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O Magazine


The Holy Grail of Contemporary French Cinema

by Quim Casas

Jacques Rivette passed away this January 29th, at 87. In 2009 he directed his last film, 36 vues du Pic Saint-Loup [in English, translated as Around a Small Mountain], starred by one of his most frequent actresses, Jane Birkin. He leaves behind twenty feature films and the most radical legacy of the best of the Nouvelle Vague and what came after this new wave: Paris nous appartient, L’Amor Fou, Céline et Julie vont en bateau, Duelle, Noîrot, Le Pont du Nord, La belle noiseuse, Jeanne la Pucelle, Haut, bas, fragile, Va savoir… He has also left excellent criticism and essays published during the fifties and sixties by Cahiers du cinéma, magazine in which he was one of the most brilliant and poignant theorists. Nothing will be the same again for French cinema. The following text about the recovery, restoration and editing of one of his mater pieces, Out 1, was written a few days before hearing the news about his death. I’ve preferred not to touch anything since, when writing it, I had wished, something totally impossible now, that his work wasn’t completely finished yet.

OUT 1 – O Productora Audiovisual

“Noli me tangere” says one of the characters of Suzanne Simonin, la religieuse de Diderot, the film version of Diderot’s work directed by Jacques Rivette in 1966 and by Guillaume Nicloux in 2013. In Latin, it means, “don’t touch me”. It’s also the title of an oil painting by Antonio Allegri de Correggio painted in 1518, and of the long version of one of the most mysterious and characteristic films by Rivette himself, who must have devised it already when, in his adaptation of Suzanne Simonin, these three words were uttered in Latin.

Out 1, made in 1970, is a generic, a two-headed eagle. It would have a longer version, a non-televised series, of twelve and a half hours divided into eight episodes, with the subtitle Noli me tangere, and a short one –Rivette-style short– of four hours and twenty minutes, subtitled Spectre, as if referencing James Bond. Knowing Rivette’s familiarity and affection for mystery tales and melodramatic adventures, for ghostly characters and conspirators, for Louis Feuillade and Fritz Lang –in one of the photographs taken during the shooting of Out 1, the director appears with an eye mask that could have perfectly been taken from a Fantômas costume party–, it wouldn’t be too far-fetched thinking about good old agent 007 as one of the many sources of inspiration for this impossible to classify film about cinema and theatre, fiction, reality and improvisation, mystery and drama.

A modern puzzle, as defined by Cyril Béghin, one of the exegetes of a film that includes many more surprising references. According to Bulle Ogier, the feminine “face” of Rivette’s films, the TV series Get Smart by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry also inspired Out 1, as did Balzac’s melodrama History of the Thirteen. Scatterbrain Agent 86 Maxwell Smart and his shoe phone in the heart of the most imaginative French cinema? Balzac, Diderot, Mel Brooks, James Bond? No one like Rivette (even more than Godard)! Not even Quentin Tarantino surpasses him in his mixing of different influences to create a unique and very personal body of work.

Out 1 could have had many more admirers and exegetes, but for decades it was an invisible film; a wish more than a reality. With it happened the same as with all those other films, books, records or comic books you have been waiting to see, read and have for years. When you finally manage to, the effect is different from what you had expected. The pleasure was also in the waiting, the searching, in imagining how that thing you don’t have would be. Absence and impatience have created in the subconscious a dreamlike mystery.

I had very few references about Out 1. It was never featured in the cycles devoted to its director in festivals or film institutes. It was a celluloid ghost, a vampire that had seduced us in its material inexistence. Already at the end of the shooting, when Rivette was the most inventive and radicalised exponent of the old Nouvelle Vague –a different kind of radicalisation, within the story, than the post-May 68 Maoist Godard–, Out 1 was an invisible work due to its nature, so out of proportion for orthodox exhibition canons. After that, only memories, some lost text, opinions orally expressed and some comments made by friends who had already seen it in some isolated projection (quite an event more than a projection!) and who you really envied.

It’s been accurately defined as the Holy Grail of contemporary French cinema. That’s what it’s been all about for decades, the search of a cinematographic chalice. But the digital age doesn’t perpetuate analogic mysteries. Out 1 is back, or has been re-born from the dead, in an impeccable Blu-ray and DVD issued by French brand Carlotta, with the two alternative editions restored under the supervision of the films’ director of photography, Pierre-William Glenn; the documentary Les Mystères de Paris –a title taken from 19th century Eugene Sue’s melodrama published in instalments, another of Rivette’s reference to his fascination for complex and masked plots–, and a booklet full of testimonies, certainties, doubts, chronologies, essays and information. This box set is like a Pandora’s box: once you open it, there’s no going back. The history of cinema, of a certain kind of cinema, is re-written. (In Great Britain it’s been commercialised by Arrow Films with different extra contents).

The film, in any of its two versions, is born from another fascination: the one Rivette felt for actors and for the job of performers. With some of its usual collaborators (Bulle Ogier, Juliet Berto and Bernadette Lafont, plus Françoise Fabian, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, an amazing Michael Lonsdale, and Éric Rohmer playing a Balzac expert) he constructs a complex plot based, initially, in the infinite improvisation over classic texts that two theatre companies undertake. But that, theatre filtered by film, or a film constructed through theatre, or the cinematographic documentation of a theatre rehearsal, was already included in Paris nous appartient or L’Amour fou, and would be later featured in La bande des quatre.

Rivette adds here, in a transversal narrative as overwhelming as delicious, a melodramatic intrigue around a secret society, The Thirteen, which has to do with the secret personality of the directors of the two theatre companies. Georges Franju and Jacques Champreaux would love this society that has nothing to envy to the mysteries of Belphégor, the phantom of the Louvre. Jonathan Rosenbaum described Out 1 as one of the cursed series of French cinema. Thus, defining it by just one genre, method or trend would be so sterile as trying to delimit the alternative universes of the Marvel galaxy.

Series, theatre act, pantomime, silent film gestures, visionary modernity and postmodernity, pure avant-garde in the dialogue between different art languages… Eustache (La Maman et la putain) and Assayas (Irma Verp) owe it a lot. Out 1 is as rich as it is vast. Now we can enjoy it at home, in Blu-ray or DVD (always digital) formats, maybe with pauses, an impeccable dripping of fascinating images, and in this way we will endorse what Michael Lonsdale said about the way in which it should be viewed: “Rivette said that the film was like a Japanese : you can leave the room to go and eat or sleep and then come back in”. An act of absolute freedom, a film that goes beyond film itself, theatre, mystery and reason.

Despite it not being Rivette’s intention, the fact that his film has become the Holy Grail of modern times has equalled cinephilia to the Arthurian cycle and the spectator in search of this cursed film to a knight of the round table. The invisibility of the film has fed the dreams and expectations, now compensated, of many cinephiliacs and directors. But any search includes a paradox, like John Wayne’s when he finds Natalie Wood at the end of The Searchers: we see Out 1 in wonder, but we know, sadly, that there is no longer anything remotely similar out there worth such an amount of time of searching and waiting (at least in cinematographic terms).