Come And See

Film still for Come And See

With the release of the latest film by New Wave veteran Jacques Rivette, David Thomson returns to the warmth and openness of his past work - and discovers there signs of hope for cinema's future.

I began this essay after Sight & Sound kindly asked me whether perhaps I had anything new to say about Jacques Rivette - I think they meant anything more than the long, euphoric entry that appeared in A Biographical Dictionary of Film in 1975, and which hasn't changed much since then. I have never been the only or the most eloquent defender of Rivette - Jonathan Rosenbaum and Tom Milne have done honourable work over the years. Still, as I came to think about what to write, I was struck by a couple of things. The first is that a defence of Rivette is no longer in order: not because there isn't a need to speak to his greatness, but because the attack - along with the interest or attention - has simply moved away. And somehow it seems fatuous to ignore such changes in history.

In an effort to get warmed up I started reading, and I found the September 1962 issue of Movie (no. 2 - the one with Otto Preminger and Jill Haworth on the cover). I dug it out because it contains Paul Mayersberg's review of Paris nous appartient (1961), which still reads well. But as I flipped through the pages I also found Andrew Sarris' 'Letter from New York', in the course of which he says: "Alexandre Astruc's Une Vie [1958] finally opened in New York as End of Desire, and was universally panned. I doubt if more than 50 people in America have any idea who Astruc is."

1962, just before the Cuban missile crisis: Sarris and Rivette (they were born in the same year) were 34; Astruc was 39; I was 21. And I wonder if more than 50 people reading this article now remember who Astruc was. Only the other day I emailed a young internet friend - someone I have never met who is about to start college and is obsessed with film - and mentioned Astruc as someone worth looking at. I quoted from an essay called 'The Birth of a New Avant-garde: le caméra-stylo' written by Astruc in 1948. I offered his observations as something I believe in still but which seems more remote as a hope at a time when film-makers are possessed by the new playground of digital imagery, the chance to make hay with the appearance of things that never were: "I mean that the cinema will gradually break free from the tyranny of what is visual, from the image for its own sake, from the immediate and concrete demands of the narrative, to become a means of writing just as flexible and subtle as written language."

To offer that today in most film courses in America would be to risk being demonised as an idiot. The tyranny of the visual has set in with a vengeance: come to think of it, it's a pretty good overall description of what bursts on to the big screen these days. And the tyrants who are the exultant young masters of this 'visual' hysteria frighten me as much as the Cuban missile crisis did in 1962.

Mood of paranoia

Not that global fear of that sort has gone out of date. I had an idea for a movie the other day - a pretty good hook, I thought. It's a moonlight night on the US-Mexican frontier. Entirely by chance, a border patrol picks up four Mexicans and their mules guiding a cart across a remote part of the border. Wrapped in blankets and newspapers in the cart is an old Soviet nuclear warhead - by 'old' I mean state of the art as of the end of the Cold War: an antique now, but active.

It takes a few hours before 'Intelligence' (please don't laugh - it's the word we still use) gets a grip on this incident. At that point the interrogation closes in on the four Mexicans, as a prelude to their utter disappearance. The Mexicans are amiable and helpful. They tell all they know, and one remarks how odd it is that they got caught tonight, because the four times they did the trip previously nothing happened. At which point our heroes in Homeland Security (George Clooney and Morgan Freeman, if you like) have to decide whether the president (another of our quaint concepts) should admit this to the American public or whistle in the dark.

What has this got to do with Jacques Rivette, you may be wondering? Well, more or less, it's an anecdote in the paranoid mood that weighed on his first feature film Paris nous appartient and made it so remarkable. I don't have space to go into the complex plot in proper detail, but I note that Paul Mayersberg reckons it may have been the most important of the early New Wave films. Certainly it seemed the most grave and far-reaching, which is reasonable since Rivette had to make the picture slowly, on 16mm, over a period of about three years as his money allowed. A film like that grows and shifts in time, and it must have taken on deeper meanings as it grew, being infected by the world around it. So its portrait of a group of uneasy, creative people in Paris turns towards being an intimation of some vast, malign conspiracy - an order or disorder - that may stifle life.

There were immediate references: the American expatriate, a victim of McCarthyism; the death of the composer, perhaps a terrorist killing; and the shadow of nuclear destruction. But the mythic elements were all bound together in a scene at a party where several of the characters watch Fritz Lang's 1926 Metropolis, that prophecy of a city split between masters and slaves, or authors and helpless characters. You could see that 'quote' as part of Rivette's great knowledge of cinema history (and he was a devotee of Lang), but it was also another way of taking creative work as a metaphor for all of life's enterprises. After all, the characters in Paris nous appartient are trying to mount a production of Shakespeare's Pericles and all through the film rehearsal may be an unnerving or unwitting synonym for sinister intent, just as 'plot' (as in a play or novel) overlaps with the 'plot' of conspiracy.

It is normal not to make films

Well, there's an introduction to, or an attempt at, film commentary. I should add that Rivette (now 76) has worked steadily over the years and at his own pace. Although very much part of the early Cahiers gang, he was always shy and solitary - he came from Rouen, and had that look of the young, idealistic but attenuated Jean Vigo, though without Vigo's glorious wife Lydou. He has persevered with his work, and I daresay has the same kind of difficulty mounting a new venture today as he did with Paris nous appartient. He was never likely to make a 'hit' movie, though he did wander into notoriety with 1965's La Religieuse (when it was banned) and he certainly had a highpoint, a moment of startling clarity and reputation, in the early 1970s. Yet I have to admit, much as I admire him, that the latest films - Va savoir (2001) and now Histoire de Marie et Julien - are not his best or most compelling. Why not admit that they are not the work of a man who is simply young and certain, but wise, fond and drained. As Rivette himself said (in Sight & Sound, autumn 1963) when asked about the opportunities for film-making: "At the best of times it is all a matter of luck. There is no law of society which says that it is one's right to make a film, or that one may make a film. If one manages to make a film, fine; if not, then one really has nothing to complain about. It is normal not to make films."

Take your time with that wistful throwaway remark - I wonder, is there a chance of a modest campaign at this magazine to make it a banner headline on the contents page? "It is normal not to make films." Think about it a while (and duration has always been a key, hesitant element in Rivette) and you may begin to feel his humour, his stoicism, his patient sense of life and its alternatives. It's something I rediscovered as I took another look at Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974).

Ways of seeing

This cannot be a long essay or a book about Rivette. I am going to have to pass over many great films (1968's L'Amour fou and 1991's La Belle Noiseuse) - and I hope that haste is pardoned slightly by Rivette's concession that films are, well, abnormal, even aberrations. But I really took on this article so as to have another chance of looking at Celine and Julie. My son picked up the tape for me and noted that the box had a favourable quote from me - so why did I need to see the picture again? Don't minimise that attitude's good sense - yet I find nothing as intriguing as the thought that I might have been generous once, or just not good enough to see what was in front of me.

And this time, in the early sections of the storyline as Julie sits in a small Parisian park and cannot fail to notice the flagrant passage of Celine, I noticed, or rediscovered, the lovely feeling for passing moments: the wind in the trees; the overcast summer's day; the background noises; the shuffling passage of time and business. It was the ordinariness of it all, which had to include the athletic sighs, tics, murmurs and nose-wrinkling of Dominique Labourier (Julie) as well as the impassioned theatrical drollery of Juliet Berto (Celine).

Let me try this paradox on you: that with so much to see or notice (and noticing is the humane version of seeing - it is a camera with warmth; it is realising that "I am a camera" is a way of abandoning responsibility), the 'visual' does not have to be hammered into our consciousness. We can see life first and the nature of the shot second. To illustrate: do you see how often it is the shot (the fateful composition) that registers first in, say, Hitchcock, Kubrick and Lang, whereas it is the life or the light or the situation that impresses in Renoir, Ozu and Rossellini? Do you see how far this is a model for the gap (of vivacity and doubt) between a computer-generated shot (always foreseen before it is seen) and a photographed, reactive shot - the kind that occurs whenever someone says, 'Oh, look, do you see that...'? For what that kind of seeing amounts to (and this is vital to what Astruc said) is that noting carries responsibility, attitude, history and context, whereas mere seeing (the mechanical thing) can be as warm or as cold as the mind working the camera. And if that mind is intent on effacing itself before the superb 'truthfulness' of the camera, then beware of that mind. It is too cold for comfort.

It is the warmth I notice now in Celine and Julie - and it is the warmth of the day, a fondness for Paris, a pleasure in the ferment of two actresses, plus the revelling in this cabinet of a story ("Most of the time, it began like this..."). But just as in Celine and Julie, the events inside the house (7 bis rue du Nadir aux Pommes) and the haphazard attempts by Celine and Julie to attend to that show have been going on for ever - it is a continuous performance such as we used to adore at the movies. Of course there are small differences, as in every performance of a play: the leaves move differently in the warm air; a cat takes two and a half steps instead of three; a line reading floats towards a fresh perception.

Fritz Lang turned upside down

What follows from that in terms of what we are given to see in Celine and Julie Go Boating is an endless sense of 'Well, this is what you're seeing this time, but realise there were a whole lot of other things going on, and there are already other things you may notice.' This is the essential openness in Renoir - and Renoir, may I say, is still the essential modernist in cinema, still the director who makes the greatest issue out of seeing and noticing for us. This is one reason why, over the years, Renoir's films alter for us: there is so much to see that ten years later we may come up with a different line. This crowded frame (and I do not mean over-crowded) is a way of advising us that literal seeing, that visibility or the visual, are less important than the state of mind doing the attending.

There are crowded frames in American cinema - in Hitchcock and De Palma, in Nicholas Ray and Orson Welles - but in America so often there is a neurotic reliance on decisiveness, a way in which the crowded scene has a secret pattern (a rosebud - for Renoir, Kane would have said les fleurs), a deterministic order that is the imprint of fate. Thus in Citizen Kane, very simply, there is the light surrounded by dark, and the penetrative gaze or tracking search that seeks out detail - the way the camera finds the Rosebud sledge just before it goes into the fire. Literally in Renoir, and in Rivette (that was a rich discipleship, so don't omit from Rivette's oeuvre the superb 1967 documentary Jean Renoir, the Boss), we are free to see and notice. And that is a lesson Rivette offers us in the gorgeous (and very comic) contrast between the Renoirish treatment of the outer world and the Lang-like fatalism of the shots at 7 bis as its Henry Jamesian melodrama unwinds - and as, gradually, it begins to look like the haunted black and white of RKO in the 1940s.

Now attend to the most remarkable point of all: that this merry, lumière-drenched study in fate surpassed by improvisation, hard candies and the daft perseverance of two girls who might be company for the Marx brothers is coming only a little more than ten years after Paris nous appartient, that heartfelt endorsement (with modernisation) of the vision of Fritz Lang. In other words, the young Rivette had distinct noirish tendencies and a great deal he was afraid of in the world. And why not - remember my Mexican story, even if Rivette would probably prefer to make the four Mexicans chatterbox girls who tell such long stories their inquisitors fall asleep so the girls can escape to open a hairdressing salon in San Diego. Paris nous appartient is a very alarming movie, steadily mindful of how easily the fragile, fragrant world could end. I don't mean to suggest that its gravity has ever left Rivette either: there are signs of it far later in his work (as in 1997's Secret Défense) and he has never lost contact with the notion that a gathering of people can be a conspiracy as easily as a party.

Made just before Celine and Julie, Out 1 (1971) was a sombre record of such a web - yet even there lumière and the sweet vagaries of performance allowed the possibility that the spider's strategy need not be monotonously sinister. But Celine and Julie was the rebound: the world of Lang turned upside down, as if treated by Renoir or Demy.

Living in the dark

As far as I can tell, the last time Rivette received a real article in Sight & Sound was September 1998, with Jonathan Romney's admirable study of Secret Défense (along with 1995's Haut bas fragile) - and these two are noir and lumière again, done close together, almost as an experiment in pendulum-ism. Romney made the important point that Rivette remains not just the critic and historian as director but the film-maker as a widely read person. It's in that sense, I think, that the structuring of stories may be his great characteristic - and it's that which makes him the exemplary exponent of Astruc's shocking hope from 1948.

I too try to be critic, historian and novelist - perhaps that's how I share Rivette's approach. I know this risks today's damning verdict of 'literary'. But I beg for that scarlet letter as part of my lonely drive to edge the movies away from their chronic visualness. It really won't do; and it's hardly endurable. The hope for the movies is not that they make a new art - futuristic, adolescent, fascistic (if I may say so). It's more that they find a way of linking up with all our other forms of story-telling, while appealing to people who do have other tastes or sides to their lives - spouses, children, sports, weather, leg-pulling, I could go on and on and will if it upsets those cretins who prefer to spend every minute in the dark.

I don't know if there are 50 or 500 of us left, but please, notice Rivette, remember Astruc, study Renoir, and bear in mind this last word from Rivette's 1963 interview. Louis Marcorelles asked him: "Didn't the cinema once reach a sort of state of grace, which it has lost today?" To which Rivette replied: "Yes... but since it is lost, it isn't worth talking about."

That was then, this is now, and I hope you're finding grace like there was in 1974, say, when the London film festival showed not just Celine and Julie Go Boating but the four-and-a-half-hour Out One: Spectre (there is or was the 12-hour Out 1). That same festival, by the way, had F for Fake, Immoral Tales, Lancelot of the Lake, Mouth Agape, Stavisky, Alice in the Cities, Effi Briest and Badlands.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012