I started to write this piece back in November, but put it off for some reason. Since Rivette’s passing it seemed appropriate to finish it.
There has been a lot of discussion around Rivette’s films lately, a kind of renewed interest or mass discovery by a new generation. Lincoln Center recently hosted a parallel retrospective of Rivette’s work along with the films of David Lynch, and a few months afterwards the Criterion Collection announced that they would be releasing their first Jacques Rivette title Paris Belongs To Us (1961). If one wanted, one could even turn the clock back a few years to when International House screened Celine & Julie Go Boating (1974) to trace the gradual acceptance of Jacques Rivette into the mainstream of the American “movie-buff”. That isn’t to say that J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum haven’t been praising Rivette for decades. The point is that American distributors have not been ignorant to the fact that the demand for Rivette films on home media has called for very little supply. Luckily, Rivette’s films are readily available in Region 2 editions from BFI and Artificial Eye. If you are like myself, that is where you will go to get your fix. Which brings us as to how I was able to see Histoire de Marie et Julien (2003).
Histoire de Marie et Julien is as deceptive and unpredictable as its title is mundane. Rivette introduces his audience to a narrative concerning the blackmail of Madame X only to refocus the film onto what was seemingly a subplot at about thirty minutes into the film. From there the two plots interconnect in the most bizarre fashion until the narrative has become one of the supernatural, a romantic ghost story or an ethereal fairytale for adults. In terms of his work as a screenwriter the narrative complications and adjustments to emphasis hardly rival those of Out 1 (1971). That said, Histoire de Marie et Julien manages a fluidity to the sudden shifts of the script so as to render any relationship to genre almost undetectable. In a 1968 interview with Cahiers du Cinema Rivette himself stated “These are films that tend towards the ritual, towards the ceremonial, the oratorio, the theatrical, the magical, not in the mystical so much as the more devotional sense of the word as in the celebration of Mass.” Similar to Kenneth Anger in this way, Rivette sees his formalist exercises as a ritual of cinema; a stance he again would reiterate in his writings on Věra Chytilová’s Daisies (1966).
Histoire de Marie et Julien also continues Rivette’s tradition of creating a duality between his female protagonists, a stylistic trope present in almost all of his works. But what is more interesting to myself is his ability to elicit such genuine and emotionally frank performances from his leads Emmanuelle Béart (Marie) and Jerzy Radziwilowicz (Julien). The intensity of the relationship depicted by these performers recalls Rivette’s work in La Belle Noiseuse (1991), which, coincidentally, also starred Emmanuelle Béart. Rivette has stated a tremendous admiration for John Cassavetes’s work with actors, so it wouldn’t be surprising if Rivette didn’t learn something from Cassavetes’ films. Still, Rivette is not particularly thought of as an “actor’s director” the way one would consider Cassavetes or Robert Altman. This is an oversight, probably brought on by the fact that Rivette is such a gifted formalist. When as early as the development stage of Rivette’s Les Filles du Feu project he is writing about the use of actors in his work, how to push the boundaries of acceptable modes of performance in the cinema. When one begins to analyze the performances in Rivette’s films it becomes clear that the art of acting is always a primary concern, be it in the more natural vein of La Belle Noiseuse, the lyricality of performance in Histoire de Marie et Julien or the artifice of performance in Celine & Julie Go Boating.
Rivette’s films are complicated, intricate, and spiritual evocations of the cinema’s powers. Hopefully, with his passing, more of Rivette’s works will become readily available. A wider appreciation from American audiences is long over due. And who knows, if Rivette can find an audience in this country, why not Werner Schroeter next?