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I think the reason that Rivette is the least popular -- yet by far the
most secret, profound and precious -- of the New Wave directors is that
he can't be pinned down to a belief. He isn't political, though
corporate conspiracies are a factor in many of his films; he isn't an
occultist, though his films are filled with Zodiacal symbols, the
tarot, magicians; he isn't interested in putting humans under the
microscope like Rohmer, though he is minutely attentive to what breaks
people apart and brings them together. No; rather, politics, the
occult, and humanity are like the vines tying together the raft through
which he floats in the void. They are methods to generate material,
curiosity and, as lit students would say, a narrative where none
necessarily exists. I hope I'm making this clear -- Rivette actually
LONGS FOR a worldwide political conspiracy, preferably controlled by a
dark magus operating from some deceptively plain apartment in Paris,
with the whole human comedy under his spell, because he knows that the
alternative, what most people call "reality," would be soul death. He
wants more mystery, more confusion, more action. Unlike Godard, he
isn't looking for utopias, certainly not those that can be brought
about by politics; he wants the world to be as it is, in all its
unfathomable, malevolent, messy beauty.
As Jean-Pierre Kalfon says in L'Amour Par Terre one of Rivette's most insidious and fascinating films, by the way -- "I don't want to make life better than it is; I want life." Rivette, like many filmmakers who have disavowed their faith, has really only sublimated his religious quest. His obsession with the creative process, its false starts, abrupt detours and unknown destinations, is unmistakably of a spiritual nature. As it turns out, he is obsessed with stories because the world as we know it exists in order to contain them. For Rivette, God is not an obscure savior ( what are we being saved from? ) but a generator of fictional material, the ultimate creative artist. If the other world is defined by its permanence, its frozen perfection, this one must contain everything that can possibly exist, and the human artist, such as Rivette, then becomes like a sort of middleman between heaven and earth -- he gives form to the transitory, thus translating it for eternity.
Rivette's "strangeness" can be boiled down to his attempt to mirror God's mind by disavowing any ultimate truth. God requires stories in order not to be bored; stories require a world ruled by space and time where they can play out in a bounded setting, with a beginning and end; the world requires life in order to act out these stories. Stories, in short, require that we die. The two words that best describe Rivette's movies, "dark" and "childlike," come from the fact that, to accept that we are in a virtual, fictional realm, you must become as naive as a child for whom death is not real, yet who is subconsciously haunted by what it might mean. We die, but only because we're in a play. We die as children, but the curtain eventually rises ( he finally gives us a peek at what's behind it in his presumably final film, Marie et Julien. ) All this and more is part of why Rivette is so successful at blending the occult and the everyday there is nothing more occult than the fact that we're here at all, pretending we know what we're doing.
I feel lost and out to sea watching this stuff but maybe that's how
you're meant to feel? It's like you are watching the rites of a cult.
Do you even want to understand? Not me, not really. I have this strong
feeling that Rivette is a mystic.
The outline of the plot is that you have three friends Emily, Charlotte, and a guy who I think was called Silvano, they do a play, in an apartment, the idea is that the audience turn up and watch in silence, whilst being directed around the apartment by a guide. Obviously this is not something you can do for a large audience. Anyway I quite like the idea, although the jostling would be unbearable. The play they are doing is basically a theft of an early play from a guy called Roquemaure, who just happens to be in the audience.
It's also improvised as Silvano is being naughty and is getting himself drunk in reality rather than just drinking ginger ale from the whisky bottle prop. So Roquemaure is appreciating this anyway and decides he's going to get these three Thespians to act in a new play of his, which he is going to get them to do in the same style, i.e. the audience will follow the players around his mansion. So this is like mutual theft, Silvano has stolen Rocquemaure's play, Rocquemaure steals Silvano's style. It's not the first act of theft we're going to see here, Rocquemaure gets one of the actresses as a supposed audition to do an ad lib, the results of which he then impregnates the play with. Rivette really rubs this in towards the end Rocquemaure keeps on writing down things that people say to him for incorporation in future plays. So one of the points of the film perhaps is that art and life are really the same thing, and that artists steal from each other. There are also allusions to Rocquemaure's script being modified by his butler/famulus Virgil behind the scenes. That is that artists are collagists, collaborators, plagiarists, in short not so auteurist as they would have us believe.
Anyway it becomes clear that the play Rocquemaure is putting on is really an almost unadulterated transcript of a real life ménage à trois involving himself, the magician Paul, and a woman called Beatrice, set in the very places it happened. Paul is there the whole film observing the rehearsals and sticking his oar in. Rocquemaure as a high jest perhaps, has a woman, Emily, play Paul's part and gives him the name Troppman. Obviously there are romantic liaisons going on throughout this.
This is a film that may well reward study, there's too much to take in, too many implications. What I did catch though were the numerous implications and insights about the creative process. One further one is that it becomes clear that one of the main motivating factors for Emily and Charlotte is the cash and they probably would have stopped working on the play without it, as they had lost belief. There are probably religious connotations, Rocquemaure is like some sort of Wagnerian God controlling all of these puppets.
The film is also very playful, at first we think that some of Paul's magic or some of the magic inherent in the magnificently particoloured villa may be malfeasant. However, like in a Robbe-Grillet movie, it's is all heavily disclaimed at some point, all we are watching is a fantasy.
I love this movie.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
L'amour par terre (Love on the Ground) begins - as so often with this
director - with people doing something that takes a while to be made
clear. A group of rather bourgeois men and women climb the stairs in an
old apartment building; they are ushered into a series of rooms by a
set of male twins - the first of many times in the film where the
"twinning" theme will be used. They watch a series of farcical scenes
played out between a man (Facundo Bo) and his two lovers (Geraldine
Chaplin and Jane Birkin) and it becomes clear that they (and we) are
watching a play performed in an actual apartment. A play that quickly
spills over into reality as the actor Silvano proceeds to become drunk
on the real whiskey that he is drinking instead of prop whiskey - and
the playwright Clémont (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) responsible for the piece,
uncredited by Silvano who is apparently director and adapter as well as
star, turns out to be in the audience.
It's just another piece of theater blending into life, fantasy intertwined so expertly with reality that it's impossible to say at most points in the film whether we're watching a play, a dream, reality, a vision of the future, or a ghost story, another marvel from the French man of mystery Jacques Rivette. The three actors far from being chastised by the playwright all end up quickly encamping at Clémont's ridiculously extravagant white classical mansion, apparently in Paris when we first see it, but with the sound of the sea evident in at least one later scene; it is a house on the borderlands between the conscious and unconscious, between the players and their roles. Soon Charlotte (Chaplin) and Emily (Birkin) are playing roles that we find are thinly veiled autobiographical elements in the playwright's life, and soon they seem to spin out of control emotionally and towards insanity, as do most of the other guests/actors/writers involved in the improbable scenario.
Filled with references to Dante (Virgil and Beatrice), mythology and early French history (Clovis) and the Zodiac which appears in mosaic form on the floor of the rotunda of Clémont's mansion, with sorcerers and premonitions of death, long-lost lovers who return at impossible moments, this is Rivette's most overtly magical and bizarre film since his pair of mystic genre films from 1976, "Duelle" and "Noroît", and like those films and much of the best of his work it is so long and complex that one viewing can hardly do it justice or suffice to touch more than a handful of its mysteries. Possibly the most significant of its literary/theatrical references is to Shakespeare, both in direct quotation (a minor character is translating Hamlet into Finnish and turns out - like many other characters) to speak flawless English and to know Shakespeare by heart), and in the references to Shakespearian acting conventions as both Emily and Charlotte at different times play the "pants" role.
It may also be the most self-referential film in an ouevre that is filled with films that spill over into each other, with clear nods to "Out 1", "Céline et Julie vont en bateau" and the two 1976 films, and many elements that point the way towards later theatrically-influenced and ghost-entranced works like "La Bande des quatres" and "Histoire de Marie et Julien". And like much of his best work, it is completely unpredictable and contains elements of comedy, tragedy, the surreal and farce mixing in such an elegant fashion that whether the film will end in madness, murder, love or friendship - or all of the above - remains impossible to guess until the credits roles.
A masterpiece, rich and complex and a film I will return to over and over....I'm only scratching the surface here.
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