Around a Small Mountain (36 vues du Pic Saint-Loup)

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Play Time
By Damon Smith

36 vues du Pic Saint-Loup
Dir. Jacques Rivette, France, no distributor

Reviewing Gang of Four for Cahiers du cinéma in 1989, the late philosopher Gilles Deleuze wrote that Jacques Rivette’s project is “a cinema that opposes its theatricality to that of theater, its reality to that of the world, which has become unreal.” That’s as succinct a formulation of the great director’s body of work as we are likely to get, and one that applies just as well to his latest drama, a whimsical eulogy of sorts to the New Wave icon’s treasured theme of life-as-performance. Modestly scaled and terse by Rivettian standards at 84 minutes, 36 vues du Pic Saint-Loup is a playfully oblique, often melancholy study in love, mortality, and the mysteries of grief. Yet compressed within the bantam framework of the film—which concerns people inhabiting a world all their own, a family of clowns and aerialists—is a banquet of ideas about cinema and life, the truth of art and the sorrows of imagination.

Saint-Loup is diverting, but never simplistic. Gone are the shadow cabalists and vaguely sinister, perhaps imagined conspiratorial agendas that bridge work as disparate as Céline and Julie Go Boating and Secret Defense. Here, Rivette works in miniature, gracefully orchestrating a modest story set against the backdrop of Saint-Loup Peak, a geological marvel crowning the genteel Languedoc region of southern France. On a winding mountain road, well-attired Italian traveler Vittorio (Sergio Castellitto) whizzes by stranded motorist Kate (Jane Birkin) in his sport convertible and then inexplicably comes to her aid, expertly plucking wires under her hood and somehow reigniting a stalled engine before dashing off, without once uttering a sound. This humorous opening sequence, a single-shot deadpan, is entirely free of dialogue, and the closest Rivette is likely to get, at this late stage, to reprising the comic miming of Jean-Pierre Léaud in Out 1: Spectre or Le pont du Nord’s Pascale Ogier, his most fearless on-screen alter egos.

There’s another spark of sorts when they meet in the town square of a quaint village. Kate thanks the mysterious Samaritan, whose odd behavior has piqued her curiosity (“One’s easily mute when driving alone,” he quips), and invites him to her circus troupe’s evening performance. Vittorio, a wanderer himself, has a keen interest in the circus life, it turns out, and quickly establishes himself as a confidant to veteran clown Alexandre (André Marcon), whose broken-dinner-plate and bullet-in-the teeth routine elicits no laughter from the three or four people in attendance, but leaves Vittorio howling. “I need to know,” he inquires the next day, “how was it funny?” Vittorio demurs, but offers some enigmatic advice (“Valorize the plate”). Alexandre sets out to modify the act on subsequent evenings (with varied results) as the troupe moves from town to town, always performing for a near-empty house. For Rivette, the days when such spectacles, like those of cinema, had purchase with the public are gone, evoked in the film’s underlying nostalgia and faintly dolorous tone. As Alex tells Vittorio: “We’re the last classics.”

Vittorio also earns the trust of Clémence (Julie-Marie Parmentier), a coltish young high-wire acrobat who naively asks his opinion of her performance (“Aerial,” he drolly replies, a Rivettian jape at negative critical shorthand), then later enlists his help in evading a frolicky, immature suitor at the group’s woodland campground. Kate’s friendship proves more elusive, and peppy, gently persevering Vittorio soon learns the reason why: She’s still reeling from the accidental death of Antoine, a lover her father, the now-deceased founder of the circus, openly disapproved of and forbade her to grieve. (Romance, from L’amour fou to The Story of Marie and Julien, is often a source of indescribable anguish or existential confusion in Rivette’s oeuvre.) Kate’s just returned after a 15-year absence, intending to resuscitate the bullwhip act that killed him, but memories of Antoine haunt her conscience. Eventually, Vittorio’s influence, if not his courtly overtures, works its subtle magic on Kate and her itinerant retinue. Grief, like art, is a process. And perhaps no filmmaker (apart from, say, Robert Altman) has made such fine poetry out of process-oriented drama, self-reflectively revealing the magical mechanisms that drive life and its depiction.

Over the years, Rivette has worked with an important group of collaborators—scenarists Pascal Bonitzer and Christine Laurent, costume designer Laurence Struz, production designer Emmanuel de Chauvigny, and the Lubtchansky clan for camera work and editing. Through their efforts, Rivette’s emphasis on mise-en-scéne and shot composition, which he has fixated on since his critical writings from the Fifties (“the only ideas whose profundity I wish to recognize,” he once wrote) finds rich expression here, along with his pet themes of secrecy and theatricalization. (Castellitto, a clown-like curiosity who darts into and out of the frame, embodies both.) Visually the film never feels compacted. The slow, elegant pans and vivid framings of the Hérault-district landscape meld easily with the moodier, interior tent sequences, filmed on sets at Cinecittà Studios in Rome. Collapsing real and imagined space, Rivette gives each a mythic dimension, vanquishing the unreality of the world that exists outside, or merely on the margins, of cinema.

There’s no need to make great claims for Saint-Loup (for some idiotic reason, retitled Around a Small Mountain for its New York Film Festival debut), a blithely antiquated charmer that may or may not be Rivette’s swan song. (He’s 81, and reportedly frail.) It’s not a major film on par with the romantic comedy Va savoir, Rivette’s best late work after the masterpiece La Belle noiseuse. But even minor Rivette is a delight, especially when it finds the director dress-rehearsing for his own deliciously tart exit line. In one non sequitur bit, a circuit of players spring out of the big top, one at a time, delivering maxims directly to the camera. “This ring is the most dangerous place in the world, but it’s where everything is possible!” says Vittorio. “All’s well that ends well!” chirrups Clémence, quoting Shakespeare’s Helena and expressing a notion—whate’er the course, the end is the renown—that Rivette, an avid experimenter and chance taker who has prized creative freedom above all else, must surely find epitaph-worthy.