The common point between La Bande des quatre, La Belle noiseuse, Jeanne [la Pucelle] and Haut bas fragile: they are films about the bodies of actors: on stage, in the artist’s studio, and then with Jeanne with obvious physical challenges: fighting, riding, etc. I want to film the actors from top to bottom, it’s like with houses: the feet are as important as the head. One might say that I am fond of “filming with the feet”.1

– Jacques Rivette, Libération, April 12, 1995

Haut bas fragile (Up, Down, Fragile, 1995) is Jacques Rivette’s only musical. Though many of his other films have what might be described as musical elements, these operate less in terms of music than of full bodies moving within artifice. But Haut bas fragile is an all singing, all dancing musical (though one more charmingly clumsy than the MGM musicals it was inspired by) about three girls in Paris one summer, from July 15 to August 15.

The idea for the musical began with the actresses he had in mind for this project: Marianne Denicourt and Nathalie Richard. According to a 1995 interview in Les Inrockuptibles, he asked the two actresses if they were free in the summer and they told him they were. Rivette remembered both women had a background in dance: Denicourt in classical and Richard in modern. So, Rivette thought, it made sense that they would move. He devised a musical influenced by the smaller musicals MGM would film in a just a few weeks using leftover film sets, citing Stanley Donen’s Give a Girl a Break (1953), starring Debbie Reynolds and Bob Fosse, about three girls in New York City, and also the small films by MGM’s Charles Walters.

Rivette started with the idea of two women whose lives intersect: one would be rich (haut?), the classical, brunette Denicourt as Louise; and one poor (bas?), the modern, blonde Richard as the feisty Ninon. Wealthy Louise has just woken up from five years in a coma, and hopes to find her Aunt Marthe in Paris, but discovers she has died and left Louise her house in the Paris suburbs. Ninon first appears in the film dancing wildly by herself in a nightclub, while trying to escape a sleazy ex-lover who has shortchanged her from some sketchy deal. In these first scenes of the film, Ninon transitions from noir to musical.

Jacques Rivette

Leaving the illegal life she had known, Ninon gets a job delivering packages on a moped (or sometimes roller-blades!). “Up, Down, Fragile” is marked on some of these packages. Rivette said he was attracted to this job for her because of the classical principles of the messenger. Ninon does indeed have a message for Louise, a secret about Louise’s Geneva-based father, and Ninon discovers this through the man she and Louise have in common: the set-designer, Roland (André Marcon). At different times Roland shows both women the warehouse where he works (which, according to Jonathan Rosenbaum, is the soundstage where Rivette had filmed interiors for Jeanne la pucelle). And in this large atelier he dances with first the blonde, then the brunette, while surrounded by an artificial tree of wisdom and replica of the city of Montpellier. (The latter architectural model resembles the miniature town in Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar [1954]. Both props give a strange perspective and an extra dimension of artifice.)

Through Roland and the delivery of two dozen red roses, Ninon and Louise become friends. Their effervescent scenes of female bonding are reminiscent of scenes and even poses from classic female friendship films like Howard Hawks’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and Rivette’s own Céline et Julie vont en bateau (Céline and Julie Go Boating, 1974). (It’s important to note that, as in Céline and Julie and several other of his films, Rivette worked with the lead actresses on creating their characters.) But the familiar emotion of this bonding is complicated by a third woman, Ida (Laurence Côte), whom Rivette said was a later edition to the plot.

Ida is a daydreaming librarian on a search for her birth mother. Her musical is more internal than the other two, and her life crosses theirs tangentially. Instead of giggling and dancing together, as lanky as weeds, as Ninon and Louise do, Ida sings to herself that she has no feet while twirling by herself in front of a mirror. (Most of the musical numbers are duets, and even Ida’s is with herself.) She’s also on a search for a song that she hears in her head but doesn’t quite recognise. She’s certain her birth mother sang it to her, in her life before she was adopted in a small town. Is Ida, who talks mostly to her cat Henri, then “fragile?” If these terms – Haut, Bas and Fragile – do apply to the three women, they’re in fact interchangeable. While their family backgrounds are high, low, and quite fragile, what defines their urban experience is a juggling of this moods, quick changes of luck around the corner. Free, but fragile. This is the melancholy magic, lonely and yet connected, of life in a city.

As in most of Rivette’s films, specific Paris locations play a huge part. Here, the hills, lakes, and wooden railings of Parc Montsouris in the 14th arrondissement is a setting as enchanting and almost as unreal as the “Brooklyn” soundstage in Give a Girl a Break. Specific Paris addresses are frequently cited, not only for Ninon’s deliveries but nightclubs and mysterious houses. And much of the action takes place on rooftops and basements (up and down) with the thunderous rumble of the Metro underground to make certain we never lose place of where we are in the city. The musicals that Rivette cites here are predominantly musicals set in a fake city (usually New York, as in On the Town) with sets used often enough that the fake city becomes as recognisable as a real place.

Up, Down, Fragile is a musical and also a work of film criticism about the movie musical. It explores setting in city musicals, but also explores the liminal moment when a musical transitions from “real life” to song and dance fantasy. How does the film go from one world, one style, to the next? This is the key film criticism question that Rivette answers, not with words but with bodies, in the way he choreographs and frames them. If you revisit musicals, you’ll find this transition, especially in dance numbers, is usually accompanied by an outsized gesture and repositioning of the body, as if to get ready for a launch into something new. So what’s fascinating in this film is the way the characters circle around each other and position themselves in expectation, not only in the dance numbers but in the film as a whole. As the quote above illustrates, showing the whole body (as Hawks did) was perhaps the key aspect of Rivette’s filmmaking.

The difference between that moment of transition in classic musicals is that there it would last a few seconds, a few gestures, while unsurprisingly Rivette takes his time. He lets you see the magic tricks that classic cinema allowed to seem seamless. The first musical number takes nearly an hour to work up to, and the tease of when it finally comes takes minutes of circling, positioning, and stating lines like lyrics. Much of the rest of the film, too, exists in that liminal world between reality and “musical” non-reality. If each Rivette film is like a planet in a solar system, each one has its own rules, its own gravity. The question of how a musical works, how to live in a musical, and how a fake city is like a real city: these are the rules and gravitational pull of Haut bas fragile.

Jacques Rivette

It’s notable that, while this is Rivette’s only musical, he did plan on shooting a musical with Anna Karina in the 1970s. It was to be part of his “Les filles de feu” series of four films, which was to include a ghost love story with Leslie Caron and Albert Finney, a film noir, Duelle (released 1976), the comedy musical with Anna Karina (and Jean Marais) and, finally, a pirate adventure, Noroît (released 1976). The Caron / Finney vehicle was of course eventually filmed as Histoire de Marie et Julien (The Story of Marie and Julien, 2003) three decades later. Perhaps this accounts for the very specific dates Haut bas fragile takes place in, from the evening of July 14 to August 15. The original conception of “Les filles de feu” had a specific timeframe and was to take place from winter new moon to spring new moon.

With this connection to Karina, Haut bas fragile seems to allude to an emotionally complicated memory of the nouvelle vague. “It was longer… much longer ago,” says a haunted Rivette himself in a rare cameo, when he sees Ida buying a hot dog in the park and she reminds him of someone else, long ago.

“Ancient History,” says the Karina character after showing Ida a wall of photos and paintings from Karina’s nouvelle vague past. It’s as if this could be the same nightclub singer from Godard’s musical with wife Karina, Une femme est une femme (A Woman is a Woman, 1961). Another possible nod to Godard and the nouvelle vague is Louise’s father, ominously voiced by Laszlo Szabo (who appeared in Weekend among other Godard films). He plays a renowned Swiss man revealed to be a scoundrel and a jerk. “Don’t be too impressed,” it’s said about him. “He’s a bastard, a crook and worse.” Is this a cheeky nod to Godard? Perhaps. It’s said his crime is “not recent, in the ‘60s. 1964 to be precise.”

Karina reflected on the differences between the two titans in a recent interview. “I liked to work with Rivette. It was fun. Nothing to do with Jean-Luc Godard; it’s not the same kind of work. He’s a very precise guy. The cameraman had to stop all the time. The guy was going crazy because he didn’t remember if he had to go here or there, but it was great to work with him.” To see the film, the loosey-goosey way his performers dance and move, it’s almost shocking to know this is how it came about. But, again, the entire film is a long stretching out of that one precise moment in film musicals. And perhaps it’s necessary to be that specific but loose, to enter that strange solar system of Rivette’s that is pure fantasy grounded in something so real.

Haut bas fragile is ultimately not only a lesson in what a musical is, but how to live in a musical. It’s as if this other, enchanted musical-version of Paris (or other New York) exists somewhere just around the bend from the real city. This is illustrated in the last scene of the film, in a roomy house with garden in which Ida visits the woman who may or may not be her mother. The setting seems as if it’s in the suburbs, but as Ida leaves forever, she turns from a leafy side street on to busy city traffic, and then runs. It was hidden in the city. Ida rejects this woman and any confirmation or denial of reality in favour of holding on to the fantasy, but she also embraces urban uncertainty, running to it enthusiastically and alone.

 

Thanks to Samuel Bréan and Sylvie Waskiewicz for help with translating.

 

Endnote

  1. This last phrase is a play on words. To say about something was “done with the feet” is to imply that it was done in a desultory or clumsy way, perhaps without thinking much about it. One is usually more clever with hands than with feet. Rivette may be making a joke about something he said earlier in the same interview:

    I’m not aiming at evenness nor perfection. Almost all the films I love are uneven films and I don’t mind that they are. (…) When mistakes happen during shooting, I think you have to respect them. This was one of the main things that François Truffaut and I disagreed on: he was of the opinion that you had to shoot in reaction against the script and edit in reaction against the shooting. What I’m trying to do is to arrange things so that there is no “before”. Or as little as possible. I used to think that a film was made at the editing phase, but now I think that everything happens when you’re shooting: if there are such things as “before shooting” and “after shooting”, it is merely because it is inevitable. A film is an organic thing. It is an organism, just like any other body. Bodies can be more or less harmonious, but the most important thing is that they’re in working condition. What I mean is that they have to be autonomous, living, with their flaws and maybe their disabilities.