By a series of miracles, the world now has a DVD/Blu-ray combo pack of a legendary, nearly impossible-to-see epic of the French New Wave and film history in general: Jacques Rivette’s radically experimental and carefree 13-hour monstrosity known as Out 1 (1971). Having seen it need no longer be a game of one-upmanship, as it’s at our digital fingertips. Has it been worth the wait? Yes.
It’s based on three main ideas. The first is improvisation by the actors, whose choices before the mobile, intimate, immediate, unblinking 16mm camera determine where the story wanders and how Rivette chooses to stimulate and arrange new scenes. The second idea is theatre and “performance” in all its daily senses, so that many of the characters belong to avant-garde acting troupes who rehearse various exercises, while other characters merely indulge in various pretenses, lies and self-dramatizations.
The third is “suspense” as a product of narrative devices whose hints of mystery and violence keep us watching even though we suspect very little will be resolved and very few secrets explained. The braiding of these three themes harks back to Rivette’s multi-character theatrical/conspiracy debut, Paris Belongs to Us (now on Criterion Blu-ray), which was carefully scripted, and his improvised L’Amour Fou. This movie is also the rock that rippled such future Rivettes as Celine and Julie Go Boating, La Pont du Nord, Gang of Four and Va Savoir.
The first hour is the hardest, as the viewer is thrown without a net into the bewildering, wiggy, raucous creative exercises of two theatre troupes, supposedly rehearsing Greek tragedies by Aeschylus. These scenes are essentially documentary studies of avant-garde techniques. In a feature-length making-of on its own disc, Rivette observed that many viewers leave during this beginning, never to return, but he also noted that viewers who missed the beginning and wandered into the middle were hooked.
The action shifts between these related groups while also dropping in on two “solo” characters, both shady outsiders who live on the margins of legality or just beyond it and who independently stumble onto the idea that there’s a conspiracy of “the Thirteen”, an elite group of manipulators inspired by characters in a Balzac novel. Their solo investigations drive the loose “suspense” plot as they cross paths with the other characters.
One detective is Colin (iconic cow-licked Nouvelle Vague actor Jean-Pierre Léaud in full nervous tension), a street beggar who masquerades (more “performance”) as a deaf-mute, and who is guided by messages from an unseen figure who must have noticed his antics pestering people in cafes. Since Colin hands out cards with Balzac pages in them, we may surmise that one of his “victims” was the unseen mastermind who decided to test him with more Balzacian passages. In one of many mysteries, the messages are delivered by a woman in one of the troupes.
The other detective is the winsome, beautiful, flagrant con artist Frédérique (Juliet Berto), another masquerader who closes the first episode posing in her atelier with an old-fashioned duelling pistol — thus recalling both Chekhov’s dictum that any gun introduced must be fired eventually, and Godard’s formula that you only need a girl and a gun to make a movie. She also resembles the vampish females in the silent serials of Louis Feuillade — another point of reference for this nouveau serial — especially when she dons a black mask and struts across a roof in the final episode in the movie’s most explicit nod to sheer melodrama.
Oh yes, there’s also an unexplained murder that somehow involves a woman (Bulle Ogier) who goes by two different names and who, at one point, appears to have magic powers. We shant mention the scene where some characters briefly speak backwards. Also on hand are Michèle Moretti and Michael Lonsdale as the troupe leaders; Bernadette Lafont as their baleful and insular colleague; Francoise Fabian as a very chic lawyer; Jean-Francois Stévenin in his debut role as a guy dressed like Marlon Brando in The Wild One; and Rivette’s fellow filmmakers Éric Rohmer (as a Balzac expert), Barbet Schroeder (a would-be publisher) and Jacques Doniol-Volcroze (one of the Thirteen).
One of the things Rivette does, and which nobody had done before and few since, is to allow characters to live in their own graciously rendered time and space, often doing nothing in particular but fully committed to that nothing, and often in solitude. Frédérique and Colin especially spend much of their time alone in their rooms, creating diversions for themselves that occupy their attention. One of the movie’s ideas is that humans create their own reality by investing their beliefs in something they make up, including conspiracy theories and grand ideas of belonging to a group that can change the world. For better and worse, the characters all search for something they have to invent.
Out 1, arranged into eight episodes, was screened only a few times and failed to be sold to TV, its natural medium. Rivette then created a four-and-a-half-hour condensation, Out 1: Spectre, that had hardly greater distribution. This abstractly edited fusion of moments and still images makes one yearn for the clarity of the thirteen-hour version, and we can only guess what unprepared viewers made of it.
With much effort, Rivette was able to restore and edit a final version of the eight-part original, now called Out 1: Noli Me Tangere. That Latin phrase refers to Christ’s post-Resurrection remark, “Don’t touch me”, and could be an injunction not to edit any further. It had German and French TV airings in the early ’90s. This 13-disc box offers both the long and the short of it along with an excellent booklet and the making-of, which combines archival interviews with the late Rivette and new interviews of Ogier, photographer Pierre-William Glenn, producer Stéphane Tchalgadjieff and others.
It’s a tough sell for that mythical beast, “the average viewer”, but what average viewer wants 13 hours of graceful, intense, serene, vexing, and now nostalgic teasing by Jacques Rivette? If you know what you’re letting yourself in for, and perhaps even if you don’t, it’s possible to be captivated by the sheer dance of it, by the tantalizing possibility of an elusive explanation that feels just on the verge of disclosing before it flees back into the labyrinth, as time and perverse impulses and human connections become the mystery driving this film just as they drive our lives.
As it oscillates between the amusing and mystifying, the real and the put-on, the intellectual and emotional, Rivette’s movie gathers the force of a crazy, willful, wayward masterpiece to those of us intrigued by its hints and signs into believing something’s there. For unless you believe something’s there, you’ll never find it.