Va Savoir (Who Knows?) (2001)

by Kirsten Markson


You've Got Ennui

Va Savoiris an ensemble piece about the tangled affairs of a group of six friends, lovers and relatives in Paris. The film’s title translates as “Who Knows?” and it is being marketed in the United Stats as a light comedy of sexual indiscretion. It is pretty clear why American audiences are being misled this way, as admitting the truth—that the film is about the emotionally exhausting relationships among several barely likeable characters—might not pack in the audiences. But Va Savoir is more complex and rewarding than any of Nora Ephron’s romantic comedies. Primarily, it is satisfying because the characters have messy lives and morally ambiguous motivations.

While the film does include stereotypes concerning the oversexed, libertine French—extramarital affairs, one-night stands, a nude shower scene, and even some foot massaging—it is more about love, desire, and longing than mere sex acts. Camille (Jeanne Balibar) and Ugo (Sergio Castellitto) are the couple at the center of the film. The lovers are mostly cold and reserved in each other’s presence, and only reveal their feelings for each other after being tempted by other lovers.

cover art

Va Savoir (who Knows?)

Director: Jacques Rivette
Cast: Jeanne Balibar, Sergio Castellitto, Helene de Fougerolles, Bruno Todeschini, Marianne Basler, Jacques Bonnaffe

(Sony Pictures Classics)
US theatrical: 31 Dec 1969

Both Camille and Ugo have secrets that are unearthed when they arrive in Paris with a troupe of Italian actors performing Pirandello’s Come tu Mi Vuo, known in English as As You Desire Me. The film follows how their return to the City of Lights inspires Camille and Ugo to venture out on separate searches; while Camille seeks out an ex-lover directly, Ugo’s research into a lost manuscript leads him to a tempting younger lover.

Camille is French woman of intense emotions, tormented by the memory of the lover she left in Paris and more confused when she faces him again. She had left France to immerse herself in her acting career in Italy. She even performs in Italian, suggesting that she, like her character in Pirandello’s play, has rejected everything associated with her previous life: Come tu Mi Vuo is about a woman thought to be an amnesiac lover who has returned to her past life after disappearing years earlier. Va Savoir cuts between Camille’s performance in the play and her attempts to face her own past in Paris, which she has avoided for three years. Camille moves effortlessly between her work in the play and the various roles she takes on with her lovers.

By cutting between the film’s characters’ various situations and the play itself, Rivette suggests a fluidity between life and performance, so that it becomes hard to distinguish between, for instance, Camille’s “real” and “affected” emotions or motivations. But creating understanding for the characters doesn’t seem to be Va Savoir‘s primary concern. None of the six main characters is particularly sympathetic and none is given the opportunity to reflect on his or her actions. They all selfishly pursue their own goals through their chosen partners. Ugo is drawn to Dominique (Helene de Fougerolles) largely because she aids him in his search for an antiquarian, unpublished play that he dreams of being the first to direct. And Camille pines for Pierre (Jacques Bonnaffe) mostly because his intense longing for her elevates her own ego. You pursue love, the film and the play within the film suggest, in order to see yourself from the perspective of the one who desires you. Perhaps, presented with such reflections, these characters hope to become more like them.

Self-involvement rules Va Savoir in other ways too. Rivette, often referred to as the granpere of the New Wave movement of the 1960s, and one of the primary members of Cahiers du Cinema, is known for making unconventional and lengthy films (one of which is 13 hours long). The pace of Va Savoir is frustratingly plodding at first and the characters appear headed to no resolutions, suggesting that the director has again indulged this tendency.

Yet, viewer patience is rewarded, as the characters eventually find themselves in an increasingly absurd and satisfying knot. Inevitably, the group does eventually meet in order to deal with their interconnected and thoroughly untidy relationships. Instead of a nasty showdown, however, the finale is sweet and quiet; couples reunite and the extramarital affairs become instantly unimportant. Perhaps it is because Rivette’s six characters are so acutely aware of each other’s indiscretions and so loaded with flaws and regrets, that they are able to accept their partners’ flaws with such unbelievable calm. It is only at the end that Va Savior lives up to its “romantic comedy” label, in that the characters all end up happily with their “proper” partners. But in a movie about how past loves haunt the present, this ending is too neat and forced. Instead of facing the demons they’ve racked up, the couples pair off in their original formations and just dance across the set.

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