Jacques Rivette, France, 1971
by James Crawford and Michael Joshua Rowin
Hailed by Dennis Lim as â€śthe cinephileâ€™s holy grail,â€ť Out 1 inspires a goodly measure of awe, trepidation, and curiosity by virtue of its length and the fact that, with only one print extant, itâ€™s almost never screened. Clocking in at a shade over twelve and a half hours, Jacques Rivetteâ€™s behemoth certainly is daunting for all the reasons one might expect, but then again not: unlike Bela Tarrâ€™s seven-hour SĂˇtĂˇntangĂł, the film is not intended to be consumed in a single sitting. Originally designed as a serial for French television (to the directorâ€™s self-confessed folly), the film is parceled up into eight episodes, between 70 and 105 minutes eachâ€”and its final version, according to Rivetteâ€™s intention, was meant to be spread out over two consecutive days. Itâ€™s actually more intimidating for its inexorable flow of ideas, images, sounds, theories, stratagems, dalliances, conflicts, paradoxes, etc., etc.; so like the parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant, any attempt to assail the film from one particular perspective will yield a narrow, skewed, and ultimately unsatisfactory appreciation of the whole. Out 1 might be a little too big for one mind to comfortably accommodate, and so weâ€™ve decided to share the burden. Michael Joshua Rowin and I (perhaps taking a page out of Harun Farocki and Kaja Silvermanâ€™s Speaking on Godard) will tackle the film in tandemâ€”in the hope that two heads are better than one. â€“James Crawford
Having just recently read James Monacoâ€™s take on Out 1 in his now ancient 1976 edition of The New Wave, I was struck by how much time he accorded to discussing the actual plot, if one can call it that, of Rivetteâ€™s epic, even if he explains, going along with Rivetteâ€™s suggestion, that its mysteries are ultimately unimportant. I was struck by this because the same day I read Monacoâ€™s book I also saw Rivetteâ€™s Le Pont du Nord (1981), during which I finally worked up the courage to say the hell with according any sort of seriousness to narrative mechanics in Rivette. Itâ€™s clear by now at this stage of my still nascent climb up the Rivette Matterhorn that trying to unknot the tangled conspiracies and narrative puzzles of his work is like trying to figure out or even care about whatâ€™s really going on in Casino Royaleâ€”as in the new Bond, the why, not the how, is what truly counts. Not that the details of Out 1 donâ€™t matter, but in actually watching it one must catch the cogent metaphors and meaningful syntheses from thirteen hours of movie and work up to the guiding principles Rivette used to make sense and plot out of the final product. Otherwise, and I could see this happening to some cinephiliac Quixote one day, youâ€™ll get as lost and maddened as Out 1â€™s characters. In any case, hereâ€™s a list of some of the filmâ€™s guiding principles, in no order of importance: thereâ€™s obviously the lure of conspiracies and organizations, whether secret or otherwise, by their dreamers and practitioners to bring some kind of clarity and order to the chaos and random occurrences of life; the lure of the same to create fiction, a mirror of life yet still within and (in the case of a film as long and involved as Out 1) often able to subsume it; the childishness, both in redemptive and regressive aspects, of such activities. Thus the long theater rehearsal scenes involving two different troupes, one headed by Thomas (Michael Lonsdale) and practicing Prometheus, the other headed by Lili (Michele Moretti) and practicing Seven Against Thebes, their improvisational, Brooks-influenced methods resembling nothing so much as the attempt to recreate the unself-conscious Play of children. Thus Juliet Bertoâ€™s street hustler, whose craft consists entirely of make-believe; and the inimitable Jean-Pierre Leaud, himself both a con man of sorts and the audienceâ€™s sleuth surrogate, who at one point during his investigations of a strange utopian cabal fashioned in the spirit of Balzacâ€™s trilogy The Thirteen exclaims, when confronted with the possibility of an illusionary conspiracy, â€śIn that case the magic world I live in would suddenly grow dim!â€ťâ€”Michael Joshua Rowin
A fine prĂ©cis of Out 1â€™s plotless plot, Rowin, and yet itâ€™s amusing to think of how much time we two spent worrying, â€śHave I seen this person before?â€ť or â€śWho the hell is Pierre?â€ť and â€śWhen is Igor going to make his appearance?â€ťâ€”a situation made doubly worse because honestly, French people all look the same to me. I cannot think of another film that invests so much effort and time in characters alluding toâ€”and having their actions motivated byâ€”people that show up very briefly, or more frequently, never at all. It certainly lends credence to Rivetteâ€™s contentions, expressed in Rosenbaumâ€™s interview for the September 1974 issue of Film Comment, â€śthat the fiction is a trap, thatâ€™s itâ€™s full of cracks and completely artificial, in every sense of the word, and has only been a vehicleâ€¦. I donâ€™t take the whole idea of the search for meaning seriously.â€ť That kind of bombast can usually be chalked up to a director protecting his creation from the shot and danger of reductive, singular meaning or understanding, which can demystify a work and render it lifeless; however, with each successive screening (Iâ€™ve now seven Rivette films under my belt) it becomes clear that Rivette desires us to hang the sense and become immersed in the sensibility. All of the Nouvelle Vague directors I hold dear address cinema from its first principles, like students learning the grammar of a foreign languageâ€”and then proceed to break, bend, twist, and ignore the ones they find the most limiting. Rivette finds displeasure in the strictures of storytelling soi-disant, and so, furthering his use of the vehicle as metaphor, lets his narrative motor idle, sputter, and eventually stall while he drifts over to the stuff he finds more intriguing. The problem is thus bequeathed to the spectators, who are asked to cast off their ossified conceptions of filmâ€™s ontological categories, and let the film resonate and wash about like music.
As with so many of his films, the stuff that fascinates Rivette to the point of distraction, is the theater, specifically the idea that â€śanything actors say and do is interesting,â€ť as Rosenbaum said following the Moving Imageâ€™s screening of Lâ€™Amour fou. Much of Out 1 is devoted to following the two troupes as they rehearse their respective playsâ€”a process that is ultimately for naught as both end up dissolving before any public performance is allowed to take place. I see where youâ€™re going with the idea of childlike play, because it arises in both Celine and Julie Go Boating and Lâ€™Amour par terre, but I think the efforts of Thomasâ€™s groupâ€”the more interesting and extensively documented of the twoâ€”tap into something more primal. Their messy, fumbling improv sessions are steeped in the belief that bypassing the brainâ€™s intelligent centers, that releasing reason and tapping into something precognitive and unconscious, allows a deeper connection between the players, and therefore reveal the textâ€™s fundamental truths. The aftermath brings up one of the playâ€™s paradoxes: after their first session, a subhuman cacophony of grunting, moaning, groping, and grappling that enacts the Prometheus myth, the actors gather in a circle, light cigarettes, and then try to analyze the minutiae of their just-completed rehearsal. Their thoughts are lucid, cogent, and therefore entirely at odds with the feral spectacle we have just witnessed: through his actors, Rivette is exploring that nebulous boundary in the act of artistic creation where human impetus and individual agency is taken over by ineffable inspirationâ€”from the muse, the ether, collective memory, or the divineâ€”and so becomes semi-conscious.
Thomasâ€™s players have a sincere belief in the importance of their work, which becomes a way to inure themselves not just against the randomness of life, but the depredations inflicted by a particularly violent moment in Franceâ€™s history. Out 1 was made in the aftermath of the social uprising of May â€™68, when a series of strikes by Parisian student unions devolved into a full-bore confrontation with the military. What once began as a hope to radically reinvent the mores of a stagnant and conservative society ended meekly, with the unions urging a peaceable return to work and De Gaulleâ€™s party consolidating its power to a greater degree than ever. Out 1 taps into this post-May â€™68 malaise, betraying an abiding mistrust in grand social movements, services organizations. Paris is turned into a disconnected amalgam of individual groups hermetically sealed off from one another. In between Liliâ€™s and Thomasâ€™s groups, Jean-Pierre LĂ©aud is the classic flĂ˘neur walking through the city, but disconnected from society because his deaf-mute act precludes any social interactions; Juliet Berto only makes affective connections with people insofar as they can dupe, inveigle, and contribute to her next score. In contrast to this manipulative, self-serving mode of acting, the theater for Thomasâ€™s and Liliâ€™s actors is an arena of give and take, vulnerabilityâ€”ingenuous place and a refuge from reality, even as it seeks to reveal it. There is no truth here save for interactions on a personal level, which is why Rivette follows his troupes in seemingly endless long takes, respecting their attempts at human bonds by granting the mediumâ€™s greatest gift: spatial and temporal continuity in an otherwise fractured world. â€”JC
Somewhere in my notes for Out 1: â€śImprovise words, make them into a system . . . out of harmony.â€ť This an idea imparted during Thomasâ€™s groupâ€™s first postrehearsal discussion on the efficacy of its play-shaping exercise, and perhaps another the filmâ€™s â€śguiding principle.â€ť For if, as you so well put it, â€śRivette is exploring that nebulous boundary in the act of artistic creation where human impetus and individual agency is taken over by ineffable inspiration,â€ť that magical gray zone where decisions and choices bring shape to pure dreams and visionsâ€”where the golem rises out of clayâ€”then surely his obsession with theater and its processes mirror his concerns about bringing some coherence to unwieldy, ultra-ambitious projects, some successful (Out 1, Celine and Julie), some not (Paris Belongs to Us, Le Pont du Nord). Yes, the Nouvelle Vaguers â€śaddress[ed] cinema from its first principles, like students learning the grammar of a foreign language,â€ť but what separates Rivette from the only fellow countryman who treaded over same rocky territory of cinematic experimentation and investigationâ€”Godardâ€”is that Rivette concedes control, and sometimes the overall design of a film, to those in front of the camera. In other words, Rivetteâ€™s is a much more collaborative cinema, even if weâ€™re still talking about Out 1 in auteurist termsâ€”thereâ€™s a veritable communal approach not only to the theater troupe scenes, but also to the film as a wholeâ€”and it seems at moments that heâ€™s gone absolutely primitive, not just â€śreturning to zeroâ€ť as Godard attempted around the same time, but somehow going even further back and completely reconstructing the directorâ€™s role.
The question, then, is how does Rivetteâ€™s build from this to relative organization? A key can be found in that above note: in Out 1, verbal language is fundamental to group democracy, so that, as youâ€™ve mentioned, the troupesâ€™ dialogues place them at a superior level of communicative exploration than Leaudâ€™s deaf-mute agitator and Bertoâ€™s duplicitous troublemaker. But, not coincidentally, around the same time Leaud reveals his speechlessness to be a lark (the only episode of Out 1 I missed, due to work obligations, made my discovery in the next one of Colinâ€™s ability to talkâ€”and here I kid you notâ€”veritably shocking; if anything convinced me of how this film could involve me despite so much baffled impatience, this was it) and FrĂ©dĂ©rique immerses herself in matters beyond her own hand-to-mouth hustling, the theater groups get broken up by interpersonal squabbling (Thomasâ€™s break-up with Lili), petty sabotage (Renaud stealing Quentinâ€™s lottery ticket), and creative dead ends. Whatâ€™s left is the vague, incomplete idea of the Thirteen, a sort of back-up supergroup ready in waiting for such crises, but also a lofty concept lacking pragmatic foot soldiers. Order and chaos overlapâ€”Colinâ€™s struggle to search and question (his indirect declaration of love to Pauline, aka Emilie, being one of Out 1â€™s seminal moments) and FrĂ©dĂ©riqueâ€™s emerging awareness coincide with the filmâ€™s first signs that Rivette has seized the narrative reins, but they also contrapuntally echo the dissolution of the Prometheus and Thebes projects. The long takes that have bounded Thomas and Liliâ€™s crews together, respectively, give way to these actors separated in different sequences and opposed through parallel editing. Does this mean that the grand ideal of theater as â€śan arena of give and take, vulnerabilityâ€”ingenuous place and a refuge from reality, even as it seeks to reveal itâ€ť can only come at the expense of the directorâ€™s loss of agency, which Rivette increasingly reclaims as Out 1 progresses and ends with Thomasâ€™s hysterical, prelingual laughter, the lone madmanâ€™s final acceptance of intelligent communicationâ€™s failure?â€”MJR
To be plainspoken, I think all theater necessarily involves a directorâ€™s eventual loss of agency; let me talk in circles a little bit to see if I can explicate. As you so eloquently put it, no one â€śconcedes control, and sometimes the overall design of a film, to those in front of the camera,â€ť to the same degree as Rivette, except perhaps for John Cassavetes, but at the same time, I was struck by the little efforts Rivette made to inject his own influence into Out 1 and corral the rehearsalsâ€™ runaway chaos. Rather than place his camera in a fixed position, like one of those proscenium-style spectacles from the birth of cinema, and let it passively record the action, cinematographer Pierre-William Glenn circles around the troupes with his handheld camera for those extraordinary long takes. He tracks in for extreme close-ups of the actorsâ€™ faces and hands, then backs away to afford and overall sense of the geography and structure of the pandemonium; in that act of selective viewing, Rivette moulds the actorsâ€™ work, and gives it a sense and form.
Ontologically speaking, rehearsal is about variability and change; to practice a scene over and over again is to get it as close as possible to the platonic ideal of the way the director envisions itâ€”thought or inspiration actualized and made flesh. Coming, circuitously, around to my ultimate argument, every creative processâ€”even writing this paragraphâ€”involves a final moment of release, of an end to endless revisions, and of casting the finished product into the void. (This is one of the minor themes to Out 1: the generative power of thought. As one of Thomasâ€™s friends says somewhere in episode six, â€śOnce something is thought of, it exists;â€ť as long as Colin believes in the conspiracy of the Thirteen, it has life, tangibly realized by the influence it has on Colinâ€™s psyche.) With film, that final act of creativity can be controlled down to its minute detail, through endless numbers of takes (Kubrickâ€™s infamous fastidiousness comes to mind), as well as the editing process, in which itâ€™s possible to structure moments down to the microsecondâ€”both of which allow the director to achieve the ideal as closely as material conditions will allow; once the final film print is struck, every screening is identical. By contrast, the act of final release in the theater, staging the play before a live audience is subject to the vagaries of timing, pacing, and emotional modulation, and none of which the director can control once the play is set in motion, and all of which vary from performance to performance. Rivette cedes final control to his actors, but brings his imprint to bear in a limited way (through the visual representation), and thus transmutes him into not merely a theatrical director, but a director of theater. The loss of agency arises in realizing the verity in the proverbs about horses and water, and the director acknowledging that his job is to lead his charges to drinkâ€”as difficult that might be. This then brings up a paradox in Rivette, one thatâ€™s endemic and essential to understanding the interplay of film and theater in his work. As soon the rehearsal is recorded on film, it becomes singular and irretrievably fixedâ€”and thus contradictory to its purpose.
What does this have to do with anything? Well, to embrace Rivette is to embrace these paradoxes; and secondly, itâ€™s meant to motivate a line of inquiry as to the nature of how and why process is recorded. In Rivetteâ€™s other films where rehearsal and play are the focal point, thereâ€™s usually a realization of all that work. Lâ€™Amour par terre and Lâ€™amour fou both culminate in a performance (however poorly received or attended) arising out of that rehearsal. And in a more evocative sense, Celine and Julieâ€™s daily frolick in Paris, which seems to have no ostensible purpose in Go Boating save for the idle pleasure of the two heroines, is useful in the final estimation, because it has given them the working vocabulary to upend the morbid logic of the haunted house. Since both troupes from Out 1 dissolve without ever delivering their final performances (and indeed, both seem to run off the rails long before the official death knells), what weâ€™re left with is rehearsal and process for its own sakeâ€”and therefore Rivetteâ€™s purest attempt at representing them. (A similar issue comes into play when Colin declares his love for Pauline to an empty room without realizing sheâ€™s eavesdropping in an adjacent one: rehearsal, unwittingly, becomes performanceâ€”ironically the filmâ€™s only performance. It only adds to what you quite rightly describe as one of the Out 1â€™s â€śseminal moments.â€ť)
In a similar vein, what Iâ€™m expressing I think taps into (and was inspired by) what you said about â€śColinâ€™s struggle to search and question,â€ť which very closely mirrors the struggles of Thomasâ€™s and Liliâ€™s groups to reach their own understanding of their work. The difference, of course, is that Colinâ€™s approaching art from the other side of the equation: he, like us, is the receiver of meaning, not its giver, and his efforts to decipher bits of Balzac and Lewis Carrollâ€™s poem â€śThe Hunting of the Snark,â€ť sent mysteriously through the mail, are very similar to the act of deconstruction weâ€™re essaying here. Colin repeats sentence fragments in the way that we might turn shots or moments over and over in our heads as we scrabble for meaningâ€”but is it too simplistic to describe Colin as a spectatorâ€™s surrogate and leave it at that? What do we make of choice to pose as a deaf-mute and his return to that state at the end of the film? How, for that matter, do we take of the weird behavior of the male (Colin) and female (FrĂ©dĂ©rique) interlopers? Their logic and mode of behavior is vastly different from anyone else in the film; itâ€™s like theyâ€™ve parachuted in from CĂ©line and Julie Go Boating. These are fairly facile questions, yes, but even after days of thinking about them, I havenâ€™t arrived at any cogent schema to account for them. If you could enlighten me with your interpretation, Iâ€™d be very much obliged.â€”JC
Click here for the conclusion of Crawford and Rowinâ€™s correspondence on Out 1.