Friday, June 27, 2008
Noroît (une vengeance)
The films of Jacques Rivette have always placed plot in a somewhat secondary relationship to the other elements of the cinema, but never has this been more true or more obvious than in the hallucinatory, baffling Noroît (une vengeance). The film seems to exist almost entirely in terms of individual scenes, which stand apart from each other with a willful refusal to cohere into any overarching plot. Nevertheless, there is a narrative, of sorts, that carries through the film Geraldine Chaplin as the avenging Morag, enacting her bloody revenge on the pirate gang who murdered her brother (or lover maybe) but it's far less important than the way individual scenes play out within this broad context. And things play out, inevitably, in as strange and unsettling a manner as possible. Rivette sets up shop early on in a castle fortress, populated by his massive cast of mostly female pirates, with only a few token men on the fringes. It's a story of intrigue in which the players' motivations aren't necessarily clear. Everybody in the castle seems to have a story, and a scheme, but Rivette seldom focuses on the root causes of these double-crosses, games of treachery, and violent uprisings. It's enough, for him, that they happen, that they drive these characters into confrontations and altercations that give his weaving camera a chance to document the tensions and interplay between his actors.
With Duelle, Noroît was meant to form part of a four-film series, though the project collapsed before the other two films could materialize. And like Duelle, this film is built around these systems of interaction, expanding the previous film's rigorous rotation of duets into larger groupings. The relationships formed and dissolved here are also infinitely more mysterious, as Morag infiltrates the base of the pirate queen Giula (Bernadette Lafont), aided by the duplicitous Erika (Kika Markham). The castle is teeming with women, a huge and unwieldy cast with enigmatic purposes and affiliations, multiple murder plots and quests for treasure overlapping and intersecting one another at all times. Rivette gets almost uniformly excellent performances from these actresses, many of whom frequently seem to be improvising, vacillating between playfulness and dead-serious (if obscure) drama. Rivette's camera is constantly moving through this web of deceit and cross-purposes, but even he can't catch everything, and at times he seems to deliberately keep things obtuse or unexplained. What does Morag whisper to Elisabeth Lafont (Bernadette's daughter, here playing her niece and heiress) while running her hands through her hair? What's with the scene where Morag's supposedly dead brother returns to her and passionately kisses her? Why are there two Giulas in the film's final scenes? What is the meaning of the mysterious red stone with its tremendous magical power? There are few answers. This last element, at least, is seemingly carried over from the moon goddess plot of Duelle, but here with even less explanation of the story's mystical elements.
And while we're asking questions, what's with the improv trio hanging out in the corner of so many scenes and improvising the film's soundtrack? Who are these ragged 70s musicians acting as though they really belonged there on the outskirts of a swashbuckling adventure story? Indeed, with this project Rivette carried over the improvisatory spirit of his preferred acting methods into the soundtrack, bringing in the composer and multi-instrumentalist Jean Cohen-Solal along with his brother Robert and Daniel Ponsard. It was a tactic he also used in a more limited way for Duelle, with the sporadic appearances by pianist and composer Jean Wiener, but here the musicians are both more fully integrated into the film's visual strategies, and far more incongruous in their surroundings. Whereas Wiener fit relatively comfortably on a nightclub stage or tinkling away in the background of a room, these musicians are much more obviously out of place in an ancient castle, lounging against the stone walls or haphazardly hidden behind bales of straw. Moreover, Rivette goes to great pains not only to point out their presence, but to underline its absurdity. He frequently allows them to begin playing while offscreen, so that their music functions in a more familiar way as the film's soundtrack, while his roving camera, following the action of the actors in the scene as they walk around a room, eventually reveals the musicians tucked away in a corner, heads bent over their instruments, a gleeful anachronism in a film whose whole structure, basically, is an anachronism. It's a period film set in no particular period, with the actors dressed in a ragged pastiche of styles ranging from plausible-looking historical pirate garb to Lafont's audacious, forming-fitting pink leather pants.
To this end, the music of Cohen-Solal and his cohorts is perfectly suited to the film's modernist approach to period material. The group plays gritty, scrabbly free improv of the kind popular throughout European post-jazz circles in the 70s, all scrapes and rattles and occasional mournful tones from Jean's flute, his signature instrument but one he mostly leaves aside here in favor of various bowed instruments. The trio's music is mostly tense, edgy, even unpleasant, but they're also capable of hauntingly emotional melodies and, in one memorable scene, a bizarre but very danceable form of rhythmic pseudo-jazz, the uptempo beat assembled from a loose accumulation of clicking percussion. This provides the accompaniment to an astonishing scene in which Giula and her bodyguard Ludovico (Larrio Ekson) perform an energetic tango together, the latter sporadically breaking free of the dance in order to search the room for some trace of his mistress' treasure. It's a perfect example of the film's digressionary method, a scene with virtually no narrative purpose, but a ludicrously fun diversion all the same.
These diversions form the core of the film's method. It's a film in which, if you removed the diversions and offshoots, you'd be left with very little indeed. There are so many wonderful scenes, many of them with a relationship to the main plot that is puzzling and ambiguous at best. Similarly, Rivette punctuates the film with shots of the landscape around the castle, meditative glimpses of crashing waves and placid vistas populated only by a distant figure on horseback (who is that, anyway?). These inserts are occasionally jarring, too, as when he inserts a shot of the ocean as a reaction shot when Erika looks around a corner within the castle what's the meaning of this sudden, unmotivated cut from interior to exterior? Rivette further adds to the confusion by wryly suggesting, in the way he structures the film, that there actually is a coherent narrative here somewhere, if only we could understand it. He periodically flashes up titles on screen that count off the acts and scenes within them. According to these titles, Noroît has a traditional five-act structure, though one would be hard-pressed to say so if Rivette hadn't provided such helpful chapter breaks. Even then, he does further muddy up the waters by adding multiple scenes to a single heading, so that one title might introduce the next section as Act II, scenes 1-3.
In a movie as willfully slippery as Noroît, such tactics can only be a typically playful Rivettian joke, suggesting coherence in a film whose form is akin to a string of non-sequiturs. These titles may also be a reference back to the film's purported source, the Jacobean revenge play The Revenger's Tragedy, once attributed to Cyril Tourneur but now thought to have been written by Thomas Middleton. This play, with its tale of a man seeking revenge for his lover's death, provides the basic impetus for the film's story, but more importantly Rivette uses dialogue quoted verbatim from the play, in the original English rather than the French otherwise used throughout the film. This dialogue, recited by Geraldine Chaplin and Kika Markham as the two avenging schemers of the film, takes the form of an incantation, repeated with ceremonial precision as a code for their ritual of revenge. In one remarkable scene, the two women pace in opposite directions around a circular room, reciting the same lines of dialogue from the play, overlapping one another as if in a round; Rivette further complicates the soundtrack with Cohen-Solal's flute, for once playing while the musician isn't actually in the room. The line they're reciting, which they eventually converge on in the center of the room, thus making it fully coherent for the first time, is: "I have not fashion'd this only for show and useless property; no, it shall bear a part, e'en in it own revenge."
This line, repeated at several key points in the film, seems to hold multiple resonances for Rivette, both on the level of the narrative and in meta terms, in the implications it has for Rivette's own film. Especially in the scene where Markham dramatically shouts the line to Chaplin, it begins to seem as though Rivette is himself addressing his audience, prompting them to look beyond the surfaces and think about what else is there. It's an invitation behind the curtain, a suggestion that there is more here than meets the eye, even if it's not as yet readily apparent. And it's also, as with so many things in Rivette's films, an elaborate joke of sorts. Because in addition to being a metaphor for Morag's vengeful quest, The Revenger's Tragedy also holds a more literal place within the world of Noroît. In continually reciting these English lines, the two women are not just expressing their plans for revenge, they're actually rehearsing for a play.
Indeed, one of the film's many marvelous scenes is the sequence where the two plotters stage the climax of The Revenger's Tragedy for the assembled audience of Giula and her pirates. As the two women perform, building towards a hilariously extended death scene for Geraldine Chaplin, playing the object of revenge in this staging, the line between theater and reality begins to blur and vanish. First, Chaplin veers into the audience to enact her death scene, stumbling and running between the assembled spectators, reeling wildly and overacting with melodramatic flair, launching into one of those endless "I'm dying but I still have time for a soliloquy" finales where even multiple poisonings, stabbings, and beatings can't quite do her in for good. But even as the play nears its close, the audience begins stirring and possibly breaking out into a for-real revolt against Giula. It's unclear exactly what happens next, though the seemingly earnest rebellion soon degenerates into some more play-acting, including more stabbings with a retractable knife; Rivette's soundtrack even emphasizes the distinctive click of the knife's blade receding into the handle when someone is "stabbed." Only when Giula finally, and bloodily, slits the throat of one seemingly innocent bystander, is the line between theater and reality definitively restored to clarity.
If this scene restores life and acting to their proper places, the film's finale decisively erases the lines separating performance, reality and fantasy, frustrating anyone who might've been hoping for the ramshackle narrative to somehow get tied together in the end. Instead, Rivette stages a macabre and sinister ballet, a set of black widow dances in which one partner ends by killing the other, slow motion murders that shift between graceful beauty and murderous anguish. Rivette purposefully fragments these scenes, shifting from ordinary photographic reality to yellow- or blue-filtered alternate universes, or high-contrast, grainy black and white footage with the sound abruptly cut off as though the action was taking place in a vacuum. Similar techniques were also used in the more overtly magical Duelle, to signify magical battles taking place on a higher plane, but its sudden intrusion here, without explanation or context, is far more destabilizing and disorienting. These final scenes have an unsettling beauty in spite of their violence, as each dance plays out as an improvised murder game between the two participants. It's a stunning, fittingly ambiguous ending to a film predicated on such ambiguity and submerged narratives.