Jacques Rivette: Phantom of the Cinema could well be an alternative title for this book, the long overdue first English-language monograph on the enigmatic French director. Seldom in the history of the cinema has there been such a crying disparity between the frequency with which a filmmaker’s name has been invoked and the rarity of in-depth critical writing on their work as in the case of Jacques Rivette. Routinely trotted out as an integral member of the bande de cinq clustered around Cahiers du cinéma in the 1950s, the rollcall of whose names – “Truffaut-Godard-Chabrol-Rivette-Rohmer” – has seemingly become an incantation in discussions of the French New Wave, it is striking how little analysis of Rivette’s work, both as a critic and then as a filmmaker in his own right, has been carried out. François Truffaut and Éric Rohmer have had numerous books devoted to them, biographies of Jean-Luc Godard seem to have become a cottage industry of late, even Claude Chabrol is given ample attention, but Rivette, it seems, arouses little but silence from his exegetes – not in spite of his titanic stature, one feels, but precisely because of it. Nobody ever drives in Paris because there is so much traffic; similarly, nobody ever wrote about Rivette because so much had already been said. But isn’t this paradox appropriate for a filmmaker whose work speaks to us so clearly that we are never quite sure what it is saying?
In any case, as the new millennium dawned this situation was significantly overturned. In France, where the critical neglect was most inexcusable, book-length works in the last decade by Hélène Frappat and Hélène Deschamps appeared (1), although neither can be said to undertake a comprehensive overview of his œuvre, while, for Germanophones, the Viennale’s 2002 retrospective yielded a characteristically meticulous catalogue, gathering a range of texts by and around the auteur. In the English-speaking world, however, we had to remain content with some chapters of James Monaco’s The New Wave (1976) and the collection Rivette: Texts and Interviews (1977), collated by Jonathan Rosenbaum, surely Rivette’s staunchest and most incisive supporter outside the Hexagon (2). In the 30 years after that publication, however, English-speaking fans of Rivette’s work have, with the exception of a smattering of smaller-form essays and articles, been furnished with – nothing.
With the present book, then, Douglas Morrey and Alison Smith step into the void, something which they recognise from the outset, quoting Marc Chevrie’s summary of the status of Rivette’s œuvre as being “vaguely legendary but largely unknown” (p. 1). We can only be thankful that their endeavour comes within the framework of Manchester University Press’ superb, unapologetically auteur-oriented series French Film Directors, excellent examples of which (such as Keith Reader’s Robert Bresson  and Michael Temple’s Jean Vigo ) combine scholarly rigour with an approachable writing-style to provide the reader with concise introductions to a filmmaker’s work. The fact that both authors had already contributed valuable additions to the series – Morrey with Jean-Luc Godard (2005) and Smith with Agnès Varda (1998) – is a further auspicious sign.
But as Morrey and Smith begin their undertaking, the reasons for the relative taciturnity surrounding Rivette’s films become apparent. How to analyse a work which, while possessing an internal coherency, persistently developing a repertoire of themes and formal approaches with a reliable stable of actors, contains so many mysteries, so many paradoxes, such irresolvable narrative riddles? How to summarise storylines open to innumerable interpretations, without either being unnecessarily reductive or hopelessly vague? How to be concise and digestible with regard to works prone to dilating out to exhausting durations, whose most interesting moments, according to the director himself, are those in which the spectator falls asleep? How to give an overview of films which have been submitted to various edits, of wildly different lengths, which often radically depart from and even openly contradict each other? How to be concrete about such ethereal, slippery subject matter, not least for the reason that many of his films are, on the most eminently banal level, difficult to watch? Such signature works as L’Amour fou (1969) and Le Pont du Nord (1981) have never been made available on DVD (or even VHS), and the notoriously recondite 12-and-a-half-hour version of Out 1 (1971), with but a single (semi-mythical) print in existence, only screens about once every lunar decade. How, in short, to write about Rivette?
Morrey and Smith’s answer is a sage one: eschewing a strictly chronological outline of his work, they opt instead for a thematic division of the volume. Appropriately enough, this approach gives the book itself a highly Rivettian structure: tropes from his work are interwoven into an intricate theoretical tapestry; common themes are teased out from remote periods of his career, causing them to productively intermingle with each other; the discussion of a film will be abruptly dropped, only to be picked up again several chapters later.
Apt, too, is the dual authorship of Jacques Rivette, which resonates not only with the multiple authorial origins of many of Rivette’s films, but also with the theme of duality so dominant in his work: the focus on couples, on double identities, double meanings, double entendres. But while the authors insist that the book was “written in collaboration” (p. xi), they also acknowledge primary responsibility for specific chapters: 1, 2, 4, 7, 8 and 9 for Morrey, 3, 5 and 6 for Smith. Thus, like the Fille de la Lune and the Fille du Soleil, rather than their approaches to Rivette fusing into a single whole, they alternate with each other at regular intervals, and only meet when passing the baton to one another. The result is another instantiation of the gaping gender divide which besets film theory: whereas the focus in Morrey’s chapters lies primarily in narrative, thematics and mise en scène, for Smith, the interest in Rivette’s films lies in more subterranean areas, the spaces the films are set in, the relationship dynamics between characters, the performance of the actors. In short, Morrey shows us Rivette’s consciousness, Smith his sub-consciousness.
It is no surprise, then, that the first chapter, treating Rivette’s early critical work, which flourished in the 1950s but virtually ceased after Rivette handed over editorial responsibility for Cahiers in 1965, should be Morrey’s domain. But this chapter is so significant it alone is worth the (rather hefty) price of the book, and, indeed, was my primary motivation for undertaking this review in the first place.
Rivette’s criticism is known, above all, for one article – “De l’abjection”, an excoriation of Gillo Pontecorvo’s Kapò (1961) – and, even more pointedly, a single passage in the article, exclaiming:
Look, however, in Kapò, at the shot in which [Emmanuelle] Riva commits suicide by throwing herself on the electrified barbwire fence; the man who decides, at this moment, to use a forward tracking shot in order to reframe the corpse from a low-angle, while taking care to inscribe the raised hand exactly within the final framing, this man deserves nothing but the most profound contempt. (3)
Serge Daney would later recognise this passage as the cornerstone of his entire critical approach to the cinema, in its establishment of a moral foundation for aesthetic judgement, even while admitting that he had never watched the actual film (4). It is symptomatic of Rivette’s position in film history, however, that his wide-ranging writings have been reduced to a single denunciation, and it is to Morrey’s great credit that he situates this famous text within a vaster, multifaceted critical corpus. From his first article, 1950’s “Nous ne sommes plus innocents”, Rivette’s incisive approach exposed “the fundamental dichotomy between what he calls a cinema of synthesis and a cinema of analysis”, the latter of which replaces the purity of early cinema with “an accumulation of rhetorical devices” (p. 11).
André Bazin is an undeniable influence for the young Rivette – whose diktats on the merits of films were so stringent that fellow jeunes Turcs were terrorised into conforming with his judgements – and both share a hostility to a linguistic consideration of the cinema, but, in contrast to the advocacy for a long-take aesthetic over montage-based cinema that the elder critic is viewed as having, Rivette’s ultimate aim, as Morrey sees it, is “to identify those techniques and those films that are best able to capture the totality of the real” (p. 12). Deep-focus filming can lead to disproportion and déraison just as much as fast-paced editing, while Sergei Eisenstein’s work is favoured for conceiving each shot as “a totality in itself before being placed in a dialectical relation to the totalities constituted by other shots” (p. 13).
Indeed, Hegelian dialectics was a crucial reference point for Rivette – as it was for a large swathe of 1950s French film criticism, not least due to the influence of Bazin. Whereas other Cahiers critics may have bandied the term about as a stylistic flourish (Godard being a prime culprit), Rivette’s writings show a deep, sustained engagement with Georg W. F. Hegel’s thought. But while Frappat may have fleetingly mentioned his meticulous reading of Phänomenologie des Geistes (1807), Morrey is the first to delve deeply into Rivette’s application of dialectical theory to film criticism. This transposition can perhaps most succinctly be encapsulated in Rivette’s definition of the goal of cinema, when discussing Monsieur Verdoux (Charles Chaplin, 1947), as being: “That the real world, such as it is presented on the screen, become also an idea of the world” (p. 17). Hegel is frequently misrepresented as an out-and-out idealist, when, in fact, the German philosopher saw a dialectical relationship between the material world and the world of ideas, and for Rivette, successful cinema requires
that the idea, by the necessity of its own internal movement, of its dialectic, should, little by little, recreate the world before our eyes, or rather create a different world, “all the more ambiguous for being an incarnated idea, and a real shot through with meaning” (p. 17).
The cinema, then, is marked by “the dialectic of the moment and of duration”: each moment is itself a totality, offering a plenitude of meaning and detail, but it also takes on meaning through coming into conflict with other moments, and thereby constitutes the totality of the film itself, capable of “appearing as an allegory for any and all social or organic processes” (p. 18). Eisenstein’s films, therefore, are exemplary of the dialectical nature of the machinery of the cinema, not because the individual shots only acquire meaning through the montage processes joining them together, but precisely because each shot is a “whole sufficient unto itself and with no necessary relation to the preceding or succeeding shots” (p. 19). Eisenstein’s shots are not, as Morrey summarises Rivette’s argument, “joined together by the logic of the fictional world but by the logic of the sovereign idea: his montage demonstrates ‘the victory of the mind/spirit’” (p. 19).
But this line of reasoning also highlights the problems associated with an excessive reliance on Hegelian thinking, whose “teleological movement” towards Absolute Knowledge implies a “transcendental belief in an original unity that can and should be recovered” (p. 19). Even as late as the “Montage” roundtable in 1969, when dialectical materialism had become dominant at Cahiers, Rivette’s interventions still, in Morrey’s view, bear the traces of pure Hegelianism in his conception of montage in films such as Made in U.S.A. (Godard, 1966) as the “critique of a pre-existing text” (p. 19). Nonetheless, the few pages of this book focussing on these questions represent a genuine advance in our understanding of a figure who made a unique and penetrating intervention into film theory, and Morrey’s achievement in this regard should not be underestimated. But it is to his credit that he does not allow this breakthrough to constitute an inflexible prism through which to view Rivette’s filmmaking. Instead, recognising that “one of the most intractable paradoxes of Rivette’s work is that the persistent Hegelianism of his criticism is undermined by a filmic universe in which primal unities appear as illusory and therefore unable to be recovered,” he questions whether “the long-awaited experience of artistic creation led Rivette to revise some of the most fundamental assumptions underlying his criticism, and whether this conflict lies behind the critical silence that Rivette has maintained since the end of the 1960s” (p. 20).
And so the book’s following chapters markedly depart from this subject matter. In chapter 2, the first to discuss Rivette’s films in depth, Morrey focuses on the conspiratorial nature of Rivette’s narratives in Paris nous appartient (1961), Le Pont du Nord and Out 1. Franz Kafka, Maurice Blanchot and Guy Debord are invoked to provide theoretical context to Rivette’s “studies of the phenomenon of mystery” (as Monaco puts it – p. 24), but, lo, dialectics creeps back into the chapter. Rivette himself had defined Paris nous appartient as a “film d’antithèse”, wherein “An idea only exists thanks to its opposite, there must be a dialectic,” and this is confirmed by Luc Moullet’s stance that “In order to love [the film], you first have to see it three times” (p. 33). For Morrey, this statement can be applied to all of Rivette’s films: “a first viewing is required to assimilate one interpretation (there is no conspiracy), a second to acknowledge its opposite (there is a conspiracy), and a third to see how both alternatives may be true at once, how the one enables the other” (p. 34).
There is perhaps no greater example of this than the long version of Out 1, deeply informed by Honoré de Balzac’s Histoire des Treize (1834-5), but also, in Morrey’s view, by Georges Bataille’s Collège de Sociologie (1937-9). Just as the film’s plot (in both senses of the term) seems to be building to a revelatory climax, “in the final two hours, the narrative collapses, with threads coming undone and characters dispersing, the spectator left almost as mystified by the events of the film as when it began” (p. 41). Far from feeling robbed of 12 hours their life, however, the film’s spectator, according to anecdotes from its 1971 premiere in Le Havre, comes to respond to its characters as if they were real people, and for this reason Morrey assents to François Thomas’ assessment that Rivette makes “the shortest films in the world: not, obviously, in terms of their objective duration but in terms of the spectator’s desire for them to continue indefinitely” (p. 47).
From here, Smith charts the role of space in Rivette’s films, from the open streets of Paris in his earlier work to the enclosed, labyrinthine houses which later come to dominate, and his ability to concoct imaginary, impossible geographies through the use of montage, while Morrey follows his discussion of conspiracies with another form of community: the family. Family relationships are not often thought of as playing a large role in Rivette’s films, whose characters are most often Godardian orphans without a discernible background, but Morrey shows the integral role “family secrets” play in Merry-Go-Round (1981), Secret défense (1998) and Céline et Julie vont en bateau (1974), while suggesting, following tenuously in the footsteps of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, that incest might be the “unspeakable point” around which their narratives revolve (p. 98).
Smith’s twin chapters “La règle du jeu: games and play” and “Play, theatre and performance” form the centrepiece of the book, where, riffing off Jacques Derrida’s description of the jeu as the “formative principle of a metaphorical structure” (p. 121) in 1967’s L’Écriture et la différence, the author uses the varied meanings of the French term “jeu” and its English (near-) equivalent “play” to sculpt a discussion around the nature of acting and performance in Rivette’s films (utilising improvisation, free association and the input of the actors into the story), the intersections between the cinema and the theatre which are an obvious motif for the filmmaker, and the spirit of playfulness and adventure which infects his entire œuvre. Of particular note is the figure of the “director” present in a number of Rivette’s films, as a nodal point for all these themes. Smith sees these recurrent characters not as a substitute for Rivette himself, an omnipotent God-figure within the film paralleling the filmmaker’s totalising control over his work, but rather as “ineffective, failed or eliminated” figures who all “without exception, buckle under the weight of their contradictions or are otherwise set aside as a condition of the survival of their projects” (p. 174). This sequence, however, is recognised as having come to an end with Va savoir’s (2001) Ugo (Sergio Castellitto), who is “probably the most collegiate of Rivette’s fictional directors” (p. 175), and whose staging of a Luigi Pirandello play is successful.
Morrey rounds out the book with chapters on adaptations in Rivette (specifically, La Réligieuse , Hurlevent  and Jeanne la pucelle ), the theme of love and jealousy, and the possible presence of a Saïdian “late style” in his more recent films. Of these, the middle chapter, focussing on (what else?) L’Amour fou and La Belle Noiseuse (1991), is the most invigorating, as Morrey analyses Rivette’s connection between jealous love and the process of artistic creation (whether of a painting or a theatrical production), and the manner in which, in Rivette’s work, “love turns to jealousy [...] when the eternity of this ‘mad’ love is interrupted by the disappointment of entropic, chronological time” (p. 206). Nothing, it would seem, could be more distant from the wild throes of a jealous rage than prolonged boredom, but both, in Morrey’s view, are central to Rivette as emotional responses to “the constitutional impossibility of stepping outside of oneself” (p. 225). Rivette’s films are not boring, Morrey maintains, but they are often about boredom. Strangely, however, this boredom becomes a source of anguish, as terrifying as any horror film, and the author’s use here of Martin Heidegger’s writings on the terror that can be glimpsed within boredom, as it confronts us with the “possibility of our own impossibility” (p. 228) – a link which could come across as forced – seem confirmed by the fact that one of Va savoir’s central characters writes a thesis on the German phenomenologist.
A pendant to boredom, curiosity is selected by the authors, in their conclusion, as the “one guiding principle [which] might be said to have animated his career,” and they cite Rivette as saying: “The day when curiosity disappears there’s nothing left but to lie down and wait for our last breath, I believe that curiosity is the one thing which makes us move, which makes us act, in all areas of life” (p. 252). As an epitaph for the book, and for Rivette’s œuvre as it draws to a close (his present state of ill health makes further additions to his work unlikely), it could hardly be bettered.
Jacques Rivette, by Douglas Morrey and Alison Smith, French Film Directors series, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2009.
- Hélène Frappat, Jacques Rivette: secret compris, Cahiers du cinéma, Paris, 2001; Hélène Deschamps, Jacques Rivette: théâtre, amour, cinéma, L’Harmattan, Paris, 2001.
- James Monaco, The New Wave: Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1976; Jonathan Rosenbaum (ed.), Rivette: Texts and Interviews, British Film Institute, London, 1977.
- Jacques Rivette, “De l’abjection”, Cahiers du cinéma, 120, June, 1961, pp. 54-55, available in English translation as “On Abjection”, translated by David Phelps with the assistance of Jeremi Szaniawski, from jacques-rivette.com, under Essays/Criticism.
- Serge Daney, “The Tracking Shot in Kapò” , Senses of Cinema, 30, 2004. Some claim that the “travelling de Kapò” does not even exist, but this is false, and the evidence is now there to watch online (editor’s note: in the United States only).