There is no such thing as morality in the films of Jacques Rivette. Nor could there be, given the particular logic that dictates the narrative structure of his films, namely that everything contained therein belongs to the category of fiction. In this way, Rivette has preserved a tradition in French film that commenced with Georges Méliès, achieved maturity in the serials of Louis Feuillade, and reached its apogee in the post-war work of Jean Cocteau. Like these forebears, Rivette avoids neat delineation between fact and fiction, and dream and reality, opting rather for a universe in which all thoughts, actions and events maintain the same degree of verisimilitude. Yet, unlike a figure such as Cocteau whose adoption of this technique can be understood in terms of a Surrealist critique of traditional moral codes and their rational basis, Rivette’s assimilation of a similar idiom instead corresponds to a manifest interest in the narrative process. In this way, then, the work of Rivette is hermetic in its neglect of anything that might exist beyond the immediate contours of the film’s fictional universe.
In the septuagenarian director and former critic’s latest work, Histoire de Marie et Julien (Story of Marie and Julien) (2003), the ubiquitous presence of fiction moves beyond mere formal matrix, however, to become the actual subject of the art. The film surely represents a dissection of the process of fiction which is particular to cinematic art. Indeed, Rivette’s narrative is shaped by a consideration of the three discrete stages of filmic creation: the conception of the idea (pre-production), its actualisation (production) and its final molding through the process of editing (post-production). Thus, Histoire de Marie et Julien is a film about filmmaking, which one is tempted to read nevertheless in terms broader than pure didacticism, which is to say a film that teaches its viewer about the nature of the art form. To be sure, Rivette’s is a work that cues its audience to consider not only the creative layers of the process of narration, but also the creator’s place within this construction, which naturally implies Rivette’s function in the creation of this specific film. Hence, it would not be unreasonable to attach the tag of “personal” to Histoire de Marie et Julien given both the narrative’s recourse to referencing the creator in the process of creation, and also the director’s biography. Following a cineaste’s education in Parisian cinemas during the late 1940s and early 1950s, Rivette wrote and later served as editor of Cahiers du cinéma (June 1963 to April 1965) before devoting himself full-time to filmmaking; in other words, he has spent the bulk of his adult life devoted to the medium.
Before commencing an examination of Rivette’s rhetoric in Marie et Julien, it does need stating that a traditional analysis which details the plot and characterisations utilised in the narrative is of little use in talking about Rivette’s film. Such accountings generally rely on the logic of causality and psychological penetrability which are both utterly inimical to Histoire de Marie et Julien. Ultimately, the film is an exceptionally complex one that offers its viewer a cogent exposition of the nature of filmic narrative that a recapitulation of plot and character would in no way illuminate. Thus, rather than tracing these elements of the film, the subsequent analysis will instead consider the more relevant exigencies of Rivette’s thought as explicated by the form of his art. Certainly, Histoire de Marie et Julien is a work of substantial abstraction that demands of its audience both their active participation and also an eye to the manner in which the elaboration of narrative serves the discursive purposes of its author. The following, then, is less a straight recapitulation of plot and character than it is an introduction to the basic discourses at work in one of Rivette’s most important (and difficult) films.
* * *
Following a credit sequence that utilises the same font, graphic design, and black and white palette that the director adopts for most if not all of his openings, Histoire de Marie et Julien commences with the title “Julien” succeeded by a meeting between the two titular characters (played by Emmanuelle Béart and Jerzy Radziwilowicz respectively) in a sunny park. Marie proceeds to tell Julien that she needs him; each confirms that they are currently free and then, discordantly, Marie pulls out a large knife to stab Julien. At this point, the latter wakes up and in the following scene again meets Marie on the street, where they set up an appointment to get together later (which Marie fails to attend). Thus, Rivette immediately undermines his narrative’s basis in reality – whereas Rivette suggests that this first sequence may be a dream, there is no similar marker in the subsequent sequence, which could be a projection of Julien’s will just as it could be an instance of remarkable chance. In other words, after introducing the logic of the dream, Rivette refuses to sustain this same rationale over the course of sequences which seem to proceed on the basis of this same logic. Indeed, in a sequence following a lovemaking scene involving Marie and Julien, the former disappears which prompts Julien to search for her. After proving unsuccessful, he receives a phone call that provides her exact location. The woman who makes the call does not identify herself, nor does she even seem to have any interest in disclosing this information. As such, Rivette propels his narrative forward using a trope extant only in fiction, namely that of outlandish chance. His is the pure logic of fiction, shaping a world in the image of the art that depicts it.
Thus, Rivette structures his film not as a dream or a series of dreams, but instead eviscerates any distinction between dream and reality, establishing a logic present only in fiction – there is no distinction between consciousness and subconsciousness, dream and reality, life and death, but rather, all is fiction. Similarly, this opening section also sets up the first portion of Rivette’s rhetorical elaboration on the nature of fiction: the conception of the idea. With the opening “Julien” intertitle, Rivette suggests that this character may be constructing the narrative: for instance, there is simultaneous depiction of desire (that Marie needs him, that she is free, that they meet on the street; and more directly later in the film, a cut from Marie stroking Julien’s arm to the pair making love) and anxiety (the knife, the fact that she stands him up) woven throughout the opening section of the film. Yet, this evident focalisation – the narrative being told through Julien – does not last, as Marie quickly becomes a co-creator of the pursuant narrative. In a more directly self-aware moment of creation, for instance, Marie speculates about two sisters in a photo that she and Julien are examining: “one is dead, the other alive.” Likewise, Marie asks Julien to tell her about the “forest”, which leads into an erotic fantasy narrated first by Julien, and then by Marie herself. (At this point they are co-creators of the narrative, taking turns constructing the incident.) Moreover, there are also scenes in which Julien plays no part at all, such as a mysterious nocturnal meeting – that once again Rivette suggests may be a dream – between Marie and the dead woman from the photo, who imparts a fragment of information and gives her a secret hand signal. And then there are also the subsequent intertitles: “Julien and Marie”, “Marie and Julien” and “Marie”, which similarly denote shifting narrative perspectives.
Indeed, if anything, Marie seems to occupy a special place in the narrative, as it is she and not Julien who seems aware of the fact that they are in a narrative. Specifically, it is Marie on the one hand who mechanically recites lines of dialogue (at one point in a language other than French, and in another case reciting the lines of a letter without looking at it); and on the other, it is Marie who has premonitions of something terrible happening. Yet, it is not a psychic foreboding, but rather a cognisance of the narrative trajectory, that this anxiety ultimately signifies. And so Rivette’s narrative passes from the phase of pre-production, of constructing the narrative, to the production itself, which is to say the actualisation of the script on celluloid, though here through a performative rubric that has more in common immediately with theatre. Certainly, Marie’s flat recitation of dialogue and her repetition of certain actions – including her own hanging (perhaps the strongest support for the pan-fictional thesis) – suggests this other medium, wherein a master-text dictates exactly these elements. So too does a seemingly offhand moment in which she bumps her arm and proceeds to affix a bandage even though it is not bleeding – the story she is in demands that she bandage herself even though it is wholly unnecessary.
Moreover, it is in the character of Marie that Rivette most fully expands upon the gap existing between his characters and the actors that fulfil the roles. However, it is not through an unthinking direct address that the director accomplishes this point, but rather in the distillation of the idea into the course of the narrative. In one scene, Rivette makes explicit the divestment between these two modes as Marie tries on the old clothing of one of Julien’s ex-lovers, thereby accepting the role herself. In this way, surely, Marie et Julien shows itself to be a genuine heir to the rhetorical strategies that determine Céline et Julie vont en bateau (1973) (which, curiously, was partially adapted from Henry James’ A Romance of Certain Old Clothes, not to put too fine a point on it). Certainly, both are primarily concerned with defining the relationship between performer and role: if Céline et Julie accomplishes this by having certain characters alternately filling the same roles, then Marie et Julien succeeds in doing the same by lending Marie a preternatural awareness of her character’s fate.
The aforementioned scenes of recitation likewise suggest that the words being spoken are not the creation of the speaker, but again belong to the narrative (that the speaker is reciting something that has been written previously). Thus, Rivette exposes a fundamental dimension of filmic ontology that it shares with theatre: the director underscores the performative dimension of film, that cinema is not real life and real persons caught unawares, but rather that there are real persons who exist under the surface of the fiction. In this sense, Rivette, however counter-intuitive it might seem, shows himself to be true to the legacy of Andre Bazin – Marie et Julien, like Céline et Julie before it, is fundamentally and reflexively aware of the fact that all narrative cinema (excluding animation) possess some semblance of the “real” in its construction; it is at once fiction and non-fiction.
Therefore, returning to the allusions between cinema and theatre that are so foreign to this dimension of Bazinism, it is worth noting that Rivette does indeed dispense with this analogy in the concluding passages of the film, where the rhetoric is wholly situated within the logic of film narration. Preliminarily, everything that has been thus far denoted as potentially theatrical can also be viewed with reference to cinema. To be sure, just as theatre showcases the same play performed time and again, so too does film traffic in repetition, though in the case of the later, it is precisely the same text spooled and re-spooled over the life of the print. Hence, there is no latitude obviously for variation, which it must be said is precisely what the Marie character is reacting against, even as Julien seems impervious to this same reality. (In this sense, Marie stands as an exemplification of the modernity thesis in film, distinguishable for its reflexivity, while Julien is more classical in his lack of self-awareness.)
Even so, it is not simply that Marie is asked to submit each time to the tragic ending that awaits her, but rather that she has no choice. Again, it is the film’s ending that is most telling in terms of the filmmaking allegory. This conclusion, first of all, takes place in Julien’s workshop, where he repairs clocks. As such, Rivette provides a ready-made referent to filmic ontology that finally takes on significance in this final setting. By this point, Marie has killed herself and the fiction (which is to say the film) has concluded. However, as soon as he stops the pendulum of the clock he is fixing, Marie, who is presently frozen in this space, is reanimated – suggesting that her existence now is unconditioned by the passage of time; in other words, she is fixed in the spatio-temporal specificity of the film and therefore is not subject to the decay born of time’s evanescence – and Julien slides back into his role in the narrative. Immediately, she begins bleeding again as if to signify the death that the film has assured. (Similarly, she earlier notes that every time she falls asleep, she receives a dream that she has to follow, which is to say that Rivette is here relying on the analogy between cinema and the world of the dream.) Her life, that is Marie’s, is on celluloid; she must die at the end of the film – and there is no other world but this for the character. However, it is a predetermined world. When she hangs herself again immediately after making the observation about her dreams, it is a repetition of a moment that has already been depicted and will happen again so long as the film is re-spooled. Thus, Rivette both extrapolates the life of his film over time and also offers a matrix by which to think about post-production: namely, as a passing moment when the reality of the shoot has given way to the creator’s experience of the particular fragments of time and space fixed on celluloid.
To this end, returning to the formal discrepancies between the two lead characters, it is worth noting that Julien does seem to exist outside the film, unlike his protégé Marie. In this case it is to suggest that he is something of a proxy for the director himself. To be sure, the process of filmmaking assures the following: that at some point, the making of the film must end; that the text is no longer subject to its maker’s creative agency; and that the time of the production itself will pass. Thus, when Julien says to Marie near the end of the film that he lives alone with his cat, it is not that great a stretch to read a personal revelation by Rivette in this line, noting that the director presently remains single. Moreover, it is this disclosure that provides the film with its existential weight: time, regardless of vocation, passes; happiness wanes and relationships (both personal and professional) end. Indeed, this is the work of an old man in the best sense.
Speaking of Rivette’s personal fingerprints, it is hard not to read something almost Hitchcockian or Sternbergian in his photography of the titular female lead Béart, who is at once sublimely natural (with her wavy brown hair and bare feet) and extraordinarily beautiful. Especially in the rather graphic and carnal lovemaking scenes, it is hard not to read at least a modicum of desire in Rivette’s camerawork: coiled above her lover in an exceptionally physical sex scene, Béart becomes an obscenely powerful object of erotic desire. Given moments as fetishistic and corporeal as this one most certainly is, it is hard not to see Rivette’s elegiac conclusion as lamenting his parting with the same actress who starred in another of his explicit masterpieces, La Belle noiseuse (1991). Though of course this is purely speculative, it remains a fertile, if tricky, avenue that demands exploration if one is to get a full picture of the film’s rhetoric – after all, it would be unthinkable to look at Josef von Sternberg’s films with Marlene Dietrich or Kamal Amrohi’s Pakeezah (1971) starring his late wife Meena Kumari, without pausing to consider the personal politics that forge their narrative discourses. At the very least, Rivette’s biography should figure in the reading of his work, as should his continued fascination with this text: Rivette planned Marie et Julien, a “ghost” story as he has called it, as early as 1975 (right on the heels, coincidentally, of Céline et Julie). What has resulted is less the next Ugetsu Monogatari (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953) than a summa of filmic narration, or a “material ghost” story to borrow Gilbert Perez’s terminology. That the film is considerably more elegiac than Céline et Julie, which is otherwise so similar, should likewise suggest the influence that Rivette’s experience of time has had on its formation. Marie et Julien is both unmistakably the work of Jacques Rivette and unavoidably a product of the present.
* * *
With reference to his broader artistic corpus, Histoire de Marie et Julien may be Rivette’s greatest achievement and most important work since his supreme masterpiece from 1974. At the very least, Marie et Julien is the equal of any of the films he has made in the past two decades – a period which included such major works as La Bande des quatre (1988), La Belle noiseuse and, most recently, Va savoir (2001). Indeed with these works, not to mention Hurlevent (1985), La Belle noiseuse: Divertimento (1993), Jeanne la Pucelle (1994), Haut bas fragile (1995) and Secret défense (1998), Rivette joins fellow Cahiers critics Eric Rohmer and, to a lesser degree, Claude Chabrol in sustaining an exceptionally high level of aesthetic rigour and invention late in his professional life. If anything, Histoire de Marie et Julien provides a theoretical advancement from even Céline et Julie, at least in terms of dissecting the process of narration in all three phases (though it should be cautioned that the earlier film still remains the bolder and more fully-achieved of the two works). Moreover, Histoire de Marie et Julien‘s position of pre-eminence amid those films belonging to his late artistic flowering is confirmed by its discursive complexity and the thoroughness of its examination of a subject that is central to this period in his filmmaking. Marie et Julien, like Céline et Julie (a point clearly not lost on Rivette, given the similar titles of the two works), brings to the fore many of his primary preoccupations, while adding an emotional depth not always present in the director’s corpus. In other words, Histoire de Marie et Julien is essential to understanding the broader theoretical underpinnings of the work of this bona fide master, which is to say that it is essential to his corpus, even as it stands alone as a masterpiece of the first order.
Yet Rivette does not fail to demonstrate a freedom that augments the determinacy inherent in the rigour with which he engages questions of fiction formally. Especially in moments involving Julien’s cat Nevermore, which at times the camera follows and which at other times Rivette photographs looking directly into the camera, there is an undeniable feeling of artistic freedom unbound by the demands of plot advancement or symbolic value. Even if Rivette’s control of the narrative would strongly encourage one against reading these moments as aleatory, they do remain moments of spontaneity nevertheless.
In the end, then, Histoire de Marie et Julien remains a work of both exceptional formal constraint and manifest freedom. This duality is present in the film’s final sequence, where a self-aware Marie tells an impervious Julien that they were once in love, to which he professes his doubts, saying that she is not exactly his type. Following this exchange is one last line of dialogue succeeded by an upbeat jazz song sung by Blossom Dearie that accompanies the closing credits. However, so as to not mediate the impact of the film’s stirring conclusion, suffice it to say that Rivette retains the logic governing the preceding – of a film remaining forever the same in the life of its viewing – while inflecting his film’s final moments with a fresh irony. Remarkably, given everything that has come before, Rivette finds a way to leave his viewer smiling. Maybe this is the greatest test of all for Rivette’s fictional universe.
Histoire de Marie et Julien will screen at the Melbourne International Film Festival on 26 July and 4 August.