Jacques Rivette: The Great Manipulator (Preview)
by Adrian Martin

Toward the end of the 1960s, the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze remarked that in order to initiate and dynamize a game—or, indeed, any logical system—a missing element, an absence, is required. Jacques Rivette (1928–2016) seems to have learned this lesson very early in his career as a filmmaker. Many of his plots begin with someone who is no longer in his or her place, who has gone missing. In Merry-Go-Round (1981), a man and woman are summoned to a Sofitel Hotel in Paris to meet a mutual acquaintance; however, this person who initiates the narrative will never be found, or even seen. Duelle (1976) begins in a similar fashion: mysterious characters converge at a series of interlinked locations (hotel, casino, dance hall, aquarium) in search of an absent “Max Christie” who will never turn up. Already in his first feature, Paris Belongs to Us (1961), a network of diverse characters scurries around the void left by the vanished Juan, and the legacy of his lost tape recording.

Rivette may well have imbibed this narrative idea from a modest but potent American film he long admired: The Seventh Victim (1943), produced by Val Lewton and directed by Mark Robson. In that movie, as any fan of it will never be able to forget, over half an hour passes before we glimpse the character, Jacqueline (Jean Brooks), whom everyone incessantly talks about and seeks—and when we do, at last and without warning, arrive at this moment, her face appears silently, for only an instant, in the interval between a door opening and that same door closing. In Rivette’s career, as The Story of Marie and Julien (realized in 2003 but originally planned for the mid-1970s) shows, the traces of this central, missing, and at some point likely dead character tend to inexorably, uncannily spread throughout the world of the fiction, creating ghostly atmospheres, and drawing the living into somnambulant, possibly fatal repetitions of a past, obscure trauma.

Above all, this device of a missing character provides the narrative motor that enables encounters, in the strongest sense, to occur. “When strangers meet” could be the motto of virtually every Rivette film. He was candid about it: “I like that idea: two people get together because a third, who has arranged to meet them, does not show up. They have no choice but to get to know each other.” So characters are thrown together in a common cause (such as the search for their absent companion), paths intersect, stories cross. Certain kinds of settings—like bars, train stations, country estates in the holiday season, gambling dens, theaters, or hotels—are especially propitious for this style of encounter. (A line in Duelle: “She’s a fantasist, you know. Hotel lobbies are full of them.”) Rivette, with his team of close collaborators including Suzanne Schiffman and his first wife Marilù Parolini, spent a lifetime cultivating an intimate knowledge of such real-life spaces for use in his fictions. He was sometimes happy to bring together actors who had not previously met (this was the case with Joe Dallesandro and Maria Schneider on Merry-Go-Round), and that he himself had not previously worked with; all this could be put in service of “the spectator feeling that he’s witnessing an encounter.”

Rivette’s favored way of shooting also worked to enhance this feeling. It is often said that Rivette’s signature style is synonymous with the hallowed ideal of mise en scène in cinema: staging actors and actions for the camera in such a way that the environment—a room, a park, a street, a building—counts just as much as the plot machinations or the internal motivations of the characters. As he states in Claire Denis’s lovely documentary portrait Rivette, The Night Watchman (1990), he liked a large, spacious frame, in which he could follow the mutual interactions of bodies from head to toe; he generally disliked fast cutting and close-up fragmentation of bodily parts. 

In the work of many filmmakers, this might all add up to a purely abstract, theoretical, programmatic idea. But not in Rivette. His sense of the rhythmic, choreographic, truly musical unfolding of a scene, his ability to capture the impulses, hesitations, attractions, and repulsions playing between two (or more) bodies, was without peer in contemporary cinema. You have to revisit the movies of Kenji Mizoguchi, Max Ophüls, or Jean Renoir to find such grace and vibrancy, such poetry and force, in a mise en scène.

Yet, at the same time, Rivette was very much a modern artist, and self-consciously so; he sought not to laze tranquilly and nostalgically in the re-creation of a classical tradition (as does, say, Terence Davies or Clint Eastwood), but to expand that tradition by resisting, questioning, and going beyond it.

It may seem an odd thing to say but, while for many Rivette is still a relatively obscure figure, the impassioned writing on his work by fans since the 1960s has tended to smother the richness and variety of the films in a litany of oft-repeated, frequently unchanging, critical clichés. Only recently has there been some signs of new life and insight in this cinephile discourse, as evident in the tributes paid to Rivette in publications including Belgium’s Photogénie and Australia’s Senses of Cinema.

Back in the early Seventies, when such appreciation for the director was still fresh and original, the noted, former Cahiers du cinéma critic and then burgeoning video artist Jean-André Fieschi (1942–2009) composed a superb entry on Rivette for Richard Roud’s two-volume Cinema: A Critical Dictionary (eventually published in 1980). This piece laid out the fundamental elements of Rivette’s art, as indicated in its opening section heading: “The group, the theater, the conspiracy”—to which he later adds the terms “madness” and “excess.” Fieschi comments: “In so far as spotting motifs or threads is concerned, everything is already there in Paris Belongs to Us. And Rivette would remain true to this spray of motifs, in various combinations, throughout his career.”

According to Fieschi’s account, the logic of these interrelated motifs goes something like this. In the well-defined setting of a city, suburb, or semirural retreat, “people pursue each other,” trying to solve some mystery. They tend to be obsessive, and easily slide into paranoia. Their encounters lead, at least for some of them, to the spontaneous formation of a group or “gang” (bande in French). Malign conspiracies, the traces of which slowly seep to the surface of everyday life, seem to be everywhere: they might be the work of terrorist groups, of the government, or of “secret sects” that wield mysterious influence over society—it is usually pretty hard to pinpoint the exact network involved, or its ultimate motivation…

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