Ariel Schweitzer, section curator
"Jacques Rivette is dead, but we hope that two of his ideas live on: persistence both in experiencing adventure and in the unheard-of, and directness in recording reality, which is the only thing that makes of cinema something of value." (1) With these words, Stéphane Delorme, editor-in-chief of "Cahiers du Cinéma," a journal that Rivette was heavily involved in, ends his article in honor of the director in a special issue devoted to him following his death. Rivette died on 1 March 2016 at the age of 87. He was the most reticent and most secretive directors of the New Wave. Secrets were, in fact, one of the key themes of his work, which includes around about thirty films of different types-documentaries, features, shorts and long (sometimes very long) feature films-made over the course of six decades.
Born in Rouen in 1928, Rivette arrived in Paris in 1949 after making Aux quatre coins (1949), a silent short completed at school that already features his peculiar sense of observation and way of capturing reality. He started writing for "Cahiers du Cinéma" in 1953. He worked with the journal until 1969, and is its editor-in-chief from 1963 to 1965. By defending directors such as Rosselini in his Letter to Rosselini (1955), Rivette began to reflect on the subject of morality in cinema, the responsibility of the director and the relationship between aesthetics and ethics. This reflection is masterfully condensed in a short 1961 text titled "De l'Abjection" (On Abjection) (2). In it, the director launches a fierce attack on the use of a spectacular, aesthetically pleasing style in a film set in a concentration camp (Kapò, dir. Gilo Pontecorvo). This criticism, centered around the idea that traveling (camera movement) is a question of morality, becomes one of the foundations of "Cahiers du Cinéma's" policy, according to which the message of a film, and in particular its morality, is found not only in its visible content, but also in the form and manner in which it is directed.
In 1963, Rivette replaced Eric Rohmer, whose leadership he contested (for, among other things, the journal's focus exclusively on American cinema), as editor-in-chief of "Cahiers du Cinéma." During his three years as the journal's editor, Rivette does, in fact, open it up to new films, especially to those of the New Wave and Eastern European cinema (Polish, Czechoslovak and Hungarian), as well as to other disciplines like music and philosophy (he conducted a series of important interviews at the time with, among others, Pierre Boulez, Claude Lévi-Strauss and Roland Barthes).
In 1965, Rivette maked Le coup du berger (Fool's Mate), a brilliant short film that announced the birth of the New Wave. Not only because it features central figures in the movement (and at "Cahiers du Cinéma"), such as Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol, and even André Bazin, but also, and above all, thanks to its stylistic freedom, elegant direction and fondness for outdoor scenes and for Paris, which is the stage for a battle of the sexes analyzed in the film using the metaphor of chess. The success of the film, which has been shown around the world, inspires Truffaut and Godard to make their own first short films. Claude Chabrol is preparing for his first full-length feature film, Le Beau Serge (1958), which would launch the New Wave movement.
Paris Belongs to Us is, in turn, Rivette's first feature film. Shooting began in 1958, but it took longer than expected as a result of huge financial difficulties. With support from Truffaut and Chabrol, Rivette is able to finish his film-and his passionate but painful adventure- in 1961. The film turns out to be a commercial flop. It contains all the ingredients found in Rivette's future work, but in the form of an outline, a mere sketch: his love for the theater (a theater troupe is putting on a performance of Shakespeare's Pericles, Prince of Tyre), the enigmatic aspect of the story, the idea of conspiracy as a plot driver (an American, a victim of McCarthyism, is investigating the suicide of a Spanish composer). First and foremost, however, is his love for Paris, its cafes, parks and rooftops, which combine to create the film's lyrical beauty, clearly influenced by Balzac (obtaining realism through detailed descriptions of the great city, studying social circles and mutual relations between classes and power, the ideas of conspiracies and secret societies hiding in seemingly ordinary everyday life).
After the film's failure, Rivette escaped for some time into his work for "Cahiers du Cinéma" and in the theater. In 1963, he collaborated with Jean-Luc Godard on a stage adaptation of Denis Diderot's novel The Nun, starring Anna Karina. The performance shows the repression, sacrifice and humiliation suffered by a young woman whose parents force her into a monastery, which leads to her suicide. It received an enthusiastic response from audiences and anger from the Church. Rivette then decided to make a film adaptation of the play (also starring Anna Karina in the title role), but the film, called Suzanne Simonin, la religieuse de Diderot (The Nun), shooting for which was completed in 1965, is immediately banned by the censors. Thus begins a difficult confrontation between New Wave directors and the Minister of Culture, André Malraux, whom Godard ironically called "Mr. Culture Minister." The censors conditionally allow the film to be distributed (the indication that it was "unsuitable for viewers under 18 years of age" remained until 1975), while the film enjoyed great success (165,000 viewers in five weeks). It was the biggest commercial success of Rivette's entire career.
In 1966, while waiting for the film's premiere, Rivette maked a three-part documentary about Jean Renoir, one of the French directors Rivette admired most, as part of the television series Directors of Our Time. In Jean Renoir, le patron, Rivette presents Renoir's career development, from Nana to La Bête Humaine, and engages in dialogue with him on topics such as directing, working with actors, Renoir's American career and his place in French cinema. One of the most powerful moments from their conversation concerns the relationship between cinema and theater, and the idea of the rules of the game (shared by Rivette), that if theater-a fiction-allows us to better understand and delve deeper into life, then life itself is also a form of theater in which everyone has to play some sort of role, be it social, familial or something else altogether. Over the following decades, this idea would be one of the main themes explored by the young director.
The affair involving the censorship of The Nun, and in particular the wave of protests it provoked, seems to have been a prelude to the events of May 1968 that shocked the conservative and hermetic France of General de Gaulle. Politicized youth were filled with a spirit of confrontation and rebellion, which was reflected in artworks of the late 1960s, an uneasy period that was open to radical actions and experimentation.
For Rivette, this, the boldest era of his career was just beginning, marked by the extended length of some of his films, where time becomes a central issue, similarly to the constant questioning of the interdependence between "time in life" and time in art. He made the four-and-a-half-hour L'amour fou (1969), a masterpiece of modern cinema of the era. In the film, Rivette reflects in a more profound way on the relationship between life and theater, reality and the representation of reality. A director and his actress wife are working together on an adaptation of Racine's Andromaque: their everyday life-filled with both passion and destructive jealousy-is violently reflected in the drama experienced by the characters in the play.
His next film is the twelve-and-a-half-hour Out 1 (1971), one of the most experimental and original works in the history of French cinema. It is a loose adaptation of Balzac's novel The Thirteen, including fragments of Balzac's story about rehearsals conducted by two theater troupes preparing to present classic Greek tragedies. The characters from the tragedies, like the everyday life of the actors, are a reflection of the mysterious history of a secret fraternity in an enigmatic Paris resembling Pandora's box. But beyond the plot, the existence of a threat in the form of a "secret fraternity" is a reflection of the European reality of that time, when the utopia promised by the revolts of May 1968 was suffering a gradual defeat. The loss of illusions resulted in frustration, one of the obvious consequences of which was the advent of terrorist groups in France, Germany and Italy. Out 1 (divided into eight episodes) is unable to find a distributor, so Rivette edits a second version of the film called Out 1: Spectre, limiting its running time to four hours. The film finally premiered in 1974 (the longer version, restored by the Carlotta distribution company, appeared in cinemas in 2016).
At this time, the concept of secrets is at the center of Rivette's conceptual system, which the director describes in a conversation with Hélène Frappat as the most important challenge of artistic creativity: "I think at the heart of every creative work that deserves to be referred to as such (...) there is a secret, in the most basic sense: citing Paulhan, who claims that the characteristic quality of a mystery is its mysteriousness, it can be said that the secret part of a secret is its very existence, a secret that the director is unaware of, a secret that the director bears within himself subconsciously, it is a secret about very personal, very existential, very meaningful things, and the film becomes the vehicle for this: beyond that, what the director intended consciously, he talks about himself, and therefore-through himself-about humanity, and these are things that he did not have the slightest intention of talking about." (3)
Secrets and mystery are present in the film Celina and Julia Go Boating (1974). In the film, the director's focus is admittedly not the theater, though he is still concerned with improvisation, directly capturing that which is real and that which happens by chance, and the length of the film (over three hours) and its relationship with other forms of art (in this case cabaret). In this playful, modern version of Alice in Wonderland, a librarian-cum-magician and a cabaret dancer are drawn into an investigation into an odd house haunted by childhood memories of one of them. Here, once again, inspiration from Balzac comes to the fore: it is a path into the "urban forest" of Paris as a theater of adventure, intrigue and joyful wandering.
This flagship period of Rivette's work-his avant-garde period-ends in 1981 with a colder, darker film heralding the end of an era. Le Pont du Nord stars Bulle Ogier, who previously starred in Fassbinder's The Third Generation, one of the most important films about the phenomenon of terrorism in Germany. Here, Ogier returns, in a certain sense, to the character of a former terrorist who, after leaving prison, befriends a young woman wandering around on a moped and gets caught up in a nebulous criminal activity. The film is also dark from the point of view of the tragic fate of the two actors, who are were icons of the French undergroud. They would die young, paying with their lives for the adventure and freedom that defined the 1970s. They were Pascale Ogier, Bulle Ogier's daugther (who earned her cult status with her role in Eric Rohmer's Full Moon in Paris), and Pierre Clémenti (an experimental director and actor who appeard in films by Luis Buñuel, Bernard Bertolucci and Philippe Garrel, among others). This is also the end of an era due to the dramatic change in the production conditions in the French film industry: the excessive length of films, improvisation as a work method, and, generally speaking, the risk, i.e., the factors that, in the 1960s and 1970s, were responsible for the power of Jacques Rivette's work, were now to become less and less tolerated by a system that, over time, had become more cautious, more conservative and more commercial.
Without renouncing the spirit of freedom that characterizes all his work, Rivette began making (somewhat) shorter films not divided into so many fragments and are based on previously written scripts (working with screenwriters and dialogue writers like Pascal Bonitzer, Suzanne Schiffman, Christine Laurent and Emmanuelle Cuau, and, in some cases, also involving actors in the script-writing process). This is Rivette's mature period. Like a painter, the director discovers the essence of his work and constantly returns to it, adding subtleties in different forms and variations. The relationship between life and theater is the main theme of The Gang of Four (1988), a chronicle of the daily lives of four young actresses living communally in the city and dividing their time between the theater and affairs of the heart. The theater is also the subject of the film Va Savoir (Who Knows?) (2001), in which a theater troupe taking part in rehearsals for a play by Pirandello is strugging with financial difficulties. The director tries to find a solution by leaving in search of a mysterious Goldoni manuscript. Secrets, riddles and conspiracy are also combined with a female coming-of-age story in Secret Defense (1998), which launched the director's collaboration with Polish actor Jerzy Radziwiłowicz.
During this period, Rivette adapts, still in a very loose fashion, great classic works of French literature, primarily Balzac. The Beautiful Troublemaker (1991) makes references to The Unknown Masterpiece, focusing on the part that describes the relationship between the painter and his model. It was another opportunity for Rivette to deepen his thinking about the creative process and the tensions between art and life. The relationship between the painter and his model (Michel Piccoli and Emmanuelle Béart) provides an opportunity for reflection, a dimension that is present in all of Rivette's work, which is marked by the presence of women and collaboration with prominent actresses such as Bulle Ogier (eight films), Juliet Berto (three films), Jane Birkin (three films), Nathalie Richard (three films), Anna Karina (two films), Sandrine Bonaire (two films) and Jeanne Balibar (two films).
Balzac is also present in the director's last masterpiece, Ne touchez pas à la hache (2007) (The Duchess of Langeais). This is an adaptation of The Duchesse of Langeais, Rivette's last epic tale of destructive love. This is a historical period film in which revenge is mixed with the mystery of a secret society. The film features several outstanding actors: Jeanne Balibar, Guillaume Depardieu, Michel Piccolo and Bulle Ogier.
Rivette, already very sick, completes his last work: 36 vues du Pic Saint Loup (Around a Small Mountain), whose French premiere took place in 2009, after which he goes silent forever. He is put to rest in his beloved Paris, in the cemetery of Montmartre, near his New Wave companion, François Truffaut.
1.⇥Stéphane Delorme, "Jacques Rivette, l'obstiné", Les cahiers du cinéma, No. 720, March 2016, p. 5.
2.⇥Jacques Rivette, "De l'Abjection", Les cahiers du cinéma, No. 120, June 1961, pp. 54-55.