James Crawford and Michael Joshua Rowin on
Jacques Rivette, France, 1971
Hailed by Dennis Lim as “the cinephile’s holy grail,” Out 1 inspires a goodly measure of awe, trepidation, and curiosity by virtue of its length and the fact that, with only one print extant, it’s almost never screened. Clocking in at a shade over twelve and a half hours, Jacques Rivette’s behemoth certainly is daunting for all the reasons one might expect, but then again not: unlike Bela Tarr’s seven-hour Sátántangó, the film is not intended to be consumed in a single sitting. Originally designed as a serial for French television (to the director’s self-confessed folly), the film is parceled up into eight episodes, between 70 and 105 minutes each—and its final version, according to Rivette’s intention, was meant to be spread out over two consecutive days. It’s actually more intimidating for its inexorable flow of ideas, images, sounds, theories, stratagems, dalliances, conflicts, paradoxes, etc., etc.; so like the parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant, any attempt to assail the film from one particular perspective will yield a narrow, skewed, and ultimately unsatisfactory appreciation of the whole. Out 1 might be a little too big for one mind to comfortably accommodate, and so we’ve decided to share the burden. Michael Joshua Rowin and I (perhaps taking a page out of Harun Farocki and Kaja Silverman’s Speaking on Godard) will tackle the film in tandem—in the hope that two heads are better than one. –James Crawford
Having just recently read James Monaco’s take on Out 1 in his now ancient 1976 edition of The New Wave, I was struck by how much time he accorded to discussing the actual plot, if one can call it that, of Rivette’s epic, even if he explains, going along with Rivette’s suggestion, that its mysteries are ultimately unimportant. I was struck by this because the same day I read Monaco’s book I also saw Rivette’s Le Pont du Nord (1981), during which I finally worked up the courage to say the hell with according any sort of seriousness to narrative mechanics in Rivette. It’s clear by now at this stage of my still nascent climb up the Rivette Matterhorn that trying to unknot the tangled conspiracies and narrative puzzles of his work is like trying to figure out or even care about what’s really going on in Casino Royale—as in the new Bond, the why, not the how, is what truly counts. Not that the details of Out 1 don’t matter, but in actually watching it one must catch the cogent metaphors and meaningful syntheses from thirteen hours of movie and work up to the guiding principles Rivette used to make sense and plot out of the final product. Otherwise, and I could see this happening to some cinephiliac Quixote one day, you’ll get as lost and maddened as Out 1’s characters. In any case, here’s a list of some of the film’s guiding principles, in no order of importance: there’s obviously the lure of conspiracies and organizations, whether secret or otherwise, by their dreamers and practitioners to bring some kind of clarity and order to the chaos and random occurrences of life; the lure of the same to create fiction, a mirror of life yet still within and (in the case of a film as long and involved as Out 1) often able to subsume it; the childishness, both in redemptive and regressive aspects, of such activities. Thus the long theater rehearsal scenes involving two different troupes, one headed by Thomas (Michael Lonsdale) and practicing Prometheus, the other headed by Lili (Michele Moretti) and practicing Seven Against Thebes, their improvisational, Brooks-influenced methods resembling nothing so much as the attempt to recreate the unself-conscious Play of children. Thus Juliet Berto’s street hustler, whose craft consists entirely of make-believe; and the inimitable Jean-Pierre Leaud, himself both a con man of sorts and the audience’s sleuth surrogate, who at one point during his investigations of a strange utopian cabal fashioned in the spirit of Balzac’s trilogy The Thirteen exclaims, when confronted with the possibility of an illusionary conspiracy, “In that case the magic world I live in would suddenly grow dim!”
—Michael Joshua Rowin
A fine précis of Out 1’s plotless plot, Rowin, and yet it’s amusing to think of how much time we two spent worrying, “Have I seen this person before?” or “Who the hell is Pierre?” and “When is Igor going to make his appearance?”—a situation made doubly worse because honestly, French people all look the same to me. I cannot think of another film that invests so much effort and time in characters alluding to—and having their actions motivated by—people that show up very briefly, or more frequently, never at all. It certainly lends credence to Rivette’s contentions, expressed in Rosenbaum’s interview for the September 1974 issue of Film Comment, “that the fiction is a trap, that’s it’s full of cracks and completely artificial, in every sense of the word, and has only been a vehicle…. I don’t take the whole idea of the search for meaning seriously.” That kind of bombast can usually be chalked up to a director protecting his creation from the shot and danger of reductive, singular meaning or understanding, which can demystify a work and render it lifeless; however, with each successive screening (I’ve now seven Rivette films under my belt) it becomes clear that Rivette desires us to hang the sense and become immersed in the sensibility. All of the Nouvelle Vague directors I hold dear address cinema from its first principles, like students learning the grammar of a foreign language—and then proceed to break, bend, twist, and ignore the ones they find the most limiting. Rivette finds displeasure in the strictures of storytelling soi-disant, and so, furthering his use of the vehicle as metaphor, lets his narrative motor idle, sputter, and eventually stall while he drifts over to the stuff he finds more intriguing. The problem is thus bequeathed to the spectators, who are asked to cast off their ossified conceptions of film’s ontological categories, and let the film resonate and wash about like music.
As with so many of his films, the stuff that fascinates Rivette to the point of distraction, is the theater, specifically the idea that “anything actors say and do is interesting,” as Rosenbaum said following the Moving Image’s screening of L’Amour fou. Much of Out 1 is devoted to following the two troupes as they rehearse their respective plays—a process that is ultimately for naught as both end up dissolving before any public performance is allowed to take place. I see where you’re going with the idea of childlike play, because it arises in both Celine and Julie Go Boating and L’Amour par terre, but I think the efforts of Thomas’s group—the more interesting and extensively documented of the two—tap into something more primal. Their messy, fumbling improv sessions are steeped in the belief that bypassing the brain’s intelligent centers, that releasing reason and tapping into something precognitive and unconscious, allows a deeper connection between the players, and therefore reveal the text’s fundamental truths. The aftermath brings up one of the play’s paradoxes: after their first session, a subhuman cacophony of grunting, moaning, groping, and grappling that enacts the Prometheus myth, the actors gather in a circle, light cigarettes, and then try to analyze the minutiae of their just-completed rehearsal. Their thoughts are lucid, cogent, and therefore entirely at odds with the feral spectacle we have just witnessed: through his actors, Rivette is exploring that nebulous boundary in the act of artistic creation where human impetus and individual agency is taken over by ineffable inspiration—from the muse, the ether, collective memory, or the divine—and so becomes semi-conscious.
Thomas’s players have a sincere belief in the importance of their work, which becomes a way to inure themselves not just against the randomness of life, but the depredations inflicted by a particularly violent moment in France’s history. Out 1 was made in the aftermath of the social uprising of May ’68, when a series of strikes by Parisian student unions devolved into a full-bore confrontation with the military. What once began as a hope to radically reinvent the mores of a stagnant and conservative society ended meekly, with the unions urging a peaceable return to work and De Gaulle’s party consolidating its power to a greater degree than ever. Out 1 taps into this post-May ’68 malaise, betraying an abiding mistrust in grand social movements, services organizations. Paris is turned into a disconnected amalgam of individual groups hermetically sealed off from one another. In between Lili’s and Thomas’s groups, Jean-Pierre Léaud is the classic flâneur walking through the city, but disconnected from society because his deaf-mute act precludes any social interactions; Juliet Berto only makes affective connections with people insofar as they can dupe, inveigle, and contribute to her next score. In contrast to this manipulative, self-serving mode of acting, the theater for Thomas’s and Lili’s actors is an arena of give and take, vulnerability—ingenuous place and a refuge from reality, even as it seeks to reveal it. There is no truth here save for interactions on a personal level, which is why Rivette follows his troupes in seemingly endless long takes, respecting their attempts at human bonds by granting the medium’s greatest gift: spatial and temporal continuity in an otherwise fractured world.
Somewhere in my notes for Out 1: “Improvise words, make them into a system . . . out of harmony.” This an idea imparted during Thomas’s group’s first postrehearsal discussion on the efficacy of its play-shaping exercise, and perhaps another the film’s “guiding principle.” For if, as you so well put it, “Rivette is exploring that nebulous boundary in the act of artistic creation where human impetus and individual agency is taken over by ineffable inspiration,” that magical gray zone where decisions and choices bring shape to pure dreams and visions—where the golem rises out of clay—then surely his obsession with theater and its processes mirror his concerns about bringing some coherence to unwieldy, ultra-ambitious projects, some successful (Out 1, Celine and Julie), some not (Paris Belongs to Us, Le Pont du Nord). Yes, the Nouvelle Vaguers “address[ed] cinema from its first principles, like students learning the grammar of a foreign language,” but what separates Rivette from the only fellow countryman who treaded over same rocky territory of cinematic experimentation and investigation—Godard—is that Rivette concedes control, and sometimes the overall design of a film, to those in front of the camera. In other words, Rivette’s is a much more collaborative cinema, even if we’re still talking about Out 1 in auteurist terms—there’s a veritable communal approach not only to the theater troupe scenes, but also to the film as a whole—and it seems at moments that he’s gone absolutely primitive, not just “returning to zero” as Godard attempted around the same time, but somehow going even further back and completely reconstructing the director’s role.
The question, then, is how does Rivette’s build from this to relative organization? A key can be found in that above note: in Out 1, verbal language is fundamental to group democracy, so that, as you’ve mentioned, the troupes’ dialogues place them at a superior level of communicative exploration than Leaud’s deaf-mute agitator and Berto’s duplicitous troublemaker. But, not coincidentally, around the same time Leaud reveals his speechlessness to be a lark (the only episode of Out 1 I missed, due to work obligations, made my discovery in the next one of Colin’s ability to talk—and here I kid you not—veritably shocking; if anything convinced me of how this film could involve me despite so much baffled impatience, this was it) and Frédérique immerses herself in matters beyond her own hand-to-mouth hustling, the theater groups get broken up by interpersonal squabbling (Thomas’s break-up with Lili), petty sabotage (Renaud stealing Quentin’s lottery ticket), and creative dead ends. What’s left is the vague, incomplete idea of the Thirteen, a sort of back-up supergroup ready in waiting for such crises, but also a lofty concept lacking pragmatic foot soldiers. Order and chaos overlap—Colin’s struggle to search and question (his indirect declaration of love to Pauline, aka Emilie, being one of Out 1’s seminal moments) and Frédérique’s emerging awareness coincide with the film’s first signs that Rivette has seized the narrative reins, but they also contrapuntally echo the dissolution of the Prometheus and Thebes projects. The long takes that have bounded Thomas and Lili’s crews together, respectively, give way to these actors separated in different sequences and opposed through parallel editing. Does this mean that the grand ideal of theater as “an arena of give and take, vulnerability—ingenuous place and a refuge from reality, even as it seeks to reveal it” can only come at the expense of the director’s loss of agency, which Rivette increasingly reclaims as Out 1 progresses and ends with Thomas’s hysterical, prelingual laughter, the lone madman’s final acceptance of intelligent communication’s failure?
To be plainspoken, I think all theater necessarily involves a director’s eventual loss of agency; let me talk in circles a little bit to see if I can explicate. As you so eloquently put it, no one “concedes control, and sometimes the overall design of a film, to those in front of the camera,” to the same degree as Rivette, except perhaps for John Cassavetes, but at the same time, I was struck by the little efforts Rivette made to inject his own influence into Out 1 and corral the rehearsals’ runaway chaos. Rather than place his camera in a fixed position, like one of those proscenium-style spectacles from the birth of cinema, and let it passively record the action, cinematographer Pierre-William Glenn circles around the troupes with his handheld camera for those extraordinary long takes. He tracks in for extreme close-ups of the actors’ faces and hands, then backs away to afford and overall sense of the geography and structure of the pandemonium; in that act of selective viewing, Rivette moulds the actors’ work, and gives it a sense and form.
Ontologically speaking, rehearsal is about variability and change; to practice a scene over and over again is to get it as close as possible to the platonic ideal of the way the director envisions it—thought or inspiration actualized and made flesh. Coming, circuitously, around to my ultimate argument, every creative process—even writing this paragraph—involves a final moment of release, of an end to endless revisions, and of casting the finished product into the void. (This is one of the minor themes to Out 1: the generative power of thought. As one of Thomas’s friends says somewhere in episode six, “Once something is thought of, it exists;” as long as Colin believes in the conspiracy of the Thirteen, it has life, tangibly realized by the influence it has on Colin’s psyche.) With film, that final act of creativity can be controlled down to its minute detail, through endless numbers of takes (Kubrick’s infamous fastidiousness comes to mind), as well as the editing process, in which it’s possible to structure moments down to the microsecond—both of which allow the director to achieve the ideal as closely as material conditions will allow; once the final film print is struck, every screening is identical. By contrast, the act of final release in the theater, staging the play before a live audience is subject to the vagaries of timing, pacing, and emotional modulation, and none of which the director can control once the play is set in motion, and all of which vary from performance to performance. Rivette cedes final control to his actors, but brings his imprint to bear in a limited way (through the visual representation), and thus transmutes him into not merely a theatrical director, but a director of theater. The loss of agency arises in realizing the verity in the proverbs about horses and water, and the director acknowledging that his job is to lead his charges to drink—as difficult that might be. This then brings up a paradox in Rivette, one that’s endemic and essential to understanding the interplay of film and theater in his work. As soon the rehearsal is recorded on film, it becomes singular and irretrievably fixed—and thus contradictory to its purpose.
What does this have to do with anything? Well, to embrace Rivette is to embrace these paradoxes; and secondly, it’s meant to motivate a line of inquiry as to the nature of how and why process is recorded. In Rivette’s other films where rehearsal and play are the focal point, there’s usually a realization of all that work. L’Amour par terre and L’amour fou both culminate in a performance (however poorly received or attended) arising out of that rehearsal. And in a more evocative sense, Celine and Julie’s daily frolick in Paris, which seems to have no ostensible purpose in Go Boating save for the idle pleasure of the two heroines, is useful in the final estimation, because it has given them the working vocabulary to upend the morbid logic of the haunted house. Since both troupes from Out 1 dissolve without ever delivering their final performances (and indeed, both seem to run off the rails long before the official death knells), what we’re left with is rehearsal and process for its own sake—and therefore Rivette’s purest attempt at representing them. (A similar issue comes into play when Colin declares his love for Pauline to an empty room without realizing she’s eavesdropping in an adjacent one: rehearsal, unwittingly, becomes performance—ironically the film’s only performance. It only adds to what you quite rightly describe as one of the Out 1’s “seminal moments.”)
In a similar vein, what I’m expressing I think taps into (and was inspired by) what you said about “Colin’s struggle to search and question,” which very closely mirrors the struggles of Thomas’s and Lili’s groups to reach their own understanding of their work. The difference, of course, is that Colin’s approaching art from the other side of the equation: he, like us, is the receiver of meaning, not its giver, and his efforts to decipher bits of Balzac and Lewis Carroll’s poem “The Hunting of the Snark,” sent mysteriously through the mail, are very similar to the act of deconstruction we’re essaying here. Colin repeats sentence fragments in the way that we might turn shots or moments over and over in our heads as we scrabble for meaning—but is it too simplistic to describe Colin as a spectator’s surrogate and leave it at that? What do we make of choice to pose as a deaf-mute and his return to that state at the end of the film? How, for that matter, do we take of the weird behavior of the male (Colin) and female (Frédérique) interlopers? Their logic and mode of behavior is vastly different from anyone else in the film; it’s like they’ve parachuted in from Céline and Julie Go Boating. These are fairly facile questions, yes, but even after days of thinking about them, I haven’t arrived at any cogent schema to account for them. If you could enlighten me with your interpretation, I’d be very much obliged.
Click here for the conclusion of Crawford and Rowin’s correspondence on Out 1.