Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Duelle (une quarantaine)

Jacques Rivette's Duelle (une quarantaine) is, like many of his films, a beguiling mystery, a film whose unsettling charm and emotional impact are much clearer than the hazy outlines of its plot. It is perhaps Rivette's most satisfying ode to femininity in its various forms, a celebration of the female in her many guises and roles. There's the flirty, charming, manipulative Viva (Bulle Ogier); the harsh, sexually ambiguous Leni (Juliet Berto), who sometimes dresses like a man and dances with women; the stolid proletarian working woman Jeanne (Nicole Garcia), who disguises her common origins with the more stylish name Elsa; the naïve but resourceful young Lucie (Hermine Karagheuz). This quartet of women, derived from cinematic "types" but endowed with their own strongly defined personalities, form the film's mysterious core, engaging in a battle of wits and magic that seems to be largely happening behind the scenes. Rivette's deployment of the film's plot gives the impression that unseen forces beyond human control are conspiring in secret, and what's seen on screen is only the tip of a very large iceberg indeed. The narrative revolves around Viva and Leni, immortal supernatural beings who are limited by arcane forces to only 40 days on Earth per year, and who are battling each other for control of a mystical diamond which they believe will allow them to remain in the land of the living indefinitely. The film's sole male character, Lucie's brother Pierrot (Jean Babilée), possesses the stone and is attempting to keep either woman from finding it.

Rivette expends very little energy on the details of this superhuman struggle, which is largely shrouded in mystery and unexplained even after the film's final frame. Instead, Rivette focuses his attention on the interactions of the women and the ways in which they pair off, compete, and speak with each other. The "duel" of the title refers most obviously to a literal, magical duel between Leni and Viva, which is scheduled to occur towards the end of the film but never actually does. In place of this unfulfilled promise, the film is structured as a series of smaller duels, confrontations between one woman and another, or between one of the women and Pierrot. In one scene after another, these women warily stalk and circle each other, taking turns following each other or engaging in tense stand-offs where it's not clear what's at stake, and whether violence may erupt at any moment. Duelle was part of a planned quartet of films, each of which would concern these supernatural characters, and each one was meant to be Rivette's response to a particular cinematic genre. Duelle is the film noir of the series, which is apparent in the way that Rivette commandeers the device of the detective following a suspect, shifting the context by making the stakes shadowy and the character motivations even more opaque for most of the film. When Lucie trails Viva in a perfect parody of a detective thriller, it's unclear just why she does so, what she expects to find, and who she'll tell about it when she does. The water only gets even murkier when she catches up to the other woman, initiating a tense conversation where the characters speak in poetic riddles and nothing is resolved; at the end of the scene, Viva simply melts into the shadows and disappears, after writing a note which also fades away, unread, as soon as she is gone.

Rivette films these scenes with a languid, constantly tracking camera that stalks warily around the women even as they circle one another. Rivette's camera is constantly hiding and revealing, creating pairs and then isolating the individual characters again, playing with the friction created by placing two powerful feminine personalities against each other. In fact, Rivette toys with virtually every possible permutation of the pairings allowed by these four characters. Very rarely are more than two of the women together in one place — the one exception being the central scene at a disco where the four women briefly converge — but they are continually coupling off, testing their wits against one another even as they each work towards varying, often obscure, ends. Similarly, Pierrot is given duo scenes with each of the women in turn, and the interplay between his shifting persona and the different women is revelatory of the way that male and female identities shape one another. With the sensual Viva, Pierrot is tough, masculine, sinewy, both in a lengthy seduction sequence and a scene of magical confrontation, bathed in blue light, where the diminutive Pierrot becomes domineering, intimidating. He's more brotherly and paternal with his sister Lucie, more standoffish with the chilly Leni, and more sensitive and gentlemanly with the needy, lovelorn Jeanne. It's fascinating to watch this chameleonic performance, as Babilée adapts to reflect the nature of whichever woman he's with; the male is defined by the female, and vice versa.

In that vein, the film is also about dominance and control, about the shifting balance of power between men and women, and among the women themselves. Interestingly, the film depicts the struggles between the women as being motivated, not by men — the seduction and manipulation of Pierrot is just a diversion in this contest, and Pierrot a self-admitted pawn in their cosmic chess game — but by secret aims known only to themselves. Rivette is such a fantastic director of actresses because he allows them to have their own hidden motivations, to maintain their mystique, and to act independently of sexual politics. Rivette's characters, even when they're in a love story, are never driven solely by the desire for sexual union, and here such motivations are so far beyond the film's concern that they barely figure at all. There's a certain sexual frisson to the scene where Viva slowly, almost whimsically seduces Pierrot, leading him on by feigning drunkenness and continually pulling her lips away just seconds before a kiss; when she finally does kiss him, it's an electrifying moment of pure lust. That kiss is palpable in a way movie kisses seldom are. But such scenes are rare here, and as likely to occur between two women: there's a similar sexual energy in a scene between Leni and Jeanne, when Leni leans in and tenderly kisses the other woman.

The film is, above all, a mood piece, with Rivette perfectly balancing the languidly paced visuals against a soundtrack which is as intriguing and complex as always. Rivette seems to have conceived of the film as a silent movie at times. This is especially true of the denouement, a taut standoff accompanied by a near-complete absence of sound, this crushing silence almost imperceptible until the confrontation ends and, with a sudden crash, the sounds of the city suddenly come roaring back onto the soundtrack. Rivette frequently plays with this kind of artificiality, alternating between a realistic soundtrack that reflects the urban spaces the film supposedly takes place in, and a drained, dampened soundtrack that's fitting for the eerie underground aquarium sequence but comes across as more stylized when it's used in other locales. There's a similar tension involved in the way Rivette uses the piano music of Jean Wiener, whose tinkly improvisations sometimes pop up at the oddest moments. At one point, when Lucie is looking around the room for something to write on, the piano kicks in from silence just a second before she turns her head, creating the brief impression that she's looking around for the source of the music. The music isn't quite as disrupting elsewhere, but its uniqueness and the way Rivette tends to cut it in right in the middle of a scene rather than at natural breaking points, definitely calls attention to itself in a way other scores don't. Moreover, Wiener himself appears in the background of some scenes, playing the piano, so that his score is sometimes incorporated into the surroundings while at other times it is distanced from the film's spaces in the way a traditional score is. As with virtually every aspect of the film, Rivette is setting up friction in the soundtrack between the realistic and the stylized.

In some ways, all this talk of friction and tensions is deceiving, because Duelle is a disarmingly smooth film, one that downplays the mysterious forces working beneath its surfaces at almost every moment. Rivette's camera glides between characters, subtly linking them and weaving around them as they engage in their verbal, mystical, and physical pas de deux. It's a typically puzzling and enigmatic work from Rivette, whose films seldom have a "point" so much as they result in an accumulation of impressions and emotions. This is, perhaps, why Rivette is so difficult to pin down, why his films are so often off-putting and impenetrable to all but those few tuned into his peculiar wavelength. With Duelle, Rivette's filmmaking is at its most obtuse and enigmatic, but also, perversely, at its most lushly sensual. Between the fluid camerawork and the gorgeously understated color palette, subdued to a twilight mix of rich blues and pale reds, the look of the film is stunning, creating the atmosphere of an eternal urban evening. This visual richness reaches its apotheosis in the central dancehall sequence, where the four women finally arrive in one place, and are further multiplied and refracted by the multitude of mirrors decorating the bar's interior, suggesting an infinity of possible women derived from these template figures. This film is teeming with such moments of secret significance, scenes where the film's feminine, lunar glow spills over into giddy explosions of imagination.


DavidEhrenstein said...

Before (finally) seeing the comeplete Out 1 late klast year, Duelle was my favorite Rivette.

Here's a piece I wrote on it and Noroit .

You're quite right about Rivette and sexuality. He doesn't really get into it until L'Historie de Marie et Julien -- which was originally part of the Scenes de la vie parallele series.

D.A. said...

I'm enjoying your Rivette reviews. Just a comment / question about the music in Duelle. I had the impression watching (and listening to) the film, that all of the music may have been "live." You mention the point where one of the actors seems distracted by the piano cue. I wonder if this isn't because she actually did hear it start to play. There are moments when you can definitely hear the sound track - a scene with bird sounds, I remember, where you can hear the level suddenly hiked up. But, judging by the sound of the piano, which sounds believably "live" in those big rooms even when you can't see it, and judging by the number of scenes in which you can see the piano player, I was thinking, by the end, that it was all live. I thought this was a very playful touch - the conceit, but also the way you'd occasionally see that piano player, even in an unlikely place - and I was paying attention to it more and more as the film went on. The only place where I thought it was unlikely (though not impossible) was in the aquarium. This is actually a long way of just asking a question, though: can you say for sure, one way or the other, whether the sound was live or added in?


Ed Howard said...

Hey D.A., that's very perceptive. The piano music in Duelle was indeed improvised live on the set. I mentioned how Jean Wiener shows up occasionally in the background, and that's because he was actually there, playing the music. Rivette was experimenting with this kind of stuff back when he made this film. The next film in this aborted series — Noroit — incorporated the musicians even more ostentatiously, as they often showed up in the corners of scenes or appeared unexpectedly from behind some of the scenery. Wiener's presence is comparatively minimal in Duelle, but his live music makes an impact anyway.

D.A. said...

I love the idea, just as another aesthetic parameter being brought in. But it also adds by further theatricalizing everything, or at least, by reminding you - not that there aren't plenty of reminders in the performances alone - that you're watching "performance." I'd call it a distancing effect if it weren't so endearing. I feel the same way about all of the austerities, the self-imposed limitations in the film - the non-special effects like the slow motion of actors moving slowly (in the blue-tinted dream sequence), or the disappearances by way of lighting, etc.: though the effects are almost lame at times, they are also charming for exactly that reason. The more DIY it is and the more exposed and at times silly the acting is, the more the idea of adult play comes through.

Looking forward to seeing Noroit sometime.