Bulle Ogier and Juliet Berto in Duelle (1976)

‘The Jacques Rivette Collection’: Three Proto-Lynchian Dream Teases

Rivette's Duelle, Noroît and Merry-Go-Round are the kind of films that are always on the verge of almost making sense.

We had little hope of seeing these obscure, barely released films of the highly personal French New Wave filmmaker Jacques Rivette, who died last year at age 87, and now here they are on a Blu-ray/DVD combo, looking all shiny and new.

Neophytes take warning: these problematic mid-career projects aren’t where you should begin. That would be with his first feature, Paris Belongs to Us (1961), a snapshot of its time and place disguised as a youth-oriented conspiracy thriller. For the advanced class, there’s his multi-part elaboration of this concept, Out 1 (1970). I believe most adventurous viewers would be thrilled by The Nun (1966), based on Diderot’s scandalous novel, and the three-hour improvisatory epic in shifting tones known as Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), a sort of cyclical ghost story; alas, these two films aren’t easily available at the moment, and we hope that changes.

So for now, let’s address these three films made after Celine and Julie with the same important co-writer, Eduardo de Gregorio, an under-explored auteur in his own right whose strange and fantastical films as director would be worth tracking down, if any DVD companies are listening.

The two 1976 films, Duelle and Noroît, comprise half of an abandoned quartet of films to be called “Scenes from Parallel Life”, which Rivette admits in an interview is a not-too-apposite Balzac reference. He explains that the films were to be variants, in different genres, of their own Celtic-influenced mythology involving the opposition between two powerful women.

Duelle, whose title is Rivette’s fabricated female-gendered version of “duel”, concerns an annual battle between the daughter of the sun (Bulle Ogier) and the daughter of the moon (Juliet Berto), who come to Earth for 40 days at the end of winter. They’d like to stay and make the Earth their playground if only they can secure a magic crystal that serves as the plot’s McGuffin. They hypnotize various humans as pawns in their counter-games.

That sounds coherent enough, though none of this is ever quite explained. We drop into the mysterious strategies and eventually gather what’s going on from elliptical clues. That’s part of Rivette’s gamesmanship, which combines with literary references and a restless, scintillating camera style that tends to follow his characters in elaborate unbroken takes. The glowing camera work on all three films is by William Lubtchansky, and his contribution is immense.

These films aren’t quite improvised because the actors worked from a script, but Rivette was always about capturing that sense of improvised reality as it unfolds, with sometimes shaggy scenes happening in real time. Another of Rivette’s tricks is to counter this lankiness and languor with a shamelessly manipulated use of “suspense” as almost a pure abstraction. Rivette loved Hitchcock, and while the films of the two masters wouldn’t be confused, you can plainly see how Rivette throws his bewildered characters and viewers into vague conspiracies and plots that seem, as moment-to-moment in a dream, always on the verge of almost making sense.

So these films become more like experiences than stories. Duelle places many scenes in a mirrored dance hall, the better to stress the balletic qualities of the camera and the chess-like narrative, and some scenes happen in an aquarium to remind us of Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai (1948). The goddesses more or less know what’s going on, which is more than the humans do, as played by Jean Babilée as Pierrot (a lunar name), Hermine Karagheuz as his puzzled little sister, and Nicole Garcia as a dance hostess.

Rivette’s idea of a western is Noroît, about woman pirates operating from a castle in Brittany. In a plot inspired by Cyril Tourneur’s 1606 drama The Revenger’s Tragedy, which scholars now believe was written by Thomas Middleton, a grudge-bearing sister calling herself Morag (Geraldine Chaplin) wishes to avenge her brother’s death by annihilating the pirate troupe led by the statuesque and imperious Giulia (Bernadette Lafont).

Morag is aided by a double agent (Kika Markham), and sometimes they declaim the play’s lines in English, underlining the theatricality of these proceedings in a manner typical of Rivette. There’s even a play-within-the-play re-enacting one sequence that turns into some kind of avant-garde “happening”. The action becomes increasingly abstract, dreamlike and dance-like until the climax is essentially a ballet. Most of the supporting pirates were cast from a dance troupe.

Noroît is another made-up word, explained by Wikipedia as a combination of “north” and “west”, which I don’t quite see. If so, it implies an oblique reference to Hitchcock’s North by Northwest as well as “noir”, for this is a very dark drama. We should be glad Duelle isn’t known by the word Rivette made up for an English title, “Twhylight”.

After these two films were shot back to back, comprising the second and third film in the proposed quartet, Rivette had a nervous breakdown and abandoned the third film (which would have been the first film, if you follow) after a few days. That ghostly romance between Leslie Caron and Albert Finney would eventually be made in 2003 with different stars as The Story of Marie and Julien. The fourth film, planned as a full-blown musical, was never made in any form and didn’t get far in the planning stages.

Instead, Rivette made Merry-Go-Round, which was kind of advertised by the producer as though it belonged to the quartet yet was an unrelated project and not a very well-received film. It’s included here, and although critic Jonathan Rosenbaum in his extra says he doesn’t defend it as strongly and Rivette has called it his worst film, I feel that its mystery plot makes it the most initially accessible and straightforward of the three, even though that alleged plot twists into so many knots and double-crosses over two hours and forty minutes that any attempt at a solution becomes delusional.

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In an interview with German TV included as an extra, Rivette brings up a parallel with Val Lewton’s great uncanny thriller The Seventh Victim (1943), which is about a woman searching for her vanished sister amid sinister characters, and this makes me like the film all the more. The little sister is played by Maria Schneider, who proposed this project to Rivette because she wanted to make a movie with him and co-star Joe Dallesandro, who plays a sullen American boyfriend summoned on the same wild sister chase.

The sister (Danièle Gégauff) materializes soon enough, only to vanish again like a mirage in a labyrinthine plot where everybody is lying and changing personality as though at the throw of dice. Françoise Prévost shows up as an attorney, and there’s a late arrival from Maurice Garrel as either a dead man or his impostor. Rivette and Gregorio worked on the screenplay, such as it is, with Suzanne Schiffman, a great collaborator of Francois Truffaut.

Perhaps the “real” story is the interpolated dream sequences in which Dallesandro is seen running frantically through a forest representing the plot, while the little sister has her own frustrating peregrinations on a sandy shore — except that her dream-self is played by a double in the same denim outfit: the same Hermine Karagheuz seen in Duelle. If you haven’t gathered, doubled women, sibling and otherwise, are a favored Rivettian element.

In his explanation, Rivette punctures this film’s teasing mysteries with mundane explanations. He says they embarked on the plot without working it out in advance, then took too long shooting too much material amid tensions and problems, and then editing the story into some semblance of comprehension proved a challenge. He came up with the dream parts to smooth over the transitions, but Schneider wasn’t available anymore, thus requiring the double. His behind-the-scenes perspective creates a vexing project in his mind compounded by the film’s failure, yet I believe those who approach the film from the front may be engaged by its paradoxes, as though they were always intentional.

An especially striking and wonderful element in all three films is that Rivette scores the movies with live music. The dance-hall pianist (Jean Wiener) in Duelle, sometimes accompanied by accordion and percussion, not only provides the cabaret tunes in those scenes but materializes in other scenes, tickling his ivories in the corner of rooms where he has no business. Because the effect is so delightful, it’s that rare kind of self-conscious theatrical joke that brings the viewer more deeply into the play instead of alienating us from it.

In Noroît, a free-jazz trio plays modernist abstractions in various rooms of the castle and even on the battlements. In Merry-Go-Round, a saxophone and double-bass interact hauntingly in their own dark studio, interpolated between scenes as a bridging device that bleeds between scenes. In all three cases, this is a charming foregrounding of “background” music, and it helps that the music is so strange and excellent.

Another discovery provided by these films is how their Möebius strip sequencing, their brushes with avant-garde strangeness, and their tone of beauty and hostility seem to anticipate many later projects of David Lynch. They seem Lynchian before the fact, which means we must now consider Lynch as somehow Rivettian.

So there you have it: a not-quite-trilogy of a not-quite-quartet of Rivette’s not-quite-successes. Arrow Films deserves effusive thanks for putting so much work into such a thing. Long may such quixotic projects continue.

RATING 6 / 10