Persistence of Time
On the mezzanine of the Hyatt Hotel on Potsdamer Platz at the center of the 2007 Berlin Film Festival, Jacques Rivette moves slowly, quietly into a public interview space. At 79, one of the founding members of the French New Wave remains a tantalizing figure, wiry and serious, with a combination of weariness and assurance that projects a tangible otherworldliness.
Rivette was in Berlin to premiere his severe, beautiful and thrilling new film, Don’t Touch the Axe, an adaptation of La Duchesse de Langeais that marks the director’s fourth feature adapted from the writing of French novelist Honoré de Balzac. This weekend, Rivette’s original Balzac-inspired film — the legendary, nearly 13-hour improvisational wonder Out 1 — will have its first-ever Los Angeles screening. The two-day affair promises to be one of the year’s most anticipated local movie events.
Born in Rouen in 1928, Rivette made several short films and apprenticed on projects by Jean Renoir and Jacques Becker. In 1950, he met Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol at the Cinematheque Française. Later, at the seminal French film journal Cahiers du Cinema, he authored brilliant critical evaluations of Howard Hawks, Nicholas Ray, Fritz Lang and Roberto Rossellini. “Rivette was more of a cinema nut than any of us,” Truffaut once wrote.
Having directed 22 features since his 1960 debut, Paris Belongs to Us, Rivette today remains a committed and zealous cinephile who only watches movies projected on the big screen. (He doesn’t even own a television.) “Rivette is a unique filmmaker: lonely, personal and cut off from any kind of trend or fashion,” says French director Bertrand Tavernier. “He lives the same ascetic life that he did when he was a young film buff — a life centered around the cinema, even if he goes to the theater and listens to a lot of music. The fact that he has been able to make his films, with a lot of committed producers who are more like disciples, is a celebration of the French system.”
Rivette’s signature theme is the dialectical tension of theater and film. From the four-hour L’amour Fou (1968), about the relationship of a director and his actress wife during rehearsals for Racine’s Andromaque, to the intricately staged Va Savoir (2001), Rivette has examined the creative tension, emotional volatility and comic consequences of “performance,” encouraging his actors to continuously “let go.” The results have been thrilling and adventurous, even if Rivette’s style and manner of working have excited other filmmakers and cinephiles while resisting popular acceptance. As a result, Rivette has been historically neglected and critically undervalued because of the material inaccessibility of his greatest films. Only four of his films are currently available from American DVD publishers (three other titles have been discontinued by their respective labels), while his three-hour 1974 masterpiece Celine and Julie Go Boating circulates only in out-of-print VHS copies.
Out 1, which screens locally thanks to the combined efforts of the UCLA Film and Television Archive and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, “is almost as scarce a Holy Grail as the longer version of Greed,” wrote Rivette specialist Jonathan Rosenbaum.
Originally conceived as an eight-part serial running, Out 1 synthesizes Rivette’s different ideas and impulses of the era in a free and improvisational format that merges four or five simultaneously occurring narratives while deliberately obfuscating distinctions of truth, fiction or documentary reportage. Even before directing his second film, The Nun (1965), Rivette was already interested in making a film that centered on the dovetailing and contrasting actions of a collective. “I decide what actors I want to work with, and then I go looking for the right material,” says Rivette.
Convening many of the finest actors of the French New Wave (including Jean-Pierre Léaud, Juliette Berto, Michael Lonsdale, Michele Moretti, Bernadette Lafont and Bulle Ogier), Rivette shot some 30 hours of footage over six weeks in April and May of 1970. With his critical collaborator Suzanne Schiffman, an important New Wave screenwriter (Day for Night), Rivette sketched a group of parallel stories centered on two Paris theater companies rehearsing Aeschylus plays: Thomas (Lonsdale) is directing a production of Prometheus Bound, while Lili (Moretti) leads an interpretation of Seven Against Thebes.
Elsewhere, Frederique (Berto) is a hustler who devises elaborate ploys to steal people’s money. Colin (Léaud) is a mysterious loner who assumes different personalities — a deaf mute, a journalist — and who, in a storyline inspired by Balzac’s History of the Thirteen, attempts to prove the existence of a secret society that controls Paris.
Rivette allowed the work to be shaped by the contrasting styles of the actors. The most electrifying section of the opening four hours is a 45-minute take of Lonsdale’s theater group, inspired by the actor’s own work with legendary British theater director Peter Brook on an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest during the May 1968 student uprisings in Paris. “The [Out 1] script was only a long piece of paper,” Lonsdale recalls. “It’d say, ‘Somebody meets somebody else, and somebody else.’ As I had been working with Brook, I suggested I’d be a theater director and we’d be working on the Greek plays. Rivette was very calm. He didn’t have much to say to us. He just said, ‘Improvise.’?”
Rivette once said that, for a film about conspiracy and obsession, the Out 1 shoot was very relaxed. But Lonsdale says the schedule was arduous, with frequent 10- and 12-hour days. Regarding the film’s enormous length, Rivette was inspired by an early eight-hour cut of Jean Rouch’s Petit à Petit (1971), and had been angered when he saw separate, shortened versions prepared for television and theaters.
Per Lonsdale, “Rivette compared it to Japanese Noh theater, plays that go on for 12 or 15 hours. He said, ‘Oh, yes, people go to sleep, they go out and have lunch and come back. It’s beautiful.’ Rivette was enraptured by the idea of a first assembly. His regular editor, Nicole Lubtchansky, supervised the cutting of the 12-hour Out 1, which was shown as an unprocessed work print in a notorious screening at the Maison de la Culture in Le Havre over two consecutive nights in September 1971.
Subsequently rejected by French television and unable to secure a theatrical distributor, Rivette and a second editor, Denise de Casabianca, dramatically reconceived the material in a four-hour cut called Out 1: Spectre that opened in Paris in 1974. It was the only version of the film available until a mostly complete version turned up at the Rotterdam Film Festival in February 1989. The film’s first English-subtitled projected screening occurred at London’s National Film Theatre in April 2006, and has since played New York (where a sold-out showing last fall occasioned a repeat performance this spring), Chicago, Vancouver and Berkeley.
Out 1?, episodes 1-4, screen Sat., July 28, 2 p.m.; episodes 5-8 screen Sun., July 29, 2 p.m. Both screenings take place at the UCLA Film and Television Archive’s Billy Wilder Theater at the Hammer Museum. www.cinema.ucla.edu.
Thanks to Sally Shafto for her translation assistance.
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