Jacques Rivette should be considered as one the greatest filmakers of all time and Getintothis’ Chris Leathley explains why.
If we were pushed to select 10 filmmakers as the greatest, the most imaginative and the most idiosyncratic in the history of cinema, Jacques Rivette would be on that list and yet, many of you will may not have heard of him or watched his movies.
This is perfectly understandable.
Rivette (as the Claire Denis documentary The Nightwatchman (1990) implies) is a filmmaker who has often inhabited the margins of cinema.
His work is coloured indelibly by many attitudes and influences: his gestation as a highly regarded film critic and Editor at Cahiers du Cinema; Rivette’s politics, particularly around the period of 1968; a fixation on paranoid conspiracy; methods of filming that incorporated radical improvisation and variations on temporal themes; a tendency to offer strong leading roles to women; and an affection for, and subversion of, classic texts.
Consequently, Rivette’s films have struggled to gain widespread release (try watching L’Amour Fou (1969) on a Saturday night…), not least because crass commercial concerns or accessible running times were of little importance to him.
Despite this, Rivette is increasingly seen as a crucial figure in the Nouvelle Vague, even more innovative than his famous counterparts Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer and Chabrol.
He worked with fractional budgets, de-professionalised casts and way beyond the norms of studio production. In addition, more so than any of the other Cahiers du Cinema crowd, Rivette was an intellectual with what appeared, at times, to be an almost ascetic lifestyle (probably more myth, than reality) but an earthy appreciation of cinema in all its forms.
In essence, Rivette, like most great filmmakers, was obsessed with ideas. Unlike most great filmmakers however, he followed these ideas to their logical extremes.
As the critic David Thomson surmises, Rivette’s films were ‘blatantly outside the conventional scheme’. In what ways was this so?
Firstly, as previously indicated, Rivette worked with miniscule financial means, something which forced creative methodologies to be adopted as a fiscal necessity rather than due to artistic impulse.
Regardless of the motivation, these essential economies spawned a method of filmmaking that was defiantly original.
On his debut, Paris Nous Appartient (1961), this amounted to loans from Cahiers du Cinema colleagues, utilising the ends of film from other productions and manufacturing the narrative sporadically over a two year shoot. This was an extreme example but Rivette would continue for much of his early career to work in a similarly chaotic fashion.
There were exceptions – La Religieuse (1966) was backed more fully (although it was still hugely controversial) and Rivette’s later work would be much more generously financed. By then though, his reputation had been more firmly established and he was more willing to compromise in his working habits.
Rivette’s parsimonious methods were not, however, solely driven by monetary constraints. He was a progressive critic and filmmaker. His interests were thematic and philosophical. Much of his attitude towards cinema was coloured by a desire to push beyond ordinary plot conventions and performance criteria.
Actors in Rivette films spoke of the enormous freedom that he gave them to improvise and develop the story (whatever that was in a Rivette film…).
This kind of intensely ‘democratic’ directing style was undoubtedly the reason that so many great actors chose to work with him – individuals like Bulle Ogier, Jean Pierre Leaud, Michel Piccoli, Sandrine Bonnaire, Juliet Berto and Michael Lonsdale.
Untrammelled liberty was a deeply attractive facet of Rivette’s approach and often made for exciting, unpredictable films. The sheer swagger of Rivette’s movies as cast members dove straight into new, ambiguous, sometimes elliptical, storytelling loops made for thrilling cinema.
Further to these considerations, the theme of time and duration was crucial to Rivette’s work.
He revelled in the opportunity to mimic, subvert and reverse our expectations of temporality in cinema. Sometimes, this fed into cinema of mind-boggling endurance such as Out 1: Noli Me Tangere (1971), which extended for nearly thirteen hours (although it was, at least initially, intended as a TV serial).
In creating mammoth films (there were others – L’Amour Fou and Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974) were both in excess of 3 hours, as was La Belle Noiseuse (1991))
Rivette intended the viewer to question the assumptions made by Hollywood and the studio system. He also very consciously chose longevity as a means by which performers could truly express themselves, with minimal restrictions on what they did and how they did it.
Time, like scripts and rigid plotlines, was another filmic limitation that Rivette intended to do away with. Take La Belle Noiseuse for example, and its affectionate, exquisite depiction of the artistic process, often in ‘real time’. Nobody worked with temporal themes quite as ingeniously or courageously as Rivette.
Finally, and certainly during the 60s and 70s, Rivette chose to explore the limits/limitlessness of our collective paranoia and how the familiar can all too quickly become dreadful and dire.
Rivette began his cinema career during the Cold War era, a time of assassination, political revolution and entrenched corruption. Increasingly, this manifested itself in a deepening sense of unease amongst society at large.
Rivette chose to interrogate this in a thrillingly organic way, with occult symbolism, false flag literary references and a perpetual obsession with society’s outsiders. This would be a consistent focus from his debut through to later works like Le Pont du Nord (1981) and Secret Defense (1998).
This is not to say that Rivette’s films were bleak.
He would regularly apply humour as a way of leavening the mordant existential dread of his narratives. Rivette was far from being a morose director.
Paranoia was indeed a central preoccupation of Rivette’s but so was the joy of being and the farce of incomprehension that can embody our everyday lives. In fact, later films like Va Savoir (2001) were clearly divergent from any sense that Rivette was a filmmaker who was pessimistic about society and people.
There is so much more that could be said about Jacques Rivette, such was the complexity and depth of his work and writing. However, more pertinently, here are the films that we believe all self-respecting film buffs need to see by the great man…
Paris Nous Appartient (1961)
Any rudimentary understanding of Jacques Rivette must inevitably start with his debut.
We have already discussed the extenuated production of the movie but outside of the mere facts of its tortuous gestation, this is still a singular example of movie-making genius.
A series of improvisations based around the staging of Shakespeare’s Pericles (Rivette often used theatrical rehearsals/performances as allegories for the principal issues within his films), Paris Nous Appartient becomes a weird paranoid fantasy (or is it?).
The protagonists are increasingly alienated not only from the disorientating urban environment and political malevolence surrounding them, but also each other – hence Rivette’s regular use of theatrical groups falling prey to tensions and suspicions in films like this, L’Amour Fou and Out 1.
Unlike later films where the eccentricities of Rivette’s characters would lead to comic moments, Paris Nous Appartient provides no such release. The icy grip of helpless doom and some ill-perceived, barely expressed, but nevertheless all-pervasive conspiracy are palpable throughout this cinematic wonder.
Moreover, this film epitomised the nuclear age more truthfully and with much more erudition than other popular culture at the time, or indeed since. Paris Nous Appartient is an essential time capsule of both Nouvelle Vague cinema and a critical time in history.
Out 1: Noli Me Tangere/Spectre (1971/1972)
Rivette’s most notorious film, which in fact, became two films, is the one that still captures the imagination of directors, critics and audiences alike.
Until the recent Arrow reissue of both Noli Me Tangere and Spectre, Out 1 had become the elusive Holy Grail of cinephiles everywhere.
In its original form, Out 1: Noli Me Tangere extended to nearly thirteen hours and told a tale of two acting troupes preparing performances of ‘Seven Against Thebes’ and ‘Prometheus’ respectively.
Their attempts to operate in free-form, anarchistic ways (embodied by the lengthy improvisations in rehearsal) fail and this becomes a potent metaphor for the disintegration of the radicalism of ’68.
Rivette juxtaposes this narrative with the rambling lives of two outsiders, played by Juliet Berto and Jean Pierre Leaud, as they become dimly aware that there may be a nexus of subversive power centred upon a shadowy group known only as The Thirteen.
If this appears opaque and challenging, that’s because it is but in an exciting way that proves absolutely immersive for the discerning film fan. It contains sublime moments of fun, of fear, of frustration and of confusion.
Yet, it was also resolutely non-commercial and impervious to all but the most implacable of cinema-goers. As a direct result and at the urging of his producers, Rivette re-cut and re-moulded the film into a more manageable four hour cinematic experience entitled Spectre (a sarcastic aside by Rivette regarding the film being a ‘shadow’ of its predecessor).
Not only was this an exquisite example of a director using deft editing to pivot a film with one coda of meaning towards a much darker point of view, it was an opportunity for Rivette to include some scenes that had not made the original film.
Spectre made for altogether more menacing viewing at times and is a fierce testament to Rivette’s restless vision and consummate skill.
One thing that Getintothis can promise about both films is that they will challenge, provoke and enforce deep reflection on the purpose of cinema and the means by which we can manufacture cinematic art.
Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974)
We make no apologies for writing at length about this film.
When David Thomson called it ‘the most innovative film since Citizen Kane’, he was not exaggerating. The plot is a flamboyant one – girl meets girl, adventures ensue that incorporate magic sweets, a house populated by characters from a Henry James story and the capacity to craft our own fictions and internal universe.
How Rivette chooses to express this is where the film becomes even more extraordinary than the central premise. It is a movie about imagination-but not just cinematic imagination. There are literary elements and theatrical nuances too, so we have a ‘bleed’ between the Arts and the walls dividing various mediums become porous in the movie.
That, in and of itself, stimulates excitement and anticipation in the audience.
Rivette delights in keeping the viewer guessing throughout. Narrative is something to be experimented with but not in a pompous, pretentious way. Instead, the frequent plot fractures and reconstructions are completed within an entirely playful mind-set. This is a refreshing cinematic mentality that is symptomatic of Rivette’s films more generally.
Furthermore, ‘Celine and Julie…’ is a film about friendship (perhaps even a sexual relationship?). More specifically, it is a film about female friendship.
Rivette, as a director, was much more willing to cast strong and compelling female protagonists than many of his peers.
This gives his films an unusual (for those times and perhaps even now) gender perspective. Indeed, this also allows Rivette to explore ‘inner-worlds’ with a more unrestrained joy.
Somehow, these wild escapades seem more engaging as told through the prism of gleeful femininity. With male protagonists, we fear that the open and collaborative relationship between Juliet Berto and Dominique Labourier (the two leads) would have seemed forced, fake and lacking in credibility.
The fact that the film posits not just one mystery for the viewer but assails us with multiple enigmatic narrative strands is marvellous.
Even more surprising is that the film does not collapse under the weight of its own complexity. The movie extends beyond three hours but it could never be accused of being dull. It is a film that bristles with creative ambition and with every unusual ‘plot’ twist, Rivette further hooks the viewer.
Additionally, Rivette injects elliptical elements into the movie, as if to say – ‘this is all just a game that can be played over and over, in countless different ways.’ He celebrates this fact with boundless enthusiasm and giddy affection for, in many respects, it is simply a cinephile’s expression of love for making films and for watching films.
In this movie and throughout his career, Rivette was a profoundly democratic filmmaker.
Both in terms of his processes (cast collaboration and improvisation, use of existing urban environments, encouraging thematic openness and ambiguity) and in his engagement with the audience – he actively demands viewer participation and imaginative thinking.
Rivette relishes audience curiosity and his films, particularly his most successful ones, feed off this. Indeed, Rivette seems utterly unaffected by notions of ownership or authorship.
Once completed, a Rivette film is a gift to the audience – do with it what you will. That is a genuinely endearing feature of Rivette’s approach to filmmaking, particularly in the age of the auteur, and one that guarantees lasting affection for his work.
For somebody who is described as a fierce ideologue during his time as a critic on Cahiers du Cinema, it is remarkable how his filmmaking eschews austere intellectualism at every turn.
It points to a profound dichotomy between Rivette the Critic and Rivette the Artist. It was a dichotomy that was not always clear or distinct, but it nonetheless revealed differing attitudes and perspectives. Perhaps it also revealed a humble self-awareness that served him well in his cinematic career.
Finally, that which makes Celine and Julie Go Boating so very bewitching is its subversion of mundane normality into something menacing, visceral and magical.
Magic (naïve rather than cunning) is a central theme but the atmosphere of the ‘unreal’ that Rivette generates is completed subtly with minimal effects or props. He uses ordinary settings, contemporary spectators and even stray cats in order to manufacture a free-form mise en scene of exceptional potency.
With the most minimal visual sleights of hand and the ingenious reorienting of our point of view, Rivette conjures something wondrous out of banality. This shocks us profoundly because…it must necessarily have been there all along. Therein lies the true magic of movies and nobody, to my mind, has captured it more authentically than Rivette.
Le Pont du Nord (1981)
This film marked the conclusion of Rivette’s most experimental period as a filmmaker.
Masterpieces were still to come (most notably La Belle Noiseuse) but not with the same thematic intensity perhaps, and certainly not with the same chaotic process of production.
The plot, which feels like a misnomer when describing his films during this era, revolves around a recently released ex-con (played by Rivette regular Bulle Ogier) and her discovery of a case full of curious clues, including a map of occult design. This then precipitates a futile attempt to de-code the claustrophobic, distorted world around her, accompanied by a disturbed young woman played by Ogier’s actual daughter, Pascale.
There are hints of dangerous criminality and webs of intricate control but nothing is ever made wholly clear. Rivette, as ever, respects his audience sufficiently to transfer the means of ascribing meaning to the viewer. This can make for a perplexing film experience but is also a richly invigorating one.
The film is photographed with considerable panache by William Lubtchansky which adds enormously to the mood of defeat, of promise wasted and societal atomisation that was already firmly rooted in the 1980s. If Le Pont du Nord is nothing else, it is a decisive statement on political innocence lost, something that was deeply prescient considering that which was to come.
Secret Defense (1998)
Most Rivette fans would probably be expecting La Belle Noiseuse to be the fifth of Getintothis’ choices (not to mention other omissions like Noroit, Duelle or Va Savoir).
It is, without any caveat, a sensational film and worthy of considerable acclaim.
However, we plumped for a personal favourite instead. Secret Defense was released in the late 90s, at which point Rivette had been directing features for almost forty years.
Rivette had continued to mature as filmmaker and was no longer curating anarchic odysseys, fluid in shape and loosely plotted (if at all). Secret Defense is a much tighter affair.
A thriller, with large dollops of conspiracy and intrigue (themes that we will all recognise as central to Rivette’s cinema), Secret Defense is much more glacially elegant than the Marxist radicalism of his earlier films.
Sandrine Bonnaire gives a star turn as a talented professional who begins to suspect that her father’s death may not have been a tragic accident after all. What follows is a labyrinthine investigation, cerebral but emotionally charged.
At just a shade under three hours, Rivette remains committed to gentle cinematic pacing but this only makes the unravelling of the central mystery all the more compelling. An under-appreciated work by a true master of the medium.