“Are there laws?” Frédérique (Juliet Berto) says to another character while contemplating a chess board in the fourth episode of “Out 1.” “I’m afraid of laws.” That line of dialogue encapsulates the singular experience of watching Jacques Rivette‘s eight-episode, 13-hour 1971 serial: the exhilarating sensation of witnessing a truly lawless work of art, one that boldly establishes its own rules as it goes along. But as much of a landmark as it is, it is one that has been extraordinarily difficult to see, and not just because of its unwieldy length. The 16mm print that screened in London and New York back in 2006—the last time the complete film screened theatrically anywhere—was said to be the only print in existence, a fact that only increased the aura it had acquired as one of the Holy Grails of cinema. Now, thanks to Carlotta Films, that 16mm print has been given an immaculate 2K digital restoration that is getting a world-premiere theatrical run at New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music, on its way to an eventual home-video release, thus bringing the film to an even wider audience than ever before.
Thankfully, “Out 1” proves to be worth celebrating beyond just its newfound widespread availability. Here, for one thing, is a film that not only looks back to silent-era serials like Louis Feuillade‘s “Les Vampires” in its gradual unfolding of a story over a lengthy time span, but, in its interweaving of four plot threads, anticipates the complex serialized stories that have become just about commonplace on television. Appropriate, because Rivette originally intended this mammoth work for the tube. Even more audaciously, Rivette didn’t have much of a script for “Out 1” beyond a diagram of character intersections; much of what his large cast does and says is purely improvisational, caught on the wing in long takes by a camera acute to the nuances of its performers. That explains how remarkably lifelike much of the film seems—essentially pushing much farther with improvisatory acting than even American contemporary John Cassavetes dared.
But “Out 1” isn’t just exploratory in its filmmaking methods; exploration is its dramatic essence. This doesn’t just apply to the efforts of two of its supporting characters, the aforementioned Frédérique and, especially, Colin (Jean-Pierre Léaud), as they uncover the details of the secret society they both appear to have randomly stumbled upon. The two central theater troupes—one led by Lili (Michèle Moretti), the other by Thomas (Michael Lonsdale)—are both striving to discover their own ways to interpret the Aeschylus plays they’re staging (“Seven Against Thebes” in Lili’s case, “Prometheus Bound” in Thomas’) during the many extended rehearsal sequences we see throughout the film. While Lili takes a more controlled and conventional approach, spending copious amounts of time trying to achieve perfection within an already set-down framework, Thomas and his intrepid band of actors essentially try to discover their interpretation as they go, participating in a slew of acting exercises, picking apart the results in lengthy postmortems. Outside of the paranoid conspiracy intrigue that slowly reveals itself, “Out 1” manages the rare feat of wringing genuine suspense out of the artistic outcome of theatrical rehearsals, so relentlessly drawn-out are the long takes that chronicle these actors’ efforts.
Perhaps that unique achievement shouldn’t be such a surprise coming from Jacques Rivette, whose preceding film, “L’Amour Fou,” focused on theatrical craft with similarly merciless attention to detail while also chronicling the dissolution of a relationship. The magical intersection between cinema, theater and reality is a grand theme that would engage Rivette throughout his entire career. Note, for instance, “Celine and Julie Go Boating,” in which its titular main characters uncover within an unassuming apartment building in Paris, a Victorian fantasy world, one in which they are free to either observe from a giggly distance or actively participate in. The whimsy in the everyday that Rivette celebrates isn’t always positive, however. Conspiracies are also a hallmark of his work, as seen in “Le Pont du Nord,” which centers on an odd couple that discovers a criminal underworld lurking underneath the ruins of modernizing Paris. Instead of the secret board-game-like map of the city leading to revelations in “Le Pont du Nord,” literary references offer the keys in “Out 1,” including Honoré de Balzac’s three-novel cycle “History of the Thirteen” (complete with explanation from fellow French New Wave filmmaker Eric Rohmer playing a Balzac scholar in one scene) and Lewis Carroll’s poem “The Hunting of the Snark.”
All of that suggests a playful side to “Out 1,” one that makes the film as amusing as it is absorbing. But what makes Rivette’s epic film more than the sum of its whimsical parts, are its undercurrents of regret and melancholy. Layers build in poignancy the deeper into their respective rabbit holes these characters wade. One begins to get a sense of this when we begin to discover the nature of “the Thirteen” that obsess Colin and Frédérique so: Some of the members of these two theater troupes were once political radicals with grand aspirations of reforming their society for the better until something—whether a lack of broader social interest, a flaming out of initial fiery passions, or otherwise—stalled their idealistic progress. Now they hide in plain sight, plunging themselves into their own lives, perhaps trying to funnel their furies into artistic creation, just generally hoping for another flame that may or may not ever come. Fitting then, that at one point in “Out 1,” Thomas’ experimental theater group gradually loses sight of its initial goal of finding modern-day resonance in “Prometheus Bound”, as petty personal matters eventually override their aims.
Certainly, this metaphorical portrait of dashed revolutionary dreams couldn’t help but have some topical resonance in 1971, years after the fervor of the student-led riots in Paris in May 1968. But if the recent rise and fall of the Occupy Wall Street movement is any indication, Rivette’s playful yet deeply serious lament for the faded hopes of a whole generation will continue to be relevant as long as people dare to dream about reshaping the world in which they live. It all comes down to one character’s cathartic laugh/cry in the film’s penultimate scene, a funny yet devastating summation of the surface pleasures and hidden depths of a Rivette masterpiece that one can imagine. [A+]