One thing I have loved most about Rivette's films is their ability to evoke the presence of human mystery: who are these beings and the worlds which they seem to ceaslessly create and move within?
Many of Rivette's associates, such as his scenarist Eduardo de Gregorio, also parlay a similar fascination with mystery into a homage that honors it by letting it largely remain unresolved, even at the end. One can never know completely who these people are, and the real nature of what has transpired between them... surface details float or ripple upon deeper pools of hidden motivations and tantalize, keeping one alert while waiting for another sign, although the watchful heart begins to quietly sound unheeded warnings.
The plot is spare: an opportunistic writer (Jean Sorel) seeks to gain access to a potential hidden cache of secret letters and other literary material, by wooing a young woman (Rivette regular Bulle Ogier) and her elderly aunt (Alida Valli) living in an isolated villa. Everyone is perfect here, with Ogier especially good, as her usual hyper-manneristic style is suitably lowkey in this outing, all the better to bring out the pathos necessary for this role. However, it was a real pleasure to see Valli again in one of her late appearances, many of which featured her as a muse of mystery (some will easily recollect her as the central enigmatic presence in Bertolucci's Spider's Strategem), and her brooding shines darkly here.
In Aspern, de Gregorio presents a much better involvement with Henry James material than his previous film Serail. That film seems to exist as an unfortunate footnote to Rivette's Celine and Julie Go Boating (both reference James' The Other House), which de Gregorio also contributed to; it seems that whatever Rivette kept off-stage and ambiguous in his film, was crudely demonstrated in Serail, by way of pretentiously clever and even vulgar strategies (which Henry James could never be blamed for).
Aspern is satisfying largely because he doesn't need to delineate the moral predicaments in such insensitive ways. The film represents a model of quiet restraint, a tactful attention to minimizing all elements to what can be tentatively revealed in any given moment, while suggesting the unknowable depths of the characters and their milieu, and the editing style displays the economy typical of French cinema of that period.
(Note: I saw this film in London when it originally opened, and today's available, English-subtitled print is sadly suffering the ravages of time, with pinkish discoloration that I became less aware of, since the film engrosses completely. The film is indeed good enough to warrant a restoration rescue, and many viewers will likely find it a much more rewarding experience than the 2018 film adaptation of the same James novella.)
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