[All through the month of February, Jeremy Richey at Moon in the Gutter has declared a tribute to films that are "M.I.A. on Region 1 DVD." This post is a contribution to this series.]
Jacques Rivette's Merry-Go-Round is bizarre and confounding even by the rather high standards of strangeness that the famously difficult director has set for himself throughout his oeuvre. If Rivette's films often seem to be meandering lazily around the barest hint of a plot, this film eschews even that much of a stabilizing center, opting instead for a rambling series of semi-improvised vignettes. Propelled by a shadowy and increasingly convoluted conspiracy, Ben (Joe Dallessandro) and Léo (Maria Schneider) arrive in Paris at the same time, summoned by mysterious telegrams from Elisabeth (Danièle Gegauff), Ben's girlfriend and Léo's sister. When they arrive, however, Elisabeth is initially nowhere to be found, leading the duo on a kind of scavenger hunt around the city before finally showing her face just long enough to suggest the contours of a labyrinthine plot — involving the girls' possibly dead, possibly faking father and the $4 million dollars that he may or may not have hidden away before the airplane explosion that may have killed him — and then Elisabeth is promptly kidnapped. There's potentially a lot of complex plotting going on here, especially once Ben's sinister sister Shirley (Sylvie Matton) becomes involved. But Rivette more or less ignores all of this.
Instead, the bulk of the film consists of Ben and Léo wandering around the French countryside, ostensibly searching for clues to Elisabeth's disappearance or the safe combination needed to get their hands on the missing money. What they actually do is mope around a lot, wander through abandoned houses, and joke and fight and patter, improvising goofy bits like the one where Ben mocks the conspiratorial obsession with the number three by counting off increasingly lengthy numbers consisting entirely of threes. In the film's best scene, the duo takes a break for dinner at an abandoned house whose refrigerator is improbably well-stocked: they crack open cans of sardines and make salads and drink the juice from jars of cherries, sitting across from one another at a long table with candelabras in the center. Léo jokes that it's a bourgeois meal, and the two of them have fun playing hide and seek from behind the candle flames, and soon the conversation turns into a lighthearted seduction where it's obvious that the actors are having as much fun as the characters.
The mood of all this is loose, in fact even slack: for every crackling moment like these, there's a long dull stretch where essentially nothing happens, where the actors simply sit around, Schneider curling herself up into a little childlike ball while Dallesandro paces anxiously or ties and unties his long hair. The chemistry between the two leads is a big part of the film's appeal, and to a large extent Rivette simply throws them together and waits to see what sparks will fly, his typically hovering camera delicately tracking their stormy fights and hesitant rapprochements. The result is uneven, more so than in any of Rivette's other films of the time. Merry-Go-Round was conceived in the aftermath of the collapse of Rivette's projected four-film series "Scenes de la vie parallele" (of which only Duelle and Noroît were completed), and the film's troubled origins show through in its haphazard scenario and half-finished feel. The film always seems to be on the verge of falling apart, crumbling around its sketchy characters and even sketchier story: the shreds of a classic heist picture narrative still cling to the finished film, like tattered rags billowing around this otherwise profoundly empty space.
Rivette further fragments things by including two kinds of interludes that disrupt the already tenuous main story. The film begins with a pair of musicians (bassist Barre Phillips and clarinetist John Surman), improvising a mournfully jazzy score with long low clarinet notes blending into the eerie soundfield generated by the bowed bass. The musicians return periodically throughout the film, appearing onscreen playing before Rivette cuts to the scene they're meant to be scoring. Their presence is a leftover of the "vie parallele" films, which were all to incorporate onscreen musicians into the fabric of the image. Phillips and Surman aren't as fully a part of this world as were the musicians in Duelle and Noroît, though: they are filmed in a separate space and self-consciously incorporated into the film only later, and their presence is thus a puzzling digression. Rivette also frequently cuts away from the main action for lengthy interludes set in either a dense forest or amid sand dunes. In these interludes — seemingly taking place in the main characters' heads — Ben either chases or is chased by the mysterious figure of Duelle's heroine Hermine Karagheuz, who with her wide eyes, swarthy complexion and dark mop of hair bears a striking resemblance to Schneider. This silent, unnamed dream figure seems to be a stand-in for Léo, and the contests in the dunes and the forest are a psychic continuation of the real struggles between Ben and Léo as they attempt to sort out the web of double crosses and conspiracies they're trapped within.
These interludes occasionally provide some striking images — Ben being chased by a horse-mounted knight in full armor is hilariously surreal — but for the most part they're shockingly dull and overly long. These repetitive scenes pad the film's length, with many of them consisting simply of Dallesandro or Karagheuz running aimlessly and silently around in circles for several minutes. It quickly becomes tiresome, not an adjective I'd usually associate with Rivette despite the prodigious lengths of his films. Merry-Go-Round, at a comparatively trim two and a half hours, isn't even one of Rivette's longer films, but it often feels ponderous and half-realized in comparison to his best work. There are moments of messy brilliance amidst all this ruin and fragmentation, and at its best the film is as alive and vibrant as anything in Rivette's oeuvre, but these moments are ultimately far too few. It's an interesting, flawed experiment made at a difficult time in the director's life.