Out 1: Noli me tangere

(Jacques Rivette, France, 1971)


Dedicated to the memory and the legacy of performer-photographer-writer Hermine Karagheuz, who died 30 April 2021.

It’s reassuring that there are some forms of pessimism which are, for me, also forms of optimism.

Juliet Berto, 1985 (1)

1. Unfree Man in Melbourne

Out 1 – it was always the Dream-Film. And not only for me, but for many others of approximately My Generation. Elusive, impossible to see, the truly unattainable text. A myth and a legend.


I was only a child when it screened at Le Havre in the early 1970s. When it screened at Rotterdam in the late 1980s, I was already grown-up, and already a film critic, but not yet travelling to Film Festivals around the world. Not Joni Mitchell’s Free Man in Paris, but my very own Unfree Man in Melbourne.


The short Spectre re-cut version was the only consolation, and even that was hard to find. An Australian friend, Edward Colless, made a short film in 1990 called Wet Madeline (homage to Hitchcock and Poe), and then re-edited down to an even shorter companion-piece, Wet Spectre. We were all officially obsessed with the Out 1 phenomenon.


So we chased it, for the better part of a quarter-century, knowing it was not really there to find. No Betamax, VHS or Laserdisc copies. We dreamed it into existence, mainly through the enthusiastic documentation of Jonathan Rosenbaum’s 1977 BFI booklet Rivette: Texts and Interviews – and later highbrow fandom led by such redoubtable cheerleaders as critic historian Bernard Eisenschitz, scholar Mary Wiles and novelist Hélène Frappat.


Finally, there were glimmers of hope. A screening in episodes on German TV, and thus pirated digital versions. Not great quality, but something watchable, at least. But what about English subtitles for us predominantly Anglo types? Big problem. “Fan subtitles” circulated clandestinely. At a screening at Queensland Cinematheque in Australia, there was even “live subtitling” via computer. That must have been a creative performance.


Finally came the multiple official DVD releases, the retrospective articles, the comments for and against, the “binge watching”, the video essays. And the subtitles. I have seen it several times, intensively and extensively, but I still have the sense that I am not “across” it, that I cannot hold it all in my head, cannot remember and cross-reference its thousand pieces. I even feel that Jacques Rivette, deliberately, never kept it all in his head, either. He didn’t control it; it grew, lurched this way and that, became the sacred monster that it is. The Dream-Film is the very image of freedom.


Oddly, when the first official DVD release became available in Europe, I immediately bought it, but didn’t keep it. I instantly gave it away as a gift to another filmmaker friend – who happens to be the webmaster of this very site you are reading. Out 1 is not a work we should possess; we should pass it on, just as each character passes the story onto another character, from episode to episode …


2. The Great Manipulator

Toward the end of the 1960s, in his book The Logic of Sense, the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze remarked that, to initiate and dynamise a game – or, indeed, any logical system – a missing element, an absence, is required. Jacques Rivette (1928-2016) seems to have learned this lesson very early in his career as a filmmaker. Many of his plots begin with someone who is no longer in his or her place, who has gone missing. In Merry-Go-Round (1981), a man and woman are summoned to a Sofitel hotel in Paris to meet a mutual acquaintance; however, this person who initiates the narrative will never be found, or even seen. Duelle (1976) begins in a similar fashion: mysterious characters converge at a series of interlinked locations (hotel, casino, dance hall, aquarium) in search of an absent Max Christie who will never turn up. Already in his first feature, Paris Belongs to Us (1961), a network of diverse characters scurried around the void left by the vanished Juan, and the legacy of his lost tape recording.


Rivette may well have imbibed this narrative idea from a modest but potent American film he long admired: The Seventh Victim (1943), produced by Val Lewton and directed by Mark Robson. In that movie, as any fan of it will never be able to forget, over half an hour passes before we glimpse the character, Jacqueline (Jean Brooks), whom everyone incessantly talks about and seeks – and when we do, at last and without warning, arrive at this moment, her face appears silently, for only an instant, in the interval between a door opening and that same door closing.


In Rivette’s career, as The Story of Marie and Julien (realised in 2003 but originally planned for the mid 1970s) shows, the traces of this central, missing, and at some point likely dead character tend to inexorably, uncannily spread throughout the world of the fiction, creating ghostly atmospheres, and drawing the living into somnambulant, possibly fatal repetitions of a past, obscure trauma …


Above all, this device of a missing character provides the narrative motor that enables encounters, in the strongest sense, to occur. “When strangers meet” could be the motto of virtually every Rivette film. He was candid about it: “I like that idea: two people get together because a third, who has arranged to meet them, does not show up. They have no choice but to get to know each other”. (2) So characters are thrown together in a common cause (such as the search for their absent companion), paths intersect, stories cross. Certain kinds of settings – like bars, train stations, country estates in the holiday season, gambling dens, theatres or hotels – are especially propitious for this style of encounter. (A line in Duelle: “She’s a fantasist, you know. Hotel lobbies are full of them”).


Rivette, with his team of close collaborators including Suzanne Schiffman and his first wife Marilù Parolini, spent a lifetime cultivating an intimate knowledge of such real-life spaces for use in his fictions. He was sometimes happy to bring together actors who had not previously met (this was the case with Joe Dallesandro and Maria Schneider on Merry-Go-Round), and that he himself had not previously worked with; all this could be put in service of “the spectator feeling that he’s witnessing an encounter”.


Rivette’s favoured way of shooting also worked to enhance this feeling. It is often said that Rivette’s signature style is synonymous with the hallowed ideal of mise en scène in cinema: staging actors and actions for the camera in such a way that the environment – a room, a park, a street, a building – counts just as much as the plot machinations or the internal motivations of the characters. As he states in Claire Denis’s lovely documentary portrait Rivette, the Watchman (1990), he liked a large, spacious frame, in which he could follow the mutual interactions of bodies from head to toe; he generally disliked fast cutting and close-up fragmentation of bodily parts.


In the work of many filmmakers, this might all add up to a purely abstract, theoretical, programmatic idea. But not in Rivette. His sense of the rhythmic, choreographic, truly musical unfolding of a scene, his ability to capture the impulses, hesitations, attractions and repulsions playing between two (or more) bodies, was without peer in contemporary cinema. You have to revisit the movies of Kenji Mizoguchi, Max Ophüls or Jean Renoir to find such grace and vibrancy, such poetry and force, in a mise en scène.


Yet, at the same time, Rivette was very much a modern artist, and self-consciously so; he sought not to laze tranquilly and nostalgically in the recreation of a classical tradition (as does, say, Terence Davies or Clint Eastwood), but to expand that tradition by resisting, questioning and going beyond it.


It may seem an odd thing to say but, while for many people Rivette is still a relatively obscure figure, the impassioned writing on his work by fans since the 1960s has tended to smother the richness and variety of the films in a litany of oft-repeated, frequently unchanging, critical clichés. Only since his death has there been some signs of new life and insight in this cinephile discourse, as evident in the tributes paid to Rivette in publications including Belgium’s Photogénie and Australia’s Senses of Cinema during 2016. (3)


Back in the early ‘70s, when such appreciation for the director was still fresh and original, the noted, former Cahiers du cinéma critic and then burgeoning video artist Jean-André Fieschi (1942-2009) composed a superb entry on Rivette for Richard Roud’s two-volume Cinema: A Critical Dictionary (eventually published in 1980). (4) This piece laid out the fundamental elements of Rivette’s art, as indicated in its opening section heading: “The group, the theatre, the conspiracy” – to which he later adds the terms “madness” and “excess”. Fieschi comments: “In so far as spotting motifs or threads is concerned, everything is already there in Paris Belongs to Us”. And Rivette would remain true to this spray of motifs, in various combinations, throughout his entire career.


According to Fieschi’s account, the logic of these interrelated motifs goes something like this. In the well-defined setting of a city, suburb or semi-rural retreat, “people pursue each other”, trying to solve some mystery. They tend to be obsessive, and easily slide into paranoia. Their encounters lead, at least for some of them, to the spontaneous formation of a group or “gang” (bande in French). Malign conspiracies, the traces of which slowly seep to the surface of everyday life, seem to be everywhere: they might be the work of terrorist groups, of the government, or of secret sects that wield mysterious influence over society – it is usually pretty hard to pinpoint the exact network involved, or its ultimate motivation.


The idea of a project – whether the staging of a play, or the exposing of a conspiracy, or both, more or less simultaneously – takes hold of the characters, unifying them in their errancy and confusion, their doubts, fears and desires. And yet this project, whatever it may be, is doomed to falter: the ties that bind the gang start fraying, with its members going their separate ways; the signs of conspiracy either suddenly vanish into thin air or suddenly overwhelm everybody and everything; a meaning to the events cannot be found, or it slips away at the very moment it seems it might materialise. The more that the characters atomise into solitude and solipsism, the closer they arrive to a state of catatonic madness.


Twenty years after writing The Logic of Sense  – a complex work that I believe directly influenced Out 1, given their proximity in time and their shared Lewis Carroll fixation – Gilles Deleuze returned to thinking about sliding, mutually imbricating, serial structures … this time, in the cinema of Rivette. He doesn’t talk about shots or mise en scène or montage or any of the things cinephiles usually love to talk about; he pretty much sticks to describing the strange mechanisms of the plot in what was, at that moment, the filmmaker’s latest, Gang of Four (1989). But the philosopher’s way of understanding this plot is unique.


For him, Gang of Four is comprised of three circles that communicate, influencing each other in unpredictable ways. The first circle is the theatre class run by Bulle Ogier as Constance. The second is the interplay between four particular girls from that class, as they share a house. The third is the intrigue factor, introduced by a mysterious man (Benoît Régent) who encounters each girl in turn – in search of what, and for which exact law-abiding or criminal purpose, is hard to ever completely ascertain.


This is already a complicated, multi-level diagram of mutual interferences: theatre imitates life, life imitates a bad spy movie, and so on. But Deleuze also, for good measure, throws in a fourth circle, “a great external Circle governing the other circles, dividing up their light and their shadow” – and that is comprised of the twin forces well known to us from Duelle, Noroît (1976) and The Story of Marie and Julien: the sun and the moon, the solar and the lunar. For Deleuze, the interpenetration of these circles, whose movement creates the film we watch, adds up to a poignant “vision of the world” on Rivette’s part which is “uniquely his own”.


We are all rehearsing parts of which we are as yet unaware (our roles). We slip into characters which we do not master (our attitudes and postures). We serve a conspiracy of which we are completely oblivious (our masks). (5)


What a definition of the human being! Not a serene, stable self, but only the uneasy, unstable assemblage of a role we play, postures we strike, and masks we wear. As Deleuze remarks, there is the constant sense that these Rivettian figures – whatever level of the narrative intrigue they are stationed at – are, at some fundamental level, unformed, searching for an identity: their difficult role in a theatrical performance is rhymed with their unknowable place in some scary New World Order.


But, as Fieschi already made clear over 40 years ago, there is more to Rivette’s cinema than these seductive narrative “motifs or threads”, which have by now been enumerated by literally hundreds of commentators worldwide. It is easy to get stuck on that level of this auteur’s (or any auteur’s) work, either celebrating or decrying the repetition of more-or-less the same plot situations and intrigues. More important is the fact that Rivette constantly experimented with form and style, moving between, and eventually fusing, classical and modern approaches.


And we must also pay attention to the passage of Rivette’s familiar obsessions through time, the way in which each new film ineluctably shaped itself as a gesture in relation to the different social and political periods of his home country of France as well as the wider, western world. As Jeanne Balibar, one of his favourite actors, wisely observed after his death, “He had this porosity in relation to the epochs through which he passed”. (6)


For many viewers, the real, hardcore encounter with Rivette’s cinema is only beginning now, with the long-awaited release of his most legendary production, Out 1: Noli me tangere. The legend comes partly from its invisibility, its lack of accessibility – it, too, functioned as the missing piece that set the cult around this director well and truly spinning. Although often dated as 1971, that year marked only the public screening of a 12 hour and 40 minute workprint of Out 1; it was not until 1990 that Rivette was able to satisfactorily complete a version (15 minutes longer) that then appeared at some film festivals, and on several European TV channels.


With the grand release of Out 1 on DVD and Blu-ray by Carlotta in France, Arrow in the UK and Kino Lorber in USA, it has been assimilated to TV binge-watching culture. This is a characteristic that one of its actors, Juliet Berto, had insisted on long ago, when she complained during the 1980s that, if televised serially in its episodic construction, it would be “able to be followed by everyone, no problem”; in fact, on this level, it was “even better than Dallas”. Out 1 was, according to Berto, “not written to be a single, 13 hour film and, moreover, it was not performed in that spirit, either”. (7)


What was the previous familiarity of many people – even those (like me) who proudly labelled themselves Rivette fans or even Rivettians – with his career before the first DVD/Blu-ray wave of riches? It was, in some sense, the softer core of the director’s output: the marvellous Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974), his most accessibly playful and reflexive work, and still probably his most widely loved; Gang of Four, the first film in which Rivette seemed to be recapping himself and his obsessions; the patient but quietly agonised, artist-and-model drama of La Belle Noiseuse (1991); Va savoir (2001), the liveliest of his Pirandellian life-intertwined-with-theatre pieces, energised by the debut appearance in his regular troupe of Jeanne Balibar; the intensely dramatic return to ghost-story territory in The Story of Marie and Julien (2003); and his joyous swansong before Alzheimer’s terminated his filmmaking capacity, Around a Small Mountain (aka 36 vues du Pic Saint-Loup, 2009).


Some of us, if we had studied film and visited cine-clubs in university settings, or faithfully attended film festivals and cinémathèques, might have also caught Paris Belongs to Us, The Nun (1966), North Bridge (1981), L’Amour par terre (Love on the Ground, 1984), his 2-part historical drama Jeanne la Pucelle (1994), Top Secret (1997), or Don’t Touch the Axe (2007). These films have struck many resistant viewers and reviewers down the years as variously difficult, demanding, minimalist, cryptic, and so on; but their entertainment value (and I don’t mean that in a derogatory way!) is high compared to the experimental rigours of Out 1 and the other, long unseen movies of the ‘70s that have returned to us in the box-set bonanza: namely, Duelle, Noroît and Merry-Go-Round.


Paris Belong to Us, at least, has received the deluxe Criterion treatment; I came to fully appreciate this film by providing the audio commentary for the British Film Institute’s subsequent 2018 edition. It is an odd work to re-watch today, since Rivette is very far from attaining mastery of his mise en scène technique, and is still only beginning to find his favourite, intersectional narrative form based on criss-crossed secrets, lies, delusions and conspiracies. Yet it achieves a grim, grey, apocalyptic mood that holds us, and – on a brighter side, as Cristina Álvarez López has pointed out – it trembles with an almost teenage delight in the realisation that one need not go anywhere foreign or exotic to find adventure; the adventure is right here, all around us, in our everyday routines, as the banal gives way to the mysterious and even, sometimes, the magical.


Some remaining Rivette titles – setting aside several shorts (such as the three earliest, silent films made between 1949 and 1952 that have been uncovered by his widow, Véronique Manniez-Rivette, since his death) and several alternate versions of his features – remain, alas, hard to see with decent English subtitles in good digital versions, such as his first experimental breakthrough, L’amour fou (1968), his generally underwhelming Wuthering Heights adaptation Hurlevent (1985), and his utterly disarming musical Haut bas fragile (Up Down Fragile, 1995), which I consider to be among his very finest works. The good news, as of mid 2021, is that there is an ongoing program of digital restoration of Rivette’s works, and they are once again beginning to recirculate on Blu-ray thanks to Manniez-Rivette and Potemkine Films.


Perhaps the oddest and least expected immediate after-effect of the dawning of Out 1 over global film culture is the sudden eclipsing of the only trace of it that, for many years, existed: the 4 hour re-edit titled Out 1: Spectre (1974). Few of the many remarks included in the box-sets mention it much at all – if so, they relegate it to mere bonus status as a curiosity – and fewer bother to dig out the substantial differences in plotting and structure between the two versions. While Spectre is indeed a film with its own integrity, its own form and its own daring, for now it’s certainly Out 1 in its full extension that commands our attention. So what’s it all about?


It has often been suggested that a central, driving principle of Rivette’s cinema is his fascination with anything that an actor (or non-actor or semi-actor) does, whether or not they stay strictly “in character”. This principle extends even to – from a strictly professional viewpoint – the hit-and-miss amateur singing and dancing in Up Down Fragile. Rivette indeed loved actors, their presence and their performance: that constitutes the very basis of his cinematic art, at least from L’amour fou onward. And what presences they were! Bulle Ogier, Jean-Pierre Kalfon, Juliet Berto, Sergio Castellitto, Jeanne Balibar, Michel Piccoli, Emmanuelle Béart … the list is long, and many of them returned for the Rivettian encounter numerous times over.


Rivette frequently attended theatre (of both classical and modern types) and, on several occasions, jumped at the opportunity to direct for the stage himself. It was a source of inspiration for him, but also a kind of raw material to be transformed once it was carried over to film; as Deleuze remarked, in Rivette’s work there is a “theatricality of cinema” which is quite distinct from a “theatricality of theatre”. The medium of theatre, for this filmmaker, is less a matter of finished, public spectacle than of semi-clandestine workshops, laboratories, private performances – everything that is in-process and up in the air.


Mainstream filmmakers from Lloyd Bacon and George Cukor to Blake Edwards and Bob Fosse have also been drawn to depicting theatre in a similarly fragmentary way – showing us only the intrigue-filled process of auditions and rehearsals before the ultimate set-pieces for the stage are revealed on opening night. This is part and parcel of an entire sub-genre of the backstage musical. But Out 1 takes this backstage principle to its extreme, spending much of its vast running time documenting the unfolding actions of not one but two theatre troupes as they work through exercises and improvisations somehow suggested by the classic texts (both of them by Aeschylus) taken as a point of departure.


These prolonged passages of experimental theatre-work inspire reflex distaste in some viewers. Certain contemporary responses to Out 1’s wide release are not shy in calling out its rehearsal scenes as “excruciating”, “painful”, “irritating” – swiftly reducing Rivette’s avant-gardism to the image of a bunch of privileged hippies screaming and rolling around on the floor. How quick we are, today, to mock and demonise the experiments of the 1960s, in all domains of life, politics and art!


But, as someone who has a high regard and respect for theatre – and, in particular, alternative, experimental theatre – I find Out 1 to be a uniquely rich and remarkable document of ideas and practices in this field. (8) It gathers the traces of many art movements happening throughout the world during the 1960s: psychodrama, performance art, “happenings”, the Living Theatre of Julian Beck and Judith Malina, the Artaud-inspired work of Carmelo Bene in Italy, Jerzy Grotowski’s Poor Theatre, the Basque collective Jarrai including musician Mikel Laboa, Richard Schechner’s The Performance Group, Peter Brook’s 1968 book The Empty Space … A truly cosmopolitan encounter of theatrical laboratories, the combustible energy of which was instantly drawn upon by filmmakers including Pier Paolo Pasolini and Bernardo Bertolucci. But it adds up to something of a Lost World today, a time and a sensibility to which Out 1 allows us some precious access.


However, for many observers of the Out 1 phenomenon yesterday and today, Rivette’s film is ultimately about something much larger than its theatre games. It’s allegorical: a testament to post-1968 disillusionment, to the retreat from political activism into mute solipsism – a document of growing, depressive melancholia spreading over an entire generation. It is in the criss-crossing of the twin theatre troupes with the trajectories of two loners – played by Berto and Jean-Pierre Léaud – that the shady, conspiratorial fiction of Out 1 slowly begins to knit itself together.


The complot, this time around, seems to be generated from clues contained in Honoré de Balzac’s cycle of novels devoted to “the 13” (a network of shadowy individuals in high places, wielding great power) – as well as Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark, words and phrases from which Léaud recites in a trance-like daze, as if its surface nonsense will ultimately reveal the hidden sense of the world. Or is it all just a paranoiac delusion, a vain and ultimately futile attempt to read an ordered meaning into the random disorder of everyday life?


The scholar Laura U. Marks sums up a prevalent interpretation of Out 1 in a 2016 piece where she refers to its “agonistic relationship between life and meaning” – thereby pointing to the gap between what really goes in the world of Rivette’s characters (life) and the grand designs they attempt to either impose on it or draw from it (meaning). (9) The end result of that agonistic relationship is paralysis, failure, silence, withdrawal. Many other critics, particularly those of a 1960s vintage, would more or less agree with that reading.


Moreover, Marks gives this account of political failure in Out 1 a decidedly 21st century nudge: for her, the “irritating patterns” (irritating to her, not me!) of the unfolding plot suggest an “algorithmic structure”, and the film thus becomes an essay in “information management”, prophetically in tune with our current, neo-liberal age, since it’s all about (in its form as well as its content) indefinitely “stalling until meaning arrives or the grant runs out”. Once upon a time in the 1960s, she suggests, the libertarian extolling of the body, affect and intensity promised a Utopia, a “break on through to the other side” (as Jim Morrison sang it); now our entire society is obsessed with the kind of minute, fancy “workshopping” that Rivette’s actors ecstatically, yet so fruitlessly, embody.


Marks’ account of Out 1 is almost perversely obtuse (at least to a true believer like me) – it begins with the statement that “Like most cinephiles, I abhor the theatre”, and things don’t improve much in the next sentence: “The incantatory treatment of presence, and the performers’ straining to be raw and in the moment, embarrass me”. Well! Nonetheless, her piece raises intriguing questions, especially of a political order. Rivette’s own political stance in relation to what he presents in his films has always been ambiguous, and frequently debated by his admirers and detractors alike.


On the one hand, Rivette seems to be gesturing toward a recognisably leftist critique of the demonic, soul-destroying power of the capitalist state – an attitude that is clearest in North Bridge and Top Secret. On the other hand, he seems, at times, to adopt a lofty position more akin to a fatalist metaphysics, presumptuously “above” the political fray, which he damns as mere ideological delusion and fanaticism. What can appear as the stark choice between total sense (society as conspiracy) and total nonsense (as Prince sang: let’s go crazy!) is, in any real-world political terms, no choice at all – as it leaves precious little room for individual or collective agency, or the possibility of social change.


It is often claimed that Rivette himself withdrew from radical politics at the dawn of the ‘70s, and that the evidence for this is plain in the films he made from Out 1 onwards. I find this reading facile. Certainly, he resisted (as he explicitly states in an archival interview included in the Carlotta set) the siren call of Maoism that overtook many of his former associates at Cahiers du cinéma in that period (save for his friend Michel Delahaye, excommunicated from the magazine’s editorial bande around the time he appeared in Out 1), creating a “new austerity” and purism in all matters of political praxis that lasted almost to the decade’s end. By the same token, Rivette certainly participated in explicitly political projects during the events of 1968 in France, including firmly speaking out in defence of Henri Langlois as head of the Cinémathèque française when he was sacked by André Malraux’s Ministry of Culture; and later signing his name to one of the documents emanating from the États généraux du cinéma movement seeking to radically reform the national film industry.


Yet there was a shift in the director’s political orientation – or, at least, a displacement to a new terrain, involving a different definition of political work and activity. Actor Bernadette Lafont, fresh from the filming of Noroît (and earlier, Out 1), once jokingly referred to Rivette himself as “a kind of Mao”, since his films represented a Cultural Revolution all of their own. (10) Her blague points to an important truth, and an under-researched aspect of the director’s career. For, like Robert Kramer contemporaneously in the USA, Rivette went very deeply into several currents of ‘70s lifestyle counter-culture, rather than adhering to the political line of any specific leftist party. This counter-culture mingled, pell-mell, avant-garde art, rock music and fashion, with experiments in sex/gender identity (“sexual metamorphosis” and a “strange androgyny” that “had never appeared in French cinema before Rivette”, according to Lafont), and arrangements of cohabitation beyond the traditional, monogamous couple (the Rivettian bande, once again!). Without this florid background, the formalist excesses of Duelle and Noroît are utterly unimaginable.


Despite the multiple breakdowns we observe in the final episode of Out 1, I cannot accept that, therefore, it is a bleak testament, a great howl of despair. There is a clear contradiction between this represented conclusion, and the evident energy, inventiveness and artistry that went into the project’s entire making. We must try to imagine the other 1970s – not the sad myth of post-68 decline, but the creative renewal, on many social and personal fronts simultaneously, of forms of life.


Alongside sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, we can add another, perhaps unlikely fellow traveller in the counter-cultural adventures of the 1970s: namely, the intellectual field of semiotics, particularly in its post-structuralist phase, when the supposed rules of orderly, systematic logic gave way to freer, more poetic options and modes. It’s actually not such a surprising inclusion: hedonism courses through, for instance, the writing of Roland Barthes (his The Pleasure of the Text was written not long after the making of Out 1), and Rivette himself made casually familiar use of this theorist when he spoke in a 1973 interview of “a weight to what is on screen, and which is there on screen as a statue might be, or a building, or a huge beast. And this weight is perhaps what Barthes would call the weight of the signifier”. (11) The proud bearers of this signifying weight were, in Rivette’s mind as in many minds of the time, artists such as the filmmakers Bene and Werner Schroeter.


Let’s turn to the playfulness, the game element that is so much part of Rivette’s oeuvre (especially in Céline and Julie, Up Down Fragile and Around a Small Mountain) – alongside all that madness, angst and conspiracy. I have already mentioned the likely influence of Gilles Deleuze’s The Logic of Sense on Out 1. In that text, Deleuze offers a view of the “relationship between life and meaning” that is far from (in Marks’ terms) “agonistic”. Deleuze’s particular variant on post-structuralism (which has many affinities with Rivette’s storytelling method) aims to counter the essentially melancholic, or even tragic, views of theorists from that era including the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and the deconstructive philosopher Jacques Derrida.


For Deleuze, the search for meaning is not futile, and we are not condemned to be haunted by the black holes, lacks and absences which Lacan and Derrida cast as fundamental to existence (as well as to any political action). Rather, meaning is a process, like a game or a chase: it is constantly loading up with weighty, material signifiers (such as the colours, rhythms, sensations of a movie), and just as constantly emptying itself out at the level of final or ultimate signifieds, meaning-labels. This philosophic discussion is reminiscent of Godard’s wonderful description of his Pierrot le fou in 1965: “Life is the subject, with Scope and colour as its attributes [...] Life, in other words, fills the screen as a tap fills a bath that is simultaneously emptying at the same rate”. (12)


And this is exactly, literally what we see happening in Out 1 over almost 13 hours: a vast production of heavy signifiers leading to a scramble for explanatory theories … which all get put back into the signifying blender. The words of Louis Althusser (admittedly, not a terribly joy-filled political philosopher) resonate here: “From the first moment to the last, the lonely hour of the ‘last instance’ never comes” – as it might appear to come to the various protagonists of Out 1. Rather, there is always a way out, and a chance to begin again, with a new experiment. This is where, in general, theatre and politics, performance and theory, the individual and the group, ultimately converge in Rivette’s cinema.


Certainly, there is an overarching sense of doom, of impending death, that haunts many Rivette films, from Paris Belongs to Us onward: the fear that a Big Other, a veritable Dr Mabuse looms, pulling the strings. But also – and this is a Deleuzian-style, amused flip we often find in Rivette’s films – we may just as easily discover that a collectively spooked, paranoid intuition turns out to be baseless, at which point the bad, depressing fantasy it causes, with all its attendant traumas, suddenly vanishes into thin air. Things can turn on a dime within such a dynamic, hyper-logical system. This dynamic, in all its playfulness, helps explain the exhilaration and elation we feel when we watch L’amour fou, Out 1, Céline and Julie or Duelle … all the way down the line to Up Down Fragile and Around a Small Mountain.


Rivette often spoke in paradoxes about his creative, collaborative process. These paradoxes had a very similar shape – tracing a path from an original assumed openness to, ultimately, something more closed and finite. He started the making of Out 1 in 1970 with the idea of exploiting a wildly “heteroclite and heterogeneous” casting – an assortment of actors with completely different styles and methods of performance – but ended up realising that “this heterogeneity is much less flagrant than I’d originally planned”. (13) Likewise, juggling various types of material from the troubled, stop-start shoot of Merry-Go-Round (Maria Schneider had abandoned the project mid-way, to be replaced, completely visibly, by Hermine Karagheuz), Rivette hoped to make it the avant-garde, meta-document of a film that “searches for itself three times, three times searches for a way out” – but, even here, the thread of a story ended up imposing itself and making everything more coherent and unified than he actually intended.


Many of Rivette’s actors, it would appear, absorbed this selfsame type of paradox. In a colourful career interview with Cinéma magazine in 1985, Juliet Berto (who died of cancer, tragically young, in 1990) looked back on her collaborations with the director and asserted that, while her initial intention was to defy and subvert this “old man” who had evidently cast her as a “Godardian actress” in Out 1, she eventually grasped that “the portrait was right-on, he had won”. (14) Bulle Ogier has often testified that what at first seemed like very open, free and democratic processes of improvisation and collaboration on the sets of the films were often underpinned by Rivette’s stealthy manipulation of the psychologies and proclivities of all involved (and thus not so far removed, on this level, from a filmmaker such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder).


Indeed, during the “Duelle Remembered” interview contained in the Arrow box set, Ogier goes so far as to call Rivette, with evident fondness, “the great manipulator” – quite clearly the model for Ogier’s own playing of a charismatic but stealthily controlling acting coach in Gang of Four. And never forget that, as a 29 year-old critic at Cahiers du cinéma (contributing many pieces that he would later refuse to have anthologised into a book since, after becoming a director himself, he no longer agreed with his own, former opinions) (15), Rivette celebrated the Mabuse-like, controlling “hand” of Fritz Lang, sometimes literally visible in the insert shots of his films! So: the Watchman is also a Manipulator.


Jacques Rivette’s greatness as an artist lies in the way that he completely identified with what he thought of as the permanently open, unfinished process of filmmaking, which could sometimes be terrifying – he often declared that, for a movie to be any good, it had to be constantly putting itself at risk. (16) In a tribute interview for Cahiers du cinéma, Jeanne Balibar reflected upon how – even long after the freewheeling experiences of the 1960s and ‘70s – Rivette remained true to this method of openness and instability.


He worked in the moment. He hadn’t used improvisation in a long time but, all the same, he retained his taste for Mallarmé (whose writings he knew by heart). Every day, there must be a throw of the dice … allied with this idea that chance produces meaning, that all we need to do is let it emerge. Rohmer, too, trusted in chance. They were people of the 1960s, influenced by Freud and Lacan. They shared this faith, and Jacques trusted himself on this score, as well as trusting the cinema-machine itself. Just set a dispositif going, and see what happens … (17)


And yet, at the same time, as the Great Manipulator, Rivette achieved a mastery, after all: he was able to create enough distance from the experimental process that he could sculpt it into a form and reflect upon it. Through this dual method, a perpetual risk factor, for him and for us, became a species of happiness, and a source of vital energy. Balibar says it best, couching her testament in wonderfully unexpected terms that immediately revitalise our appreciation of Rivette.


He was an “English” French filmmaker. Classical French culture and Anglo-Saxon music (Pink Floyd and Bob Dylan) are both in the form of Rivette’s films, more so than in Godard’s One Plus One [1968]. Rivette is the filmmaker who most fully translated rock into cinema, as a history that is at once classical and new. In fact, we all worked together like a rock band. To grasp Rivette, you have to read the memoirs of Dylan, or Keith Richards. Of course, he also possessed the culture of Lewis Carroll and Emily Brontë – but I think there was also a bit of Syd Barrett, psychedelia and jazz. Many have attempted this, but only he succeeded, even if he never announced it as his goal. Moreover, you can see it in his choice of actors, from Juliet Berto to Pierre Clémenti, by way of Jean-Pierre Kalfon and Bulle Ogier: those are the bodies of rockers! Ogier is our Marianne Faithfull. Godard is more pop, so is Anna Karina. But Rivette is really rock. (18)


MORE Rivette:
Lumière and Company


(1) Jean-Claude Moireau, “Entretien: Juliet Berto”, Cinéma, no. 314 (November 1985), p. 18 (translation mine). back


(2) Serge Daney & Jean Narboni, “Interview with Jacques Rivette”, English translation by Louise Shea on the website devoted to Rivette, Order of the Exile. The French original of this interview appeared in Cahiers du cinéma, no. 323/324 (May/June 1981). back


(3) See particularly Tom Paulus, “The Revenant: Revisiting Rivette”, Photogénie, 29 March 2016; and articles by Mary Wiles, Hamish Ford, Brad Stevens, Donatella Valente, and Daniel Fairfax in issue 79 (July 2016) of Senses of Cinema. My own further contribution to this ongoing reinterpretation and revelation is “The Broken Trilogy: Jacques Rivette’s Phantoms”, LOLA, issue 6 (December 2015). back


(4) Jean-André Fieschi (trans. Michael Graham), “Jacques Rivette”, in Richard Roud (ed.), Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, Volume Two (London: Secker & Warburg, 1980), pp. 871-877. back


(5) Gilles Deleuze, “Rivette’s Three Circles”, in Two Regimes of Madness: Texts and Interviews 1975-1995 (New York: Semiotext(e), 2007), p. 361. Deleuze’s The Logic of Sense, referred to throughout this essay, is published in English translation by Columbia University Press. back


(6) Jeanne Balibar interviewed by Joachim Lepastier, “Rivette Rock”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 720 (March 2016), p. 20 (translation mine). back


(7) “Entretien: Juliet Berto”, p. 20. back


(8) Cristina Álvarez López and I have devoted three video essays and a short text (under the general title Paratheatre: Plays Without Stages) to this aspect of the film, as part of a wider, collective project (running from August 2014 to May 2016) concerning Out 1 at the website MUBI Notebook. back


(9) Laura U. Marks, “Workshopping for Ideas: Jacques Rivette’s Out 1: Noli me tangere, The Cine-Files, issue 10 (2016). back


(10) John Hughes, Bernadette Lafont: An Interview in Central Park (New York: The Thousand Eyes, 1977), p. 43. This rare book contains a priceless evocation of Rivette at work on Out 1 and Noroît. back


(11) Bernard Eisenschitz, Jean-André Fieschi & Eduardo de Gregorio (trans. Tom Milne), “Interview with Jacques Rivette, April 1973”. back


(12) Tom Milne (ed. & trans.), Godard on Godard (London: Secker & Warburg, 1972), pp. 213-214. back


(13) “Interview with Jacques Rivette, April 1973”. back


(14) “Entretien: Juliet Berto”, p. 20; an English translation of this passage appears in the booklet accompanying the Carlotta/Kino Lorber Out 1 box set. back


(15) Rivette’s writings (including precious unpublished pieces) were posthumously gathered in Textes critiques (Paris: Post-Éditions, 2018), scrupulously edited and annotated by critic-filmmakers Miguel Armas & Luc Chessel. back


(16) Rivette’s most elaborated statement on this crucial idea, granted to Hélène Frappat in the late ‘90s, is the interview-dialogue “The Secret and the Law”, an essential key to his cinema and thought. A serviceable English translation by Srikanth Srinivasan (unwisely rendered as “Secrets and Laws”) can be consulted; a detailed summary and discussion of the original (with altered translations) is included in my forthcoming book Filmmakers Thinking (San Sebastián: EQZE, 2021). back


(17) “Rivette Rock”, p. 20. back


(18) Ibid. back

© Adrian Martin July 2016 / February 2017 / June 2021

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search