The corpus of Jacques Rivette’s critical writings for Cahiers du cinéma is as influential as it is modest in size. Roughly 50 articles appeared under Rivette’s name alone, although this total is bolstered by his participation in interviews, round-tables and other collective endeavours. Moreover, most of his individually-authored pieces are short reviews, texts ranging from a few lines to a couple of pages in length. Only two articles exceed this scope, and both appeared in the early years of Rivette’s critical career: “Génie de Howard Hawks” from 1953 and “Lettre sur Rossellini” from 1955. It almost goes without saying that both have since become landmarks of film criticism, but this did not result in them becoming widely accessible, a fate they shared with most of his other writings. Whereas the critical work of his fellow “young Turks” – Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer – has been collected in easily available anthologies which have entered the canon of film criticism, Rivette was resistant to the idea of his own writings receiving the same treatment, Jonathan Rosenbaum’s long out-of-print 1977 BFI pamphlet Jacques Rivette: Texts and Interviews forming the chief exception to this state of affairs.1 For those who do not have ready access to a complete catalogue of Cahiers du cinéma back-issues,2 then, actually reading Rivette’s writings on film can be a challenging task, and his critical texts have largely become quasi-mythical objects, cited chapter and verse by the initiates, but known in broader circles only through second-hand channels, with his ideas on the cinema boiled down to a handful of lapidary passwords: “évidence”, “abjection”, “intelligence”, “simplicity”, “mise en scène”, “liberty”, “totality”, “dialectic”.

Despite the paucity and obscurity of this textual material, the importance of Rivette’s film criticism is unquestionable. His articles have long served as beacons to those who became critics under his tutelage, none so more memorably than Serge Daney, whose paean to Rivette’s excoriation of a tracking shot in Gillo Pontecorvo’s Kapo – in which he asserts that “the ‘tracking shot in Kapo’ was my portable dogma, the axiom that wasn’t up for discussion, the breaking point of every debate” – has itself become legendary.3 More recently, scholars have returned to Rivette’s early writings, with Douglas Morrey, in particular, shedding light on the critical acuity and philosophical density of his criticism, and in particular its debt to Hegelian dialectics.4 This scholarship, however, has largely focussed on the first period of Rivette’s association with Cahiers du cinéma, from his first article for the journal in 1953 to his departure as editor-in-chief in 1965. Between 1965 and 1968, despite remaining a member of the journal’s editorial committee (a largely administrative body), Rivette had little day-to-day involvement with Cahiers, and virtually no texts appeared under his name during this time.5 A second period of critical activity, however, ensued between 1968 and 1969, as Rivette made a return to writing for the journal. He lent his name to 15 pieces within a roughly 18-month period, a body of work which included interviews (with Rivette on both sides of the microphone), short critical pieces, and participation in a round table on the topic of montage. The texts Rivette contributed to during this time offer an intriguing prolongation of his earlier reflection on the cinema, one enriched by the experience of making three feature films since the beginning of the 1960s. Moreover, they were part of a broader process of theoretical transmission between different generations of film critics, one in which the filmmaker played a key role. Indeed, if there is one figure who can be understood as the conduit between the Cahiers of the 1950s – when the journal was wedded to Bazinian notions of the cinema’s “ontological realism”, while younger figures developed their politique des auteurs – and the Cahiers of the late 1960s, when a deepening political radicalisation would lead editors Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean Narboni to declare an avowedly Marxist orientation by the end of the decade, then it is none other than Rivette. This role, however, had just as much to do with his physical presence in the journal’s offices, and the conversations on film that he conducted with his cohort of young disciples, as it did with his published output. Although this oral tradition is by nature more ephemeral than the written work that was produced during this time, testimonies by the Cahiers critics of the late 1960s – Daney, Narboni, Comolli, Jacques Aumont, Pascal Bonitzer, Sylvie Pierre and Pascal Kané among them – do provide us with an understanding of the importance of Rivette for the journal during his “second wind” of writing on the cinema, and their exposure to his thinking during this time remains one of Rivette’s enduring legacies as a filmmaker, critic and theorist.

Re-watching Verdoux

Cahiers’ turn to Marxism in the wake of May 1968 marks one of the major turning points in the tumultuous history of the journal, but this transformation was preceded by an equally important shift in orientation earlier in the decade, one which in many ways ushered in its subsequent radicalisation. 1963 saw the notorious “putsch” against Rohmer, who had succeeded Bazin as editor-in-chief after the latter’s death in 1958, with Rivette taking the initiative to topple his older colleague, and assuming control over Cahiers, an event discussed amply in Antoine de Baecque and Noël Herpe’s recent biography of Rohmer.6 Under Rohmer, the journal’s aesthetic conservatism and openness to the right-wing, quasi-fascist politics of the macmahonien group of cinephiles, and the lukewarm reception it had given to the early works of the nouvelle vague, had sparked tensions among its editors, who quickly divided into those who defended Rohmer (Jean Douchet, Jean Domarchi, Barbet Schroeder) and those who saw the need for change (in addition to Rivette, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, François Truffaut and Pierre Kast). For the younger generation of critics, the likes of Comolli, André S. Labarthe and Jean-André Fieschi, who had only recently begun writing for the journal, a clear choice presented itself. As Comolli put it: “We had to choose: either side with Rohmer and leave with him, or side with Rivette, which is what we did. There was infinitely more cultural and intellectual common ground between us and Rivette, we were more or less in the same camp.”7

Whereas Rohmer insisted that the cinema had not yet entered its classical stage, Rivette, in his early criticism, stressed the relationship between cinema and modernity. Although in the 1950s this cinematic modernity was represented, in Rivette’s eyes, by Hollywood auteur-directors such as Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock and Otto Preminger, by the early 1960s it was the European new waves – the films of Resnais, Bergman and Antonioni, as well as those of his former Cahiers colleagues – that were felt to be of greater importance. Effectively, modern cinema, a cinema in tune with its historical era, had paved the way for modernist cinema, one that was critically reflecting on and aesthetically representing the contradictions of this period.8 Rivette’s openness to modernist cinema was mirrored in his receptivity to parallel currents of contemporary thought and artistic practice, and upon assuming the editor-in-chief position in the summer of 1963 one of his most noteworthy initiatives was a trio of interviews with Roland Barthes, Claude Lévi-Strauss and Pierre Boulez.9 The content of these discussions, however, was uneven: Boulez and Lévi-Strauss come across as relatively unconcerned with developments in contemporary cinema, while Barthes’ interview was more theoretically fruitful, but underwent a protracted process of re-writing before the literary theorist felt it was suitable for publication.10

Jacques Rivette

Monsieur Verdoux (Charles Chaplin, 1947)

Of greater interest, perhaps, are the texts by Rivette’s own hand. During his time as editor, he rarely wrote articles, and none of them reached the length of his major texts of the 1950s. Even within the space of a brief critical note or a piercing intervention on a round table, however, his critical voice and the categorical nature of his judgements were on display. This is no more the case than in the short article “Revoir Verdoux”, a response to Comolli’s note “Coup double”, written on the occasion of the re-opening of Henri Langlois’ Cinémathèque française at a new facility in the Palais de Chaillot, an event which was crowned by the projection of Monsieur Verdoux (1947). Chaplin’s film had long been unavailable for viewing, and a considerable mythology had built up around it, not least due to the dogged advocacy of the film by Bazin and other Cahiers writers. For Comolli, however, the much anticipated screening was a disappointment: although Bazin’s discussion of Chaplin’s film remains “one of the most penetrating analyses made of a film”, the work itself is merely the “sterile game of a hero who refers to nothing other than himself or his double.” Chaplin even finds himself cast out of a central place in the Cahiers pantheon by the young critic: “Griffith, Lang, Preminger, Ray, etc., are our rule and that of the cinema, of which Chaplin and Welles remain the exception. And the exception only ever confirms the rule by abstraction.”11

Rivette could not but respond to this judgement, but the eight short paragraphs of his rejoinder do more than rebut Comolli on the subject of Monsieur Verdoux, they lucidly encapsulate a line of thinking the (contradictory, dialectical) relationship between cinema and the world that represents the essence of Cahiers’ critical project, extending from the 1950s right through to the end of the 1970s, in spite of the journal’s intervening political permutations. Rivette begins by questioning Comolli’s invocation of the “exception and the rule” in the cinema, arguing that the cinema, far from having an innate en-soi (in-itself, a consciously Hegelian term), is “at the end of the day, nothing but what directors make of it.”12 Less an exception to the rule, the work of Chaplin, Buñuel or Eisenstein is an act of conquest, while, recalling Rossellini’s assessment of Chaplin’s A King in New York (1957), Rivette insists that Monsieur Verdoux is the film of a “free man”. From this stance on Verdoux, amicably rebuffing Comolli’s lukewarm reception of the film, Rivette shifts to the broader question of the cinema itself: asking the question, “What is the goal of the cinema?”, Rivette answers: “That the real world, such as it is offered on the screen, should also be an idea of the world. The world must be seen as an idea, it must be thought of as concrete.”13 Two paths, then, are available for filmmakers, but both have their attendant risks: beginning with “the world” poses the danger that the filmmaker is content with a “pure gaze” that is little different from cows watching trains pass by, in thrall merely to their colour and movement, but without any deeper understanding. Beginning with “the idea”, meanwhile, tends to result in the filmmaker refusing to allow the dense, confusing reality of the world to interfere with the initial conception.

Rivette insists, however, that there are filmmakers who are capable of recuperating the real on the basis of a preconceived schema. In order for this process to take place, it is necessary that this schema be not a “skeleton” but a “dynamic figure”, and that “the justness of its movement, of its internal dialectic, progressively recreates, before our eyes, a concrete world,” a world that is “more ambiguous by dint of being both an incarnated idea and the real penetrated with meaning.”14 For Rivette, the “idea is already an idea of the world” it is an “image-idea”. With this notion, he combines two philosophical heritages: the film theory of Bazin, with its concern for the relationship between the cinema and the reality of the world it depicts, and Hegel’s dialectical understanding of the relationship between the idea and concrete reality. In essence, Rivette retains an allegiance to the legacy of Bazin; utilising Hegelian theory, however, he treats the ontological realism of the cinema not as a frozen dogma, but as a dialectic that moves in both directions, and in doing so retains the dialectical thrust of Bazin’s original ideas. Chaplin’s value, then, and indeed, his “genius”, is that he manifests “in clear light” a dialectic that was merely implicit in the work of Renoir and Buñuel.

From this point, however, Rivette shifts the conceptual terrain from the classical idealism of Hegel and Bazin, to the structuralist theory of Roland Barthes. Rivette assents to Barthes’ view that structuralist activity is the “reconstitution of an object ‘in such a way as to manifest the functions of this object’”, and he sees Verdoux through a Barthesian lens as a “simulacrum, rigorously non-symbolic and without depth, but formal: ‘neither the real, nor the rational, but the functional’.”15 Chaplin’s structuralism comes, for Rivette, chiefly through the “multiplicity of significations” generated by the distanced relationship between Chaplin’s own persona and the role he plays in the film. As with artists working in other mediums such as Brecht, Boulez and Fautrier, the meaning of Verdoux derives precisely from the signifying movement produced by this distanciation process.

For the younger critics, Rivette’s text not only convinced them of the merits of Monsieur Verdoux, it also signalled to them the direction which the critical project of Cahiers should take in the 1960s: one that would focus on modernist cinema, contemporary theory and radical politics. Narboni, writing in 2015, notes that the importance of “Revoir Verdoux” was belied by its inconspicuous position within the magazine’s “Petit journal”, which normally comprised short information notices about current events; rather, the text had “the tone, the authority and the affirmative power of a manifesto which should have warranted a position as the opening editorial.” For Narboni, Rivette’s piece marked “a rupture, without right of appeal, with a certain ‘cinephilic spirit’, amenable to the ‘pure gaze’ and celebrating fascination and the annihilation of all critical distance before their beloved films” and instead advocated “a cinema of creative comprehension and decentring, conscious of its means and ends.”16

A Time of Scandals

Having firmly established the new critical orientation of Cahiers, Rivette did not stay long as editor, a role which he had always seen as transitional: by 1965 he passed the baton onto Comolli, as work on filming Diderot’s La Religieuse consumed his attentions. In April the following year, the film would become a rallying point for Cahiers when, with the imprimatur of de Gaulle’s minister of culture André Malraux, its release was refused by the state censorship board due to its ostensible blasphemy. The journal, incensed by a repression of free speech that was all the more flagrant for targeting an adaptation of one of the canonical works of French literature, immediately mobilised in defence of Rivette’s film. While Rivette himself remained relatively quiet during the campaign, the younger Cahiers writers were joined by Jean-Luc Godard, among others, in their vocal attacks on the Gaullist state. A vitriolic letter Godard wrote to the “minister of Kultur” was published in Le Nouvel Observateur on April 6 (and re-published in Cahiers), in which the filmmaker excoriated Malraux for having “cheerfully accepted the banning of a work which nevertheless taught you the exact meaning of two inseparable ideas: generosity and resistance,” adding: “I see now that it was simply cowardice.”17 In tandem with this text, Godard also took it upon himself to write the editorial for the April 1966 issue of Cahiers, which, if anything was of even greater violence, accusing the Gaullist state of censoring Rivette’s film out of political opportunism, and of thereby revealing “its true, totalitarian face.”18

Jacques Rivette

Godard’s original editorial for issue no. 177 of Cahiers du cinéma (courtesy of Jacques Bontemps)

Although it was left unfinished by Godard (the last couple of sentences were completed by the Cahiers editors), this text itself caused a subsidiary mini-scandal: Cahiers’ publisher Daniel Filipacchi, incensed at the naked ferocity of Godard’s language, refused to distribute the issue containing the text, even after it had come back from the printers. At a tremendous cost to his publishing house, the original print run was pulped and a new issue was printed, identical to the former version save for a much less vituperative notice penned by the editors themselves. The original version of issue no. 177 is now a collector’s item, but the incident would sour relations between the Cahiers editors and Filipacchi, which would result in the magazine’s divorce with its owner in 1969.19 Over the next several months, meanwhile, La Religieuse would become a rallying cry for Cahiers against the repression wielded by a sclerotic Gaullist state, and the wave of solidarity for Rivette eventually succeeded in overturning the ban, with the film finding a release in September 1967.20

Jacques Rivette

La Religieuse (Jacques Rivette, 1966)

Within months, another scandal flared up opposing the French state to the country’s cinephile circles: the “Langlois Affair”. In February 1968, Cinémathèque française founder Henri Langlois was sacked by the ministry of culture (still presided over by Malraux) and replaced by the pliant bureaucrat Pierre Barbin. Again, Cahiers became the unofficial headquarters for the solidarity movement demanding Langlois’ reinstatement, in which Rivette was centrally involved. A feverish campaign ensued: a “Comité de Défense de la Cinémathèque française” was established (with Rivette elected adjunct-secretary), phone calls and telegrams were sent out from the Cahiers office (with Filipacchi reluctantly shouldering the considerable bills), the Cinémathèque was picketed, and, on Wednesday, February 14, 3000 Langlois supporters marching on the esplanade du Trocadéro were attacked by baton-wielding riot police, in a protest that has been widely seen as a significant precursor to the events of May. Two days later, an incendiary press conference was held involving the key figures of the campaign (among them Godard, Claude Chabrol, Alexandre Astruc, Nicholas Ray, Jean Renoir, Pierre Kast and lawyer Georges Kiejman), in which Rivette praised Langlois’ cinémathèque as being “not like a museum but like a permanent action, a permanent revolution, […] a permanent discovery of what is justly the permanence of the cinema,” and railed against the prospect of an official state body that would show “a week of Iraqi cinema to coincide with the visit of the President of Iraq.”21 Understanding the move as part of a broader shift towards economic centralisation under the auspices of the European Common Market, Rivette conjectured that:

I believe we have here a typical example of the eternal struggle between what we shall call, in a very rough, schematic manner, functionaries and artists. I hate to use the word “artist”, but let’s use it for lack of a clearer word. Now, unfortunately, the cinema is not an art of functionaries. The cinema can not be made by functionaries, the cinema can only be made by artists.22

In April 1968, the pro-Langlois movement won its chief demand: the “dragon of the cinémathèque” was returned to his post. Cahiers, which featured Langlois on its front cover for its 200th issue, trumpeted the win as one where “for the first time, perhaps, the cinema in its entirety, from cinephiles to filmmakers, [is] victorious (and not in the Pyrrhic sense, as is usually the case) against those who – agents of the state or not, perfidious or not – more or less engage in opposing it and weakening it,” and argued for “consider[ing] the battle of the Cinémathèque as the first of those, all of those, that are in the offing and that must be won if the French cinema is able to conquer, after so many years of adolescence, crisis and oversight, a veritable status, that warranted by its maturity and its liberty, the former real, the latter, alas, still virtual.”23 The victory came at a price, however, with the state withdrawing all public subsidies for the Cinémathèque française, which would now find itself, in the Defence Committee’s words, “free but poor”.24 Nonetheless, the movement instilled the film world with a dogged belief in its collective power, and it impelled a humiliating back-down for de Gaulle’s regime, which would soon have its very existence threatened by a political contestation of far greater enormity.

When the May revolt erupted, it quickly enveloped the French film industry. Rivette was not present at Cannes, where Godard and Truffaut, taking inspiration from the street protests in the capital, succeeded in shutting down the festival, but he and the other members of the Cahiers team participated in the barricades, and took part in the occupations of the Sorbonne and the Odeon theatre.25 May also saw virtually the entire French film world gather for the “États généraux du cinéma” – the name a deliberate reference to France’s revolutionary heritage – held in the École Louis Lumière, a film school just outside of Paris. 1500 filmmakers, actors and technicians assembled to formulate plans to fundamentally transform the organisational structures of the film industry. Of the proposals put forward, Rivette lent his name to Project 16, dubbed “The General Line (The Old and the New)”, which advocated a public sector of production and distribution freed of the profit motive and run on the principle of “autonomy and autogestion”.26 The États généraux, however, was an inconclusive affair: despite attempts to synthesise three of the most well-supported platforms, the intransigence of the group advocating Project 4 – a utopian, unrealisable vision of a totally liberated cinema – prevented the assembly from reaching a consensus, and with the reactionary wave of the June elections the industry was returned to its pre-May status.

Jacques Rivette

L’amour fou (Jacques Rivette, 1968)

Before the year was out a final, albeit comparatively minor, scandal would affect Rivette: upon delivering a four-hour edit of his third feature, L’amour fou (1968), his distributors insisted on paring it down to a more conventional 130-minute duration for its theatrical release. In the end, a compromise position was reached whereby both versions of the film were released simultaneously (although the “abridged edition” screened more widely than the director’s cut). Thanks largely to a critical campaign spearheaded by Cahiers, the full-length Amour fou was markedly more successful at the box office than its truncated counterpart, and made a significant contribution to the loosening of durational norms for films that would allow for more radical experiments in this direction, such as Rivette’s own Out 1: Noli me tangere (1970). Writing for Cahiers, Sylvie Pierre insisted that was what at stake in defending the filmmaker’s original vision was the “respect, for all films, of their proper duration,” which was seen as “one of the necessary conditions for demolishing the notion of the film as a pure object of spectacle and consumption,” and she echoed André S. Labarthe in declaring that “the length of the film is its very substance.”27 Moreover, as Cahiers recognised, L’amour fou’s challenge to cinematic convention went far beyond its duration; its use of different film stocks (35mm and 16mm), exploration of the boundaries between cinema and theatre and continuation of the themes of paranoia, conspiracy and the psychological tolls of artistic creation that course throughout Rivette’s œuvre made it one of the journal’s talismanic films in the tumultuous year of 1968.

The Return to Film Criticism

It was at this time that Rivette, having completed the filming and editing of L’amour fou, made his return to contributing to Cahiers. Pascal Bonitzer has affirmed that Rivette’s renewed participation in the journal occurred after a “grave depression” suffered by the filmmaker.28 Since filming on Out 1 would not begin until 1970, we can surmise that, in the absence of another directorial project, the Cahiers office proved to be a welcoming environment for an emotionally fragile Rivette. Many of his published interventions for Cahiers were, in fact, interviews: in the years 1968-69 Rivette – alongside Cahiers colleagues such as Michel Delahaye, Jean Narboni, Jean-Louis Comolli, Sylvie Pierre and Jacques Aumont – conducted interviews with Vera Chytilová, Philippe Garrel, Shirley Clarke, Walerian Borowczyk, Louis Malle and Marguerite Duras.29 Although the various formats adopted for publishing these interviews do not always allow us to establish when it is Rivette himself speaking (often the questions are simply posed by “Cahiers”), those discussions in which his voice is identified often give us insight into fascinating encounters between a post-war modernist filmmaker and his contemporaries, as well as attesting to Rivette’s continued adherence to the critical methodology that guided his earlier film writing. In Cahiers’ interview with Chytilová, for instance, Rivette’s admiration for the Czechoslovak filmmaker’s work is palpable, but the legacy of his Hegel-informed outlook is also on view, as he reads Chytilová’s work through the lens of dialectics and the logic of contradiction. Tellingly, Rivette claims that the “the idea of transformation and metamorphosis, which is the central idea of [Chytilová’s 1963 film Something Different] is also true for reality” and that it is “contradiction that pushes you to act, and thus to go in a certain direction.”30 Similarly, he praises Sedmikrasky (Daisies, 1966) for “refus[ing] the schematic and theoretical side that it could have had” and instead being an “interrogation” where the spectator questions the very nature of truth: “In the beginning we have a principle that would risk being a pure clockwork system, but by the end it has become literally incarnated, it has become something organic, living, with this spontaneous and mysterious side that something living always has.”31 More particularly, Rivette notes the lack of individuation given to the two main characters, and, following Chytilová’s claim that “the number two, which is the smallest quantity, is that which allows us to say the most things”, Rivette responds that the theme of the couple in her work is present in order to “lead people, if they initially thought that the two women are different, to discover that they are in fact very close to each other, and if they initially thought that they were similar, to make them discover that they are different.” With a suitably dialectical locution, he concludes that Chytilová’s “manner of showing things” results in the spectator “thinking, at the end, in the opposite way to how they thought in the beginning.”32

Jacques Rivette

Daisies (Vera Chytilová, 1966)

Although Rivette’s exchanges with Borowczyk tend more towards focussing on technical matters, he nonetheless observes a comparable trait in the Polish director’s work, arguing that “In your films we tend to have the feeling that the solution is at the beginning: we start out with a solution, then it is queried, and at the end of the film there is a total absence of solutions. We understand, bit by bit, that we were completely mistaken at the start in believing that we began with something very simple.”33 Referring more specifically to Le Théâtre de M. et Mme. Kabal (Mr and Mrs Kabal’s Theatre, 1967), Rivette argues that it is “completely successful, because it is really a film – above all when you watch it for the first time – that you watch while barely knowing what it is you are watching” and relates his own personal experience of viewing the film on multiple occasions, a methodology which can almost act as a user’s manual for watching Rivette’s own films. Upon a first viewing, “I did not know what I had seen. I really loved the film when I re-watched it, but this did not surprise me, because I had not ceased to think about it. Of all the films I have seen, it is one of those that acted most at a distance.”34 Moreover, Rivette locates where, in his view, the difficulty in understanding the film lies: “Nothing is incomprehensible: we understand everything in detail. What escapes us is what links it to the whole. The film must be invented while you watch it.”35

While interviews such as these allowed Rivette to demonstrate his continued analytical acuity as a questioner, his vision of the cinema was also on display when, on the occasion of L’amour fou’s theatrical release, he himself became the subject of an interview. Curiously, Rivette has the singular honour of being both an interviewer and interviewee in the same issue of Cahiers, participating in an interview with Philippe Garrel for the September 1968 number, as well as being interrogated by his fellow Cahiers writers on his latest film. The introduction to this piece gave the current editorial team the opportunity to give expression to Rivette’s influence on them, stating:

Among the nouvelle vague filmmakers, Jacques Rivette was one of the rare ones to have not been interviewed by Cahiers. It is not, one suspects, that his importance in the cinema escaped us. A theoretical importance, first of all, manifested by his critical articles, (scripturally) silent but no less profound during the time that he was editor-in-chief of the journal. […] An importance as a filmmaker, secondly, through the innovative nature of each of his projects.36

The reason for this delay is given as being a “certain awkwardness on both sides to break open a conversation that has been uninterrupted for several years,” but the interview that follows is a long and fertile discussion between the filmmaker and his younger colleagues. It is only natural that the film’s length should form a key part of the discussion – Rivette even quips that “the most important moment in the film is when people go to take a piss”37 – but more intriguing is his invocation of modernist music, with Rivette considering L’amour four to be a homage to Stravinsky (and particular the composer’s works The Flood and the Canticum sacrum), and claiming that “the great ambition of the film, formally, was to seek out an equivalent, in the cinema, of Stockhausen’s recent experiments: his mixture of the constructed and the aleatory, which necessarily implies time and duration.”38

When Cahiers question Rivette on the possibility of a “revolutionary cinema” existing, his response is equally stimulating, and will be of crucial importance for the journal’s subsequent political evolution. For the filmmaker, speaking a few months after May ’68, such a cinema must be a “‘differential’ cinema, one that challenges the rest of cinema” but he argues that “films that content themselves with taking the revolution as a subject actually subordinate themselves to bourgeois ideas of content, message, expression.”39 More particularly, he sees the need for overturning the “bourgeois aesthetic” which would conceive of the cinema as a form of “personal expression”, as the creation of an auteur-figure. Citing Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967) as an example of a film that “has completely effaced the creator,” Rivette contends that “what is important is the moment when there is no more auteur, no more actors, and even no more story, no more subject, nothing but the film itself speaking, saying something that can not be translated. The moment when it becomes the discourse of someone else, of something else that can not be said, precisely because it is beyond expression.”40

Jacques Rivette

Playtime (Jacques Tati, 1967)

Pressed, however, on films with an explicitly political content, Rivette parries that “the role of the cinema is to be completely demystifying, demobilising, pessimistic. It is to free people from their cocoons and plunge them into horror,” and claims that the short-film La Rentrée des Usines Wonder (1968), showing a female worker unwilling to return to the factory floor after the conclusion of a victorious strike, is “the only interesting film on the events [of May], […] because it is a terrifying film, a painful film.”41 While Wonder is a “truly revolutionary film” because it is “condenses an entire political situation into ten minutes of crazy dramatic intensity”, Rivette nonetheless concedes that it fails to mobilise people, arguing that “the only role for the cinema is to disturb and contradict pre-conceived ideas.” Finally, he attacks militant films that are “depressingly comfortable” and contends that the political substance of films derives primarily from formal choices such as the use of direct sound and the duration of scenes. In a line of argumentation that directly stems from the logic of the article on Kapo, Rivette states: “All films are political. In any case, I maintain that L’Amour fou is a deeply political film. It is political because the attitude we all had during the filming, and then during the editing, corresponds to moral choices, to ideas on human relationships, and therefore to political choices.”42

The Roundtable on Montage

Interviews by or with Rivette were not his only forum for expression. Indeed, he also made a return to reviewing films at this juncture, writing critical notes on seven releases over the course of 1969. Curiously, despite Rivette’s undisputed status as éminence grise at the journal, none of these articles were lengthy, conceptually deep essays on the key films of the era. Instead, they were all short notules in the back section of Cahiers (the “List of Films Released in Exclusivity in Paris”), and were usually written on obscure, instantly forgettable works which had to face his caustic wit.43 The reader was advised, for instance, to watch the Czechoslovak film Soukroma vichrice (Private Torment, Hynek Bocan, 1967) in order to “better measure the abyss that separates Forman and Chytilová from their national production.”44 Forman’s Konkurs (Audition, 1964), meanwhile, was better received, with Rivette appreciating Forman’s “perverse genius” and comparing him to Lubitsch for making a film in which “each sequence changes the pre-conceived judgement created by its predecessor.”45 His longest note, however, was reserved for Dieu a choisi Paris (Gilbert Prouteau and Philippe Arthuys, 1969), a gimmicky compilation of early twentieth-century archival footage: although the film itself is derided for its “incompetence” and “mental confusion”, Rivette nonetheless highlighted the presence of a “good hundred shots that we must call admirable, […] where the old word photogènie recovers its mysterious sense (a ‘mystery’ which remains to be elucidated – but that is another story…).”46

By far the most theoretically developed contribution that Rivette made in the period 1968-69, however, came in the form of a roundtable on the topic of montage, held on the occasion of a related series of film screenings in Aix-en-Provence in February 1969, and published in the March issue of Cahiers. The question of montage was gaining in prevalence: Cahiers had just embarked on its long-running project to translate the works of Eisenstein, and the concept had also migrated into contemporary literary theory, with the avant-garde journal Change, edited by Jean-Pierre Faye, dedicating its inaugural issue to the topic. Concomitantly, even the form of the discussion was conceived as a “montage of critical fragments” that should be understood as open, provisional and non-linear in nature. The presiding hypothesis of the roundtable was, in Rivette’s words, that “the ‘resumption’ of Griffith/Eisenstein has been gradually taking place over the last ten years: diffuse, often confused or barely conscious, but representing a collective will to reactivate the idea of montage on the basis of – and in terms of – the knowledge acquired over the thirty intervening years,”47 and the selection of films shown at Aix consisted of a combination of contemporary works (by Garrel, Godard, Straub, Pollet, Solanas and Chytilová) and more canonical films from the silent era. The Cahiers writers are careful not to conflate montage with rapid editing, and Pierre maintains that both “over-edited [hypermonté]” and “under-edited [hypomonté]” films can be considered works of montage, while Narboni distinguishes between the “idea of montage” and “montage as effect” and called for a focus on montage “as essential productive work.”48 Chytilová is again an importance reference-point for Rivette, who sees her O necem jinem (Something Different, 1963) as one of the key montage-films of the modern era, because it “works not purely and simply as the alternation of two parallel actions, as merely the sum of the two, but as the multiplication of each ‘level’ by the other: and this without any interference or reference from one to the other.”49

Jacques Rivette

Made in USA (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965)

Taking a longer view of film history, Rivette espouses a dialectical schema of the evolution of cinematic montage, which passes through four Hegelian moments, with each conceived as the Aufhebung of its predecessor: from an initial invention of montage by Griffith and Eisenstein, we pass to its “deviation” by “Pudovkin-Hollywood”, then a period of rejection (the long-take aesthetic of Renoir and the neo-realists), before the 1960s witnesses an attempt “to re-inject into contemporary methods the spirit and the theory of the first period” while at the same time carrying out a dialectical interplay, an act of montage, with the third period.50 Perhaps the key film in this contemporary moment for the Cahiers team is Godard’s Made in USA, which Rivette understands as the result if “one edits together, if one combines some lousy série noire novel with the Ben Barka affair […] hence, a montage of two ‘texts’ (but also, shredding of the pre-texts).”51 Despite Rivette openly coming out against the “theological mentality” implied in the “rejection or disregard of montage” by certain film theorists,52 and openly aligns montage practices in the arts with critical theory, Morrey nonetheless has cause to critique the filmmaker for a “residual transcendentalism” for his comments that Godard’s film “leaves the impression of an earlier film, rejected, contested, defaced, torn to shreds: destroyed as such, but still ‘subjacent’.”53 At no point, Morrey argues, does Rivette “seem able to get past this idea of the ‘pre-existing text’ to admit the possibility that the text only comes into being through montage, that it has no existence prior to its assembly at the editing desk.”54

After Cahiers

As far as published theoretical texts are concerned, this roundtable would be a one-off for Rivette. He did, however, participate in another discussion at the end of 1969 on the issue of space in the cinema, subsequent to a related “weekend of theoretical reflection” at Le Havre in mid-December. The event was specifically conceived as a pendant to the discussion on montage, but took place at a time when the publication of Cahiers was interrupted by a dispute with the journal’s owner, Filipacchi. Rivette played a key role in ensuring that Cahiers would gain financial autonomy, encouraging friends of the journal to invest in the independently-owned organ, but by the time Cahiers returned to the shelves in March 1970, the roundtable was dropped, despite the fact that a transcription of the discussion had been prepared. For more than four decades this document remained inaccessible to researchers, but it can now be consulted in the Cinémathèque française’s archives, and will soon be published by the French journal 1895; its unearthing will assuredly expand the compass of our understanding of Rivette’s theoretical influence on the Cahiers of the post-1968 era.55

The resolution of the Filipacchi dispute, however, marked the end of Rivette’s presence on the pages of Cahiers: although he officially remained a member of the editorial committee until 1972 the interview with Margeurite Duras he and Narboni conducted for the November 1969 issue marked the last time Rivette’s name would be attached to an article in the journal. Work on Out 1 no doubt monopolised his time from that point on, and Rivette may have felt the need to foster the self-sufficiency of the younger critics once they had gained financial independence by stepping away from a more day-to-day presence at Cahiers. Certainly there was no violent, explicit rupture between Rivette and the journal, even as it turned towards an intransigently Maoist perspective and denounced many filmmakers who it had previously defended. A more fundamental difference in outlook, however, is suggested by the fact that, in its politicised period, Cahiers was categorically silent on Rivette’s films: Out 1, Céline et Julie vont en bateau (Celine and Julie Go Boating, 1974), Noroît (1976) and Duelle (1976) all screened during the 1970s, but none received any mention on the pages of the journal. Indeed, in 1977 Serge Daney would confess that “We have been very unfair to Rivette,” but he did not expand on this enigmatic statement.56 Even after reconciliations took place with other Cahiers alumni such as François Truffaut and Éric Rohmer, Rivette seemed to remain in something of a critical purgatory, and – apart from the occasional cursory reference from 1978 onwards – it was not until 1981, upon the completion of Pont du nord (1981), that Rivette would truly return to the pages of Cahiers, with the appearance of two long interviews with the filmmaker printed in the May and September issues.57

Jacques Rivette

Jacques Rivette: le veilleur (Claire Denis, 1990)

Despite this period of estrangement, Rivette’s influence on his Cahiers colleagues was profound and enduring, and extended well beyond the texts he lent his name to. When Narboni and Comolli drafted the landmark editorial “Cinema/Ideology/Critique”, for instance, the first person they showed it to was Rivette, who forcefully insisted that it should be published.58 Similarly, Kané recalls that he was an advocate for the early articles of Jean-Pierre Oudart, overcoming the hesitations of certain other members of the team. And, of course, his articulation of the morality, or political valency, of film form was fundamental for the development of Cahiers’ brand of Marxist aesthetics in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which became a major contribution to the academic field of film studies. This is most evident in Daney’s evocation of the “tracking shot in Kapó”, and the affinity between the two was most palpably on display in the Claire Denis documentary Jacques Rivette: le veilleur (1990), which consists of a long series of dialogues between the critic and the filmmaker shortly before Daney’s death. Bonitzer, meanwhile, would become a co-screenwriter on all of Rivette’s films from the early 1980s onwards, and read a eulogy at his funeral in 2016. Sylvie Pierre, therefore, reflects a generalised sentiment when she states that “I can say that the great film teacher that I had, in the spontaneous discussions I had with him, was Rivette. It was Rivette who taught me to see. […] Rivette was an extraordinary master for me.”59

Indeed, it was his presence in the Cahiers offices, and the fact that he regularly accompanied the journal’s critics to film viewings throughout the late 1960s, magisterially conducting long discussions after the screenings, that perhaps most determined the Cahiers line during this period, particularly in terms of its taste in films: Narboni notes that Rivette was the instigator of the journal’s “hyper-Fordian turn” after a Langlois-organised retrospective in 1965 (despite the fact that Rivette himself never wrote on Ford for Cahiers),60 while Kané recalls an example of his “intellectual terrorism” with a screening of Bresson’s Mouchette (1967): “We left the screening overawed, in total silence, and then Jacques said ‘Oh, this film is intolerable! It’s odious!’ Everyone backed down completely. It was quite funny. And so we set about not liking the film. […] Nobody said anything good about Mouchette. For Cahiers, it became Bresson’s film maudit, so greatly had Rivette marked us.”61

Beyond his written film criticism in the late 1960s, it is therefore his personal links with the Cahiers team during this period that forms the essence of his influence on their critical direction. This influence may be more covert than the landmark articles he wrote in the 1950s and early 1960s, not to mention his significant corpus of films stretching from the 1950s to the 2000s, but it is no less important an aspect of the legacy Rivette has left for all those who seek to reflect on the cinema in a profoundly theoretical and political manner.

 

Endnotes

  1. Jonathan Rosenbaum (ed.), Jacques Rivette: Texts and Interviews (London: BFI, 1977). Jean Narboni has noted that Rivette rebuffed several of his approaches to publish his collected critical writing. Quoted in Antoine de Baecque and Noël Herpe, Éric Rohmer: Biographie (Stock: Paris, 2014), p. 159. Some texts are, however, available online at the excellent website dedicated to Rivette,“Order of the Exile”, http://www.jacques-rivette.com.
  2. This is not to mention his writings for La Gazette du cinéma, a short-lived journal edited by Éric Rohmer in the early 1950s, and the weekly entertainment magazine Arts, which are even more difficult to access.
  3. Serge Daney, “The Tracking Shot in Kapo”, in Postcards from the Cinema, trans. Paul Douglas Grant (Oxford/New York: Berg, 2007), p. 18. The article was originally published in Trafic 4 (Autumn 1992).
  4. See Douglas Morrey and Alison Smith, Jacques Rivette (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009), pp. 9-21; Douglas Morrey, “To Describe a Labyrinth: Dialectics in Jacques Rivette’s Film Theory and Film Practice”, Film-Philosophy 16:1 (2012), pp. 30-51.
  5. The only exception is an interview he and André S. Labarthe conducted with Jean Renoir (see “Jean Renoir, le patron: propos de Renoir”, Cahiers du cinéma 186, January 1967, pp. 22-27), but this was a transcript of the documentary he made on Renoir for Labarthe’s series Cinéastes de notre temps.
  6. See de Baecque and Herpe, op. cit., pp. 146-154.
  7. ‘Yes, we were utopians; in a way, I still am…’: An Interview with Jean-Louis Comolli (part I)”, Senses of Cinema 62 (March 2012).
  8. This transition is most clearly reflected upon in the group text on Resnais’ Muriel (1963), “Les Malheurs de Muriel”, Cahiers du cinéma 149 (November 1963), pp. 20-34.
  9. See “Entretien avec Roland Barthes” (Jacques Rivette and Michel Delahaye), Cahiers du cinéma 147 (September 1963), pp. 20-30; “Entretien avec Pierre Boulez” (Jacques Rivette and François Weyergans), Cahiers du cinéma 152 (February 1964), pp. 19-29; “Entretien avec Claude Lévi-Strauss” (Jacques Rivette and Michel Delahaye), Cahiers du cinéma 156 (June 1964), pp. 19-29.
  10. For draft versions of the Barthes interview, which are substantially different to the published text, see dossier RIVETTE86-B19 in the Fonds Jacques Rivette, Espace chercheurs de la Cinémathèque française, Paris.
  11. Jean-Louis Comolli, “Coup double”, Cahiers du cinéma 146 (August 1963), pp. 41-42, here p. 42. All translations are my own, unless otherwise noted.
  12. Rivette, “Revoir Verdoux”, Cahiers du cinéma 146 (August 1963), pp. 42-43, here p. 42.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid., p. 43.
  15. Ibid. The quoted passage is from Roland Barthes’ text “The Structuralist Activity”, published earlier that year.
  16. Jean Narboni, La nuit sera noire et blanche: Barthes, La Chambre claire, le cinéma (Paris: Capricci, 2015), pp. 17-18.
  17. See Jean-Luc Godard, “Letter to the Minister of ‘Kultur’” (1966), in Tom Milne (ed.), Godard on Godard (New York: Da Capo, 1986), pp. 237-238, here p. 238. The letter was originally published in Cahiers on pp. 8-9 of issue no. 177.
  18. Jean-Luc Godard (unsigned), “La guerre est commencée”, Cahiers du cinéma 177 (April 1966), unpublished version.
  19. The scandal, and Godard’s editorial, are retrospectively discussed by the Cahiers editors in Comolli and Narboni’s 2011 film À voir absolument (si possible). Acknowledgements go to Jacques Bontemps for providing me with a copy of the original issue withdrawn from publication.
  20. The film’s release, indeed, would incite Jacques Aumont to review it for his first article published by Cahiers, with the fledgling critic labelling La Religieuse “one of the two or three most innovative films of the year” and concluding that “the cinema – art – is, therefore, not that which lays mysteries bear, but that which poses them in the density of their obscurity.” Jacques Aumont, “Voir la nuit (La Religieuse)”, Cahiers du cinéma 194 (October 1967), pp. 64-65.
  21. “L’Affaire Langlois, Dossier no. 1”, published in Cahiers du cinéma 199, pp. 31-45, here pp. 37, 40.
  22. Ibid,. p. 36.
  23. “Éditorial”, Cahiers du cinéma 200-201 (April-May 1968), p. 5.
  24. See “L’Affaire Langlois, Dossier no. 3” (May 18, 1968), available in dossier CDCF9-B1 in the Fonds Comité de Défense de la Cinémathèque française, Espace chercheurs de la Cinémathèque française, Paris.
  25. Cahiers’ participation in the protests of May ’68 has been described by Jean-Louis Comolli in his interview with Senses of Cinema “Yes, we were utopians”, op. cit.
  26. “La Ligne générale (L’ancien et le nouveau): Projet 16”, Cahiers du cinéma no. 203 (August 1968), pp. 29-32.
  27. Sylvie Pierre, “Le dur désir de durer”, Cahiers du cinéma no. 204 (September 1968), p. 55.
  28. Pascal Bonitzer, “L’authenticité était la marque et l’esprit de la Nouvelle Vague”, in Aldo Tassone (ed.), Que reste-t-il de la Nouvelle Vague? (Paris: Stock, 2003), pp. 35-41, here p. 38.
  29. See “Entretien avec Vera Chytilova” (with Michel Delahaye and Jacques Rivette), Cahiers du cinéma, 198 (February 1968), pp. 46-57; “Cerclé sous vide: entretien avec Philippe Garrel” (with Jean-Louis Comolli, Jean Narboni and Jacques Rivette), Cahiers du cinéma 204 (September 1968), pp. 44-55; “Le départ pour mars: entretiens avec Shirley Clarke” (with Michel Delahaye and Jacques Rivette), Cahiers du cinéma 205 (October 1968), pp. 20-33; “Entretien avec Walerian Borowczyk” (with Michel Delahaye, Sylvie Pierre and Jacques Rivette), Cahiers du cinéma 209 (February 1969), pp. 30-43; “Entretien avec Louis Malle” (with Jean-Louis Comolli, Jean Narboni and Jacques Rivette), Cahiers du cinéma 211 (April 1969), pp. 27-35; “La destruction la parole: Entretien avec Marguerite Duras” (with Jean Narboni and Jacques Rivette), Cahiers du cinéma 217 (November 1969), pp. 45-59.
  30. “Entretien avec Vera Chytilova”, op. cit., p. 49.
  31. Ibid., p. 50.
  32. Ibid., p. 73.
  33. “Entretien avec Walerian Borowczyk”, op. cit., p. 37.
  34. Ibid., p. 59.
  35. Ibid.
  36. “Le temps débordé: entretien avec Jacques Rivette” (with Jacques Aumont, Jean-Louis Comolli, Jean Narboni and Sylvie Pierre), Cahiers du cinéma 204 (September 1968), pp. 7-20, here p. 7. The interview, but not its introduction, was translated into English as “Time Overflowing”, trans. Amy Gateff, in Jonathan Rosenabum (ed.) Rivette: Texts and Interviews (London: BFI, 1977), pp. 9-38.
  37. Ibid., p. 16.
  38. Ibid., p. 15.
  39. Ibid., p. 19.
  40. Ibid.
  41. Ibid., p. 20.
  42. Ibid.
  43. These reviews were, in chronological order: “Tempête sous les draps”, Cahiers du cinéma no. 208 (January 1969), p. 65; “Concours”, Cahiers du cinéma no. 208 (January 1969), p. 66; “The Brotherhood”, Cahiers du cinéma no. 209 (February 1969), p. 64; “Play Dirty”, Cahiers du cinéma no. 211 (April 1969), pp. 64-65; “The Touchables”, Cahiers du cinéma no. 211 (April 1969), p. 65; “Bice skoro propest Sveta”, Cahiers du cinéma no. 213 (June 1969), p. 65; and “Dieu a choisi Paris”, Cahiers du cinéma no. 216 (October 1969), p. 63.
  44. Rivette, “Tempête sous les draps”, op cit., p. 65.
  45. Rivette, “Concours”, op. cit., p. 66.
  46. Rivette, “Dieu a choisi Paris”, op. cit., p. 63.
  47. Jean Narboni, Sylvie Pierre and Jacques Rivette, “Montage”, Cahiers du cinéma 210 (March 1969), pp. 16-35, here pp. 17-18. An English translation of this text is available as “Montage”, trans. Tom Milne, in Nick Browne (ed.), Cahiers du Cinéma vol. III: 1969-1972 The Politics of Representation (London: BFI, 1990), pp. 21-44.
  48. Ibid., pp. 18-19.
  49. Ibid., p. 20.
  50. Ibid., p. 29.
  51. Ibid., p. 22.
  52. Ibid., p. 27.
  53. Ibid., p. 25.
  54. Douglas Morrey, Jacques Rivette, op. cit., p. 20.
  55. See “L’Espace”, dossier RIVETTE91-B21 in the Fonds Jacques Rivette, Espace chercheurs, Cinémathèque française, Paris.
  56. Les Cahiers du Cinéma 1968-1977: Interview with Serge Daney” (with Bill Krohn), The Thousand Eyes 2 (1977), pp. 18-32, here p. 30.
  57. See “Entretien avec Jacques Rivette”, Cahiers du cinéma 323-324 (May 1981), pp. 42-49; and “Entretien avec Jacques Rivette”, Cahiers du cinéma 327 (September 1981), pp. 8-21.
  58. Interview with Jean Narboni, March 18, 2014, Paris.
  59. Interview with Sylvie Pierre, May 26, 2014, in Paris.
  60. Interview with Jean Narboni, March 3, 2014, in Paris.
  61. Interview with Pascal Kané, March 12, 2014, in Paris.