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Tributes to French New Wave Master Jacques Rivette, Dead at 87

Tributes to French New Wave Master Jacques Rivette, Dead at 87

Jacques Rivette, a founding member of the French New Wave who hewed to his own path while his colleagues went on to greater success, has died at the age of 87. His last film was 2009’s “Around a Small Mountain.” 

Although Rivette is gallingly under-represented on home video and streaming services in the U.S., a handful of recent releases — Kino’s “Le Pont Du Nord,” Criterion’s “Paris Nous Appartient” (due on Blu-ray in March, currently streaming via their Hulu channel), and especially Carlotta’s “Out 1: Noli Me Tangere” — have brought his work back into circulation. (Still missing, and never even released on VHS, is the movie many place at the heart of his oeuvre: 1974’s “Céline and Julie Go Boating.”)

Rivette’s great subject was the game, a way of finding order within the chaos of the world, or imposing it on top. Often, as in “Out 1,” it was a pursuit close to, or driving its players towards, madness. But he also used it to wean his audiences away from the structures of conventional narrative, confronting the way they bring us farther away from truth rather than leading us to it. The result, often revealed in stories that stretched well past the conventional running time — “Out 1” runs over 13 hours; the modest “L’Amour Fou” and “La Belle Noiseuse” a mere four — is a playful, sometimes purposefully maddening, consideration of cinema itself.

As I wrote of “Out 1”:

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.

Indiewire’s Zack Sharf has a list of six of Rivette’s films that can be streamed via various services, while publications like Sight & Sound have posted brief tributes, with lengthier appreciations befitting Rivette’s stature promised soon. (Keyframe Daily’s David Hudson collects several good earlier essays.) Here are the ones that have made it to print so far. We’ll update this post as more arrive.

Andrew Pulver, Guardian

A phrase that occasionally crops up in cinema criticism is “real time.” This is the effect of unediting: the long, slow, unhurried and continuous camera takes that seek the experience of life itself. And maybe also invite the audience to glimpse, through the sheer hypnotic steadiness of this gaze – like those novelty Magic Eye pictures of the 1990s – something else: a mysterious figure in the carpet, a pattern behind the images of everyday life. The New Wave director Jacques Rivette was a master of the real-time aesthetic in cinema, unafraid of letting his movies roll out at length, with people walking, talking, existing, but on a cerebral yet playful plane of imagination and discourse that always made his pictures quite distinct from social realism. He was also always fascinated with the theatre and theatrical illusion.

Dave Kehr, New York Times

Probably his most successful film was one of his later ones, “La Belle Noiseuse” (1991), a loose adaptation of Balzac’s “Le Chef-d’oeuvre Inconnu” about the intense complicity that grows between a painter (Michel Piccoli) and a young woman (Emmanuelle Béart) who agrees to pose nude for him. The film’s demanding running time, nearly four hours, was typical for Mr. Rivette, who enjoyed exploring and exploding the limits of conventional movie storytelling, although its relatively transparent theme, the give-and-take between life and art, was not.

More representative was “Céline and Julie Go Boating” (1974), a critically praised excursion, more than three hours long, in the company of two contemporary Parisians, a magician (Juliet Berto) and a librarian (Dominique Labourier). The two are drawn to a mysterious house where, their imaginations aided by magic candy, they witness an unfolding Edwardian melodrama involving a lonely widower (Barbet Schroeder) and a pair of conniving women (Bulle Ogier and Marie-France Pisier). Art and life are on the docket here as well, but the relationship between the two is shifting and complex. And it is by no means clear, at any given moment, whether the visitors are imagining the residents of the house or vice versa.

Ignatiy Vishnevestky, A.V. Club

Rivette’s second feature — the 1966 Denis Diderot adaptation “The Nun,” starring iconic New Wave actress Anna Karina — faced public censorship for perceived anti-Catholic themes, and it seemed for a time like his film career was not to be. His most widely seen work from the period was a series of interviews with one of the idols of the New Wave, director Jean Renoir, conducted for the TV show “Cinéastes De Notre Temps.” However, radicalized by the riots that swept France in May of 1968 and emboldened by a growing interest in improvisation, Rivette — by now in his 40s — re-invented himself with “L’Amour Fou,” a 4-hour study of a disintegrating relationship between an actress and a director.

His next project, “Out 1,” was originally envisioned for TV, but would become one of the most notorious holy grails of cinephilia. Shot on 16mm on the streets of Paris with a cast that included many of the best French actors of their generation, the largely improvised, claustrophobically paranoid serial remains one of film history’s most indelible portraits of delusion and political disillusionment. Acclaim finally came with his fifth feature, “Celine and Julie Go Boating,” a three-hour feminist flight of fancy about a stage magician and a librarian who become obsessed with an apparently magical mansion that transports them into a gothic alternate reality.

Matt Prigge, Metro

Matt Brennan, Thompson on Hollywood

From the 13-hour “Out 1,” the 1971 “magnum opus” that reappeared on American shores last year, to his penultimate film, the sumptuous “The Duchess of Langeais” (2007), Rivette nonetheless forged a career of remarkable longevity, consistency, and artistic independence, examining the pervasive, inexplicable recesses of both the human experience and its reflections in the cinema. With a heightened sense of stagecraft and theatricality, Rivette treated a vast range of subjects — he adapted Diderot (“The Nun”) and Brontë (“Wuthering Heights,” 1985), made mysteries (“Le Pont du Nord,” 1981) and comedies (“Va Savoir,” 2001) — but his commitment to seeing the world through the art form’s eyes never wavered.

Adam Batty, Hope Lies at 24 Frames a Second

Jacques Rivette was the perfect combination of Feuillade and Frank Tashlin, a man for whom cinephilia reigned (what is “Out 1’s” Colin if not the perfect on-screen metaphor for the never-truly-silent movie?) and a figure whose work will live on in the eternal memory that is Cinema.

Melissa Anderson, Village Voice

Open-ended, destabilizing, and abounding in enigmas, Rivette’s work is distinguished from those of his confrères for its focus on women: not just on female protagonists (as in The Nun from 1966 and his 1994 two-part epic on Joan of Arc) but also on the lives of women removed from men. Films like “Céline and Julie Go Boating” (1974) and “Up, Down, Fragile” (1995) explore women’s quests for freedom and independence, female friendships and erotic attachments; crucially, these and other projects were developed as collaborations with his distaff casts. The unconventional, highly generative approach Rivette took with many of his movies is illustrated by his remark on the origin of” Céline and Julie Go Boating,” a sui generis project that might best be described as a film about two friends on an adventure: “The first idea was to bring together Juliet [Berto] and Dominique [Labourier], who were already friends.”

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