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The Primordial Language of Jacques Rivette’s “Out 1: Noli Me Tangere”

The Primordial Language of Jacques Rivette's "Out 1: Noli Me Tangere"

A version of this essay was originally published by Philadelphia City Paper on December 15, 2006.

There are movies that are hard to see, and then there are those so rare that their very being falls into doubt. Virtually unseen since its 1971 debut, Jacques Rivette’s “Out 1” was for years a kind of cinematic chimera, hailed as a lost masterpiece by the few who claimed to have seen it, but so dauntingly inaccessible it might as well not exist.

The chief reason for “Out 1’s” vanishing act is its extraordinary length: some 12 1/2 hours, divided into eight episodes. But at Astoria’s Museum of the Moving Image last weekend, the faithful gathered undaunted, perhaps even energized, by the prospect of watching a movie no one in their right mind would want to see.

Spread over two days, with box dinners available at each halfway point, the screening took on the feel of a film festival, albeit one devoted to a single film; critics, programmers, and freelance cinephiles flew in from as far as Chicago, brushing up on “Out 1’s” source texts (Aeschylus, Balzac, Louis Carroll) during the breaks.

Fittingly, “Out 1” devotes a good chunk of its length to such ad hoc happenings. Of its four or five major narrative strands, two concern experimental theater groups whose rehearsals take the form of amorphous, unstructured be-ins. Although one is ostensibly readying a production of Aeschylus’ “Seven Against Thebes,” the other his “Prometheus Bound,” it’s clear that the written text plays no more than a cursory role. The “Thebes” group, led by Michèle Moretti’s Lili, treats the words as music, altering pitch and shifting tempo with no regard for meaning. The other, led by Michael Lonsdale’s Thomas, attacks language from the opposite direction. Nearly half of the first 90-minute episode is devoted to a lengthy exercise in which his troupe rolls around on the floor, uttering guttural grunts and moans that only gradually resolve themselves into sounds, and then letters, and finally into a line from the play. “It’s always words that are difficult,” he muses.

If “Out 1” can be said to have a central theme, it’s just that: the difficulty, and perhaps the arbitrariness, of coaxing meaning from the inchoate stuff of life. The movie does, eventually, develop something like a plot, in which a series of cryptic notes puts a young con artist (Jean-Pierre Léaud) on the trail of a mysterious secret society called The Thirteen. But Léaud’s quest is so deliberately absurd that the very idea of plot starts to feel like a contrivance, an arbitrary intrusion into the real world.

Getting the viewer to the point where the things movies usually preoccupy themselves with — hidden conspiracies, tumultuous love affairs, mysterious strangers, gun battles — seem utterly, utterly false, is no mean feat, and reason enough for “Out 1’s” extraordinary length. (It takes a while, after all, to convince people that actors rolling around on the floor and moaning is “normal.”) That’s not to say that every instant of the movie is infused with purpose. Frequently digressive, and conditioned by Rivette’s belief that bad performances could be as revealing as good ones, the movie is studded with go-nowhere improvisations, fluffed lines, mid-scene giggles and outright dead ends. At one point, we suffer through an interminably shouty improv by Lonsdale’s group, only to have him conclude that it was “very muddled.” (He couldn’t have figured that out 10 minutes ago?) But as the hours roll on, such conventional distinctions start to unravel. Although a bad improv may be no fun to watch, it’s enlightening if the object of scrutiny is not the play but the people performing it. We may not know more about Aeschylus, but we do know more about the precarious balance of Lonsdale’s troupe.

As “Out 1” moves into its second half, the notion of the Thirteen takes on greater weight. What might have seemed a figment of Léaud’s imagination emerges as a nebulous conspiracy that involves, in one way or another, most of the characters we’ve already met, as well as a few who are thrown into the mix later on. But Rivette warns us early on not to expect too much resolution. Appearing as a scholar specializing in Balzac, whose novels contain references to another, earlier, group of 13, Eric Rohmer says they usually “intervene to clean up the plot.” In other words, even before we’re sure that the movie’s Thirteen even exist, we’ve been set up to view them as a naked deux ex machina, a prediction that pays off in spades in the closing episodes.

Although the breaks between episodes were filled with furious exchanges of notes — “Was that someone from Lili’s troupe who handed him the first note?”; “Are Pauline and Emilie the same person?” — attempting to unravel the movie’s mysteries ultimately reduces you to the level of Léaud’s character, furiously trying to extract significance from random bits of cultural detritus. (Although if you’re wondering, the answer to both is “Yes.”) Although Rivette builds the film to a satisfying, if harrowing, conclusion, he can’t resists squeezing in a brief gag before the closing credits, a playful jab at anyone who thinks they’ve finally got the whole thing figured out.

According to MMI curator David Schwartz, last weekend’s sold-out even brought the grand total of “Out 1’s” public screening to six, three of which have been held in the last seven months. Could this once-unseeable movie be edging closer to availability? Perhaps the conspiracy to keep it hidden is winding down, or maybe it never existed.

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