Jacques Rivette is my favorite director, and Criterion hates him.
Actually, I have no idea how the folks at Criterion feel about Rivette. But the 85 year-old filmmaker may now be the only acknowledged master who remains completely unrepresented in the Criterion Collection as it inches toward 1,000 titles (counting the titles in its Eclipse offshoot). Of course, rights and consumer demand are the major factors behind what movies get released, even for a home video label that has cannily branded itself as a synonym for quality and staked a claim towards defining the canon. For much of the DVD era, a few other notable omissions kept pace. But after Criterion finally released its first selections by Satyajit Ray and Rivette’s French New Wave compatriot Claude Chabrol (both in 2011), it was Rivette who stood alone out in the cold.
Criterion’s lack of Rivette love has become a grumpy running joke at cinephile hangouts like the (unaffiliated) Criterion Forum – as well as an ongoing meme on Criterion’s Facebook page, where, in 2009, the label innocently asked whether anyone would be interested in a release of Rivette’s legendary, little-seen masterpiece Out 1: Spectre (1971). Criterion hasn’t spoken of it since, and it’s still unclear whether that post was meant to genuinely gauge interest, or tweak the noses of the Rivettean faithful. But in a way it’s appropriate that Rivette should remain a persistent outsider, both because he was one of the few French New Wave directors to gain little commercial traction in the U.S., and because secrecy and paranoia are one of the key themes in Rivette’s filmography. Of course, that’s little consolation to region-locked Americans, who must content themselves with adequate home video versions of only a half-dozen of Rivette’s more recent films.
But as for me, I’ve just imported what may be my most cherished disc release of last year: Masters of Cinema’s UK Blu-ray of Le Pont du Nord (1981). It marks the film’s English-language home video bow, and Rivette’s high-definition debut. Le Pont du Nord is one of Rivette’s most accomplished works, and also a good entry point for a director whom some find daunting. Like most of Rivette’s films, it combines several recurring obsessions: female relationships; games; the city of Paris; and (perhaps the motif that has the most resonance in post-September 11) the assumption of vast, barely-glimpsed conspiracies that operate underneath the events on-screen in a Lovecraftian way. The film’s two heroines, played by real-life mother and daughter Bulle and Pascale Ogier, are strangers who meet near the Lion de Delfort and spend a few days in each other’s company. Both are outsiders, exiled to the streets by circumstances that they gradually share with each other (and also by Rivette’s limited budget, and attraction to the simplicity of what he called a “reportage” style). Marie (Bulle) is just out of prison and, as a consequence, too claustrophobic to venture indoors; Baptiste (Pascale) is a sort of street punk who fancies herself as a modern-day knight, defending the city against unseen enemies. She appoints herself as a bemused Marie’s protector.
Although Baptiste remains something of a cipher until the very end, Rivette fills in Marie’s backstory fairly early in the film. She is a former revolutionary, alternately pursuing and pursued by a former lover, Julien (Pierre Clémenti), and a mysterious man in black (Jean-François Stévenin) who may be a cop or a secret agent. A plot, of sorts, involves a dossier and a map stolen from Julien’s briefcase. The documents are a Macguffin that connect the film explicitly to specific events during the Giscard government; the map, on the other hand, becomes a springboard for Marie and Baptiste’s quixotic journey across Paris (from the center to the outskirts), as Baptiste hatches the idea of deciphering its uncertain meaning by “playing” it as a chutes-and-ladders game.
The use of the adjective “quixotic” is no accident; Quixote and Sancho Panza provided the inspiration for Rivette’s heroines. Like Cervantes’s novel, Le Pont du Nord can be taken as either a tragedy or, if not quite a comedy, then a beguiling, fantastical adventure. The ominous, Langian scenario grounds the film in a harsh external reality. But it’s the magical realist touches, and the quick throwaway gags (reminiscent of early Truffaut and Godard, during a period of the New Wave that Rivette mostly sat out), more than the looming bummer, that provide Le Pont du Nord’s most thrilling moments. The tone is elastic enough to permit a moment in which Marie and Baptiste, who have slept outside due to Marie’s phobia, notice a movie marquee for Les Grands Espaces (The Great Outdoors); with a shrug, they spend the night contently inside the theater. (It ruins the pun to note that this is actually William Wyler’s The Big Country, under its French title.) There’s also the wonderful moment where Baptiste “kills” her damaged, loudly whirring motorbike by cutting a hose with her switchblade, like a cowboy shooting his wounded horse – one of many ways in which Rivette, a film buff’s film buff, inscribes Le Pont du Nord as a disguised western.
Rivette is careful to provide a realistic explanation for Baptiste’s mania, a moment at which the “normal” Marie realizes with horror that her companion is a genuine schizophrenic. Yet the film doesn’t insist upon dispelling of all its myths and ruining the fun of its games. Le Pont du Nord has two climaxes – one a tragedy, the other an absurd, adorable showdown between Baptiste and a modernist metal dragon (which some sources describe as a children’s slide, although if so it’s a rather steep and terrifying one; and it also breathes fire) – and an enigmatic epilogue, an impromptu karate lesson that corrupts any strictly literal interpretation of the preceding events. The symbolic and structural function of this, one of my favorite movie endings, reappears in a better-known film: it is reinscribed as the explosive breakdance that ends Beau travail (2000), directed by Claire Denis, who was an informal student of Rivette’s during the seventies.
I first viewed Le Pont du Nord on December 2, 2006, as part of an essential theatrical revival of Rivette’s films that toured the U.S. Also that day, I saw Love on the Ground (L’amour par terre, 1984), the director’s second-best film of the eighties – but in a shortened, two-hour version that is generally regarded as inferior to Rivette’s original, 176-minute cut. It was a pleasant surprise, then, when the bare-bones 2008 DVD of Love on the Ground, from a relatively minor UK label called Bluebell Films, turned out to contain the long version.
If Le Pont du Nord can function as Rivette for beginners, Love on the Ground is a post-graduate exercise. Like Le Pont du Nord, it centers upon a female duo: a pair of actresses, in this case linked not by blood relation but by a shared foreignness, thanks to Rivette’s ingenious casting of two of the most prominent English-speaking actresses in Europe, Jane Birkin and Geraldine Chaplin. Love on the Ground’s other primary subject is the theater, a major Rivette trope that’s absent, in the literal sense, from Le Pont du Nord. Birkin and Chaplin first appear in an avant-garde (but terrible) performance of a play in a real flat, where the spectators follow the performers around from room to room. When the author (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) shows up he’s intrigued by both the approach and, more importantly, the actresses, whom he invites to rehearse in a new, unfinished play to be staged in his own country home. As the play develops, so do romances between the women, the playwright, and his friend Paul (André Dussolier), a magician and a key to the film’s relatively minor strand of overt fantasy. The amusing – or perhaps infuriating – result of the “theater at home” conceit, in which domestic and performance space overlap completely, is that it’s often impossible to be certain, at the beginning of each scene or at the end of any line, whether we’re witnessing a rehearsal or “real” life.
Unfortunately, as I watched the DVD, I couldn’t really remember what sections of the longer cut were missing from the print I saw seven years ago. The material of Love on the Ground feels a bit thin to fill three hours, although, as Rivette devotee Jonathan Rosenbaum has pointed out, the short version perversely retains most of the play-within-a-movie material and excises the richer relationship subplots. The extended length struck me as lending a better sense of balance and pace to the disorienting, circular story, and it also led me to think of Love on the Ground as something of a companion piece to Rivette’s best-known film, Céline and Julie Go Boating (Céline and Julie vont en bateau, 1974). Celine and Julie has a similar duration, and also positions its paired heroines within a cloistered mansion where the division between reality and fantasy is blurred.
Duration is one of the things for which Rivette is famed. Céline and Julie and Love on the Ground are both a tad on the short side, actually. Out 1, made for but rejected by French television, is thirteen hours long. Noli me tangere (1971), the alternate “short” version of Out 1, is four hours long; L’amour fou (1969), another early masterpiece, is four and a half. The length issue is part of a widespread characterization of Rivette as too difficult or obscure to succeed in the kind of mainstream spotlight that, say, a series of Criterion Blu-rays would throw. (Rosenbaum, as far back as 1983, described the phenomenon of encountering lonely Rivette fanatics all over the world – exactly the sort of secret society that you’d find in a Rivette film, of course.)
I always argue the point when it comes up, and I think I’m right: Nothing signed by Rivette is any more daunting than, for instance, any of the Godard films that have received U.S. distribution during the past thirty years. How could anyone not fall for Duelle and Noroît (both 1976), Rivette’s colorful, plucky diptych from the late seventies? Noroît stars Bernadette Lafont and Geraldine Chaplin as pirates, for heaven’s sake. Pirates! But I guess accessibility is relative. If you’re on a filmmaker’s wavelength, you can step into his universe with ease, and find it perplexing when others can’t. Rivette’s wry paranoia – just like the somber alienation of Antonioni, who also remains something of a hard sell even to serious movie fans – mirror the way that I look at the world. I lap up every minute.
For the same reason that I carefully qualify my enthusiasm for Love on the Ground, Rosenbaum frets about the particular perils of recommending a lesser entry in Rivette’s unusually insular body of work, and perhaps alienating a potential convert. Sadly, that’s almost unavoidable in the case of Rivette, where the ready availability of the films tends to operate in an inverse ratio to their quality. In the U.S., the rights to most of his films have accrued to cost-over-quality labels like Koch Lorber, Facets, and especially the financially challenged New Yorker, which spent a decade promising a Céline and Julie Go Boating DVD and never delivered. Brits have things a bit better, with worthy BFI editions of Céline and Julie and Rivette’s astounding first feature, Paris Belongs to Us (Paris nous appartient, 1960), although I hesitate to recommend them since those two seem a bit likelier to get a Blu-ray upgrade than any of Rivette’s other films. But Le Pont du Nord is a must-have for any movie fan who’s multi-region capable (and it is, alas, one of Masters of Cinema’s few Region B-locked releases), and likely the most comprehensive edition of the film we’ll ever get. Except, maybe not, because it isn’t quite complete: the voluminous liner notes begin with an apology for MOC’s inability to license Paris s’en va (1981), a short film with the same actors that served as a sort of sketch for Le Pont du Nord. The curse of Rivette persists.