Love on the Ground/The Gang of Four
by Jeff Reichert
The Complete Jacques Rivette
Now Touring Nationwide
Even though avowed Jacques Rivette fanatic Jonathan Rosenbaum lauds The Gang of Four as “More classical and less experimental than his previous features, it's almost a summary and compilation of his major themes and preoccupations—an ideal introduction to his work,” I hadn’t initially planned on logging on an entry on it for our continuing coverage of the now touring, essential, Rivette retrospective. Rosenbaum is probably right in his assertion—Gang of Four certainly reeks of Rivette from the very outset, in which a mysterious collection of shots eloquently sketches out the intersection of daily and theatrical life that concerns the narrative body and its four heroines, who live together in a house on the outskirts of Paris and take acting classes in the city from Bulle Ogier. Really, what could be more Rivette? This may be a bit of the problem, at least as placed between the high-stakes tightrope act nimbly performed by his Sixties and Seventies features and the sober mastery that characterizes his more recent films. After Gang finished, I was left with a sense that it was all a little practiced—less joyous than Va savoir, less risky than Duelle or Noroît, less mystical and lush than The Story of Marie and Julien, less commanding than L’Amour fou and Out 1: Spectre.
After seeing the earlier Love on the Ground a few days later, I felt compelled by a bit of Rivette-esque frenzy; his 1984 and 1988 films (which bookend a pretty, if somewhat insubstantial stab at Wuthering Heights) seemed to offer odd concordances—obsessions with symbols, women playing actresses beset by mysterious strangers, opening sequences which directly confuse life with theater, endless rehearsals for a performance never quite seen interrupted by deepening, extra-theatrical intrigue. They seemed to riff off each other cleanly and easily, providing new combinations of images and ideas seen in Paris Belongs to Us, Celine and Julie Go Boating, and Out 1: Spectre. Perhaps, like those youthful artistes of Paris Belongs to Us, whose openness to conspiracy and fascination with signs allowed them to inflate and conflate the problems of their lives and art into the problems of the world, I may be looking a little too hard for codes and pairings amidst the works of the most mysterious of master filmmakers. But after the tandem Duelle and Noroît, it couldn’t hurt to look for connections. Both of these movies (as with all of Rivette’s films) deserve far better than to be crammed into the space of one article, but in the interests of teasing out some of major themes of his works while getting through as much Rivette as possible for the benefit of the uninitiated, here goes:
Love on the Ground starts intriguingly—“Sometimes on Sundays”—with a young man collecting a group of random Parisians and leading them quietly to a small apartment where they witness a comic theater performance. It’s typical farce: a man (Facundo Bo) hiding two women (Jane Birkin and Geraldine Chaplin) from each other within the bounds of a small living space, rendered odd by the presence of onlookers in the obviously lived-in flat. Among the audience is the play’s author, Clément Roquemaure (Jean-Pierre Kalfon, as stiffly top-heavy and fey as Out 1’s Michael Lonsdale), who hires the players to start rehearsing for the performance of a new work in his gaudy, empty mansion that very weekend. Both actresses begin having disturbing visions almost immediately upon entering the house, seemingly something to do with proximity to André Dussolier’s magician Paul, who lives with Roquemaure and his manservant Virgil (Lazlo Szabo). These visions are built around simple cinematic techniques that hearken back to similar “special effects” in earlier films—multiple Bulle Ogiers on a subway platform in Duelle. Rivette uses simple shot/reverse shots between one of the actresses and her “other” in the vision, showing that this fundamental directing of the gaze is as powerful in its way as any host of tricks and digital techniques. The visions increase as the rehearsals wear on, offering tantalizing glimpses of some prior romantic calamity that took place in the house, which the new players seem on the verge of repeating. What actually happened is just about explained by the film’s finale: the performance, with guests turned out in cocktail attire and hors d’oeuvres freely passed—a neat inversion of the theater of starving artists from the film’s open—is a terrible failure, most guests seeming stunned by the play’s verisimilitude to prior events.
Love on the Ground’s progression is some stumbling version of art imitating life becoming life imitating art as the play (built on life) bleeds back into the relationships of the new performers. It’s certainly messy, but when great—really great—filmmakers drop bad films, would that they all looked a bit like Love on the Ground. From what little I’ve been able read about in the scattered Rivette literature available, it isn’t one of the better regarded of his oeuvre, with some arguing that it cribs too liberally from the Celine and Julie Go Boating playbook, others questioning what it all amounts to (Keith Uhlich waxes a little silly over at Slant: “Possessing all the interior profundity of a wiffle ball”). Can’t wholeheartedly disagree with either point, except with a fairly mild “So what?” I wouldn’t mind if Love were an hour longer (there’s a rumored three-hour cut circulating)—its final portions feel somewhat inadequately prepared for, but when too few films bother to ask any questions (or answer them) at all, I’ll gladly luxuriate in a bit of mercurial riddle making. If Rivette doesn’t want to provide us with the solution, much less all of the clues here, how does that make Love on the Ground that much different than any of his other films?
Notice that I started this thing out by questioning how closely The Gang of Four hews to familiar Rivette territory, then went and mounted a light defense of Love on the Ground on that same basis. A bit hypocritical, if not for the fact that Love on the Ground exists closer to the exhilarating danger and freedom of his seventies works, while The Gang of Four, certainly more assured, closed out the Eighties with a vastly different, appropriately grim vibe. The title hearkens back to the original core Nouvelle Vaguers, almost ruefully in the wake of the film itself. Idealism’s lost here or certainly soured, and the ability of the film’s four (Laurence Cote, Fejria Deliba, Bernadette Giraud, and Ines de Medeiros)—all played by newcomers, no less—to effect change is called into question. With Bulle Ogier as their teacher we at least have a Rivette regular schooling these young actresses in the nature of performance in his cinema, with all the attendant pleasures and frustrations. With the addition of a mysterious cop/criminal (Benoit Regent) notable for an ever-shifting agenda, searching for a political refugee, and the film’s dedication to “the Prisoners,” it seems I’ve underestimated the man’s politics. Perhaps Rivette’s letting this all stand in for the inability of that moment where he and his compatriots burst through in France and French Cinema to hobble the system, perhaps not (The Gang of Four = Rivette, Rohmer, Truffaut, Godard; Bulle Ogier = Henri Langlois?).
More from Rosenbaum: “In short, it's conspiracy time once again in Jacques Rivette's highly charged and scary world, where a fanatical devotion to theater and paranoia are often viewed as the only viable alternatives in a tightly closeted universe.” His first few shots easily establish familiarity: Anna (Deliba) alone in a generic cafe, leaving, re-entering a stark red room, and near instantly starting a heated exchange with another woman who joins her in the frame. It’s not clear that they’re performing until Ogier cuts them off a few minutes later, and the camera swivels to reveal the audience of female students. The way he plays his drama on/off-stage may not be better in any other work—his camera wanders loosely at times from the actress performing, to other actresses in the audience gossiping about the world outside the bounds of their little class. Trains play a connective role here—moving his heroines from the suburban retreat, to class and back. Paris Belongs to Us opened with a beautiful take of Paris rushing by, and The Gang of Four revisits that image, but reversed—leaving, rather than arriving in Paris, color, rather than black-and-white. Where earlier the city might be a place of excitement and intrigue, now it seems a dismaying battleground.
Both films feature standout bits that require mentioning—instances that neatly sketch out why, even in his less compelling films, Rivette still demands attention: his actresses. Midway through Love on the Ground, Geraldine Chaplin returns to Roquemaure’s home after a night of drinking, skips through the manicured grounds by moonlight, and consummates a brief, somewhat chaste affair with a statue of cupid by smashing it to bits on the ground. Chaplin practically dances her way through this, putting her feline qualities to good effect to heighten typically Rivette mythological resonances. Late in The Gang of Four, three of the four roommates break the ever-mounting tension by performing an impromptu trial, each taking turn as judge, defense, witness (the speaker is indicated by whomever wears a bowl on their head)—it’s amusing, but given that its dealing with the trial of a political fugitive at large in the world outside their theatrics, it’s a bit of chilling farce as well. Both sequences are in some respects throwaways—there’s nothing in either that really drives the narrative forward, but that’s not exactly where the pleasure of Rivette is derived.
It’s rumored that Rivette’s next movie, Don’t Touch the Axe, is going to take cues from themes and ideas he was tossing around all the way back in The Nun and will feature several actors who he’s worked with regularly since (Bulle Ogier, most notably). If true, Rivette will have delivered yet another filmic entry in his (unspoken) quest to build one of the most cohesive oeuvres of any major filmmakers ever (his character Frenhofer—Michel Piccoli in La Belle noiseuse—finds first mention in Gang of Four, incidentally). His uniquely depopulated worlds, for all their imposed limitations, never feel incomplete, never grow boring, and even if I can’t say that Love on the Ground and The Gang of Four represented the most stimulating week of Rivette viewing, they’re still pretty crucial supporting texts for why this filmmaker, above others, is so radically important. That in both he can take a mere handful of characters and spin off unique worlds is telling, and that he’s been able to do so without the fantastical trappings of his “Les filles de fue” series, or with the kind of radical formal breaks that marked his earlier films, may be even more of a signpost of where he would head into the Nineties and beyond.