Jacques Rivette, who emerged in the 1950s, along with Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, and Claude Chabrol, as one of the primary filmmakers of the French New Wave, is the most underappreciated (and under-screened) of this legendary group. Rivette’s deliberately challenging, super-size films defy easy assimilation, and demand a level of attention unusual even to his compatriots’ works. In addition to being considered difficult, however, Rivette’s body of work is also, arguably, the richest of the New Wave era, possessing an intellectual inquiry and humanity unmatched in the French cinema of his time. He has also managed the difficult trick of producing relevant and intriguing films for over 40 years, from Paris nous appartient (1960) to Va savoir (2001).
Jacques Rivette emerged out of the postwar milieu of movie love in Paris. As a young film enthusiast, he joined forces with the group of critics who would come to form the legendary film journal Cahiers du cinéma. From the start of his career, Rivette alternated between his twin loves of criticism and filmmaking, ultimately creating a self-knowing form of filmmaking, critically aware of its own place in film history. While much of Rivette’s best work remains for the most part unseen, his 45-year career reveals a body of films that may be the most spectacular of all the French New Wave generation.
Rivette was born in 1928, in Rouen. In 1950, he became involved with the Ciné-Club du Quartier Latin, and contributed articles to its bulletin, the Gazette du Cinema, edited by Eric Rohmer. During this period, he also directed his first short films, Aux Quatre Coins (1950), Le Quadrille (1950), and Le Divertissement (1952). Rivette’s friendship with Rohmer led him to the new film journal Cahiers du cinéma, edited by Andre Bazin and Jacques Doniol-Valcroze. During the years of 1952 and 1953, the core of the Cahiers group formed, anchored around the quintet of Rivette, Rohmer, Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and Claude Chabrol. Rivette’s writings at Cahiers primarily concern the American cinema of the 1940s and 1950s, arguing against the staid French “cinema of quality” in favor of the lusty, unbridled American filmmaking he admired. He championed Howard Hawks, John Ford, Nicholas Ray and Fritz Lang, seeing them as representatives of a specifically American vitality. The Cahiers critics were all aspiring filmmakers, and craved to translate their ideas about movies into filmmaking of their own. Rivette had worked as an assistant to Jacques Becker and Jean Renoir, and when Truffaut and Rohmer made their first shorts, he served as their cameraman.
In 1958, Rivette—before Truffaut, Godard or Rohmer and second only to Chabrol—began shooting his first feature-length film. Short on funding, he made Paris nous appartient over the next two years, utilizing borrowed equipment, bits and pieces of film stock, and the spare time of his performers. The story concerns a group of artists rehearsing a performance of Shakespeare’s Pericles, and the film functions simultaneously as a realistic depiction of bohemian Parisian life at the end of the 1950s, and a genuinely frightening, modernist, alienated view of a world where either everything is part of a vast conspiracy, or is utterly unrelated. Paris nous appartient is undecided about which possibility is the more frightening, but its free-floating paranoia looks back to high-modernist antecedents like Kafka and Borges while anticipating the paranoid cinema that has come to dominate the contemporary Hollywood blockbuster.
Many of Rivette’s preoccupations and recurrent themes are prominent in this first feature. Paranoia, plotting, and the essential mystery of the Other are constants in his films, as is the sustained focus on the relationship between theatrical expression and unscripted, everyday life. Rivette’s self-conscious meditations on the nature of cinema, and life, in L’Amour fou (1968), Celine et Julie vont en bateau (1974), La Bande des quatre (1989), Secret défense (1998) and Va savoir, among others, are all tempered through the medium of theater. Rivette, like Shakespeare, sees all the world as a stage, with the constant presence of the theatrical in his work a reminder of the inherent theatricality of human emotion and expression. This theme runs as an undercurrent through all of Rivette’s films, helping to structure and organize the otherwise disparate narratives of his various works. Nonetheless, Rivette returns repeatedly to the group of creative souls, working and experiencing together, driven apart by love, jealousy, or the fear of the world’s conspiratorial powers. His films are always about the relationship between various individuals existing in the complexity and opacity of lived experience. Life outside the social, interpersonal realm is like the actor’s existence offstage—ultimately too wispy and ephemeral to perceive.
From 1963 until 1965 Rivette was editor in chief at Cahiers, having replaced fellow New Waver Eric Rohmer. During his tenure, he guided Cahiers toward a broadened interest in the political implications of contemporary culture. Rivette served as a middle ground between the two phases of Cahiers, from the aggressively depoliticized magazine of the 1950s toward the Marxist orientation it adopted post-May 1968. His September 1963 interview with semiotician Roland Barthes stands as the best articulation of Cahiers‘ new position, defining a political role for the art of film without abandoning its original unstinting love for the cinema.
Rivette’s second film, made in 1965, was a surprising departure, adapting Diderot’s famous Enlightenment novel, La Religieuse, for the screen. Rivette cast Godard’s wife and muse, Anna Karina, in the main role of Suzanne Simonin. The film is a faithful adaptation of Diderot’s novel, in which a young woman is cast into a life of torment in a French convent by her father, and battles for her freedom. La Religieuse has its powerful moments, and Karina’s performance is exemplary, but the film suffers from a mannered, studied quality unusual to Rivette’s body of work. In a sense, La Religieuse is a throwback to the “cinema of quality” of the 1940s, wholly stylized and mostly predictable, a crowd-pleasing film with none of the blazing, white-hot ingenuity that marks the best of Rivette’s work. Still the film was a succès de scandale of sorts upon its release, being banned for two years for its unsympathetic portrayal of the tyrannical rule of the Catholic Church (and allegorically, one could say, the Gaullist government, then in power).
Rivette’s next two films were not widely distributed, and are still near-impossible to see, but continue—and deepen—the subversion and complication of film narrative begun with Paris nous appartient. L’Amour fou follows a producer and actress, husband and wife, who are rehearsing Racine’s play Andromache. The protagonists are also the subjects of a television documentary, and Rivette’s film switches between 35 and 16mm to reflect the separate projects. As part of Rivette’s vigorous dedication to realism, he hired a real crew to shoot the documentary, and had the actors genuinely rehearse the play. Over the course of the film, the difficulties in staging the production cause the woman to leave her husband. The fragility of human relationships—one of Rivette’s favorite topics—is central to the film, as is the fragile relationship between fact and fiction, reality and storytelling. These concerns form the core of Rivette’s later work, with the latter essential to Celine et Julie vont en bateau, and the former crucial to Va savoir. His fifth film is the quasi-legendary Out One: Noli me tangere (1971). Close to thirteen hours in length, and shown in its entirety only once, it is essentially a lost work, replaced by the later, 255 minute version, Out One: Spectre (1972). Based on the story by Honore de Balzac, the film concerns 13 seemingly unconnected individuals living in Paris who form a secret society—or do they? Two loners, played by Juliet Berto and Jean-Pierre Leaud, join forces in an attempt to grasp the nature of the conspiracy, but ultimately fail. A parable about storytelling, and our human need for such unifying plots in the face of seemingly total disconnection, Out One: Spectre, while a difficult work, is tremendously important to Rivette’s career as a whole. It offers mystery without answer, horror without pacification, nothingness without cease. Jonathan Rosenbaum, in describing the film, said, “Going further in self-annihilating narrative than any director before him, Rivette has burned up all the ground beneath his feet.” While it may have seemed that Rivette had nowhere to go after Out One, with Celine et Julie vont en bateau he found a way, and created one of the most astonishing films of post-New Wave era.
The first two films were shot using a written script, and left Rivette disappointed, while L’Amour fou, which was partially scripted, was somewhat more successful. This encouraged Rivette to make Celine et Julie without a script, and to work out the details during shooting with his two lead actresses, Juliet Berto and Dominique Labourier. Celine (Berto) and Julie (Labourier) are two women who meet while playing a game of cat and mouse game in summertime Montmartre, quickly becoming inseparable, and stumble into an enchanted house of storytelling, in which the same story plays itself out, day upon day. In the house, two women’s bitter fight over the love of the same man ultimately results in the tragic death of the man’s young daughter. Celine and Julie take turns playing the young girl’s nurse, and at the day’s end, after deliriously stumbling out of the house, return to their apartment with magical candies that, when sucked, can bring back, with total recall, the day’s events. The duo ultimately save the girl from her endlessly looping tragic fate, but Celine et Julie‘s stunning final sequence questions the difference between the reality of the house of storytelling and their own (via the candies). It is upon this rather questionable framework that Rivette builds, in the words of David Thomson, “the most innovative film since Citizen Kane…whereas Kane was the first picture to suggest that the world of the imagination was as powerful as reality, Celine and Julie is the first film in which everything is invented.”
Rivette’s film is multifaceted in its cinematic re-education of its viewers. Celine et Julie presents its viewers with a vision of ‘the possible’, filtered through a study of the rigidity of the forms of the past. This begins with issues of film length and respect of audience. Rivette rejects the notion of “the democratic principle”, whereby filmmakers are encouraged to continue making rehashes of the same ideologically nonsensical fluff due to a history of filmgoers paying their money to see similar films. The tradition of rigid adherence to the 90 minute to 2-hour time frame, enforced by the laws of free market capitalism, is exploded by Rivette. As a filmmaker, Rivette refuses to confine himself to these arbitrary lengths, or to the even more arbitrary, if unspoken, rules about demands on subject matter and mise-en-scène in films of epic length. Instead, Rivette extends the lengths of his films to a point beyond necessity, where it is understood that the film’s length in and of itself is a statement about the system he works in and rebels against. This anti-late capitalist sentiment is directly tied to the feminist ideals, of femininity as a source of creativity expressed in the body of Celine et Julie. Rivette furthers this impression by seemingly wasting the first 20 minutes of the film extending the opening chase beyond any narrative obligation. Rivette has expressed his belief in the ideal cinema being one of ordeal, namely a cinema that challenges its viewers to break through mainstream, middlebrow notions of narrative and cinematic technique, into a wider view of acceptable filmic topics. Celine et Julie vont en bateau works on this premise, challenging its viewers with the relatively sparse narrative in its opening sequences in order to prepare them for the breakthrough of the film’s second half, in which the pleasures of storytelling are superbly—and, at times, whimsically—explored.
Thomson’s comparison to Kane is apt, in the two films’ dedication to reordering cinematic narrative, and pulling film structure away from its standard, expository framework. Where Welles’ masterpiece revealed a world in which everyone had their own story, none more dependable than any other, Celine et Julie depicts a world that is itself a narrative. Celine and Julie are classic spectators who ultimately cross the line from observation into action. Rivette collapses these distinctions by the film’s close, leaving us unsure of any firm footing from which to watch from a distance. Narrative, Rivette seems to say, is always a process of involvement, creating entanglements which cannot easily be loosened. The detached spectator is nothing but a fiction.
The next period of Rivette’s career, between Celine and Julie and the renewed triumphs of La Bande des quatre and La Belle Noiseuse (1991), is for the most part disappointing. Duelle (1976) was pictorially lovely, and La Pont du nord (1982) and L’Amour par terre (1984) featured continued reflections on the relationship of art and reality, but in comparison to the peaks of Rivette’s filmmaking, these films (and also Noroit , Merry Go Round , and Hurlevent [1985; his version of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights]) are mere footnotes.
Rivette’s second wind as a filmmaker came with the release of La Bande des quatre in 1988. The plot concerns a number of drama students who encounter the same mysterious man, who tells them each a different story about a friend in danger. The inherent theatricality of the drama students plays into the movie’s aura of unresolved menace, a large-scale conspiracy (never adequately explained though overtly connected to their drama teacher [Bulle Ogier]) that owes a significant debt to Out One and Paris nous appartient. The final result is a similar, two-pronged approach that, in Thomson’s words, “hint(s) at the vast entropic vagueness of reality, and the…obsessive, hopeless, comic, and possibly tragic human duty to detect significance in that wildness.” La Bande des quatres intentionally creates more mystery than it can account for, leaving a buzzing sensation of forces outside of our understanding, operating in modes beyond our comprehension. Rivette’s films are directly related, in this aspect, to an American literature of paranoia, best exemplified by Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, where conspiracy is so pervasive that it is essentially invisible.
A stray comment in La Bande des quatres about the painter Frenhofer and his masterpiece La Belle noiseuse spawned a 1991 film of the same name, leading Rivette fans themselves to wonder of a pervasive conspiracy between the master’s films. Starring New Wave icon Michel Piccoli as the painter, with Emmanuelle Beart and Jane Birkin as the two women in his life, this four-hour epic in miniature is remarkable in its concision. Frenhofer, a painter who has lost his creative spark, discovers in Beart a model who inspires him. Frenhofer’s wife (Birkin) grows jealous of this intrusion into their enclosed universe, and the boyfriend of this ‘belle noiseuse’ feels similarly about her relationship with his idol Frenhofer. The film burrows deeply into its subject, focusing intently, for minutes at a time, on the process of painting. No other film on the subject so intently records the small failures and advances of creation, with whole minutes ticking by and the only audible sound that of pencil on paper. La Belle noiseuse is a meditation on the artist’s relationship to the surrounding world, and the complexities of artistic inspiration. Rivette, never fully satisfied with merely one agenda per film, also crafts a fully realized portrait of two couples, and two lifestyles, colliding, with unexpected and life-altering repercussions. La Belle noiseuse is the first fully realized offering of Rivette’s mature period, succeeding the impassioned, sketched social portraits of his early films with something quieter and more deeply grasped. There is a sense of experience succeeding intellect as the guiding force of his films, and this holds true for the works following La Belle noiseuse. Viewing La Belle noiseuse as a quasi-autobiographical work, one can then see traces of Rivette himself in Frenhofer, the older artist desperately grasping in the darkness for some lost fountain of inspiration, and discovering the small pleasures of the craft itself as a new creative talisman.
Rivette also released a two-hour version of the film, entitled La Belle noiseuse: divertimento, constructed out of alternate takes, which appeared to be intentional self-mutilation. The question of how a film dedicated to sustained contemplation of its subject could be reduced to half its original length without losing much of its force remains unresolved by this truncated version. It is mostly of interest to devoted buffs of La Belle noiseuse and Rivette completists (good luck with finding Out One). His next work was the two part Jeanne la Pucelle (1994), a retelling of the life of Joan of Arc that deliberately avoided the mannered approach of such earlier Joan chroniclers as Carl Theodor Dreyer, Robert Bresson, and Otto Preminger. This Jeanne, starring Sandrine Bonnaire, downplayed the metaphysical, miraculous aspect of Joan’s ascendance, focusing instead on the political machinations and social mores of the characters. Jeanne la Pucelle is ultimately less than scintillating, but is still of significant interest as Rivette’s response to the Dreyer-Bresson school of filmmaking. Rivette’s interest is in this world, not the next, and even when faced with a narrative of such significant spiritual quality as Joan of Arc’s (his film seems to say), his story remains firmly rooted in the poetics of our mortal lives.
Haut/bas/fragile (1995), a musical set in Paris, followed, an enjoyable romantic comedy romp, Rivette-style. This film and the next, Secret défense, seem in retrospect to be dress rehearsals for Rivette’s most recent film, the masterful Va savoir. Borrowing Haut/bas/fragile‘s frothy, swooning tone, and melding it with Secret défense‘s investigatory, vaguely menacing aura, Rivette created a unique brew, another in Rivette’s long series of uncategorizable and brilliant works. A theatrical couple of long standing run into romantic difficulties, and during their separation they each encounter a puzzling and enticing world surrounding them. Ugo (Sergio Castellito) and Camille (Jeanne Balibar) find love and intellectual stimulation, but also an irredeemable ugliness, even in their fantasies, that is difficult to stomach. Rivette’s facility for stunning imagery is fluid as ever, from Balibar’s escape to the freedom of the Paris rooftops, to the theatrical cunning of the closing sequence. Va Savoir also continues his fascination with the theatrical— the couple are an actress and director, and the film is punctuated with the performance of their play, Pirandello’s As You Desire Me. (In true Rivette style, a 220-minute version of the film, entitled Va savoir +, was released in France and featured extended sequences of the Pirandello play). Va Savoir is simply a stunning film, and is yet another peak in Jacques Rivette’s exceptional career.
Rivette’s ability to shape-shift, to discover new modes of self-expression and reflection, is what has kept him a vibrant and relevant filmmaker for the past 45 years. Rivette’s films, like many of the New Wave works, seem to have avoided the aging process entirely, remaining as playful, fresh, and quietly spectacular as the day they were made. His body of work as a whole is truly astonishing, and in hindsight, his ouevre may be the most impressive of the French New Wave. And Celine et Julie vont en bateau…well, that film is, for my money, the best film to emerge from the post-New Wave era, and remains one of the most brilliant (and entertaining) films ever made.
Aux Quatre Coins (1950) short
Le Quadrille (1950) short
Le Divertissement (1952) short
Le Coup du Berger (1956) short
Paris nous appartient (Paris Belongs to Us) (1960)
La Religieuse (The Nun) (1965)
Jean Renoir, le Patron (1966) television documentary
L’Amour fou (1968)
Out One: Noli me Tangere (1971)
Out One: Spectre (1972)
Celine et Julie vont en bateau (Celine and Julie Go Boating) (1974)
Paris s’en va (1981)
Le Pont du nord (North Bridge) (1982)
L’Amour par terre (Love on the Ground) (1984)
Hurlevent (Wuthering Heights) (1985)
La Bande des quatre (Gang of Four) (1988)
La Belle noiseuse (1991)
La Belle noiseuse: divertimento (1992)
Jeanne la Pucelle (1994)
Haut/bas/fragile (Up/Down/Fragile) (1995)
Secret défense (Secret Defense) (1998)
Va savoir (2001)
Histoire de Marie et Julien (Story of Marie and Julien) (2003)
Guy Austin, “Woman as Subject”, Contemporary French Cinema, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1996, pp. 64-68
Roland Barthes, “Toward a Semiotics of Cinema: Barthes in Interview with Michel Delahaye and Jacques Rivette” in Jim Hillier (ed.), Cahiers du cinéma: The 1960s, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1986, pp. 276-285
Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time Image, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1989, pp. 10-12, 76-77
Stuart Klawans “Follies Girls”, Film Follies: The Cinema Out of Order, New York, Continuum Publishing, 2000, pp. 107-136
Anthony Lane, “Divertimento”, Nobody’s Perfect, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2002, pp. 33-36
Jacques Rivette, “Notes on a Revolution” in Jim Hillier (ed.), Cahiers du cinéma: The 1960s, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1986, pp. 94-97
Jacques Rivette, “Letter on Rossellini” in Jim Hillier (ed.), Cahiers du cinéma: The 1960s, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1986, pp. 192-204
Jonathan Rosenbaum (ed.), Rivette: Texts and Interviews, London, BFI, 1977
Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Work and Play in the House of Fiction: On Jacques Rivette”, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1995, pp. 142-152
Robin Wood, “Narrative Pleasure: Two Films by Jacques Rivette“, Sexual Politics and Narrative Cinema, New York, Columbia University Press, 1998, pp. 285-300
Articles in Senses of Cinema
Secret defense by Jared Rapfogel
Va savoir! by Laleen Jayamanne
The Captive Lover – an interview with Jacques Rivette by Frédéric Bonnaud
Hurlevent: Jacques Rivette’s Adaptation of Wuthering Heights by Valérie Hazette
Compiled by Albert Fung
Film Directors – Articles on the Internet
Plenty of links to Rivette articles here.
A simple site with filmography, film credits, images and links to other Rivette sites.
Jacques Rivette: The Quotidian Made Fascinating
Reviews of Jeanne la Pucelle, Secret defense, and Va savoir.
Vindication of Jacques Rivette
A piece on Celine et Julie vont en bateau.
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