Monday, February 7, 2011

36 Vues du Pic St. Loup

Jacques Rivette has always been fascinated by performance, so it's appropriate that his latest film — and possibly, though it hurts to think so, his last? — 36 vues du Pic St. Loup, is a gentle, low-key work in which various long-lingering dramas and pains are resolved through performance and play. The film focuses on a small traveling circus, the last vestige of a dying form, setting up in one small town after another, performing in near-empty tents, with a few scattered families sitting stoically watching in the stands. The circus represents a fading grandeur, an old tradition of public performance that now seems outdated. The circus' bright colors are faded with age, its routines are built on old vaudeville-style humor and spectacle, and there's something quaint about it all, as though the whole troupe was composed of time travelers from another era.

The film opens with a silent interlude by the side of the road, where Kate (Jane Birkin) is frustrated by her stalled jeep. A passerby in a flashy convertible, Vittorio (Sergio Castellitto), helps her get the jeep started without saying a word, then drives off, but the pair will meet again in a nearby town, where it turns out that Kate is with the circus, and Vittorio begins following the troupe around on their tour, seeing each of their performances and hanging around them during the day. Over the course of the film, Vittorio remains an enigma, an aimless wanderer who puts the rest of his life on hold to travel with the circus for a few weeks, but Kate similarly begins as an enigma only to have her mysteries gradually revealed throughout the film. Kate had been with the circus — which was founded by her now-deceased father — many years ago, but had left after a tragedy, and only recently returned. Her traumatic past continues to haunt her, even fifteen years later, and though she seems to think that revisiting the circus on what seems to be its final tour would bring her some closure, she's as confused and lost as ever while hovering around the site of her sad past.

Vittorio, who becomes embroiled in the circus' dramas, is fascinated by Kate and takes it upon himself to resolve her issues, to discover the root of what's bothering her and to help her overcome it. As he says dramatically at one point, he wants to "save" her. The film's approach to drama is both low-key and theatrical. The film is circumspect about its melodramatic components, slowly meting out little bits of detail about Kate's past or creating miniature dramas with the other members of the circus. The clown Alexandre (André Marcon) is in love with Barbara (Vimala Pons), the acrobat girlfriend of another cast member, Wilfred (Tintin Orsoni). Kate's niece Clémence (Julie-Marie Parmentier) lightly dodges an admirer, while flirting innocently with Vittorio, letting him pump her for information about Kate. These stories are developed through the most minimal whiffs of suggestion, as Rivette's characteristic probing camera slowly wheels around, coasting in graceful arcs that mirror the curve of the circus' ring, inching in towards closeups as these characters enact their little stories with the same stoical reserve that they apply to their performances. At one point, Alexandre and Wilfred act out a theatrical show of jealousy on an ad-hoc stage that is alternately bathed in light or encased in darkness, while Barbara and Clémence look on. The theatricality of it, the self-conscious presentation of this drama of jealousy, enforces the sense that this is, beneath its serious themes and dark secrets, a very playful film for Rivette, a light film dealing with serious ideas.

Certainly, the recurring sequences of the actual circus performances betray Rivette's interest in play and acting and entertainment, which ultimately trump emotionally exhausting melodrama. Vittorio initially ingratiates himself to the troupe by being the only one to laugh during the circus' opening routine, by the clowns Alexandre and Marlo (Jacques Bonnaffé). The clowns have a bit involving a chair, a stack of dinner plates, and a revolver, and throughout the film Rivette returns to this number again and again, each time revealing more and more of the bit. He obviously appreciates these clowns, who maybe aren't especially funny — indeed, the arena is always silent during their performances with the one exception of Vittorio's loudly appreciative laugh — but who have a certain dignity in enacting this old form of humor, this old form of entertainment, for modern audiences who largely don't show up and don't get it when they do.

Rivette treats the occasional performances by Wilfred similarly. The performer juggles torches or dances in the air, suspended by wires, and by modern standards these are not especially grand or impressive feats. They are small acts, acts that might have seemed extraordinary long ago, but to modern stimulus-overloaded senses, they seem humble. But Rivette still makes them seem, in their small way, magical and graceful, and more than that he makes them seem real. He stresses that these are very physical acts. His precise soundtrack captures not only the woosh of the fire as Wilfred juggles his torches, but the fleshy slap of the torch's handle hitting his hand. When Wilfred is twirling in the air, the grace and beauty of his movements are contrasted against the metallic clinking of the wires, which stretch and clang together with every movement. The sounds root these performances in physicality, in the material, and paradoxically that's what makes them so magical: they are little bursts of creativity and expression emerging from the routine of everyday existence, which is why even the quarrels and jealousies between these performers are enacted theatrically, as performances.

It's appropriate, then, that the film's climax takes place in the ring, with Vittorio taking the place of Marlo as one of the clowns in the opening bit. Here it becomes clear why Rivette spent so much time setting up this act, because Vittorio and Alexandre here divert from the script, improvising awkwardly in response to the shattering of the plates that had previously formed the basis for the whole gag. It's a celebration of improvisation from a director who has always appreciated the power of spontaneous acting, who has always left room for his actors to bring their own ideas and their own ad-libbed words into his films. As a result of the improvisation, the performance becomes both more and less real, constantly shifting between even more over-the-top theatricality than ever and bursts of emotional nakedness that eventually lead Vittorio to, as it were, break the fourth wall of the performance and address the offstage Kate directly. It's funny, and loose, and leads towards Vittorio's delivery of a speech that might as well have come directly from Rivette's mouth.

"This ring is the most dangerous place in the world," he says. "And also the place where everything is possible." As a summation of Rivette's career, and of his view of the cinema and art in general, it would be hard to find a more perfect epigram. The circus, the theater, the cinema: these are venues where it is possible, through play and pretend, to get as close as possible to the real heart of things, to use artifice to explore the deepest emotions. And it is also possible in these creative realms to be totally free, to enact magic, to invent, to delight through outrageous feats and stunning images. Rivette has always thought this way: art is a game, an act of pleasure, and yet it also has the ability to cut deeply, in some ways even more deeply than life itself. This metaphor isn't so metaphorical here — Kate's sad past involves art cutting very deeply, and literally, indeed — but in the end it's through art and performance that these characters can heal the wounds opened, long ago, by art and performance.

This is a modest film of small-scale pleasures, its proportions trimmed to accommodate the fading majesty of the circus. It is, indeed, the shortest proper feature Rivette has ever made, an oddity from a director who has always worked in extended duration. He's still dealing with time here, though, just in a different way. Like many late films by old masters, 36 Vues du Pic St. Loup is about the passage of time, about age, about how events resonate through the years for such a long time after their initial impact. The circus lingers on, an increasingly irrelevant souvenir from another time, just as Kate is haunted by memories of the past. But the circus performers are movingly aware of their own irrelevance, and they soldier on anyway, and it's through this connection to the past that Kate, late in life, is given an opportunity to finally move on and try something new, whatever that may turn out to be. This is Rivette's quiet but heartfelt ode to the things he loves — performance, artifice, the old-fashioned, the irrelevant, the out-of-touch, the quaint. It is a simple film, and a surprisingly direct one from this often circuitous artist, and as such it feels like a rather self-conscious statement of principles from the aging director. When, in one scene towards the end, Vittorio, Alexandre and Clémence take turns approaching the camera head-on, delivering bits of exposition and morals to be taken away from the film, it reinforces the sensation of the director taking an opportunity to speak to an audience that perhaps he feels has been as remote as the sparse, mostly unseen audiences at the circus' performances. It's a touching, affecting film, though more so for what it says about its director and his pet themes than for its intentionally spartan story.


DavidEhrenstein said...

Alas this will be Rivette's last. He was ill at the time of its making thus explaining why it clocks in at less than 90 minutes -- thus making it a Rivette short subject.

The film is best understood in relation to Rivette's love of two largely unsung works by great filmmakers: Jacques Tati's Parade and Fellini's The Clowns. Both revolve around the sort of small scale perfomance routines on view in 36 Vues de Pic St. Loup

Ed Howard said...

Yes, I've heard as much regarding Rivette's health. Such a shame, but this is a fine, affectionate final work from one of the greats.

Drew said...

"It's a touching, affecting film, though more so for what it says about its director and his pet themes than for its intentionally spartan story."

Couldn't agree with you more, Ed. I do think it's a wonderful little movie on its own terms, but of course the brunt of its effect and poignancy come from its relation to Rivette's entire oeuvre. There is a particular tenderness and almost a sense of melancholy here in how Rivette quietly weaves together so many of his tendencies and concerns, and it definitely feels like a swan song of sorts, despite the uncharacteristic length. But it still feels very much like a Rivette film, and as others have argued, can almost be looked upon as something of a skeleton key towards unlocking the essence of his cinema.

And is there a cooler lady than Jane Birkin? I think she gave my favorite performance of the year here.

Ed Howard said...

Drew, it is definitely a kind of "skeleton key," in that it lays out some of Rivette's ideas and concerns much more directly than ever before, in some cases by having characters even speak directly to the camera - it's very self-conscious in that way, with a very direct and charming manner. And I totally agree about Birkin, who was great in this. Her very presence is a callback to previous Rivette films she's appeared in, and she carries herself with such dignity, conveying grief and regret without the least tinge of the maudlin.

DavidEhrenstein said...

No there is no cooler lady than Jane Birkin.

Rivette's film is less a swan song than a curtain call, IMO. It comes in the wake of his greatest commercial triumph Don't Touch the Axe.

Drew said...

I suppose I agree that curtain call may be the more appropriate term here, David. Though I am of the belief (after only one viewing mind you) that the film leans slightly more towards being major rather than minor Rivette.

DavidEhrenstein said...

How so?

(I ask this as a deeply entrenched Rivettian -- devoted to him ever since I saw Paris Nous Appartient WAY back in the day and am currently longing to do a bok about Out 1 and its relationship to Water Benjamin's "Arcades Project")

Drew said...

David, I am surely nowhere close to being as well versed a "Rivettian" as you, having only been introduced to the man's work in the last few years with still a few keys works to watch, but the reason I say it strikes me as perhaps being more a major work is simply for the reason already discussed, how it basically plays as a conflation and even expansion of so many aspects of Rivette's cinema - environment and repetition for instance - and seems to express as well as any of his films his singular cinematic identity.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Well I can certainly see making an argument for it along those lines. But Rivette is much grander than that.

Have you seen Out 1 ? It's not only the key Rivette it's the key audio-visual experience essentIAl to a true undertstanding of cinema and its relationship to life.

I've never (quite) met Rivette, but when I was in Paris in '83 I took an early dinner at a very nice left bank restaurant (forget the name). No sooner than the first course was served Rivette entered and sat down at a table directly in front of me. About a minute later Bulle Ogier came in. They were deep in conversation, with much laughter from Rivette(he's a big laugher.) Couldn't catch a single word, but didn't have to. It was like having a rare Rivette outtake unspool before my eyes.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Here's a teriffic interview with Rivette (from a number of years back) conducted by the late great Serge Daney.

Part 1

Part 2

Drew said...

Thanks for the story and the links, David. I think portions from that same interview are an extra on the Koch-Lorber Marie and Julien DVD. Didn't realize it was conducted by Daney; I'm pretty much unfamiliar with him, but just the other day in fact I got a copy of Journey of a CineSon w/English subtitles, so I'm looking forward to watching that soon.

I have seen Out 1, I think it's amazing, probably my favorite Rivette, though I'm still grappling with the majority of it. The Rivettes I still need to see - from his features at least - are L'amour fou, The Nun, Wuthering Heights and La Belle Noiseuse.

Ed Howard said...

I'm leaning towards this being "minor" Rivette myself, but that's a pretty relative proposition when we're talking about one of the cinema's absolute greatest artists. As I think David said about a "minor" Rohmer in a comment here, "minor" for a director like this means it's better than most other films. It's a quiet, low-key film that examines some signature Rivettian ideas in an especially stripped-down manner, and it's likely to appeal most thoroughly to those who are already steeped in the director's work, even if he does make a few efforts to step forward and declaim a bit more than usual. But major, minor, whatever, it's great and fascinating.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Daney was a very fine critic who had an actual effect on the cinema in that great filmmakers like Rivette actually listened to what he had to say.

Sadly he died of AIDS.

Rivette's Wuthering Heights (aka. Hurlevent) is highly underrated in France and barely known here (though it's available on DVD) Set in the French countryside between the wars it's according to Rivette, visually styled after the paintings of Balthus (Balthazar Klossowski -- Pierre's brother)

A shame L'Amour Fou isn't available on DVD as yet. it's a film a clef about Godard and Karina's break-up - whcih was quite tumultuous. They had locked themseleves in their apartment and hadn't told anyone. When their friends came to look for them they broke down the door and discovered them exhausted laying amidst wreckage. Bull Ogier and jean-Pierre Kalfon enact this in the film's granc finale. The bulk of the action consist of Kalfon rehearsing Racine's "Andromache" (he really rehearsed it so this section is a kind of documentary) and Ogier wanering about Paris doing this and that. Rivette says the key cinematic inspirations were Marnie and Lilith.

Next to Out One my favorite Rivettes are Duelle, Noroit and of course Celine et Julie vont en bateau/ Phantom Ladies Over Paris

DavidEhrenstein said...

Out 1 started as an experient in TOTAL improvisation. Leaub, Berto, Ogier and Lonsdale created their characters from the ground up. But as the shoot progressed Rivette and Suzanne Schiffmann arranged for different characters to meet in various circumstances and thus stirred up a story that in the last ananlysis is as tight as a drum. At the last it expresses the "hangover" of May '68 as few works have ever done. All the characters were involved in utopian schemes that came to naught. The secret society of "The 13" relates less toBalzac than it does Bataille's "Acephale" -- which predated May 68 by a decade or more but burned out much as "The
13" do here.

Drew said...

I was familiar with the "plot" as it were of L'amour fou, but I'm not sure I knew about the story of Godard/Karina behind it, that's pretty fascinating. There's been a project ongoing for some time to create subtitles for the relatively decent version of the movie that's online, who knows when it'll be finished though. I'm obviously looking forward to finally seeing it whenever the time comes.

"minor" for a director like this means it's better than most other films."

Well said Ed, I think we will all happily agree on this.