The following is cross-posted here and at Matt Strohl’s blog, Strohltopia.
There is wide chasm between the importance of Jacques Rivette’s work and the amount of attention it receives in the USA. My aim here is to promote Rivette awareness and provide information and guidance for those who are looking to get into his stuff but unsure of how to proceed.
1. Why Care About Rivette?
2. Chronological Survey
3. The Viewing Guide
Where to Start
Recommended Viewing Itineraries, organized by degree of hardcore-ness
Appendix: PAL speedup and what to do about it
This project began with the end of Twin Peaks: The Return. I craved more ambitious large scale works to fill the vacuum Lynch left behind. Rivette came to mind: I had never seen Out 1, one of the most ambitious and largest scale works in the history of cinema. I ended up deciding to tackle a complete Rivette survey. It’s a formidable body of work: he made 20 non-overlapping feature films with a combined length of 65 hours.
There has been an upswing of interest in Rivette since the Museum of the Moving Image in NYC hosted the first (nearly) comprehensive stateside retrospective of his work in 2006. Some of his films that had rarely been screened before in the US have since made the rounds on the repertory theater circuit. Before Rivette’s death in 2016, however, hardly any of his films were available for home viewing. Since then, Criterion released a blu-ray of his first film, Paris Belongs to Us, while Carlotta released Out 1, and Arrow released a glorious box set including three of his collaborations with Eduardo de Gregorio: Duelle, Noroît, and Merry-Go-Round. Also in 2016, the Cohen Media Group acquired North American distribution rights for a number of Rivette films (three early short films and everything from Love on the Ground through The Story of Marie and Julien except Va Savoir), which will hopefully receive proper HD releases in the near future. CMG’s 4k restoration of La Belle Noiseuse is in the midst of a theatrical run. For now, it is necessary to resort to internet shenanigans to see many of these films or to purchase PAL dvds (which require a PAL-compatible dvd player). Beware of PAL speedup! This applies both to PAL dvds and to files ripped from PAL dvds. See appendix for more details about what PAL speedup is and how to circumvent it. In the chronological survey below, I will note how to go about acquiring each title.
Why care about Rivette?
Rivette is most definitely not for everyone. His movies are long and difficult and do not provide many of the usual satisfactions of narrative film. Questions are answered with questions; mysteries go unsolved; plays are rehearsed but left unperformed. If you’re still with me, here are a few reasons you may want to check this stuff out:
- Fascinating recurring themes and tropes: impenetrable conspiracies, secret societies, groups rehearsing for plays, the boundary (or lack thereof) between art and life, female friendship, psychological dissolution, old mansions, creative block, collaboration, magic, Paris as a maze, the past intruding into the present (often in the mode of fantasy or surrealism), and many others.
- Femisim: Rivette is arguably the most thoroughgoing feminist of any well-known male filmmaker, without being didactic about it. Women dominate these movies. There are two or three times as many good roles for women as there are for men. Most Rivette movies pass the Bechdel test (do two named female characters talk about something other than a man?) and many of them fail the reverse Bechdel test (do two named male characters talk about something other than a woman?). There are no Rivette films that focus substantially more on male characters than female characters (some are fairly balanced, including Out 1 and The Story of Marie and Julien, but many are female-centric). Rivette treats actresses (and actors) as creative collaborators, developing their characters and dialogue through improvisation. Actresses are sometimes credited as cowriters. Female characters are typically formidable, even imposing; they are scientists, directors, private investigators, pirates, gangsters. Many of Rivette’s films focus on bonding and friendship between women, including Céline and Julie Go Boating, Le Pont du Nord, and Gang of Four, and many take up hard-hitting feminist themes, including La Belle Noiseuse, Joan the Maid, and The Nun.
- Interest in the French New Wave and film history generally: Rivette was one of the original core figures of the Cahiers du Cinéma New Wave group, along with Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol, and Rohmer. His writings from that time period are tremendous. His films synthesize a huge variety of influences, including (but certainly not limited to) his mentors Renoir and Becker as well as Feuillade, Cocteau, Lang, Hitchcock, Hawks, and Preminger.
- Influence: Rivette’s influence is vast. Important contemporary filmmakers strongly influenced by Rivette include Claire Denis, Jim Jarmusch, Olivier Assayas, David Lynch, and Leos Carax.
- Literary references: Rivette was a literature student and his films are an absolute feast for literature geeks. Balzac and Henry James are prominent, among many others.
- Cinematography: Most of Rivette’s films (beginning with Duelle) were shot by William Lubtchansky (husband of Nicole Lubtchansky, who edited most of Rivette’s films). I find the cinematography in Rivette intoxicating. He prefers very long takes, which facilitate a fluid and dynamic approach to transitioning from one composed image to another. He often effects such transitions through what I think of as a ‘Rivette spiral’, where the camera is simultaneously moved in an arc and rotated in the same direction (often zooming at the same time). He will begin a shot with, let’s say, a static image where one character is on the left side of the screen, and then he will execute a Rivette spiral and finally land on a second static image where another character is on the right side of the screen. The labyrinthine mansion interiors that he favors are the perfect venue for this technique. He will often transition from one room to another without cutting the camera.
Several of Rivette’s films exist in shorter versions. In all cases but one I watched the longest cut. The one exception is Va Savoir, which exists in a longer version with the title Va Savoir + (Rivette still considers this to be a compromised cut). As far as I can tell, it’s impossible to see Va Savoir + in the USA (if you have a way, let me know!). It appears to have played theatrically only in Europe (including last year in Barcelona) and it has not been released on DVD. Of the shorter cuts of his films, Rivette considered two of them to be distinct, self-standing films (the four-hour Out 1: Spectre, a drastically shortened reedit of Out 1, and two-hour Divertimento, a shorter version of La Belle Noiseuse consisting entirely of alternate takes and unused material). These two alternate cuts are technically part of his filmography, but I decided not to watch them yet. I’ve had my love of a film damaged before by watching an alternate cut. Especially in the case of Out 1, a staggering work that I’ve only just now seen for the first time, I want more time to process the original film (and watch it again) before coloring my understanding of it with an alternate version. The original subtitle of the full version of Out 1 translates as ‘Don’t touch me!’, likely indicating Rivette’s stance on the matter of cuts. Many credible people, however, including respected Rivette scholar Jonathan Rosenbaum, consider Spectre to be a great film in its own right. Rosenbaum claims that by replacing long-take editing with a more fractured approach, Spectre gains a Langian quality that sharply distinguishes it from the original film. I will watch Spectre eventually. Divertimento doesn’t seem to have any comparably ardent proponents and is widely considered to be far inferior to La Belle Noiseuse, but some people do claim that it is interesting in the way it shifts focus from the painter to the model in many scenes.
There is a lot of serious Rivette criticism out there. I’m not going to try to offer a substantial contribution to it here. What I’ll instead do is briefly describe each film and offer a few comments, with a view to helping readers figure out what they are interested in seeing and what they aren’t. I will avoid revealing anything that I personally wouldn’t want to know before watching these films. Afterwards, I’ll offer a series of recommendations for viewing itineraries.
This is everything a first film should be. It contains most of Rivette’s central obsessions and is the model for much of what would come after it. A young woman meets a group of friends with counter-cultural leanings and gets involved in their production of Shakespeare’s Pericles. At the same time, a mysterious figure approaches her with tidings of a conspiracy. Much of the film alternates between her rehearsing for the play and investigating the conspiracy as she wanders through a maze-like Paris. If you don’t like this, you won’t like Rivette in general.
He began making Paris Belongs to Us in 1957; it was the first feature film from a member of the Cahiers du Cinéma New Wave group to begin production (Chabrol’s Le Beau Serge followed shortly afterwards). He took a long time to finish the film, however, and even longer to find a distributor, and so it wasn’t released until 1961. By that time, The 400 Blows and Breathless had been released and the New Wave was in full force. While Paris Belongs to Us has the most “New Wave” feel of any of Rivette’s films, it is strikingly different from the early works of Truffaut and Godard. While their films were short and frenetic, full of energetic jump cuts, Paris Belongs to Us is a patient, 2.5 hour amble filmed in elegant long takes. A survey of the central works of the New Wave should definitely include this. It is radical in a very different way from its cohort, but radical nonetheless.
This is available on Criterion blu-ray and it can be streamed on Amazon or Filmstruck
The Nun [La Religieuse] (1966)
Rivette has two primary modes: ultra-elusive inventiveness and relatively straightforward literary adaptation. This is in the latter mode. I don’t mean to diminish it; it is a great movie. It adapts Diderot’s La Religieuse, which is a caustic indictment of the Catholic church and the practice of forcing young women into convents. Rivette’s rendition is lurid and intense and leans into the feminist angle. The nun is played by Anna Karina!
How to see it: This was on Filmstruck recently but it’s gone now. It should reappear on some streaming platform or other eventually. In the meantime, one would have to resort to internet shenanigans.
L’Amour fou (1969)
This is definitely not for everyone. It’s four hours long and filmed in a much more abrasive style than Rivette’s other work. It’s closer to early Cassavetes than anything else. The first part of the film focuses closely on rehearsals for Racine’s Andromaque. The principle actress (Bulle Ogier) drops out of her boyfriend’s production (he’s played by Jean-Pierre Kalfon). He replaces her with another actress, and a good deal of the movie deals with her ensuing psychological dissolution. This part of the movie, inspired by an episode from the life of playwright Luigi Pirandello (a major Rivette influence), resembles early Polanski in some respects (especially Repulsion). While this is an excellent film, it is one of Rivette’s least accessible works. There are *a lot* of play rehearsals, which are shot in 16mm (whereas the rest of the action is shot in 35mm), and many viewers will find their patience tested.
How to see it: internet shenanigans. Avoid the two hour cut. The proper version is four hours long.
Do not start here! I repeat: do not start here! This is Rivette’s nearly 13 hour magnum opus, co-directed with frequent collaborator Suzanne Schiffman. Its form and content reflect the influence of the silent serials of Louis Feuillade. Out 1 is full of dichotomies. There are two rival play groups preparing Aeschylus productions. One group is led by a male director (Michael Lonsdale) and is preparing Prometheus Bound, while the other is led by a female director (Michèle Moretti) and is preparing Seven Against Thebes. The film spends a great deal of time showing us the two groups conducting improvisational exercises and workshopping their productions. Rivette focuses closely on how each group approaches the problem of staging a play with very little action. The Prometheus group is broadly Dionysian in approach, while the Seven Against Thebes group is broadly Apollonian. Meanwhile, we are introduced to two street hustlers. A young man, played by Jean-Pierre Léaud (Antoine Doinel in Truffaut’s films), obnoxiously plays the harmonica while pretending to be mute and aggressively panhandling. A young woman, played by the inimitable Juliet Berto, picks men up in bars and absconds with their wallets. Very, very gradually, both of them are drawn into a conspiracy involving a mysterious figure named Pierre and a secret society known as the Thirteen. “The Thirteen” is a reference to Balzac, but don’t worry too much if you’re not familiar with the relevant writings, there’s a funny scene where Eric Rohmer plays a literature professor who explains the context. The other key player is the owner of a hippie bookstore where young people gather, played by Bulle Ogier. The stories of the two street hustlers, the bookstore owner, and the two theatrical groups eventually start to intersect.
Rivette made Out 1 in the aftermath of the events of May 1968 and it is very much about the malaise of the counter culture in the years that followed the failed revolt. It burrows so deeply into this malaise that many people would surely find it boring. I am not one of them. My partner Angela and I watched the whole thing in one day, starting around 10am and finishing around 2 or 3am (she loved it as well). We took breaks in between the film’s 8 segments. I highly recommend watching it all in one day if you are able to. I found that sitting in front of this thing for nearly 13 hours put me into a hypnotic state where I was particularly receptive to its aesthetic qualities. I can’t say too much without giving things away, but even just at the level of connecting with the abiding boredom and malaise of the characters I think the long sit is very helpful. If a one-day viewing were impossible for me, I would break this up over at most two consecutive days. I’ve heard of theaters in NYC breaking it up over four days. Avoid that shit! It would rob the movie of its impact. Out 1 should be watched in chunks of at least six hours, and one should walk away bleary-eyed and exhausted.
How to see it: Carlotta blu-ray or it is available to stream through Fandor (which has a channel on amazon with a free trial period). The shorter cut, Spectre, is included with the blu-ray set but is not available to stream.
Céline and Julie Go Boating [Céline et Julie vont en bateau] (1974)
If you only see one Rivette film, this should be it. This is his best-loved movie, which makes the fact that it’s never seen a proper dvd release in the US particularly galling. I have high confidence that we will see a restored version in the next few years. The film begins with a clear reference to Lewis Carroll. Dominique Labourier plays librarian Julie, who is reading a book about magic in the park when stage magician Céline (Juliet Berto) whirls past like the White Rabbit and drops her scarf. Julie follows her and hijinks ensue. The two women become fast friends and their identities begin to blend as they play with swapping lives; it resembles a sillier, gigglier version of Bergman’s Persona or Altman’s 3 Women. Eventually they start repeatedly visiting an old mansion where a Henry James story is playing on a loop and things get heavier. Věra Chytilová’s anarchic female buddy picture Daisies is a central point of reference, as well as Cocteau’s Orpheus. Like much of Rivette’s work, there are lots of visual dichotomies and rhyming shots (see Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt for the classic examples of rhyming shots that Truffaut wrote about, clearly inspiring Rivette here). This was Rivette’s first collaboration with Argentinian writer and director Eduardo de Gregorio, who brings a Borgesian element to the table.
How to see it: UK blu-ray (just recently released), PAL dvd or internet shenanigans.
Duelle (une quarantaine) (1976)
This was meant to be part of a tetralogy called Scènes de la Vie Parallèle (Scenes from a Parallel Life). It was to consist of four genre films connected through a female-centric, cosmic mythology: a noir, an adventure, a musical, and a supernatural romance. Duelle is the noir, Noroît is the adventure. He started making the supernatural romance with Albert Finney and Leslie Caron but had a nervous breakdown during production and the film ended up being cancelled. When he resumed work, he made Merry-Go-Round instead. He later made a version of the planned musical as Haut bas fragile in 1995 and the supernatural romance in 2003 as The Story of Marie and Julien. Eduardo de Gregorio co-wrote Duelle, Noroît, and Merry-Go-Round.
A common strand in Duelle, Noroît, and Haut bas fragile is a blurring of the line between action and dance. Rivette’s actors often move in precisely embellished ways that suggest dance choreography. He makes this suggestion increasingly explicit in these three films. In Duelle, choreographed movements lead to striking tableaus. In Noroît, such movements lead to unmistakable dances. In Haut bas fragile, they lead all the way to full-on musical numbers. Rivette greatly admired Hungarian filmmaker Miklós Jancsó, and I suspect he was influenced by the way Jancsó blurred the line between dance and the main action of the film in works such as The Confrontation and Red Psalm.
Duelle, Noroît, and Merry-Go-Round all show the musicians who are performing the score onscreen. In both Duelle and Noroît, musicians perform in the room where the action is taking place, but none of the characters notice them. In Duelle, for instance, there is a scene where two characters are sharing an ostensibly private moment while composer Jean Wiener sits unnoticed in the background playing the piano. The music in Noroît is integrated in a similar manner and it is incredible. I’ll let the details be a surprise. Merry-Go-Round takes a slightly different approach. The musicians are shown onscreen, but never at the same time as the other cast members. We see them perform in isolated scenes that are set apart from the main narrative. This doesn’t have quite as much impact as the more radical approach in Duellle and Noroît, but it works well enough.
Duelle is one of my favorite films of all time. I would advise against reading any other descriptions before watching it (including the one on Amazon Prime). They all contain spoilers. All I’ll say to describe it is that the audience is thrown into the middle of a complex situation in a disorienting manner and left to piece together what’s going on. Two powerful women (Juliet Berto and Bulle Ogier, both in peak form) are engaged in some sort of mysterious conflict and they enlist other young women in their service. There’s a secret society called The Salamanders, evoking Mark Robson’s Val Lewton-produced The Seventh Victim, which Rivette cited as the main point of reference for Duelle.
How to see it: Amazon streaming (it’s currently included in Prime) or Arrow blu-ray
Noroît (une vengeance) (1976)
Noroît is in competition with Out 1 for Rivette’s most experimental movie. I recommend it only for those who totally love Duelle; most people would hate it. It’s a 145 minute nearly all-female pirate revenge story with a modernist score and elaborate dance-like choreography occasionally lapsing into actual dance. Hamlet and Fritz Lang’s Moonfleet are major points of reference.
How to see it: Amazon streaming (currently it’s included in Prime) or Arrow blu-ray
This competes with Noroît in strangeness. The cast is remarkable: the male lead is consummate Warhol superstar Joe Dallesandro while the female lead is Maria Schneider (Last Tango in Paris, The Passenger). The two of them are summoned to a hotel in Paris by Schneider’s character’s sister, who is nowhere to be found. They follow a series of clues through a series of country estates. It’s a 157 minute mystery-wrapped-in-an-enigma sort of thing with multiplying plot twists and double-crosses that gradually pull the narrative into a Rivettean abyss. The influence of Hawks’ The Big Sleep is apparent, and Rivette cited Robert Montgomery’s noir Lady in the Lake as the primary point of reference. I get the sense reading around online that not very many people like this film. I’m not surprised; its Rivette factor is extreme. I personally loved every minute of it.
How to see it: Amazon streaming (currently it’s included in Prime) or Arrow blu-ray
Le Pont du Nord (1982)
All of Rivette’s films involve a tension between their rigorous overarching structure and the chaotic, improvisational character of individual scenes. For me, this tension reaches its peak in Le Pont du Nord. The film is meticulously organized around its board game concept, but from scene to scene it’s extremely loose and improvisational. Bulle Ogier (as Marie) stars opposite her real-life daughter Pascale Ogier (as Baptiste), who tragically died not long after. Marie has recently been released from prison and is averse to setting foot indoors. The entire film takes place outside (shot in 16mm on the cheap), save one scene that makes a joke out of the French title of William Wyler’s The Big Country (which literally translates to Wide Open Spaces). She meets Baptiste, a tough young street dweller, and the two of them get embroiled in an impenetrable conspiracy that revolves around a map that overlays Paris with a game board, complete with obstacles and hazards. Both female leads are tremendous. Feuillade’s influence runs strong here.
How to see it: Kino Lorber blu-ray or it is available to stream through Fandor (which has a channel on Amazon with a free trial period).
Love on the Ground [L’amour par terre] (1984)
I think I would have liked this better if I didn’t watch it in the context of Rivette’s complete filmography. It’s very good, but less successful than other work Rivette did in similar territory. This is the first of his many collaborations with cowriter Pascal Bonitzer. Jane Birkin and Geraldine Chaplin play a pair of actresses who are invited to star in a play being written by a famous playwright (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) that will be staged in his own mansion. There’s a magician living on the premises (André Dussollier), a Dr. Mabuse figure who uses his powers to manipulate others. The play is about a past love triangle where the magician and playwright had been rivals. The magician uses his powers to seduce the two actresses, who begin having visions. The past, present, and play all start to intermingle. In some ways, Love on the Ground is an antecedent to Lynch’s Inland Empire. I love the concept and the set-up, but the way it all adds up didn’t entirely work for me.
How to see it: PAL dvd or internet shenanigans. Should be re-released by Cohen Media Group eventually. Be careful which cut you watch: the proper version runs for 169 minutes. There’s a much shorter cut floating around that should be avoided.
Wuthering Heights [Hurlevent] (1985)
This is Rivette in his more restrained literary adaptation mode. He shifts Wuthering Heights to the 1930’s and removes its racial element. In this version, Heathcliff is a blonde with fairer skin than Edgar. The emphasis is on class. Like the classic William Wyler version with Laurence Oliver (which I think I still prefer over the five other Wuthering Heights adaptations I’ve seen), it ends halfway through the novel and does not continue the story into the second generation. It is particularly dark, and focuses intensely on Heathcliff’s cruelty and Catherine’s psychological dissolution. This is Rivette’s weakest movie, in my opinion, but still worth watching.
How to see it: available to stream through Amazon’s Mubi channel (which has a free trial period).
Gang of Four [La Bande des quatre] (1989)
Gang of Four is top-tier Rivette. Don’t skip this one! It sums up all of Rivette’s primary obsessions, including the trifecta of theatrical rehearsal, female bonding, and impenetrable conspiracy. It follows a group of women enrolled in an acting school run by an imperious Bulle Ogier. A male character (another Dr. Mabuse figure) introduces himself with different fake identities to several of the women and tries to seduce and otherwise manipulate them to gain access to the old house they live in together. Of course, there’s a conspiracy, a mysterious key, etc. The rehearsal scenes are the most entertaining in all of Rivette. This time the play is Pierre Marivaux’s La double inconstance. Because it is an all-female acting school, the male roles are played by women, which adds a fascinating dimension. Rivette’s interest in the overlap between art and life is front and center. It would be hard to overstate how strong Ogier’s performance is as the hypercritical acting teacher. The film can be read as a critique of the ways in which directors typically seek to present female characters as strong (by having them imitate caricatures of masculinity) and as an exploration of alternatives. It’s a masterpiece.
How to see it: This was released on DVD in the US and you can still get it for a reasonable price. It played on MUBI at one point. Internet shenanigans are also an option, and it should see a blu-ray release from CMG sooner or later.
There’s a remarkable moment in Claire Denis’ Jacques Rivette, le veilleur where Rivette goes off on a tangent about how hard it would be to make a movie about a painter in the act of painting. The mere thought of such a project creates anxious dilemmas for him: should he film the painter’s hand or face or both? How much can the audience be left to infer and how much must be directly shown? His attitude seems to be abject dread coupled with nascent resolution that he will in fact make such a film.
And make it he did. His very next film was La Belle Noiseuse, picking up from a comical reference to Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece in Gang of Four. La Belle Noiseuse is a must see. It is probably Rivette’s second most widely loved movie, after Céline and Julie Go Boating. It is actually relatively accessible; it lays off the more aggressive aspects of Rivette’s aesthetic and enacts a sui generis style that seems to have been innovated to fit this material. It is very long and very deliberately paced, however, and so anyone not drawn in by its close examination of the creative process will struggle to stay interested.
La Belle Noiseuse is ultimately more about the model than it is about the painter. Emmanuelle Béart’s performance is astonishing. Michel Piccoli and Jane Birkin are also great, but Béart steals the show. The setup is that an art dealer invites a young painter and his girlfriend (Béart) to the villa of a master painter who hasn’t finished anything in a decade (Michel Piccoli). The painter harbors the ambition to create one last masterpiece: a painting of a famous courtesan with the title “La Belle Noiseuse.” His wife (Jane Birkin) was originally to model for the painting but they had abandoned the project years earlier. The art dealer’s scheme is that he expects the painter will be so inspired by the beauty of Béart’s character that he will finally paint “La Belle Noiseuse.” This is indeed how it plays out, but Rivette is more interested in interrogating the relationship between painter and model than he is in celebrating the genius of the painter. For the first half of the film, the painter is in control. He twists and bends Béart’s body, treating her as raw material. I don’t want to say too much more, but the second half of the film sees her assert her own creative agency and reimagines the relationship between painter and model (or director and actress) as one of collaboration. The film also focuses on the strain that creative work puts on relationships, along similar lines as L’Amour fou. I would be remiss not to mention that Béart is nude for a considerable portion of the movie’s four hour running time. One of the most nuanced aspects of her performance is the evolution of the way she wears her nudity. I don’t see how anyone could find the nudity in this film to be remotely exploitative or distasteful, but it’s something to be aware of going in.
How to see it: PAL dvd or internet shenanigans. Currently playing in theaters and there will be a blu-ray release. The shorter cut, Divertimento, is included as an extra with the PAL dvd and will presumably be included as an extra with the blu-ray.
Joan the Maid 1: The Battles & Joan the Maid 2: The Prisons [Jeanne la Pucelle I: Les batailles & Jeanne la Pucelle II: Les prisons] (1994)
In some respects, Joan the Maid is magnificent. But, alas, for me it did have one significant flaw: the battle scenes. Rivette isn’t exactly Mel Gibson, and these scenes certainly didn’t feel like they were made in the 90’s. They are generally sluggish and underwhelming. In some cases, a battle scene is elided and a talking head explains the events to move the story forward (in the manner of a pseudo-documentary). I think the film would have been better if he elided more battle scenes in this manner and put his budget into two really good ones. Setting aside this flaw, however, the film is amazing.
Joan the Maid is divided into two halves, The Battles and The Prisons, each nearly 3 hours long. I assumed that the first half of the film would be about Joan’s military campaigns while the second half would be about her trial, torture, and execution. I wasn’t sure how keen I would be on a 3 hour version of the trial, given that Dreyer and Bresson had already mined the trial material quite thoroughly. It turns out my assumption was incorrect. Both subtitles are figurative: the first half (Battles) focuses on Joan’s battle to be believed and to be given command of an army, while the second half (Prisons) focuses on the metaphorical prison she found herself in after the king decided to suspend military action against the English without having driven them from France. The film only spends 45 minutes on the trial and execution, and even transposes some of the dialogue from the historical record of the trial to the beginning of the film, where she is trying to persuade church officials that she had in fact been spoken to by God.
Rivette’s primary interest is the question of how this young girl living in an utterly sexist society managed to gain command of a military force, inspire widespread allegiance, and achieve victory against overwhelming odds. Sandrine Bonnaire is one of the greatest film actresses ever, and this is a phenomenal role for her. Rivette mostly avoids close-ups and films her entire body from head to toe. He is clearly fascinated by the way she carries herself. As mentioned above, I wasn’t thrilled by the battle scenes, but there are many scenes of her riding a horse or simply moving around wearing armor that highlight the brilliant physicality of her acting.
How to see it: Avoid the Region 1 dvd! It’s a cut version. There’s a hard to find PAL dvd. Someone uploaded a version with reasonably decent quality to Youtube (though it does have PAL speedup). It can be found by searching for the French title, ‘Jeanne la Pucelle’. CMG will re-release this sooner or later.
Up, Down, Fragile [Haut bas fragile] (1995)
Rivette played with dance-like choreography his entire career. Here he finally made an honest to goodness musical (sort of—it takes quite a while for an actual musical number to break out). It plays like a deconstructed MGM musical with a touch of Lang and Hitchcock. Three women in Paris—one just emerged from a coma, one fleeing a life of crime, and one searching for her birth parents—intersect through interactions with a shadowy figure named Roland. It has considerable Rivette factor (female bonding plus impenetrable conspiracy), but it’s one of his more accessible movies.
How to see it: Internet shenanigans. This should see a CMG blu-ray release eventually.
Secret Défense (1998)
Between this and Joan the Maid, Rivette’s reverence for Sandrine Bonnaire is very clear. In both movies, he lets her scenes play out far longer than most directors would and mostly films her from head to toe. He is interested in every movement she makes.
This is solidly in Hitchcock territory, with elements of Fritz Lang. Bonnaire plays a scientist who investigates a dark family secret. It’s an antecedent to Claire Denis’ Bastards. I don’t want to say too much about the plot, but one of the greatest sequences Rivette ever filmed spends a large chunk of the film’s running time observing Bonnaire in minute detail as she travels to the station, takes an intensely suspenseful train ride, and then makes her way to a villa where we expect bad things to happen.
How to see it: This was released on region 1 dvd, and it is still available and very inexpensive. I bought it. It is a picture box dvd, however, and it cannot be zoomed without cropping. I am very envious of anyone who gets to see a theatrical presentation of this. There should be a CMG blu-ray eventually.
I would describe this as Altman meets Renoir. It’s about a traveling Italian theatre troupe performing a Pirandello play in Paris. The star and director are a married couple. While in Paris they get embroiled in a trio of interlocking love triangles (mirroring the play they are performing). Va Savoir is good, but clearly a minor work.
Rivette wanted this movie to be something like six hours long. That could have been great. As it stands, it’s a paltry 2.5 hours. There is a 220 minute cut in existence, Va Savoir+, but it is very hard to see and still not what Rivette wanted.
How to see it: There’s an inexpensive picture-box region 1 dvd. An SD version pulled from this dvd is available to stream on Amazon for $3.
The Story of Marie and Julien [Histoire de Marie et Julien] (2003)
Marie and Julien was originally going to be the love story entry in the Scenes from a Parallel Life tetralogy in the 70’s. The final execution 25 years later is quite different from Duelle and Noroît. It’s less formally experimental and there is no musical performance in the film, but it is exquisite in its own way. I can’t believe I didn’t hear more about this when it came out; it is one of the better films I’ve seen from the new millennium. Julien (Jerzy Radziwilowic) is a clock-repairman who lives in an old house full of clocks. There are clocks everywhere, often piled on other clocks. We learn that he is blackmailing Madame X, a businesswoman who deals in fake antique silks. He dreams of a stranger named Marie (Emmanuelle Béart) and then meets her on the street. She moves in shortly thereafter. Things are not as they seem, and there may be some strange connection between Marie and Madame X. I can’t say more about the story without giving too much away but it is a ravishingly gorgeous, haunting work and Rivette’s last masterpiece.
How to see it: there’s a very decent region 1 DVD that can still be rented from Netflix DVD!
The Duchess of Langeais [Ne touchez pas la hache] (2007)
This is Rivette in his more restrained literary adaptation mode, but it’s a very good movie. Adapted from Balzac, it’s the story of a young Napoleonic war hero who becomes obsessed with a married woman, with tragic results. It’s a patient film, building tension slowly until it boils over. The acting is fantastic all around. If you’re only going to watch a few Rivette films, this shouldn’t be one of them, but anyone fond of his work will enjoy it.
How to see it: An SD version can be rented or purchased from iTunes.
Around a Small Mountain [36 vues du Pic Saint-Loup] (2009)
Rivette’s Golden Coach. Before retiring due to Alzheimer’s, he returned to the theme of performance with this short valediction (only 84 minutes!). An Italian businessman/thinly-veiled Rivette stand-in becomes fascinated by a circus performer and sojourns as a circus groupie, which catalyzes a personal catharsis for the circus performer. It is interesting that so many great filmmakers ended their careers with films about performance. Examples that come to mind include Demme’s Justin Timberlake and the Tennessee Kids, Altman’s Prairie Home Companion and Resnais’ You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (which was his second to last film but still had a valedictory quality). I would recommend this be the last Rivette film you watch, since much of its appeal is as Rivette’s goodbye.
How to see it: it can be streamed in HD through the Fandor channel on Amazon (which has a free trial period).
Rivette made a number of short films and a three-part television documentary about Jean Renoir entitled Jean Renoir, The Boss: The Rule and the Exception. Of the short films, Le Coup de Berger is readily available on Youtube and as a feature on the Criteron DVD of Paris Belongs to Us (as well as on Filmstruck). The other short film that’s readily available is Paris s’en va, which is a 30 minute companion piece to Le Pont du Nord. His other short work played at the NYFF but isn’t readily available for home viewing. Cohen Media Group will likely include these shorts as special features on upcoming blu-ray releases. Parts of the Renoir documentary have played theatrically (e.g., at the MOMI and as part of the NYFF), but I’m not sure that the entire thing has ever been shown in the USA. Excerpts of each part are included as extras with the Criterion releases of Renoir’s The Golden Coach, French Cancan, and Elena and Her Men. These excerpts are on Filmstruck as supplements to these films. I watched them and they are fantastic. If you have a way to see the complete versions, please let me know! I know they are included in a French box set of Renoir movies, but I’m not sure if this set has English subtitles.
I would also add that it’s worth reading Rivette’s film criticism. There is a small trove of his writings here, along with several interviews and a large selection of criticism written about Rivette by others. He is a very assertive writer, and his remarks often shed light on his own films. His review of Fritz Lang’s Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, for instance, is illuminating of what he was up to in Noroît. There are many interviews with Rivette available, including Jonathan Rosenbaum’s out of print book Rivette: Texts and Interviews, which he has made available for free download on academia.edu.
There is a feature-length documentary about Rivette, directed by Claire Denis, titled Jacques Rivette: Le veilleur (Jacques Rivette: The Night Watchman). It’s a wonderful, film, featuring Rivette being interviewed by eminent critic Serge Daney. It also includes lots of shots of Rivette walking around Paris like he’s in a Rivette movie (filmed by perennial Denis collaborator Agnès Godard). Some hero put the whole thing on YouTube. Here’s part 1. I would recommend watching Rivette’s films at least through Le Pont du Nord before watching this.
The Viewing Guide
I think most people should start with Paris Belongs to Us. Other things being equal, I like to start with a filmmaker’s first film and work through their filmography chronologically to trace their development. For Rivette it makes especially good sense, since if you don’t like Paris Belongs to Us, you probably won’t like L’Amour fou or Out 1 either, so you can skip those and check out Céline and Julie Go Boating. If you don’t like that either, you can probably just skip all the way to La Belle Noiseuse.
If you don’t think you’re interested in Rivette but want a little taste test, I would recommend starting with Céline and Julie Go Boating and/or La Belle Noiseuse. These two are the most approachable of Rivette’s central works. Céline and Julie is iconic and its nearly 200 minute running time is a breeze. La Belle Noiseuse is four hours long and very deliberately paced, but its subject matter is of much broader interest than Rivette’s typical fare of impenetrable conspiracies and endless theatrical rehearsals. The other film I could see starting with is Duelle. It’s on Amazon prime at the moment and is only two hours long (only one Rivette movie is shorter!). It’s relatively approachable, despite being one of his strangest movies.
I think every Rivette movie is at least good. Most of them are excellent. If I had to pick out a lower tier, it would be: Love on the Ground, Wuthering Heights, Va Savoir, The Duchess of Langeais, and Around a Small Mountain.
Recommended viewing itineraries
Most hardcore: Everything, chronologically. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if you skipped Wuthering Heights.
More hardcore: Paris Belongs to Us, The Nun, Out 1, Céline and Julie Go Boating, Duelle, Noroît, Merry-Go-Round, Le Pont du Nord, Gang of Four, La Belle Noiseuse, Joan the Maid, Haut bas fragile, Secret Défense, The Story of Marie and Julien
Most people likely to be reading this: Paris Belongs to Us, Céline and Julie Go Boating, Duelle, Gang of Four, La Belle Noiseuse. Optional (continuing in this order, leaving out anything you aren’t interested in): Out 1, Noroît, Le Pont du Nord, Joan the Maid, Haut bas fragile, Secret Défense, The Story of Marie and Julien
Casual interest only: Céline and Julie Go Boating, La Belle Noiseuse
Appendix: PAL speedup and what to do about it
PAL is a terrible DVD format, but unfortunately many films (particularly films from Europe) have only been released on PAL. One of the worst things about PAL is PAL speedup. PAL plays at 25 frames per second rather than 24 frames per second, which speeds a film up by about 4%. A two hour film plays five minutes shorter. This raises the pitch of the audio, creating a “Chipmunk effect.” Some people find this effect more noticeable than others; it stands out the most in musical vocals. If you download a video file and are unsure if it was ripped from a PAL source, compare the actual running time of the file with the official running time listed on IMBD or Wikipedia. If the video file is 4% shorter, you’ve got a case of PAL speedup.
I don’t know of a direct solution for PAL DVDs, but if you can rip a video file from the DVD (or otherwise acquire such a file, through legal means, of course!), there is an easy fix: Use VLC media player. Click ‘Tools’, then ‘Preferences’. At the bottom of the screen, click ‘All’ under ‘Show settings’. Click ‘Input/Codecs’ and then change playback speed from 1.00 to .96. Finally, click ‘Audio’ on the left menu and deselect ‘Enable time stretching audio’. Voilà!