There has been a flurry of question-asking directed towards me recently, and this flurry has all been a single question. “Kremer, why do you love Jacques Rivette so much? Why is he your favorite filmmaker? Just what is the attraction?” Whether it be people I have known personally for years or ConFluence-Film Blog readers who have written in to me about it in the past year, there is an interest in discovering the true nature of my unbounded admiration of the beloved French auteur, whose work is little seen Stateside. I believe it is the fact that his work is so hard to track down that accounts for much of the fascination from people. Just how is it that I have even seen a lot of these films? So finally, I am, at long last willing, interested and ready to answer the question and to articulate my love and overwhelming respect for the iconoclastic French director, who has recently turned 81. It is fair to say that, as my personal hero, I might mourn his eventual death like a member of my own family. That’s a pretty big statement, but read on and I will tell you why he means so much to me as an artist and as a personality.
I am going to begin my answer by mentioning my favorite audience reaction to a film of my own. Shortly after my final cut of A Trip to Swadades was completed, I sent a copy of the film to an old friend of mine on the west coast, a documentary filmmaker. When I asked him if he liked my movie, he replied unabashedly and point-blank, “I hated it!” A little stunned and honestly rather crestfallen and hurt by the candor of his response, I nonetheless went about my business of promoting and trying to distribute and screen the film as if no such response to it had been received. Let us just say it was a quiet shellshock. But while I was hurt, I was not angry with this friend at all. I appreciated his honesty because…well, it is just so rare for someone to be so forthcoming and frank with such a terse and straightforward negative opinion. About a month later, the friend called me up at what was almost midnight east-coast time. He told me that, although he had been initially resistant and irately puzzled by my film, he had since viewed it two additional times and he grew to admire and even love it. He accounted how the film had gotten under his skin and how he couldn’t shake it off, even when he tried. He then proceeded to dissect my film, which is a work of an extremely personal nature, for me over the phone, providing his own interpretation, and a unique one at that.
When this conversation ended, I was immediately flooded with a deep well of emotion and a sense of profound accomplishment. Why, you ask? And what does this have to do with Rivette? Well, I had the occasion of seeing Jacques Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974) as a senior in high school. On my first viewing, I really disliked the film, although I had a definite taste for the absurd. I thought it was nonsensical, protracted and muddled and I failed to see much of a point for it being made. I barely got past the first hour of the intimidating 193-minute running time. Time passed and I realized that the film had lingered, and it had lingered so steadfastly and unerringly that it had similarly gotten under my skin, to the extent that I could not shake it off. I could not stop thinking about it. And so I watched the film (this time, all the way through) again, and again, and again. The fact that something I made functioned in the same way, that I was able to fashion it, direct it and edit it in a way that lingered in someone’s mind — that I was able to do what Rivette did for me, which I find to be one of the greatest gifts a filmmaker can give — was, and still is, to me, my greatest accomplishment as a filmmaker thus far. The very fact that any film can do this excites me as both audience and filmmaker. That is not the only gift Rivette has given me. He also respects his audience enough to believe in their intellectual curiosity towards further discovery. This was not the only occasion of watching, hating, lingering, rewatching and loving a Rivette film. Not by a long shot.
In a sense, I guess you could say I am talking about a modern audience's desire for “immediate results” and the “instant thrill”. These audiences might watch a film and want to say, “Damn! That was good!” directly after the final fade-out. While, for instance, Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse is the best film about the artistic process ever made in my opinion, it is certainly deliberately paced throughout a four-hour running time. Although the film is greatly praised, audiences have had general difficulty wading through what they perceive as fat in desperate need of -ectomy. But in the time allotted, we are made to perceive the canvas as a battlefield, and we feel so intensely and intimately all the agony and the ecstasy to which Chuck Heston’s Michelangelo couldn’t hold a candle. Rivette is also the first person I have known to observe how an artist cannot bargain with the source of inspiration, and that a source of inspiration just is. Rivette’s films provide neither immediate results nor instant thrills. The kinds of results and thrills that are provided by Rivette, however, are most substantial and lasting than anything “instant.” To quote Warren Oates in Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop, "those satisfactions are permanent." But, you know, that’s not even it really. It’s other things too, like his restrained, economical but nonetheless dynamic use of music, which rivals only Robert Bresson in Western cinema. He is a treasure as an artist because, simply put, all of his films are somehow and in some way magical. There is not a single one that is not magical to me. It is becoming, then, that many of his films are explicitly about magic (e.g. Noroit, Duelle, Histoire de Marie et Julien). My favorite film of all time is Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), and it is about the magic of storytelling, and the heroines return to a “film-within-the-film” through sucking on a magic candy-rock which places them back within the strange house where the meta-drama unfolds. I encountered the film at a flea-market when I was still in high-school. It was two dollars for a two-VHS set. No film, then or now, has so perplexed, baffled and exhilarated me as much. It knocked me on my behind like no film had. This is all without mentioning that the man has respect for effective and intriguing titles. I always say that if a filmmaker or novelist isn’t interested in naming his work effectively, I am not really interested in seeing or reading it effectively.
I cherish and I am blown away by every one of his films. Each of them is infallibly honest and could have been made by no one else except him. My fascination with the inherent power within the act of telling a story has been the subject of some of my recent reading. I have been looking at Martin Buber’s books on his collection of Chassidic tales, rapt and joyfully mired in his accounts of how integral the act of storytelling is to the Chassidic world. Storytelling is a form of prayer, an act of devotion that signifies our overpowering need to connect with eternity, to paraphrase Buber in my own words. Spirits chained in things, in both animate and inanimate objects, are unlocked through prayer, so thinking of storytelling as a form of prayer, you can just imagine the implications. Considered this way, it is more than mere escapism.
Storytelling, to me, is to be cognizant of cycles — cycles with all the shifts, the gauntlets and the cosmic tumblers we may not be immediately cognizant of, but which lead full-circle to some truth, and a braiding of elements. Human beings make sense of themselves through this sacred act. It is through my favorite filmmaker that I have come to realize my own true feelings and philosophies about the act of storytelling, and it is because of him that I am able to articulate them in such a way. Rivette, more than any filmmaker with whom I have yet been acquainted, recognizes this magic and much of his work has been successfully characterizing and analyzing the importance of theater and storytelling's grand illusion and the cathartic process(es) of creating it. It is intrinsic to humans, and this need not be illustrated further than simply watching children being let loose in a room with or without toys, and observing how they will immediately find a way to make-believe, and this is most certainly the purest form of theater. From our earliest years, we relish the idea of “going boating” (i.e. French vernacular meaning “to get wrapped up in a story you are being told”). In this sense, the films Rivette makes about theater and theatrical companies staging productions of plays (he uses this device in six separate films, including his two beloved but seldom seen/screened epics L’amour fou and Out 1) is more than just a series of tired examinations of theater and its relationship with reality, and vice versa (because that is just plain boring and grossly unoriginal, lacking imagination). It is our intrinsic need to create illusions, and the implications and ramifications of that, which fascinates him.
I often liken Rivette’s films to the music of the Sun Ra Arkestra. You hand yourself over to the wonders of dissonance, letting go of any preconceived notions of being in control and getting joyfully lost. His films have often been improvisatory with a full-on, unbridled feeling of jazz. His film Merry-Go-Round (1981) even uses the often cacophonous “Greek chorus” of a saxophonist and a bass player in a strange jam session to pace his hallucinatory story. One could almost call many of his works “jazz filmmaking”. Yet they rarely meander and, if they do, there is very just cause for them to do so (e.g. the seemingly interminable opening chase in Celine and Julie Go Boating). One of my favorite quotes about Rivette is from critic and film scholar Richard Roud who, upon seeing one of Rivette’s films, exclaimed, “Cinema will never be the same, and neither will I.” I, as a viewer, particularly in Rivette’s earlier works, am transformed with each viewing of one of his films.
His genre experiments of the 90’s are fascinating in and of themselves, and one might argue that his work starts getting more “accessible” when he enters this phase of his career. For example, his musical Up Down Fragile is an homage to the 1953 Stanley Donen musical Give a Girl a Break (a Hollywood production with economical musical numbers which, according to Rivette himself, “was shot in next to no time”). The first musical number in Rivette’s three-hour musical does not appear until almost a whole hour into the film! When it does appear, though, your brain is so happily busy and you have so much of a sense of what is at stake in the film’s story that the first musical genre element means something much more than if it were arbitrarily placed and just an excuse for a big production number. The philosophy of placing music sequences in a musical is, after all, often a disaffected “It’s about time for another song” mentality. Rivette subverts this and makes elements of the genre mean something to the audience on the levels of both emotion as well as logic. In addition, there is a single long take in the film I must have watched and rewound about twenty times, on a dance-floor as Enzo Enzo sings “Les Naufrages Volontaires”. In his thriller Secret Defense, we have the character of an ordinary woman (played extraordinarily by Sandrine Bonnaire, who it would seem was his 90’s muse) driven to the extreme task of murdering another human being who killed her father. In a marvelous long take, we observe her transformation and the maelstrom of emotion she undergoes as she prepares to commit the act, taking many trains and transferring many times on her trip up to the country to do so. He stages the Electra drama as Hitchcock, and explicitly furthers the psychological depth in the process through the use of one fraught long-take. This is all without mentioning frequent Rivette collaborator William Lubtchansky’s sublime camerawork.
When I make new films, I find that I am often thinking, “What would Jacques do? Would he like it? Would he approve?” He is, after all, the filmmaker I most want to emulate, a filmmaker whose sensibility, I feel, is closest to my own. I am heading into my next feature film and find that I am constantly asking myself these three questions. I remember being at a Hollywood party a couple years ago and being asked by my host, “What artist makes you feel so full of life that he or she almost makes you cry just by how much you are inspired by their work?” I do not, in this circumstance, have to answer that for you. What I have said about my so-called hero should speak for itself. It is not just in the work, of which there is no real equal, but it is also the way Rivette comports himself in public and in interviews. How he comports himself also speaks to the fact that while he may be concerned with illusion in his work, he is not consumed by any of it in the reality. He feels a great deal of comfort, it seems, in being slightly lesser known than his French New Wave contemporaries, almost as if he has consciously willed it to be. He seems happiest with a smaller cluster of fans who are devoted in a most hardcore sense. Another interesting aspect of his work: He has been known to recut his films into completely different other films. For example, La Belle Noiseuse becomes Divertimento and Out 1 becomes Out 1 Spectre. I've never known any other filmmaker to do that in this manner.
Jonathan Rosenbaum is without a doubt the foremost American champion and scholar of his work, and contributors to the Criterion Forum have long been in an uproar over Criterion’s overdue release prospects of any of his films through the Criterion Collection. It speaks to his appeal, however, that many screenings during a comprehensive 2006 Rivette retrospective at the Museum of the Moving Image sold out. I have most of his films on DVD, many of them foreign discs and bootlegs, but would buy them yet again if they were officially released here. Truffaut said in 1977, “French New Wave and cinema itself would not be what it is today without Jacques Rivette.” Highly esteemed film scholar David Thomson called Celine and Julie Go Boating “the most important narrative film since Citizen Kane. It's the only film where everything is invented.” All I know is that I believe he is one of the very few living genius still working in cinema, and in the order of poets.
I want to end this article with Jonathan Romney’s review of Celine and Julie Go Boating in Time Out London, because I think it’s a beautiful review which encapsulates at least part of Rivette’s mission as an artist: “Favorite films are always the hardest to describe. There are the two pairs of actresses, Berto/Labourier and Ogier/Pisier. The first play a magician and a librarian who meet in Montmartre and wind up sharing the same flat, fiance, clothes, identity and imagination; the other are the Phantom Ladies Over Paris, whom Celine and Julie either invent or stumble upon (or both) in a haunted house, along with a man and his child. There is also Rivette’s love cinema—the movies he cherishes—and the childishness of his and our and Celine and Julie’s rapt attention as we embark on the adventure together, experience a collective form of narrative rape, all spinning a tale that is spinning us. It’s scary, evocative, exhilarating and essential.” I couldn't have tied it up better.