L'amour fou

Tom Milne

One evening late in 1950, at a cine-club in the Rue Danton in Paris, I happened to attend one of those purgatorial programmes of 16mm experimental shorts which are sent to try the cineaste. One film, however, had something: a certain hypnotic, obsessional quality as, for some forty minutes, it attempted to show what happens when nothing happens by observing, in strict objectivity, behavior in a dentist's waiting-room. No plot, no dialogue; simply the play of silence, covert glances, magazines nervously skimmed, cigarettes furtively lit, as strangers casually thrown together try to come to terms with each other with nothing to come to terms about. (2) Called Quadrille, the film achieved a minor succes de scandale when the half of the audience still present at the end almost came to blows in passionate disagreement. It wasn't until years later that light dawned as to the name of the director and leading actor: respectively, Jacques Rivette and Jean-Luc Godard.

Eighteen years on, Rivette is still keeping up his reputation as the director people love to hate. With Paris Nous Appartient, it was critics angrily crying hoax; with La Religieuse, it was Church, State and Madame de Gaulle crying scandal; with L'amour Fou, it was distributors and exhibitors crying that the film offended commercial norms. More importantly and remarkably, Rivette has throughout remained unshakably faithful to his obsession with obsession, analyzing and exploring themes which receive their completest, most shattering treatment in L'amour fou, a film which confronts the magnificent obsession of life itself: a time to love and time to die.

Enough has been written already about the background row and the various shortened versions proposed and prepared against Rivette's will (at time of writing, the integral version is doing excellent business in Paris, and the commercially shortened one has sunk without trace). Instead, some plot and a few facts to serve as a platform for this extremely straight-forward yet extraordinarily complex film.


L'amour fou is about Sebastien (Jean-Pierre Kalfon), a young actor-producer who is rehearsing a stage production of Racine's Andromaque. Meanwhile, television cameras watch his every move and spy on the actors for a TV film about a play in rehearsal, and his wife Claire (Bulle Ogier), protesting that she cannot concentrate in these conditions, walks out on her leading role as Hermione and is replaced by Sebastien's ex-mistress, Marta. As Sebastien becomes more and more absorbed in the production, Claire sits at home, nursing feelings of exclusion and jealousy, and gradually the couple are sucked into a terrifying emotional vortex in which, tossed helplessly about and fringing murder, madness and suicide, they cling despairingly to moments of love, hate, passion and complicity in an effort to save themselves from being engulfed in the final, inevitable separation.

Fact one: the film runs for four hours and twelve minutes, excluding interval, which means that in sheer physical weight, the sense of having lived these experiences with Claire and Sebastien is extraordinary: the abnormal and unhurried running time means that instead of following the usual simple curve of dramatized human relationships, Rivette can make false starts, double back, repeat, explore cul-de-sacs, giving their affair the density and irrationality of life itself.

Fact two: all the theatre scenes were shot on 16mm then blown up and intercut with the 35mm domestic sequences. The resulting interplay underlines, with superb economy and precision, the insoluble conflict between two worlds: not only texturally, with the slightly muzzy 16mm lending the theatre a mysterious, haunting quality as though it were a siren luring Sebastien away from the harsh, brightly lit reality of his home, but also stylistically, with the mobile 16mm camera reflecting the flexibility of the rehearsals, while the stolid Mitchell (almost as immobile as the camera in La Religieuse) impassively watches Claire and Sebastien thresh about in the grip of their inflexible decline. Paradoxically, too and adding another layer to the film, the theatre seems to withdraw into itself under the 16mm camera's inquisitive eye, while its place in public domain is taken by the private emotional life which creeps like a mole to the surface, uninhibited by the indifferent Mitchell.

Fact three: while the film was being shot, Jean-Pierre Kalfon really did rehearse a production of Andromaque, which was ultimately to have been filmed in its entirety (it wasn't: there was not enough stock); meanwhile, the television unit genuinely watched, filmed and interviewed for their TV reportage. Hence the almost painfully accurate atmosphere of the theatre sequences: the light-hearted beginnings, the gradual absorption, the irritation with interloping interviewers, the onset of all-pervading fatigue as the rehearsals go on and on. Admirable in itself as a documentary reportage on the theatre, this accuracy is indispensable as a springboard for the other half of the film. As in Paris Nous Appartient, the theatre is a mysterious unknown which swallows up its devotees, excluding those who remain outside, so that they -- Claire, Anne Goupil in Paris Nous Appartient -- compensate by weaving their own hallucinations. Faced by the withdrawal of Sebastien, Claire responds with fantasies of jealousy and betrayal which, though unfounded, have yet a tangible object in the theatre.

Fact four: the film was shot without script or detailed scenario, having been argued, elaborated, evolved and lived, as shooting progressed, on the agreed basis of the rehearsals for the play, the TV reportage, and an ultimate goal in the Claire/Sebastien break-up. Broadly speaking, therefore, the film was shot in sequence (it has, of course, undergone some structural rearrangement in the editing), and this is one of its trump cards. The last quarter of the film is devoted almost exclusively to the carnivorous battle between Claire and Sebastien, locked inside their flat, as they embark on a veritable orgy of passion, which can be called neither love nor hate and which culminates in the gleeful, hysterical destruction of the apartment. As they lie on the floor amid the ruins, all rage and passion spent, Sebastien remarks on her sadness. "Je suis fatiguee," she replies, "Je ne veux plus jouer. Je ne veux plus te voir." (3) It is the end; and the sense of complete physical exhaustion, of two people who have come to the end of themselves and each other, is terrifyingly, tangibly real. It is, I suppose, cinema-verite; but cinema-verite for once organized, controlled and chiselled into shape.

As its title suggests, L'amour Fou is a film conceived under the distantly benevolent eye of Andre Breton, arch-priest of the surrealist view of love as an erotic exaltation beyond and above human control. Even Bunuel could not have bettered Rivette's imagery in this cruel see-saw between love and hatred where, oddly, it is Sebastien rather than Claire who becomes the victim and assumes (Hitchcockian transference?) her madness: Sebastien waking in the night, to become silently aware that she is holding a hat-pin poised over his eye; working at his desk while outside, her fingers scratching and scrabbling at the door work themselves into a frenzied, beating tattoo (more than one echo here of the drums of L'Age d'Or); patiently cutting up her food for her, tasting it to prove it isn't poisoned; ripping the clothes he wears to shreds with a razor-blade in a sudden frenzy of grief; and, in a final act of defiance and despairing affirmation, waving their passion like a banner from the balcony of their apartment, high above the world dwarfed and forgotten far below.

But this crescendo of delirium only works because Rivette has built it, slowly and painstakingly, on a structure as solid, compact and rich in resonance as a Racine tragedy. To begin with, there are the analogies with Andromaque itself, with the tormented quadrangle of the play (Orestes loves Hermione, who loves Pyrrhus, who loves Andromache, whose insistence on remaining faithful to the memory of the dead Hector and spurning her suitor sparks off the holocaust) reflected in the equally vicious circle (or rather, quadrangle) created by Claire and Sebastien out of what they are and what they would like themselves to be. Rivette does not draw, or need to draw, any direct or obvious parallels; instead he creates what might be called a structural undertow of cross-references.

For instance, the film opens and closes on the same image: the blank white canvas square of the empty rehearsal stage. On the soundtrack one hears a ragged mutter of voices as the actors prepare to come on stage, suddenly cut across by the sound of a child crying. The effect, Rivette has said, was fortuitous, but it is there, both opening and closing the film; and if one wishes to be grandiose about it, one might say that here we have the theatre of life, in which we are to witness the tragedy of birth, love and death. More to the point, however, is the fleeting echo here of Astyanax, Andromache's child, unseen and unheard but the real, off-stage catalyst of the tragedy. Only when bolstered by this discreet signpost to the child Claire and Sebastien do not have, do two curious little scenes fall into place: one where Claire, on a sudden whim (Sebastien has bought a record with a picture of a dog on the sleeve because its sad eyes remind him of her), dashes off on a fruitless attempt to buy a basset hound puppy; and the complementary one where Sebastien brings her a substitute kitten, to which she takes an instant dislike. Later, the incident is further extended and woven into the theme of betrayal during a rehearsal at the flat when Marta (the actress who replaced Claire as Hermione) playfully taunts the kitten with the record sleeve, making barking noises: Claire starts as though she had been slapped.

Similarly, the long rehearsal sequences which arc interspersed throughout the film have a practical function over and above their revelation of the mysterious private world to which Sebastien escapes. Again it is a structural one, demonstrating that all the scenes between Claire and Sebastien are simply rehearsals for the denouement of their personal tragedy which, once she has opened a rift between them by opting out as stubbornly as Andromache, is as inevitable and inescapable as that of Andromaque. Just as the actors stutter and stumble, go back to the beginning and try again to master a line or the sense of a passage, so Claire and Sebastien spend the film feverishly at work, reading and re-reading, trying to find the rhythms and meanings of their own tangled emotions.

And in one of the most striking -- albeit elliptical and shadowy -- motifs of the film, Rivette seems to suggest that they find this meaning not in themselves but in art. For at the end, after Claire has gone, we see Sebastien squatting on the floor of the ruined, desolate flat, listening to her voice on tape, remote, fragmentary, hesitant: "on est comme des poissons qui passent l'un apres l'autre... contact d'un pied, d'une cuisse... j'ai peur pour toi..." (4) Claire's despairing need to understand, and make him understand, led her to try to tape the thoughts that assailed her, but ultimately all she could seize were the meaningless sounds of hysteria -- the beating of her heart, the roar of passing traffic, a cacophonous crackle from the radio. Earlier, however, she found clarity in recording Hermione's speech from Andromaque when she realizes she still loves Pyrrhus, after having planned his death:

Où suis-je? Qu'ai-je fait? Que dois-je faire encore?
Quel transport me saisit? Quel chagrin me devoré?
Errante, et sans dessein, je cours dans ce palais.
Ah! ne puis-je savoir si j'aime, ou si je hais?
Le cruel... (5)
Sebastien, one imagines, may listen and at last understand, as Pyrrhus might have understood had he not been blinded by his own uncontrollable passion.

Throughout, as Andre Labarthe remarks, apologizing in his role as the TV director for the disrupting presence of his camera crew, "Life and theatre get a bit mixed up"; and Rivette's superb editing makes the most of this interaction by seeking correspondences. A direct cut, for instance, from a rehearsal of the scene in which Hermione commands Orestes to kill Pyrrhus, to a shot of Claire in bed with her ex-lover Philippe: a deliberate yet involuntary betrayal of Sebastien which preludes his fatal betrayal of her with a girl at the theatre. Later in the rehearsals, as they wrestle with one of Racine's key lines, "Quels ruisseaux de sang coulent autour de moi," (6) the scene is shot in close-up on Sebastien, so that one realizes he is thinking of Claire, talking to her, rather than explaining the line to his actors. Most tellingly of all, perhaps, a direct cut from Sebastien abruptly telephoning to arrange a rehearsal after Claire has finally decided to leave, to the rehearsal of Hermione's reported death.

With his foundations so solidly established, Rivette has all the time in the world to sit back and harvest those tiny, unexpected moments of revelation which only cinema-verite techniques can seize on the wing and which cinema-verite almost invariably squanders by failing to provide a context. There is, for instance, an extraordinarily accurate and touching scene in a cafe in which Claire talks to a girlfriend, half pouring out her fears, half holding them back, and punctuating her remarks with hesitant, apologetic grins which exactly convey her confusion. Beautifully played by Bulle Ogier (both she and Kalfon are remarkable), but obviously unrehearsed and unpremeditated, the sequence is given the creative edge of formality it needs by a slight, precisely calculated movement of the camera which means that for part of this not-quite-confidential exchange of confidences, there is an eavesdropper: Claire herself, reflected in a wall mirror.

Equally striking because so unexpected, a scene where Claire is prowling restlessly round the flat one night when Sebastien wakens and asks what she is looking for. Instantly she pounces, accusing him of wanting to leave her, of wanting a divorce. When Sebastien wearily turns over to go back to sleep, she shakes his shoulder, crying "I have to know... you must tell me." Hitherto, even when she spied on him or threatened to kill him, Sebastien has treated her with the utmost gentleness and understanding. Now he suddenly slaps her viciously, pulls the sheet over his head, and goes back to sleep. Whether he does so because his defenses are down in sleep, because he has at last had enough, or because he is on the verge of taking over her obsession, never becomes clear: it is simply another in the film's labyrinth of twisting, turning blind alleys which permit only one debauchment.

Actually, despite the predominantly clear, open settings (the sunny, white-walled flat, the white canvas rehearsal square) the labyrinth image isn't at all a bad one. As Sebastien remarks, Racine's play is composed of a series of ante-chambers into which the characters come to confess and where one feels that "the walls are broken down". So too in the film, with its dark figures isolated against blank backgrounds, lost in a labyrinth of emptiness with no landmarks, no sheltering walls, no refuge, and as their only Ariadne's thread, the desperate, ostrich-like recourse to mad, uninhibited sex.

  1. "Ah! I loved her too much not to hate her." A quote from Racine's Andromache (Ed.)

  2. If memory fails me on the film, which seems to have disappeared unchronicled, may Jacques Rivette forgive me. (This seems to be the only description of Quadrille which has, per Milne's description, disappeared unchronicled. - Ed.)

  3. "I'm tired... I don't want to play anymore. I don't want to see you anymore." (Ed.)

  4. "You're like the fish that just brush by each other... with the contact of a foot, a thigh... I'm scared for you." (Ed.)

  5. "Where am I? What have I done? What must I do?
    What frenzy overtakes me? What grief devours me?
    Wandering, aimless, I circle through this palace.
    Ah! Can I not know if I love or hate?
    His cruel eyes!"
    --Hermione, Act V, Scene I
    (Three Plays of Racine: Phaedra, Andromache, and Brittanicus. Trans. George Dillon. University of Chicago Press, 1961.) (Ed.)

  6. "But what streams of blood are flowing round me!" (ibid.) (Ed.)

Originally appeared in Sight & Sound (Spring 1969) p. 63-67.