Each day, the two women — a magician and a librarian — enter the house, and a lurid Victorian melodrama (based on a couple of Henry James stories) unfolds before their eyes. They are not mere spectators; they become part of the action, taking turns in the “role” of a nurse charged with the care of a widower’s young daughter. Yet no matter how hard they try, they seem powerless to prevent the child from meeting with an unfortunate fate. Then the pantomime is over and, likewise, the women’s memory of it — until, that is, they suck on some enchanted hard candies, and the day’s events come rushing back on a tide of Proustian reminiscence.

That is the basic premise of Jacques Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), yet it fails to convey an adequate sense of what makes Rivette’s second feature so inimitable.

I could add that, at its core, this is a movie about our primal need for performance and fantasy, and for those flickering screens to which we are drawn like moths to flames and oceans to moons; that few films more powerfully (and playfully) engage the imagination, or do more to collapse the barriers separating the real from the reel; that the entire career of Charlie Kaufman would be unfathomable without it. But this is a movie you must simply view for yourself. For even to see Celine and Julie is still not quite to believe it.

The movie’s special freedom — there was some kind of script, but the actors were encouraged to invent their own scenes and dialogue — derived from the spirit of the French New Wave, of which Rivette is the least-known major figure, and the only one (aside from Godard) who’s spent the past 40 years continuing to test the formal and temporal boundaries of moving pictures. These are films pregnant with mystery and magic, the whiff of conspiracy and the ever-present suggestion that the world really is but a stage. They have also not been easy films to see, and the truncated retrospective that begins Saturday night at UCLA goes only some of the way toward rectifying the problem. Two early Rivettes, L’Amour Fou (1968) and the notorious Out One (1971), which runs 13 hours in its complete version, are said no longer to exist in usable English-subtitled prints. The masterwork of the second half of Rivette’s career, La Belle Noiseuse (1991) — a study of painter and muse that is one of the greatest films ever made about the creative process — has been omitted for other, unexplained reasons.

Nevertheless, this series qualifies as a major event, chiefly for its inclusion of three flawed yet fascinating films from what Rivette originally envisioned as a tetralogy aptly called Scenes From the Parallel Life. The first, Duelle (1976), is a kind of film-noir fairy tale, thick with smoky, old-Hollywood grandeur and a plot concerning two enigmatic women — spirits from another world — who return to Earth to search for a mysterious, life-giving diamond. That pursuit continues in Nor’west (1976), where Paris and noir are traded for a small Atlantic island and Jacobean tragedy, with Geraldine Chaplin as a woman who holds a band of female pirates responsible for her brother’s death, culminating in a marvelous Mousetrap-like sequence where a play within the film blurs the distinction between performer and audience. It had been Rivette’s intention to film a third episode (in yet another genre idiom) soon afterward, and he even began to do so (with Leslie Caron and Albert Finney in the leads), but the project was abandoned after several days of shooting and was not resurrected for more than 25 years. When it finally was, The Story of Marie and Julien (2003) emerged as a supremely elegant melding of horror story and romance, in which a lonely clock maker (Jerzy Radziwilowicz) is reunited with a former lover (Emmanuelle Beart) who may not be quite as she appears. If anything, all the time and distance seemed to have turned the film into a carefully considered portrait of its maker’s own mortality and, indeed, Rivette (who is nearly 80) has not worked since. But at the heart of all Rivette’s best work beats a restless, youthful energy that neither time nor tide seems able to erode.

JACQUES RIVETTE | At UCLA Film and Television Archive | October 1-28 | www.cinema.ucla.edu | See Film & Video Events for full info.

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