique; his avowed aim was a dialectical film, a "film-discussion", and hence a film without a linear narrative structure, whose core was a situation, thus reducing the autonomy of the director. But the dilemma of the characters is, in fact, to follow a certain linear path within the closed paradigm, when their situation should enable them to choose, to adopt certain patterns of behaviour as more justifiable than others, to gradually evolve a method of: action whose goal is a veritable liberty (cf. LA CHINOISE).
PARIS NOUS APPARTIENT is a film dictated by mood, by a certain attitude struck by Rivette prior to the realization; it is, thus, a schematic film, and, preludes the possibility, of a dialectic except on the most superficial of levels. Characters are forced into certain roles; the parallel between the situation of the movie and the rehearsals, for Pericles forces us into a realization of the allegorical roles of the film, the fact, for example, that Anne equals Marina, emblematic of innocence and constantly renewed hope. Gerard Gozlan is correct when he summarizes the movie in a piece of dialogue between Philip and Terry towards the end; "where are we going?" "Oh, we'll see". (1) Instead of an attempt by Rivette to balance his dramaturgy, to present a coherence even on the most muted level, we suffer a tone of vacillation and frenzy, that amounts to dramatic stasis, providing an unfortunately ironic contrast with the thematic parallels of Pericles and METROPOLIS. By a fear of formal manipulation, Rivette denied the possibility of the demotratic cinema, that he would have postulated as the antithesis to 'L'atmosphere de gaullisme, menacant et triomphant', (2) the mood which, he admits, gave rise to the film itself.
Yet it seems as if the technique of the film contradicts Rivette's avowed intention of avoiding unnecessary 'faked' manipulation by the director. Consider for a moment some aspects of the symbolism of the movie; the little, childish drawings of fierce creatures that cover the walls of Philip's room, his 'demons'. In order to demonstrate the madness of the character, Rivette resorts to a technique endorsed by the classical narrative cinema, the dˇcor as active agent in the method of 'characterization'. Elsewhere the mood dictates and therefore constricts symbolic potential; the accent on the opening and closing of doors, for example, the hesitancy of the characters which precedes this, the framing of them individually or in groups in rooms, corridors or telephone booths is emphasized to the extent of ritualism. The specifically spatial mise-en-scene of Rivette (the ordering of characters within the frame operating in a void, punctuated by certain accented segments of the décor, cf. the photographs of war and destruction, the demons of Philip, etc.), reinforces the gratuitous element in this ritual.
Nevertheless, to recognize the indiscriminate opening of doors is to recognize the first tentative effort on the part of Rivette to achieve the autonomy of the film itself, an autonomy of the trajectory, by the inherently aleatory nature of the structure. PARIS NOUS APPARTIENT instigates, in the work of the director, narrative as cul-de-sac, as the double-back; at least, it is plain that this was the intention. But it is paradoxically just the aleatory nature of the film which precludes the demonstration of narrative contingency, by impressing on the spectator the subordination of the contingent event to a definite obscurantism; every character, every relationship. And thus the positive effect of contingency, the possibility of good, is negated.
So one is forced to watch this deterministic pattern unweave, and can gain no comfort from the ambiguous final image, or the script-level affirmation of the continued search for the mysterious guitar-music, artistic embodiment of a spurious salvation. By attempting to escape from the essentially spectacular (read dictatorial) nature of the formal cinema as practiced by Hollywood, we are presented with a more insidious form of the spectacular, pure bad faith, an insult to the depiction of reality, to which any fiction has an obligation, that of justification and acceptance. In PARIS NOUS APPARTIENT, the paranoia of the characters reflects, on another, more serious dimension (that of the morality of the mise-en-scene) on the method of Rivette himself.
II: 'Je crois de plus en plus que le role du cinema, c'est d'etre completement demythifiant, demobilisateur, pessimiste'.
The universe of Jacques Rivette is a violent universe; of murder, sex, sadism, madness and suicide. The diversion from the American Cinema in thei respect is that Rivette makes the violence wholly consonant with a recognizably common reality, stripping away the romantic aura of the Hollywood genre. Nevertheless, similarities remain, and in this way it is easy to recognize PARIS NOUS APPARTIENT as a French 'film noir', with its accent on the environment as psychological landscape. Nino Frank has written of 'film noir': 'C'est l'accumulation de ces plans realists sur un theme bizarre qui cree une atmosphere de cauehemar'. (3) But Rivette has accumulated the bizarre by a complete reduction of linearity, by the abolition of the motive for action which distinguishes the Western or the gangster movie. The sole motive for acts of violence in the films of Rivette is the disturbed psychic condition, striking out gratuitously in its paranoic search for identity and a suitable way of life.
But, to create a moral element, the depiction of a violent, contingent world must be balanced by the depiction of the possibilities of freedom. My criticism of PARIS NOUS APPARTIENT rests on the gratuitous nature of its obsessions, the self-conscious ellipse of it form, its total introversion, its negation of any life outside itself. In LA RELIGIEUSE, Rivette synthesized his personal obsessions with a universal reference, this time by the mastery of the familiar Premingerian paradoxes of freedom and inhibition, by the reversal of norms and accepted symbolic presentation.
This is perhaps the most important aspect of LA RELIGIEUSE, especially in relation to the artistic evolution of Rivette; his complete grasp of the dramatic modes of the traditional American Cinema , its classical symbolic figuration of experience. The main element of the mise-en-scene in LA RELIGIEUSE is its utilization of dramatic space (an art of Rivette that undoubtedly derived from the movies of Lang); a consideration of this utilization will explain what I mean.
The opening scene sets out the tone of the movie; the deliverance of Suzanne Simonin to the convent at Longchamps. Shot in dark, austere colors, the scene suggests intense repression with its bar-like shadows. The stark bareness of the rooms and corridors of the various convents work excellently on the level of décor, both functional and symbolic of the void, the arid spiritual life. Yet one's response is inverted by Rivette in his direction of the scenes around the less repressed convent of St. Mme de Chelles. In one scene, Mme de Chelles sits with Suzanne on the edge of a well in the convent grounds, and embraces her, consoling her for her previous misfortunes. The environment, the fresh, natural garden, suggests a new freedom for Suzanne, but the two figures resting precipitously against the well, and the sensuality of the embrace unbalance this first reaction. In the tradition of Preminger, Rivette respects his narrative sufficiently not to disbalance it by the intrusion of the manipulator; he allows the spectator to react on whichever level he chooses.
For, as Suzanne is 'free' through her constant )and constantly aborted) search for individual expression, Mme de Chelles (and later, Pere Lemoine) are constricted by their sexual demands, by their inability to achieve a liberty which, if not always expressed, is yet latent in Suzanne. We notice the four-poster bed in which Suzanne is sleeping when Mme de Chelles tries to slip in) expresses their individual natures in relation to their mutual situation, the metaphoric level of the scene juxtaposing the roles of the characters without disturbing the narrative in any way. Similar images define more sharply the circumstances of the 'imprisoned'; Mme de Chelles collapsed against the locked door of Suzanne's bedroom, with the long corridor stretched out behind her. Pere Lemoine seen cramped behind the bars of the confessional.
Such images as these contradict any simplified view of the characters or the situations presented in the film, and illustrate very clearly the aesthetic on which the mise-en--scene is founded. If, in PARIS NOUS APPARTIENT, the situations of the 'narrative' are intellectually conceived and hence elicit the uncomfortable response often felt when allegory poses as reality, the theme of LA RELIGIEUSE is forceful through its subordination to the gestures of the characters and the acts within the narrative situations. In the career of Rivette, LA RELIGIEUSE represents the classical response to mise-en-scene, and as such a development in the director's attempt to efface himself almost entirely behind his material. In an article on EVA, of Joseph Losey, Michel Mourlet makes a distinction between two antithetical conceptions of mise-en-scene; the one representing 'la dramaturgie naturelle en relief', where the attitude of the director to his film is conveyed through the inherently symbolic nature of his fiction, elevating the individual act and the particular situation onto a universal plane, the other representing 'la dramaturgie en creux' where, in Mourlet's words, 'par coquetterie intellectuelle, ce qui est inutile ou accessoire est souligne, les temps faibles cultives, l'expression volontairement non signifiante'. (4) One might imagine this a commonplace aesthetic distinction, if the hostility towards the American Cinema was not so widespread as it apparently is.
It relates, of course, to the symbolic conception of the world as represented by Hollywood. which has been referred to as a 'syntagmatically created symbolism'; that is, incorporated within the linear structure of the movie, and arising from the symbolic potential of the material as visualized by the director. It is a limited symbolism, but not entirely static; consider, for example (one among many) the gradation of reds in ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS of Douglas Sirk. One's reaction to it, however, is that it creates an artificial tension in the relation of the fiction to everyday experience. The levels of meaning threaten to engulf that experience by the inherent formal structure imposing a facile artistic affirmation by complete exclusion of the contingent. Ultimately, such a symbolism can only exist within an inclusive structure which, although providing a formalization of the chaos of experience, borders on the unreal because of the excessively paradigmatic dimension.
Rivette's own opinion on LA RELIGIEUSE is brief; 'J'avais utilise... les methodes traditionnelles de tournage, et je m'etais beaucoup ennuye'. (5) The movie proved that he had learnt his lessons well, but the achievement is always as limited as the aesthetic is viable. Nevertheless, only PARIS NOUS APPARTIENT and LA RELIGIEUSE could have made possible L'AMOUR FOU.
III: 'Je crois de plus en plus qu'il n'y a pas d'auteur dans les films: qu'un film, c'est quelque chose qui preexiste. Ca n'est interessant que si on a ce sentiment que le film priexiste et qu'on s'efforce d'aller vers lui, de Ie decouvrir, en prenant des precautions pour ne pas trop l'abimer, le deformer'.
L'AMOUR FOU is about the rehearsal for a play and the crack-up of a marriage. The central character, Sebastien, is rehearsing a production of Andromaque, by Racine, with his wife Claire playing the leading role. Near the beginning of rehearsals, she leaves the production, pleading claustrophobia at the presence of a television crew filming the proceedings and interviewing the artists; she is replaced by the ex-wife of Sebastien, Marta. As the rehearsals continue, Claire becomes progressively more paranoid; gratuitously, she sleeps with an ex-lover, while Sebastien is himself unfaithful with an actress from the theatre. Eventually, after a weekend during which Claire and Sebastien, locked in their apartment, engage in an orgy of sex and destruction, she boards a train and leaves him.
Essentially, L'AMOUR FOU commences from a situation; there is no pre-ordained plot, indeed the movie was shot from day-to-day, after discussion between director, technicians and players, with only one determined event in mind, the final departure of Claire. The revolutionary aspect of L'AMOUR FOU is evidently in the conception of narrative structure, and the dazzling paradox that it implies is that of a film in which there is a possibility of the work itself contradicting the author. This is made possible by the dynamics of the structure and the move towards effacement on the part of the director. The importance of the movie is its participation in these two areas, those of narrative and symbolism, and it is around these areas that the following discussion is centered.
We have seen that PARIS NOUS APPARTIENT and LA RELIGIEUSE, Rivette was moving towards self-effacement. By dispensing with classical narrative momentum in PARIS NOUS APPARTIENT, as I have tried to show, he was unsuccessful in his experiment because he replaced one tyranny with another; the linearity of narrative was superseded by the totality of mood, which reduced the emphasis on the portrayal of a contingent reality to an absurd proportion. In LA RELIGIEUSE, Rivette disappeared behind the structure of the work; he allowed the film to a certain extent to make its own connections, with the limited field, by integrating the intrinsically symbolic quality of the narrative situation. By this formulate a dialectic on the nature of freedom and repression.
But in L'AMOUR FOU, the director has almost vanished, as far as possible; this achieved by an enquiry, within the structure of the film itself, into the relation between naturalism and stylization, and their dialectical interplay. In their entirety, the scenes at the theatre are shot on 16mm blown up for the 35 screen, while the scenes of the personal life of Claire and Sebastien are shot in 35mm. While the 16mm sequences are intensely 'directed', with their blatant hand-held camera work and the grainy stock, the sequences on 35mm are almost totally static and unobtrusive. Rivette's idea was the achievement of a vertiginous 'en abime' effect (to use the expression of Gide); what is experienced is the relationship between cinematic elements at various levels. There is the relationship between the actors in L'AMOUR FOU and their roles in the film, between the characters and their roles in Andromaque, between the participants in the Andromaque rehearsals and the television crew, between the work of the TV crew and the 35mm sequences, and between Rivette, and the audience, that is to say between Life and Cinema. Here we are presented with the consequences of cinematic 'objectivity' as exemplified, for example, in the work of directors like Lang and Preminger, extrapolated to its furthest degree. The structure of the film arises organically from the interplay between individual elements, but what is important here is the relatively minor part played by the director as choreographer of all aspects. With L' AMOUR FOU, Rivette comes full circle; from his critical work, whose center is the apotheosis of the auteur, to his own direction whose core is self-effacement. Film and auteur are synthesized.
Inevitably, however, the effacement cannot be total, not even with cinema-verite, to which L' AMOUR FOU approximates in many respects (cf. the hand-held camera work of Andre Labarth's TV crew). In the cinema, as in the other arts, creative action implies morality, and every shot, every gesture, every dement of montage is inexorably linked to a certain moral conception of the relationship between Art and Life. But the advance that Rivette has made is from a traditional conception of the relationship (the belief in the conditional autonomy of the art work) to a conception which creates structure by emphasizing dissonance, which creates art by merging it, to a great extent, with the reality that it embodies.
In the primary idea of L' AMOUR FOU can perceived a certain pliable internal structure, the parallel between art (Andromaque) and life (the Claire-Sebastien personal life) itself symbolized within the movie. The opening and dosing images of the film are the same: the blank white canvas stage at the theatre, behind which can be heard the sounds of the players awaiting the performance. The stage is the metaphor for the basic structure of the movie, the void filled by movement and gesture, as well as relating to Sebastien's own conception of Racine, the stage as room within which characters define their being.
The parallel with the American Cinema once again presents itself, in the Hollywood conception of the art-reality relationship. The work of a director like Cukor is symptomatic here; his continued thematic preoccupation (cf. PHILADELPHIA STORY, A STAR IS BORN) with the life-spectacle dichotomy has its firm axis in an inverse movement. His films are paradigms where the two roles within each character aid dialectically in the continual process of self-definition. But it is a paradigmatic method, a formal manipulation, whose aesthetic is viable only when simultaneously applicable to experience; it is in constant danger of becoming constricting in its rigorous form. This is a dilemma of which Rivette was obviously quite aware; and L'AMOUR FOU is patently in revolt against such spurious formalization.
Thus, narrative is reduced to a skeleton; in an interview, Rivette referred to the construction of his movie as being hinged on certain 'pivots narratifs', (6) elements within the situation around which expanding situations are being constantly improvised. Paradoxically the flashback method does not hamper this emphasis on the contingent; it does not define the trajectory, serving only as a basis for the enquiry into truth beginning from a fixed position in the present.
The basic form of these 'pivots narratifs' consists of situations which mirror in reality the fictional situations of Racine. The phrase of Breton which Rivette took as the title of his film is an obvious comment on the doomed passionate relationships which Racine presents to us, 'ne puis-je savoir si j'aime ou si je hais?' -- Hermione's exasperated question reflects the condition of Claire and Sebastien in its merging of antithetical emotions, in the intricate patterns of alternate sex and violence experienced in the film. But Rivette has said of the narrative situations; 'le principe c'etait laisser les choses venir d'elles-memes, sans jamais les forcer, d'etre la comme temoin'. (7) Certain actions of the characters bear both an elliptical relation to the central situation and yet retain their force as a contingency in their departure from the rigorous subordination of events to a total schema. The scenes where Claire, on a whim, attempts to purchase a small puppy, similar to one seen on a record cover, is an example. As an expression of her frustrated maternal instincts, the action is of thematic relevance; a cause for the strain of the marriage is the absence of any children. But yet it bears no obvious schematic relevance to the narrative. Its equilibrium resides in an integration within huge contingent areas. As Rivette says, it bears witness to a character, rather than dictating a certain symbolic conception.
The narrative structure of L'AMOUR FOU is allied to Rivette's idea of the role of the actor, especially in comparison between the theatre and the cinema. For Rivette, the theatre is a mechanism repeated incessantly by the actor, while the cinema is constantly in search of 'la surprise savante du hasard' (as he wrote in a review of Preminger's ANGEL FACE). With the obvious emphasis on the gesture and movement of the actor, because of the absence of formalized discourse, and the consequent reliance on improvisation, this is important. It also reflects on the role of Sebastien in the film, his timidity in the face of contingency and his arrogance in the face of the security of order.
But the area which is fundamentally concerned with the disappearance of narrative order is the symbolic quality of the movie. As the cinematic syntax is created by dramatic progression, so the symbolism is simultaneously organic, blossoming out as the movie takes shape. For, if any preordained form is non-existent, the symbolic quality of situations, events or gestures cannot be organized. And the appearance of contingency (assuming, naturally, a fringe symbolism of its own) further complicates the process; situations become symbolic by their very non-development, or, alternatively, by their progression. This is all an increased implication of the objective mode of the film; Rivette throws the emphasis onto the audience, they are free to perceive the very dynamics of the film's symbolic architecture. Thus, symbolic suggestion pervades the movie; in the same way as the psychology of character in Racine is only analyzable through the language, the film of Rivette is only approachable through the immanent symbolic quality of the images. Examples abound in the film; the madness of Claire, resulting in her simultaneous embracing and rejection of reality, is demonstrated by her constant relapse into the foetal positions, as she crouches in the corners of the apartment. This physical position will ultimately be adopted by Sebastien, as the madness of his wife is transferred to him; at the end of the movie he crouches on the floor, listening repeatedly to the hysterical tape-recordings made by Claire in her solitude, of speeches from Andromaque, traffic noises, the beating of her heart. Another extraordinary example comes just before Sebastien returns to the theatre after his orgy in the apartment. We have a close-up of his face watching Claire, then he moves out of frame, and the camera rests on a large hole in the wall made earlier with an axe. The movement, implying an irresponsibility, conveys the gaping rent in the marriage caused by their activity, but what is important is the ascetic attention that Rivette has devoted to the composition of each shot of the movie, to be able to impart such suggestion to a totally contingent, ordinary gesture.
A similar principle governs the décor of the movie. Predominantly, Rivette shows us characters isolated against blank space (the theatre, the Claire-Sebastien apartment), expression of the void that they attempt to fill in their personal relations and an evident continuation of the 'labyrinths' of PARIS NOUS APPARTIENT. Again, the symbolic properties of the dˇcor are always immanent rather than emphasized; consider, for example, the palm-tree tapestry in one corner of the apartment, with its connotations of a paradise beyond the reach of the protagonists.
The achievement of L'AMOUR FOU is in its reorganization of modes of narrative form; in this respect, it places Rivette alongside Godard, although it should perhaps be said that these two directors are at present exploiting variations of narrative technique and symbolic form grasped by Rossellini and Bunuel some years ago. The next project of Rivette is a film of twelve hours duration, which, I am told, he does not particularly want anybody to see; in the conception of the idea, at any rate, it can be regarded as a perfectly logical extension of the experimental techniques already at work in L'AMOUR FOU. When asked if he considered a revolutionary cinema possible, he gave this reply; "je crois qu' un cinema revolutionnaire, ca ne peut etre qu'un cinema 'differentiel', un cinema qui remette en question le reste du cinema". (8)
Alongside such movies as MADE IN U.S.A. and DEUX OU TROIS CHOSES QUE JE SAIS D'ELLE of Godard, L'AMOUR FOU represents precisely that cinema 'differentiel', the cinema that, by putting the medium itself in question, represents the truly progressive element in the art.
- Gerard Gozlan: Postif 47, 1962 reprinted in The New Wave (ed. Peter Graham), Secker & Warburg 1968.
- Interview with Rivette: Postif 104 April 1969.
- Nino Frank: 'Dynamisme de la mort violent', L'Ecran Francais 61, 28 August 1946.
- Presence du Cinema No. 20, March-April 1964
- Postif 104.
- Interview with Rivette: Jeune Cinema 36, February 1969.
- Interview with Rivette: Cahiers du Cinema. September 1968. [This article is available on Order of the Exile]
Originally appeared in Monogram 2 (Summer 1971); p. 10-15.