NYFF 2001 REVIEW: "Who Knows?" Rivette Does: Elder New Waver Turns in Masterpiece
by Patrick Z. McGavin
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Patrick Z. McGavin reviewed the 39th New York Film Festival opener, “Va Savoir” at its premiere in Cannes last May. The film will be released by Sony Pictures Classics in theatres this Saturday.]
The cinema of Jacques Rivette — modernist, enveloping, demanding — is graceful and complicated, attuned to mood and emotion, feeling and place, and alert to coincidence and fate. One of the great themes of his work is the dialectic between film and theater, and that complex, formally adventurous examination is the centerpiece of his remarkable new film, his 21st feature, “Va savoir.”
It seems impossible to over-praise this beautifully made, sophisticated, and finally, quite staggering film. If Baz Luhrmann‘s obscenely overwrought “Moulin Rouge” represents the death of aesthetics, “Va savoir” is the elevation of the emotional and expressive capabilities of the medium. Luhrmann is a splatter “artist” unaware of how to punctuate. In his movies, the images are so irrelevant, they vaporize, rendered instantly forgettable. Rivette is a poet of movement and possibility, and his work is an intricately layered, emotionally buoyant demonstration of art and its consequences.
Like Rivette’s 1974 masterpiece, “Celine and Julie Go Boating,” this new movie begins slowly, patiently establishing and introducing its ideas and themes on identity, freedom, mistrust and desire. Camille (Jeanne Balibar) is a prominent French actress who mysteriously abandoned Paris three years earlier to disentangle herself from the clutches of Pierre (Jacques Bonnaffe), an academic. At the start of the film, she returns home, the star of a Pirandello adaptation, “As You Desire Me,” produced by her theater company back in Turin. Her new companion, Ugo (Sergio Castellitto), is the theater’s director and her co-star in the play. The plot echoes significantly the dominant story of Rivette’s extraordinary 1968 film, “L’amour fou,” that examined the complicated relationship of an actress and her husband, the play’s director, during a production of Racine‘s “Andromaque.” In both films, the emotional, physical and formal differences of the two art forms are rigorously contrasted to delineate opposite meanings of art and life, the actual and the invented.
Rivette’s great accomplishment is binding the emotional complications of the two protagonists into a larger, more expansive field encompassing Pierre’s wife Sonja (Marianne Basler), the beautiful young student Dominique (Helene de Fougerolles) who Ugo meets during his increasingly obsessive search for an unpublished manuscript, and the girl’s half-brother (Bruno Todeschini), a romantic wastrel who becomes entranced by both Camille and Sonja.
Working with his recurring collaborators, writers Christine Laurent and Pascal Bonitzer, and the astonishing cinematographer William Lubtchansky and editor Nicole Lubtchansky, Rivette moves with agility and freshness between the abstract and sublime, though he also acknowledges darker edges in the torrent of feelings, nerves and frayed sensibilities exposed throughout the movie’s two and a half hour duration. The image of Camilla standing in the shower, vigorously dropping water over her body, in an attempt to cleanse herself and resolve her deeply conflicted feelings, is one of the most intensely vulnerable and acute moments of recent movies.
Formally, the other significant Rivette preoccupation is process, and its effect in the construction of identity and personality. With his brilliant use of extracts from the Pirandello play, Rivette draws on the formal demands of the theater to create a mesmerizing and deeply expressive piece of film. The work is about transmuting experience, feeling and mood into something pure and emotionally recognizable. The physical frame — the proscenium of the theater — is turned into a kind of meditation on the relationship of the actors to their art and audience. In “Va savoir,” the flow of movement is perfectly calibrated; the action becomes charged and erotic, informed by possibility and freedom. As the shaping of objects and the movement of bodies lyrically bound together, Rivette turns the movie into a dance.
The 73-year-old master summons up the deepest recesses of his art, giving in to the unpredictable actions, shared coincidences and emotional inevitability of life. By the time of its astonishing conclusion, and its amazing play of horizontal and physical space, “Va savoir” is a transforming experience.
[Patrick Z. McGavin is a Chicago-based writer and film critic.]