Mysteries wrapped in Enigmas
Jacques Rivette’s first feature Paris nous appartient (Paris Belongs to Us) is a good filmic example of Winston Churchill’s famous remark about a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Here young Anne (Betty Schneider) is a student in Paris, who initially becomes involved in a staging of Pericles. She is an inexperienced actress taking on the role at the last minute, and, after she’s dropped from the play, it is as if she increasingly plays another role for which she has little training: the investigator searching for the audio tapes of the musician Juan, a young man who seems to have taken his life shortly before she arrived in the city and who was part of the social circle around the theatre troupe. Anne isn’t the hard-boiled detective of noir, but the soft-boiled bumpkin from the countryside, as if Rivette wanted to play up the Nouvelle vague interest in the outsider discovering the city exemplified by Claude Chabrol’s Les Cousins the previous year, with a fascination for power play evident in many of Fritz Lang’s films, from Dr Mabuse, The Gambler to Ministry of Fear. (Lang is given homage here in the Babel sequence from Metropolis; Chabrol produced Rivette’s film.) In Chabrol’s movie the country cousin comes to town and gets humiliated by the comfortably off students his relation hangs around with, but Chabrol keeps the emphasis on character and locale. Rivette instead embeds character and locale in a story that is never quite explored; never quite elicited. Numerous characters speak as if in tongues, in a conspiratorial whisper that appears to emanate from a dimension of their personality they can’t quite claim as their own.
The most mysteriously enigmatic, the one most given to expository remarks within a guarded personality, is Terry – an American in Paris who seems also to be playing a role, but she plays it as though with years of experience next to Anne’s ingénue. With no-nonsense hair above her shoulders, assertive cheek bones, and a mouth capable of curling into a curt remark or a disdainful expression, Terry (Francoise Prevost) is not only possibly playing a role but undeniably playing with the feelings of the men in her life. There isn’t just the late Juan, there is also the fellow American with whom she arrived in Paris, Philip (Daniel Crohem), as well as theatre director Bernard and a few others too. She is enchanting perhaps because she plays her role so well: she offers it with no underlying motivation; instead with an assured surface texture which hints at many possibilities but where these can appear as another element of the part. When in one sequence she locks her front door after insisting she wants to be alone, is she a woman in need of solitude or practising a Garboesque gesture? When at the end of the film she admits to killing Anne’s brother Pierre, she does so as if playing another role altogether. She is the pragmatic femme fatale who must remove those who cannot be trusted, but because she isn’t in a story with clearly defined goals, then the performance becomes more evident than the character, the situation more suppositional than defined.
It is frequently said that Rivette is a director interested in combining theatre with film, and many of his works contain within them a play being performed, including Amour Fou, Love on the Ground and Va Savoir. But even more than this what appears to interest the filmmaker is the importance of time felt and narration withheld all the better to allow character to remain fluid and the real and the fantastic to lose their coordinates. This means that while Rivette often uses theatre, he just as often adopts a shadow narrative of conspiracy and intrigue: evident here, and also in La Pont du nord and Secret defence. Whether in these latter examples the story ends on two characters mock fighting on the street (as in La Pont du nord), on the acknowledgement that the central character’s sister in Secret defence was pimped by her father to further his career, or here on the idea that there may or may not be a worldwide conspiracy of which some of the participants in the film are minor players, what matters is that the story never coalesces into uniform plausibility. One doesn’t walk away from a Rivette film satisfied with the plot, but as if dissatisfied with life that usually lacks the fantastic mystery the director lends to his films. It is as though he want to make cinema that creates an intermediary time and space between fact and fiction, and that generates a certain type of play. This is play not as theatre categorically, but play as the playful possibilities in everyday life, or the creative opportunities retreat from necessity provides. Such a take on Rivette’s work allows us to incorporate the conspiratorial films, the theatrical works and the adaptations, including Hurlevant from Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, and La belle noiseuse from Balzac. How to use time and space to generate play Rivette seems to wonder?
Like a number of other filmmakers of the Nouvelle vague Rivette was a writer on the magazine Cahiers du cinema, but where Godard became famous as the director who forced criticism upon the viewer through constantly confronting the form, and Truffaut absorbed the conventions to become in the best sense a master of mise-en-scene, Rivette seemed to search out a cinematic space not as a manipulative mode of representation that one needs to be wary of (as in Godard), nor a smoothly explored narrative space, however despairing (many of Truffaut’s film end tragically or sadly). Rivette asks instead how can one create out of the everyday the mystery of the exceptional. Hence one often finds in Rivette’s films that the stories don’t feel as if they are happening to the characters, but that the characters have created the events of which they are a part. Now of course we can note that there are many characters in narratively-oriented films that create the events to which we are witness. Is this not the very point of many a villain or criminal in film, those masters of narrative intrigue? Whether it happens to be a figure who wants to take over the world or someone who wants to rob a bank, these are masters of plot, and they are usually in control of the film’s mysteries. Think of a recent heist film like Inside Man, with Denzel Washington and others trying to fathom the intricate plotting of Clive Owen’s robber. He is in charge of the story and the mystery resides in his motivations as the others try to work out motives that seem perverse and irrational.
Yet in Rivette’s films the stories are self-generated without ready motive and with the mystery of events often outstripping the characters’ capacity to control them. In Secret defence Sylvie (Sandrine Bonnaire) starts to enquire into her sister’s death, but by the end of the film it is as if she has less solved the mystery than discovered in herself the bottomless fathoms of her own character. At the start of the film she is the hardworking and practical scientist; by the conclusion it is as though she doesn’t quite know who she is. In Pont du Nord two strangers meet in Paris and lark around the city whilst also getting caught in a conspiratorial scenario over briefcases after Marie’s (Bulle Ogier) lover is released from prison. This is not so much narrative ambiguity Rivette practises; more mystery outstripping narrative. In Inside Man mystery and narrative are tightly conjoined so that by the end of the film we know why Owen hasn’t touched a penny of the bank’s deposits, but gone off with the diamonds in a particular safety deposit box. Now there might be one or two strands left a little loose. We don’t exactly know how Owens has discovered that the wealthy banker and former Nazi collaborator had diamonds and evidence of his Nazi past there, but we can surmise with what we have been given: it doesn’t leave the film feeling unfinished.
Rivette’s work often has this unfinished quality chiefly because the mystery outstrips the story, yet also because Rivette’s films are temporally inexhaustible. It is not surprising Rivette’s Out 1 is thirteen hours long; many others could be equally lengthy, and for two reasons. One is that the story could continue long after the closing credits. In Paris nous appartient Rivette merely films the time between Anne’s arrival in Paris and Pierre’s death, but the back story of Juan’s demise and the sense that there is no end to the conspiratorial events at the conclusion, make the film properly open-ended: the events before the film starts, and the events after the story concludes, go beyond the boundaries of the film. The second is that Rivette does not assume that a given moment is narratively pertinent and another irrelevant. In most of Rivette’s films there are scenically expanded moments whether it happens to be Sylvie in Secret defence getting a train south, or the preparatory moments before Frenhofer (Michel Piccoli) paints Marianne (Emannuelle Beart) in La belle noiseuse. These are mutually compatible approaches to time, in the first instance, and space in the second. For example Inside Man does not have this attitude to time and space, with no shots of New York that do not clearly further the story. Whether it is Jodie Foster’s troubleshooting character going to CEO Christopher Plummer’s office, or Denzel Washington returning to his apartment at the end of the film, the spaces serve plot, just as the most important events are very much contained within the film’s running time. Yet what is interesting about much of Rivette’s work isn’t just that he expands cinematic space to incorporate the inessential, but that he makes of the inessential the dramatically mysterious. The film isn’t about the containment of plot but the limitless dimensions of it.
Perhaps the best way to explain this is by way of another brief digression and Lars von Trier’s The Boss of it All. As it plays on the idea of the increasingly clandestine meetings between two of the characters, so von Trier emphasises the problem thrillers have when they want to keep the image visually exciting while the complicit characters have to find places to meet where they feel they won’t be bugged, and won’t be seen: one sequence absurdly takes place on a carousel. It is a good gag on plot predictability meeting would-be visual ingenuity, with von Trier mocking the thriller’s pretence that they are interested in the spaces when all they are really serving is plot necessity. Rivette acknowledges von Trier’s criticism before the event, as if showing greater interest in the spaces he utilises than the story he tells. It is as though he has overlaid on top of a geographical exploration of the city a conspiracy narrative to justify exploring Paris in detail. If the opening quote from Peguy indicates that “Paris belongs to no one”, Rivette could be offering the contrary claim in his title because Paris belonged to Rivette, Godard, Rohmer and others as they explored the city using lighter cameras. If before Paris belonged to no one as directors would often film in studios or have minimal access to the streets due to the size of the technical equipment that turned any location into an unequivocal set, Rivette and co. could show that the city belonged to them with documentative immediacy.
Yet Rivette proposes that the title contains a political mystery within its geographical delineation. If Paris can belong to the people as a city to be traversed, does it belong to others when it comes to power being perverted? This is the twofold tension in Rivette’s film. On the one hand is a sense of freedom as the filmmaker and the characters make the city their own as the ambulatory world of the flaneur; on the other a mystery that cannot be easily resolved because at work are power structures finally beyond the characters’ ken. In Rivette’s work this doesn’t create a contrast between the commonplace and the mysterious — between the familiarity of the locations that we could find ourselves walking around in and apartments that we might just about afford to rent in the various arrondissements — and the things going on behind closed doors to which most of us will never have access. No, it is more that even the familiar becomes uncanny. The director doesn’t use Paris realistically, and thus contrasts with another new wave filmmaker Eric Rohmer. Where Rohmer is the brilliant rationalist of tightly told tales (moral and seasonal), who is interested in spatial precision and plausibility, Rivette is the irrational narratologist, intrigued by a certain approach to “creative geography”.
The latter is a term used by Francois Penz in a fine article looking at Rohmer’s The Aviator’s Wife and Le Pont du nord, both released around the same time at the beginning of the eighties. Noting that Rohmer plays very fair to the spaces he utilises; he sees Rivette offering a variation of the Kuleshov effect, where filmmakers can play with time and space whilst remaining true to narrative demand. “…While the original Kuleshov experiments belong to the continuity editing tradition, where the filmmaker creates an illusion of continuous action”, Rivette’s work, however, indicates “a derive dictated by a surreal psychogeography where, echoing words from Moby Dick: ‘true places never are on any map.’” Penz talks about a 1929 Kuleshov film where “two people meet on a city street, shake hands and ascend the steps of a large building. Although viewers saw an event taking place in a single environment, the film was actually created by combining shots from widely disparate locations.” Rivette’s interest resides in using this creative geography in a manner that denies us the false security Kuleshov illustrates, and to generate instead a mapping that is both highly plausible and highly improbable at the same time as Penz shows the two leading characters in Le Pont du nord on day one covering four different arrondissements. While the locations are very specifically caught (the film is a brilliant time capsule of a changing Paris), the likelihood of the characters ranging over the city in a few hours is unrealistic. Now of course many watching a Rivette film set in the city will not know that to go from the 14th to the 9th for example is more than a skip and a jump, but if Rivette wanted to use creative geography as a narrative means, he could have avoided either well known monuments like the Arc de Triumph and Le Lion de Belfort and the presence of street signs. Instead he plays them up and deliberately flirts with the improbable.
Clearly Rivette is a director of unstable worlds, yet the instability varies according to the film. La belle noiseuse and Va savoir are quite plausible films in relation to character behaviour: La Belle noiseuse focuses on an artist and his model and the tension between them as the former exposes the latter in the South of France; Va Savoir on the burgeoning relationships that develop between characters vaguely dissatisfied with their lives in Paris. A great deal of the instability rests with and in the characters: the former hinting at serious depths, the latter, light relief. If Paris nous appartient remains one of his most admired films, it rests in the many unstable elements the film offers. To help and explain and explore this instability, we can concentrate on specific scenes.
In one, Anne visits Philip in his apartment and when she enters the room he lies collapsed on the floor. After she manages to revive him he says “sorry to inflict my act on you it’s dramatic but I always survive.” It is a consequence of Midway, he says, referring to the WWII battle, but leaves it at that. He is, like many of the characters in the film, someone who says too much and not enough, with inches of confession countered by yards of denial. He asks why Anne has come; she wants to know if what he was saying when they were crossing the Seine earlier happened to be true. He was telling Anne about the people who appear to be powerful are only the puppets; the real power lies elsewhere. On the Seine he added that he was talking in riddles, but riddles are often the best way to express things. When she goes to his room he won’t even talk in riddles and accuses Anne of being childish and possessing an overactive imagination. All the while we see on the walls pictures he has drawn that we might assume are the work of a child. The music is modernist and suggests at moments a score that reflects the events on screen (as when Anne first walks into the room), at others seems to have nothing to do with the diegesis at all. At one moment early in the sequence there is a dissolve, but it indicates no transition of time as we usually expect. In several ways the film sets out to wrong foot us without quite asking for a distanciation that leaves us outside the events. Like Anne we do wish to know more about the great conspiracy, and like Anne we do worry about Philip’s collapse as she walks through the door. Yet Philips’s line where he apologizes for his act and invokes the dramatic leaves us wondering where the acting starts and the drama stops. Is Philip putting on a performance for Anne, and is the actor playing Philip putting on a performance for us: expecting the viewer to see through the act that is the playing of the role? Philip was a soldier in WWII, an emigre in Paris who escaped the McCarthyite witch hunts. But while in another film this would be categorical back story, in Rivette’s it can seem like part of the act. An actor isn’t someone who simply performs in the present; he is also someone often with motivation, and Philip looks like a man who could have suffered terrors in the past, or could be someone acting like someone suffering those past terrors. When he moves from saying there is a huge conspiracy in the earlier scene to saying it is all nonsense in the flat, the consistent dimension doesn’t lie in the words but in a certain type of deed: the actions of a melodramatic actor who wants to hold his audience. Just as earlier we mused over Rivette’s interest in space over story, can we not add that he is interested in acting more than exposition?
Our purpose isn’t merely to follow the character who might be telling the truth or might be lying, but also follow the actor who isn’t only playing the character, but also playing the role of the character. To make this clearer we can think of David Cronenberg’s superb A History of Violence, with Viggo Mortensen the husband and father with perhaps a hidden past in Philadelphia. We wonder when he insists that he isn’t hiding under a false identity whether he is telling his wife and kids the truth, but we do not wonder if there is a gap between Mortensen in the role and the character he plays. The gap resides within character: between Tom Stall and Joey from Philadelphia. The film plays with a high degree of ambiguity for much of its running time as we wonder if he happens to have this shadowy past and this other identity. But it remains coherently diegetic. In numerous New Wave films the problem resides in the possible fissure between actor and character. Godard’s use of Anna Karina in Vivre sa vie possesses this dimension, where she plays the role of the prostitute, but in the references to Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc, and the haircut a nod towards Louise Brooks, we have the performance as a performance. Add the direct to camera addresses, the theme of acting as a form of prostitution, and the diegesis is folding into its extra diegetic possibilities. As David Thomson says in Nicole Kidman, “From time to time in this book, I have employed the analogy that acting is like prostitution. It is an analogy, not a diagnosis, and I am far from the first person to have noticed it. That supreme exponent, and critic of cinema, Jean-Luc Godard…was haunted by the thought that in paying our ticket price we buy a portion of erotic fantasy personalized by this or that actress.” In Last Year at Marienbad the actors aren’t even named but merely given initials, as if to say that the actors are figures on a chessboard rather than actors in a narrative of which they have great agency. If Godard suggests acting is prostitution, Alain Resnais and his writer Alain Robbe-Grillet indicate the actors are talking statues. In Paris nous appartient if we can never quite take seriously the world conspiracy hinted at throughout the film, it lies partly in the thespian layering that asks us to wonder if we can take the acting seriously either.
Yet this doesn’t at all make Rivette an ironic filmmaker, someone who expects the audience to be wise to the events and cleverly spotting the references. Perhaps this is because irony in film can often arrive at the assumption rather than its countering. When Claire Colebrook questions Richard Rorty’s approach to the ironic in her book Irony, she proposes that rather than reinvigorating language as Rorty claims, “irony is often a way of keeping language in place.” Comparing Ballard’s novel Crash to Bret Easton Ellis’s book American Psycho and Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, she sees where Ballard “frames his technological nightmare of postmodernity with an introduction (added in 1995) that signals his clear disapproval of the world he presents…both American Psycho and Reservoir Dogs present the dismemberment of bodies alongside the enjoyed and popular signs of everyday life.” All three are of course films as well as the former two books, and it seems that where Cronenberg in his Crash adaptation finds an aesthetic equivalent to Ballard’s added intro, Mary Herron with American Psycho and Quentin Tarantino with Reservoir Dogs don’t. The viewer can fall into the irony of signs: that the sign is of course just an image but we know where we stand in relation to the images produced. When for example the camera drifts away from the cop who’s having his ear lopped off in Reservoir Dogs, the image is an ironic play on the retreat from a scene of explicitness in classic cinema. Except here we have already seen one of the Dogs, Tim Roth, bleeding to death in the back seat of the car. The retreat is ironic because we know of course that the filmmaker could show us the scene explicitly, but it is a nod and a wink to the audience as the camera refuses to show us exactly what happens. We don’t want to underestimate the difficulties in this scene which will have many in the audience squirming with the cop, but the film remains within the realm of assumption rather than countering our certitude. The irony resides chiefly in Tarantino saying of course I can show you what is happening here, but instead let us pan to the left and pretend for a moment that we are in the vocabulary of classic Hollywood. As Colebrook says: “to use a discourse ironically allows the continued articulation of that discourse and leaves that discourse in place.”
Instead Rivette looks for numerous levels of indeterminacy, where shots may be countering expectation, but where we can’t readily place what that reversal arrives at. We have already mentioned the dissolve between two shots within the same scene after Anne discovers Philip in his room. Another might be the opening title sequence where we see a train arriving into Paris. There is no counter shot to indicate that someone is on the train, but we might wonder whether this is Anne’s arrival to the city we are witnessing. Though we’re informed she is a student, nevertheless the image structure here, and the opening exchange between Anne and another character, indicate that she seems fairly new to the capital. But with no counter shot to Anne looking out on the train making it clear she is a new arrival, and the dialogue exchange making us wonder how well acquainted she happens to be with Paris as the other woman asks if she is Pierre’s sister and starts to talk about Juan’s death, we are left bewildered. This is not the codification of ready irony, but the layered problem of befuddlement. The other woman also speaks to Anne as if she could be an actress playing a role badly, or someone playing a part for the purposes of the situation. As she falls on her bed in a melodramatic gesture more appropriate to the stage, she starts to talk about the death of Juan and another man, and then insists that all his friends are in danger, even Anne, even the whole world. The melodrama of gesture is matched by the exaggeration of speech, and we are left to wonder what we should make of such moments.
If this exaggeration happens to be present at the beginning of the film, it is equally so at the film’s conclusion. Another man is now dead: the theatre director whom Anne briefly worked for, and also her brother Pierre. Shortly before the film ends Terry half-explains the nature of power as Anne takes a lie down after hearing her brother’s been killed. Anne is half-disinterested listener functioning as the character who hears the summing up of the story; half the grieving sister just told her brother is dead. Terry who has killed him is half the assuager trying to calm Anne’s nerves, half deadly assassin responsible for Pierre’s death and for conspiratorial involvement. If we can’t take the events seriously however this isn’t because of our ironic detachment towards them; more that the registers in which the events are played out are too inconsistent to allow us a categorical response. In The Technique of Film Editing, Gavin Millar summarizes some of the positions taken by the New wave directors, and includes: “the self is no longer seen as stable. It is without an inner core – without essence. Other people are likewise without essence.” “Since there is no longer a stable reality, traditional morality proves untrustworthy.” “In consequence, each act is unique and without social precedence.” Such claims can move towards a certain ironic post-modern authority where the film offers a cosmetic meaninglessness so we are detached from events but not especially epistemologically confused by them. Tarantino’s work is antithetical to Rivette’s: the former plays with the viewer and creates a knowing spectator; Rivette wrongfoots the viewer and generates a troubled one. At one moment just before the closing shot Rivette inserts an image of what looks like the centre of Paris on the Seine, with shots of Anne looking out onto the lake in the out of town destination she finds herself. It is another example of Rivette refusing certainty but not at all arriving at the readily ludic.
If Tarantino will offer a deliberate lowering of the camera to show us what is in the basement in Inglourious Basterds, any self-consciousness of the shot is still contained by the information that he is giving us. There the Nazis are looking for Jews; there is the shot telling us exactly where they happen to be. It feels like a nod towards Sergio Leone and also an acknowledgement of film’s formal properties as he chooses to move in one shot from the ground floor to the basement rather than cutting between the two locations. Rivette’s image has no such sense of double certitude, and remains a properly ‘difficult’ one from a filmmaker who never became really any the less so through a long career. To wonder at the end of Paris nous appartient what it means is to ask the wrong question. But not because Rivette is above such narrative demands, since if we have been engaged during the film’s two and a half hour running time it is partly because of their presence, but because Rivette want to contain them within a context that says whenever we think we have arrived at an answer to a question we are in danger of arriving at a sort of cerebral laziness, an attitude of mind that doesn’t need to keep enquiring as the film has given us the right to stop doing so. Commenting on Bunuel in Senses of Cinema, Rivette says: “More than those of any other filmmaker, Buñuel’s films gain the most on re-viewing. Not only do they not wear thin, they become increasingly mysterious, stronger and more precise.” It is the ultimate in praise because it also appears to be Rivette’s ultimate desire: to make films which can never be contained by the single viewing that leads to categorical narrative revelation, but works which retain mysteries that mean we can keep going back to them and finding ever more surprises. To paraphrase Karl Krauss, and to echo our opening Churchill remark, Rivette is a filmmaker who can make a riddle out of an answer.