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"There is a moment in Mozart where the music suddenly seems to draw inspiration only from itself, from an obsession with a pure chord, all the rest being but approaches, successive explorations, and withdrawals from this supreme position where time is abolished. All art may perhaps reach fruition only through the transitory destruction of its means, and the cinema is never more great than in certain moments that transcend and abruptly suspend the drama."—Jacques Rivette, on Roberto Rossellini (1955)
For more than five decades we have chased history and shadows to come to terms and fully catch up to the beauty, mystery and astonishing work of the acute and transfixing artist, Jacques Rivette. His cinema—mysterious, enveloping and poetic—invited a form of surrender. Yes, the films were long and diffuse but colored and shaded by a sensual and tactile urgency, like the jump cuts in "La belle noiseuse" or the rapturous musical numbers of "Up, Down, Fragile," that achieved a lilting buoyancy and possessed a remarkable tenderness and feeling.
Now this major figure is gone. His death, at the age of 87 on Friday, was confirmed by the French Minister of Culture. His loss is a significant one, for art and for its history. Few major figures devoted so much of their energy and work to explicating the meaning, texture and complex visions of other great directors.
Of the five signature figures of the French New Wave—Jacques Rivette, Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer—Jean-Luc Godard is now the only surviving filmmaker. At the seminal French film magazine Cahiers du cinéma, Rivette wrote commanding and brilliant studies of Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Nicholas Ray, Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger and Ingmar Bergman. Of the founding members of the French New Wave who started as critics, Rivette marked the purest distillation of the movement's intellectual passions and artistic impulses.
He directed 23 features, a couple of documentaries and several shorts. He worked with his idol, Jean Renoir, as an assistant on the director's "French Cancun," and later made a beautiful multi-part documentary about the French master.
His most inventive and sustained artistic period encompassed the improvisational flair and stylistic experimentation of "L'amour fou" (1968), his 13-hour landmark "Out 1" (1971), "Celine and Julie Go Boating" (1974) and "Duelle" and "Noirot" (both 1976).
His final film, "Around a Small Mountain," about a circus troupe, was a serene and melancholy portrait of performance and art. I met this extraordinary man once, at the Berlin Film festival in 2007 when he premiered "Don't Touch the Axe," his severe and beautiful adaptation of Balzac's "The Duchess of Langeais." Wiry and serious, he projected a soulful otherworldliness.
He was always a director who evaded popular acceptance because of his working methods and style. He naturally appealed more to other directors and cinephiles. As his most perceptive and greatest American champion, Jonathan Rosenbaum pointed out, Rivette never showed much interest or aptitude in presenting his work to a wider public. He was intensely private about his personal life.
Directors revered him. "Rivette is a unique filmmaker: lonely, personal and cut off from any kind of trend or fashion," French director Bertrand Tavernier told me in an interview for a 2007 profile. Rivette greatly influenced Martin Scorsese, Jim Jarmusch, Susan Seidelman and Richard Linklater (the names of the characters played by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in the "Before" trilogy, Celine and Jesse, are a tribute to Rivette's masterpiece, "Celine and Julie Go Boating").
His writing deeply informed the style and themes of his films, evident from his first feature, "Paris Belongs to Us." His fascination with doubles, dreams and labyrinths showed the influence of Hitchcock, his shadowy and nocturnal plots fixated on confinement and loss suggestive of Lang and his recurring use of breakdown or instability echoing Orson Welles's European projects such as "Mr. Arkadin" or his adaptation of "The Trial."
He was born in Rouen in 1928, the child of a pharmacist. He developed at an early age a fascination with film and theater. He arrived in Paris in 1949, and he haunted the cine-clubs and the screenings of the Cinematheque Francais. He took in everything. "Rivette was more of a cinema nut than any of us," Truffaut wrote in his memoir. With Eric Rohmer, he founded a film magazine, Gazette du cinéma. In 1952, Rivette began his distinguished and invaluable career at Cahiers du cinema (he served as the editor from 1963-65).
The rehearsal space has been central to Rivette's body of work. He transforms the frame, conjuring a triangulated, free-floating desire involving the actors, their art and their audience. The most sculptural of directors turns his work into a dance, granting his actors great freedom in shaping the part, adding pieces of their own lives that acquire an immediacy and spontaneity, even if it somkehow threatens the verisimilitude, like the way Jane Birkin and Geraldine Chaplin break off their speech patterns and suddenly switch to speaking English in "Love on the Ground"
In Rivette's works, actors are frequently active collaborators. He often credits them for their contributions to the scenario that reflects his innate humanity and egalitarian spirit that acknowledges the camaraderie and group portrait. I interviewed Michel Lonsdale about the experiences of making “Out 1":
“Rivette compared it to Japanese Noh theater, plays that go on for 12 or 15 hours. He said, ‘Oh, yes, people go to sleep, they go out and have lunch and come back. It’s beautiful. The [Out 1] script was only a long piece of paper. It’d say, ‘Something meets somebody else and somebody else.’ Rivette was very calm. He didn’t have much to say to us. He just said, ‘Improvise.’”
Even for the most industrious and committed of Rivette acolytes, finding and discovering his work has always constituted a kind of forensic investigation. The vast majority of features he directed have been materially inaccessible. His greatest achievement, "Out 1," had its formal American theatrical premiere last fall, some four and a half decades after Rivette shot the original material in 1970.
Following its long-delayed American theatrical debut, “Out 1” has just been issued in a Blu-ray and standard box set by Carlotta Films and Kino Lorber. Criterion is publishing a Blu-ray of “Paris Belongs to Us,” on March 8th. (The film has been available on the label’s streaming channel at Hulu.) The director’s 1980 film, “Le pont du nort,” was also just published. At the moment we only know of Jacques Rivette’s work in fragments and shards. The act of witness and experience, central to his art, is now the ultimate in memory and reclamation.
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