by Jeff Reichert

Available in France as double-disc set, Jacques Rivette’s two 1976 features, Duelle and Noroît, represent something of a perfect double-bill, though I’d only recommend it to those well initiated with his work. Neither film’s necessarily inaccessible, but they’re both remarkably strange and benefit from firm grounding in his development through the Sixties and early Seventies. Duelle and Noroît were made in that order, but respectively envisioned as the third and second installments of a planned quartet of films dubbed “Les filles de feu” (“The Girls of the Fire”) that has continued with his recent masterpiece The Story of Marie and Julien. Rivette, fresh from the literally huge successes (aesthetic and commercial) of Out 1, Out 1: Spectre, and Celine and Julie Go Boating, went somewhat unexpectedly wild, proving himself able to use his freeform improvised structures to do just about anything he wants with genre and narrative, no matter how oddball. Much in the same way that Robert Bresson taking on Camelot, Joan of Arc, a prison break, or a romantic comedy always resulted in something recognizable only as Bresson, by the mid-seventies Rivette had become inimitable, and has largely remained so to this day; even if echoes are everywhere (see Kings and Queen), no filmmaker offers anything quite comparable to stepping across the threshold into the world of his films.

The “Les filles de feu” tetralogy is described by the Harvard Film Archive program notes as consisting of works “exploring women and mythology,” which only really makes sense if we take “mythology” to be interchangeable with “storytelling”—unless the myths Rivette plumbs are so arcane and transmogrified as to be unrecognizable, what seems to be under examination here are the methods of constructing narrative (and, secondarily, the roles woman can play here) within certain proscribed boundaries. HFA’s assertion works better with “storytelling” as each film of the “Les filles de feu” series thus far (the uncompleted fourth is alleged to be a musical) directly tackles the fabric of storytelling: genre, and most especially genre’s malleability in the face of a rigorous personal style. The resulting trio represents an unusual group to say the least: Duelle’s a metaphysical action film with echoes of science fiction about two warring goddesses, Noroît’s a rip-roaring Errol Flynn swashbuckler, and The Story of Marie and Julien is, though some of have called it a ghost story, really more of a classy zombie flick. In a line, these descriptions may sound more like notes cribbed from a John Carpenter appreciation, but what’s so striking about the series thus far is that Rivette’s proven no less the genre chemist, and even may be less orthodox, more playful with his ingredients. In these films, it’s fascinating to watch a curious, shockingly dexterous filmmaker very deliberately toss out a few basic markers of genre as anchors for his audience, then carefully stretch and bend the proceedings to his particular vision, resulting in something wholly new.

Duelle was Rivette’s first film after Celine and Julie Go Boating, and if Celine even nearly meets its towering reputation (which I have no doubt that it does), it’s easy to understand why audiences may have been more than a little baffled by its follow-up’s meandering tale of two goddesses fighting over a magic diamond (referred to as a stone maudit by all) that will allow them to remain earthbound. Blonde Viva (Bulle Ogier) represents the sun, and brunette Leni (Juliet Berto) the moon, and the film charts their crisscrossing interactions with a pair of human siblings who have come into possession of the stone: mysterious Pierre (Jean Babilée) and his sister Lucie (Hermine Karaghuez). Initially unaware of the stakes at play, Lucie is drawn into assisting Leni in her search for a lost lover, but when Pierre’s girlfriend Sylvia turns up dead, the film gradually starts to unravel into murky mysticism, with frequent jumps between places, abrupt switches from color to B&W, and periods of nearly inscrutable dialogue that sketchily outline the rules of the game (as it were). It may be messy, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t seductive—Rivette’s first collaboration with long-time cinematographer William Lubtchansky sure looks like it knows what it’s doing, presenting a gleaming, buffed surface that’s tactile and enveloping. Even if we’re not quite sure by the end where these goddesses sprang from, how Pierre’s gotten his hands on the stone, or why everyone keeps showing up at the same nightclub to taxi dance to the improvisations of pianist Jean Wiener (who, incidentally, appears through the film in different locations to provide spot-on incidental accompaniment), does it matter when Duelle serves up delicacies like Viva’s seduction of Pierre, the climatic showdown between the three women with its play of light and darkness, or the opening intersection between Leni and Lucie, which has all the mystery, latent possibility and magic we’ve come to associate with a Jacques Rivette film?

Noroît, though plunging even further into anachronism and oddity than Duelle, is the more expansive and fully realized of the two. Yes kids, it’s Rivette’s pirate movie (he calls it a “western,” which fits about as well), but here the pirates are mostly female members of an experimental dance troupe led by the steely Giulia (Bernadette Lafont, fabulous in outrageous pink leather suits and ruffles) who occupy a castle on an island “off the coast of a larger island” where music is constantly live improvised to fit their actions and moods. Geraldine Chaplin is “Morag,” a brigand out for revenge on Giulia’s group for the death of her brother in a raid just completed as the film begins. Assisted by Erika (Kika Markham) who’s already infiltrated the group as a junior member, Morag signs on as a personal bodyguard to Giulia, and begins eliminating the brigands one by one, through various subterfuges and direct confrontations. As with all good revenge dramas (this one inspired by bloody Jacobean plays), the mass of killings begin to far outweigh the initial wrong done and the angel of vengeance experiences moments of doubts and sympathy for her marks—there’s betrayal as well. Rivette shorthands these narratively rich moments, suggesting them in a glance, a line, a change of Chaplin’s face, so that he can maintain focus on the ballet-like movement of his players through space, where stowing recently acquired treasure takes on the aspect of slow-motion acrobatics. The drama climaxes in a clifftop masquerade ball/murder spree/dance performance shot across what looks like infrared, B&W, and color, that combines violence and poetry into a mix that’s literally unlike anything I’ve seen. Noroît is a work startling in its darkness and violence, but not without its share wonder—like those moments of heightened lyricism where Erika and Morag break from French to near-chant verse at each other in perfect Queen’s English. But wonder in the face of Noroît arise most from Rivette’s audacity to imagine and attempt to mount such a drastically unique feat, and succeed.

So why “Les filles de feu”? It’s worth noting here that Rivette’s films are populated with, if not thoroughly dominated by their female characters. This commonplace in his work is probably not ascribable to any kind of activist feminist tendency waging a conscious rebellion against patriarchy, nor because he loves women or has particular interest in shooting the female form (minus La Belle noiseuse, of course). Rivette’s an intense filmmaker, but also careful and cloistered in his way, drawing a worldview framed through tomes of the past—maybe it’s just that he’s found himself drawn more to the classic divas: Antigone, Medea, or Lady Macbeth. (The children of his films always seem more the offspring of Shakespeare and Aeschylus than Marx and Coca-cola.) Perhaps it’s something as simple as just respecting women greatly, or maybe I’m underestimating the man’s politics. In any case, the gift Rivette has given to his core group of female actresses and all the women who have walked in and our of his films is near unprecedented from a filmmaker of any gender.

Duelle confounded upon release and Noroît never hit theaters in France; Rivette apparently shelved it for many years after completion. In retrospect, it’s easy to see these are two films full of an obviously rare and special magic. Though the temptation is there, it’s difficult to comfortably label them works of magical realism for, instead of Pynchon’s assertion about his own Against the Day that it covers “not the world, but with a minor adjustment or two it’s what the world might be,” the portions of Rivette’s universe contained in this pair is definitely not ours now, and most likely never was, even if they do bear some passing relationship to the world we know. It’s perhaps telling that “Les filles de feu” was eventually renamed “Scenes de la vie parallèle"—the action in these films is literally happening off to the side of our daily existence and regular cinematic experience. This parallel space is curious and extraordinary, and if the only way to force an intersection of the two planes is through the wormhole of Rivette’s brain, thankfully then his exhausted disappearance from the first round of shooting The Story of Marie and Julien back in the Seventies portended only a five-year absence from filmmaking (he returned in 1981 with Le Pont du Nord and Merry-Go-Round). Each of these genre deconstructions (or, in the end, isn’t he really rebuilding them, offering new ways to go?) is so carefully rendered that there’s just enough in the costumes, settings, or lighting to set the stage for something fantastical—here we’ll call it “true cinematic invention.”