Jean-Pierre Léaud strides down the middle of a narrow Parisian street, declaiming a few lines of nonsense poetry, which he repeats several times over in circular fashion, such that one soon loses track of any sense of a beginning or end to the passage in question. As he cycles through the words, Léaud undergoes a strange metamorphosis. From an actor reciting lines belonging to his character, he is transformed into an altogether more mysterious being. Sometimes halting in frustration at his efforts to recall the next line, sometimes becoming stuck on a single word (“équipage”, most notably), ingeminating it in the manner of a scratched vinyl record until he manages to press on to the rest of his monologue, the text he utters assumes the quality of an incantatory spell, sending its enunciator into a state of trance-like hypnosis. As the scene progresses, Léaud’s locution becomes more violent, frenzied even; the expression on his face pained. His hands flay about wildly, and his whole body bobs up and down in line with the cadence of the verses he vocalises. It is as if he is consumed, mentally and physically, by the words he is to speak, as if they form his entire universe, a shell from whose encasement he cannot break free.

Léaud is seemingly oblivious to the world around him – he even appears to pay no heed to passing traffic at an intersection, in spite of the evident danger this poses – but in this scene the “outside world” possesses a degree of plenitude rare in the cinema. Numerous bystanders gawk languidly at the actor (and the crew filming him), while others hurry out of the way to avoid being caught by the camera. Roadside stalls sell fruit, posters advertise cola or call for the withdrawal of American soldiers from Vietnam, tinny music and the cries of children spill out onto the soundtrack, at times competing with Léaud’s soliloquy for the viewer’s aural attention. Most remarkably, midway through the scene two young boys take to following Léaud. Palpably transfixed by the surreal event unfolding before them, they alternate between lurking at a safe distance from the strange man and boldly approaching him, persistently clinging to his side as they periodically peek their heads into the frame.

Out 1

This miraculous scene, caught by a prowling, handheld 16mm camera in a continuous, nearly three-minute long take, comes close to the end of the sixth episode of Jacques Rivette’s 12-and-a-half hour opus Out 1: Noli me tangere (1). Filmed in May 1970 on the Rue Tiquetonne (a sinuous street situated in an erstwhile working-class neighbourhood just north of Les Halles, in Paris’ 2nd arrondissement), the scene, in this viewer’s experience, is one of the most emotionally intense in the history of the cinema. Its haunting, perturbing quality can no doubt be ascribed to the singular confluence of factors produced by Rivette’s “direct” shooting style, effacing the boundaries between the fictive and the real, the planned and the improvised, the controlled and the unpredictable. But credit, too, must go to Léaud’s inimitable performance, which, in like fashion, resides in an interim zone between acting and sheer, unmediated delirium. In this film, perhaps more than any other, Léaud merits the term bestowed on him by Deleuze: “professional non-actor” (2).

Léaud plays Colin Maillard, a young Parisian who, in spite of his well-heeled background, ekes out a living by panhandling in cafés, under the pretence that he is a deaf-mute. As befits his name (“Colin-Maillard” is the French term for the game of blindman’s buff, named after a 10th century soldier who, having had his eyes gouged out on the battlefield, continued to swing his sword wildly in the hope of striking an enemy), Colin is attempting to uncover the existence of a modern-day conspiracy known as “Les Treize”, modelled on the cabal pervading Honoré de Balzac’s three-part novel Histoire des Treize. The conspiracy may have a real existence, or it may merely be a fabrication of Colin’s febrile delusion, and his sleuthing efforts lead him into a state of paranoiac despair which reaches an apex in the scene described above. In order to give a feeling for the state of distressed catatonia into which Colin/Léaud has entered, it is worth providing a lengthy transcription of his effusion, which I here render in verse approximating the rhythms of his speech (including an enjambment severing the word “Boojum” into two):

–jum qui les vit s’évanouir
–jum qui les vit s’évanouir
Passe le temps qui les gomma
D’autres treize ont formé un étrange équipage
Équipage équipage équipage
Équipage équipage équipage
Équipage équipage équipage
Treize pour chasser le snark
Treize pour chasser le snark
Ils n’auraient rencontré le Boo–
–jum qui les vit s’évanouir
Passe le temps qui les gomma
D’autres treize ont formé un étrange équipage
Treize pour chasser le snark
Ils n’auraient rencontré le Boo–
–jum qui les vit s’évanouir
Passe le temps qui les gomma
D’autres treize ont formé un étrange équipage…

In English translation, it would go something like this:

–jum who saw them vanish away
–jum who saw them vanish away
Passes the time which did erase them
Thirteen others formed a strange crew
Crew crew crew
Crew crew crew
Crew crew crew
Thirteen to hunt the Snark
Thirteen to hunt the Snark
They would not have met the Boo–
–jum who saw them vanish away
Passes the time which did erase them
Thirteen others formed a strange crew
Thirteen to hunt the Snark
They would not have met the Boo–
–jum who saw them vanish away
Passes the time which did erase them
Thirteen others formed a strange crew…

Léaud rotates through these fives lines a further six times before the scene draws to a close, with each repetition intensifying in its delivery. But where does this strange text come from? With references to the “Snark” and the “Boojum”, the erudite reader may well point to Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark” as the source for the five lines repeated on loop by Léaud. This, indeed, is also Colin’s assumption: pinning the lines on a blackboard earlier in the film, he writes “Carroll” in chalk next to them, and, later, when seeking to find out the English equivalent of the word “équipage”, he turns to the first lines of Carroll’s poem, reading aloud: “Just the place for the Snark, the Bellman cried, / As he landed his crew with care.” (3)

But these lines are in no way a translation of the text Léaud emits on the Rue Tiquetonne. In fact, this text is nowhere to be found in “The Hunting of the Snark”, or anywhere else in Carroll’s writings (4). To the best of my knowledge, it is a pure invention of Rivette’s, albeit with reference to – and stylistically imitative of – the Carroll poem.

Within the narrative universe of Out 1, however, the text is of major importance for Léaud’s character. He comes across the passage in the third of three enigmatic messages, delivered to him through equally enigmatic means – the first is handed to him by Marie (played by Hermine Karagheuz), possibly at the behest of the Treize, the second is slipped under the door to Colin’s apartment, while the third (containing the faux Carroll verse) is dropped down a stairwell by an individual who is never seen.

Out 1

All three messages are printed in capitalised Courier font on light blue paper, and appear as follows, with the messages almost coming to resemble a form of concrete poetry:

REUNIS, LE SOIR, COMME DES CONSPIRATEURS, NE SE CACHANT
AUCUNE PENSEE, USANT TOUR A TOUR D’UNE FORTUNE SEMBLABLE
A CELLE DU VIEUX DE LA MONTAGNE; AYANT LES PIEDS DANS
TOUS LES SALONS, LES MAINS DANS TOUS LES COFFRE-FORTS,
LES COUDES DANS LA RUE, LEURS TETES SUR TOUS LES OREILLERS,
ET, SANS SCRUPULES, 

[met together in the evening like conspirators, concealing no thoughts from one another, each in turn drawing on riches similar to those of the Old Man of the Mountain, having a foot in every salon, their hands in every coffer, elbowing their way through every street, a head on every pillow, unscrupulous] (5)

LE LECTEUR, PENDANT QUATRE VOLUMES, DE SOUTERRAINS
EN SOUTERRAINS, POUR LUI MONTRER UN CADAVRE TOUT SEC,
ET LUI DIRE, EN FORME DE CONCLUSION, QU’IL LUI A
CONSTAMMENT FAIT PEUR D’UNE PORTE CACHEE DANS QUELQUE
TAPISSERIE, OU D’UN MORT LAISSE PAR MEGARDE 

[the reader through four volumes from one subterranean chamber to another, merely in order to show him a dried-up skeleton and tell him by way of conclusion that his bogey efforts have been obtained by means of a door hidden behind a tapestry or a corpse inadvertently left]

DEUX CHEMINS S’OUVRENT DEVANT TOI
TREIZE POUR MIEUX CHASSER LE SNARK
PLACE MOI COMME JE DOIS L’ETRE
ILS N’AURAIENT RENCONTRE LE BOO
SAINTE FUT NOTRE AMBITION
JUM QUI LES VIT S’EVANOUIR
AU PORT OU TU DOIS ABORDER
PASSE LE TEMPS QUI LES GOMMA
UNE MAIN GUIDERA LA TIENNE
D’AUTRES TREIZE ONT FORME UN ETRANGE EQUIPAGE

[Two paths open up before you
Thirteen to better hunt the Snark
Place me as I must be placed
They would not have met the Boo–
Holy was our ambition
–jum who saw them vanish away
At the gate through which you must enter
Passes the time which did erase them
A hand will guide your own
Thirteen others formed a strange crew] (6)

It does not take long for the well-read Colin to locate the source of the first two extracts, ripped almost at random (they neither begin nor end with sentence breaks) from the preface to Balzac’s Histoire des Treize. He quickly seeks confirmation of his surmise from a copy of the novel-series situated within a stack of books leaning against the wall of his threadbare chambre de bonne, a book which he will carry around with him for the rest of the film (7). It is the coincidence of the title of Balzac’s novel, and the number 13 twice repeated in the third message he receives, that does the most to arouse Colin’s interest, but this latter text poses considerably greater difficulties for both the character and the viewer in discerning its source.

The fact that allusions to the “Snark”, the “Boojum” (spread across two non-consecutive lines) and the “Treize” occur only on every second line of the message leads Colin to the conclusion that the third missive actually contains two texts, interspersed with each other in interlocking lines, so as to form the following extracts:

Two paths open up before you
Place me as I must be placed
Holy was our ambition
At the gate through which you must enter
A hand will guide your own.

And:

Thirteen to better hunt the Snark
They would not have met the Boo–
–jum who saw them vanish away
Passes the time which did erase them
Thirteen others formed a strange crew.

Out 1

In Colin’s attempts to divine a deeper meaning to these messages, an initial visit to an esteemed Balzac specialist (played by Éric Rohmer, replete with a faintly preposterous fake beard [8]) proves relatively fruitless: the haughty professor, who openly mocks the orthographic errors in Colin’s letters to him, flatly dismisses the possibility of a contemporary equivalent to the Treize, and the only advice he can give to his would-be pupil is “Read Balzac, that’s the best thing you can do”. So Colin turns to the use of acrostics to guide him – an option authorised by Carroll’s own acrostic dedication of “The Hunting of the Snark” to his young friend Gertrude Chataway. This method yields fecund results: the first passage takes him to the hippie boutique “L’Angle du Hasard”, run by Pauline (who turns out to have dealings with the Treize), due its address at 2 place Sainte-Opportune (“Deux – Place – Sainte – Au Port – Une” constituting the opening words to each of the text’s five lines) (9).

To find Warok, a character who will be the closest Colin comes to penetrating the Treize, more contorted measures must be taken, the dubious nature of which are worthy of Pierre Bezukhov, who in Tolstoy’s War and Peace uses a complex alphanumeric grid to unearth a Biblical prophecy concerning the rise of Napoleon and his own historically predetermined role in defeating the French emperor (10). In Colin’s case, Warok’s name is found by reading the final letter of each of the lines of the Snark passage backwards (resulting in EAROK), and then substituting, as we have seen, the English word “crew” for the French term “équipage”.

Out 1

This revelation comes to Colin immediately after the scene in the Rue Tiquetonne, and in episodes 7 and 8 he pays visits to the cagey Warok. At Warok’s suggestion that the messages were merely a joke, Colin initially responds, “If that were the case, the whole magical and mysterious universe in which I step forth would be instantly dulled. And that is impossible.” Later, however, with Out 1 drawing to a close, Colin decides to quash his suspicions as to the real existence of the Treize, declaring, in a long, rambling tirade to Warok and his acquaintance (and possible co-conspirator) Lucie, that

This “History of the Thirteen” was a pure adolescent fantasy. And I would even say an ideologically false fantasy. That didn’t prevent this fantasy from leading me quite far into a terrifying nightmare, where I brushed with madness, where I brushed with death. It was there that I met the sphinx, but I did not find love because I asked this sphinx a question, which was a poorly-phrased question, just as the question of the Thirteen is poorly phrased, and is precisely what prevents them from finding reality. For my part, I have left all this behind and I’m doing well. I’m doing very, very, very, very well, and I will leave you to your society chitchat.

Out 1

One of the very last scenes in Out 1 shows Colin in a return to his prior existence: as at the start of the film, he prowls around the café terraces of the Champs-Elysées, posing as a deaf-mute and playing on his harmonica to coax patrons out of a franc in exchange for a “message of destiny” – consisting of a page torn out of a book at random, tucked inside a blue envelope. The return to normality, however, is anything but reassuring, and the true fate of Léaud’s character is perhaps better indicated by a scene which, some time after the restored film’s screening at Rotterdam in 1989, was excised from the film by Rivette. According to Jonathan Rosenbaum, this “hair-raising sequence” consisted of a single long take showing Léaud

crying, screaming, howling like an animal, banging his head against the wall, busting a closet door, writhing on the floor, then calming down and picking up his harmonica. After throwing away all three of the secret messages he has been trying for most of the serial to decode, he starts playing his harmonica ecstatically, throws his clothes and other belongings out into the hall, dances about manically, and then plays the harmonica some more.

Despite confessing that he had been unable to query Rivette about the deletion, Rosenbaum speculates that the scene “carried too many suggestions of Léaud’s subsequent real-life emotional difficulties for Rivette to feel comfortable about retaining it” and goes on to note that

Dramatically and structurally, this raw piece of psychodrama suggested certain parallels with the sequence relentlessly recording Jean-Pierre Kalfon’s self-lacerations with a razor in Rivette’s L’Amour fou(1967) – a disturbing piece of self-exposure in which the fictional postulates of the character seem to crumble into genuine pain and distress, representing in both films a dangerous crossing of certain boundaries into what can only be perceived as madness. (11)

If the Rue Tiquetonne sequence showed Léaud skirting the threshold between performance and veritable anguish, then this phantom scene, now expunged from the annals of film history, bore witness to the actor’s headlong plunge into the latter.

But I should leave the last word to Léaud himself. In November 2013, the actor, 69 years old and in a fragile state of health, made a rare public appearance on the occasion of a screening of Out 1 at the Viennale, and revisited the film, and his relations with Rivette, during an address he made to the appreciative audience. As a precious first-hand testimony of the film, I feel that an extensive citation from his speech is more than warranted:

I thank you for having surmounted your physical and moral fatigue, and for staying here until now. I am not a Jacques Rivette specialist, and I’m not a theoretician of the nouvelle vague, so what I can talk about today are anecdotes about Out 1.

When Jacques Rivette began shooting on the film, L’Amour fou had just been released, and it was quite a success with critics and the public. This was a moment when the directors of the nouvelle vague had begun to establish themselves, and so I was very happy to be able to be able to make this film, Out 1, with Jacques Rivette. I had known Jacques Rivette for a long time, and one of the things he asked us to do as actors was to invent our own characters during the shoot. […]

So Jacques Rivette simply told me, think about what you want out of the role and create your own character. Since I was playing a deaf-mute, I thought, “Well, actually this is very difficult. How can I find a way to express my character?” And then, all of a sudden, a light bulb went off in my head. I said to myself, “I need a musical instrument”. So I started thinking, “Well what musical instrument can I play? Can it be a trombone, or a saxophone?” Then I thought, “It has to be something I can carry around in my pocket”. So I had an idea: the harmonica! The idea of the harmonica brought all the character’s gestures into focus.

I recently re-watched the last episode of Out 1 on a cassette tape in Paris – but only the last episode. And the film ends with me playing a little tune on my harmonica. This is the summation of the twelve-and-a-half hours of the film. When I saw this on video, I thought it was extraordinary. After twelve hours, you too will see a strange man playing the harmonica, with a little tune that came into my head, and that I played before Jacques Rivette’s camera.

To remain in the realm of anecdotes, once I had the idea of the harmonica, I asked myself, “How am I supposed to use it? How do you play the harmonica?” I knew that a friend from Cahiers du cinéma, Serge Daney, had rented a little house in Marrakech (the Marrakech of 45 years ago, mind you). So I went to Marrakech, where there were two Englishmen who played this kind of drum, with a very Moroccan musicality to it. And of course, because we were in Morocco, there was a lot of marijuana floating around – although I never smoked any. So this is how I learnt to master the harmonica, from these guys who were smoking grass, and they taught me this little tune that you will see at the end of this twelve-hour film.

That’s all as far as anecdotes are concerned. As for what Jacques Rivette means to me, we have a very, very long history with each other, because when I had finished shooting The 400 Blows, I was really trying to find my place in life. This place turned out to be Cahiers du cinéma, where Jacques Rivette was the editor-in-chief at the time. So I would go to the Cahiers offices and meet with Jacques Rivette practically every day. A certain friendship developed between us, because we would meet practically every evening to go to the old Cinémathèque run by Henri Langlois. We were a gang of cinephiles, who would discuss the cinema after every screening, with Jacques Rivette giving a kind of seminar to all of his disciples, myself included. The fact is, Jacques Rivette has had a hidden influence on my tastes in the cinema, because, in my opinion, Jacques Rivette was the only person who saw everything in a film. And he transmitted everything he saw to us, setting in march our own aesthetic ideas. So this is the hidden influence Jacques Rivette has had on my thinking on the cinema, and on the films that I made at the time of the nouvelle vague. (12)

OUT 1 will screen at the 2014 Melbourne International Film Festival (31 July – 17 August) as part of a program stream on Jean-Pierre Léaud, co-curated with Philippa Hawker. Find out more and purchase tickets at the MIFF website

Endnotes

1. An extract of the scene lasting roughly 30 seconds is also included in Out 1: Spectre, a condensed version of the original film lasting a little over four hours.

2. Cf. Gilles Deleuze, L’Image-Temps, Minuit, Paris, 1985, p. 31. Deleuze defines the “professional non-actor”, or the “actor-medium”, as being “capable of seeing and showing rather than acting, and either remaining mute or undertaking an infinite conversation, rather than responding to or following a dialogue”. Translation by the author.

3. Cf. Lewis Carroll, “The Hunting of the Snark”, Jabberwocky and Other Nonsense: Collected Poems, Penguin, London, 2012, pp. 237-257.

4. Indeed, the “strange crew” in pursuit of the Snark comprises nine individuals (consisting of a Bellman, a Barrister, a Broker, a Billiard-marker, a Banker, a Beaver, a Butcher, a Baker and a “maker of Bonnets and Hoods”), not 13.

5. I am using Herbert J. Hunt’s translation of the Histoire des Treize for the English renditions of the first two messages. Cf. Honoré de Balzac, History of the Thirteen, trans. Herbert J. Hunt, Penguin, London, 1974, pp. 26-27 and 23.

6. The word “équipage/crew” is written in red in the note Colin receives.

7. Later, Colin will quote lengthily from the opening to Balzac’s preface in an interview he conducts with Thomas (Michael Lonsdale). He also reads from two passages of La Duchesse de Langeais (the second novel in the series, which Rivette would adapt as Ne touchez pas la hache in 2007) in a strategy to guide himself through the streets of Paris.

8. The beard was apparently worn at Rohmer’s own insistence in an effort to prevent his elderly mother from discovering his identity as a filmmaker.

9. Unlike the Rue du Nadir aux Pommes in Celine et Julie vont en bateau (Rivette, 1974), this is a real address in Paris, located near the Châtelet metro station in the 1st arrondissement.

10. “It occurred to [Pierre] that if the answer to the question were contained in his name, his nationality would also be given in the answer. So he wrote Le Russe Besuhof and adding up the numbers got 671. This was only five too much, and five was represented by e, the very letter elided from the article le before the word Empereur. By omitting the e, though incorrectly, Pierre got the answer he sought. L’Russe Besuhof made 666. This discovery excited him. How, or by what means, he was connected with the great event foretold in the Apocalypse he did not know, but he did not doubt that connection for a moment.” Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, trans. Louise and Aylmer Maude, Wordsworth, London, 1993, p. 526.

11. Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Tih-Minh, Out 1: On the Nonreception of Two French Serials”, Velvet Light Trap no. 37, Spring 1996: http://www.jonathanrosenbaum.net/1996/04/tih-minh-out-1-on-the-nonreception-of-two-french-serials-tk/.

12. Jean-Pierre Léaud, address at screening of Out 1, Metro Theatre, Vienna (1 November 2013).

About The Author

Daniel Fairfax is a doctoral candidate in Film Studies and Comparative Literature at Yale University and book reviews editor at Senses of Cinema