Inspired by Jean Cocteau to become a filmmaker, Jacques Rivette moved to Paris in the 1950s began making short films and writing for the influential French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma. It was there he met Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Éric Rohmer, and Claude Chabrol. Together, they revived the critical consensus of American genre filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchock and John Ford and started the French New Wave (Rivette directed Le Coup de Berger, which is considered the first film in that movement).
In early 1975, Rivette conceived of a film cycle consisting of four films using a made-up mythology that would tell separate stories in distinct genres (love story, fantasy, adventure, and musical comedy). They would be connected by its use of two female lead characters, an improvised musical score, and a new approach to film acting. He made two of the four films [Duelle (Une Quarantine) and Noroit (Une Vengeance)]. While in the beginnings of shooting the third film (which was to have been the first released), Rivette broke down from exhaustion. Production was completely shut and Rivette never returned to the film cycle.
Arrow Academy has lovingly restored the two films that were completed plus a third film (Merry-Go-Round) in a very nice package. It is a beautiful presentation of three films that will take more than a bit of patience to actually sit through, much less enjoy.
Both Duelle (Une Quarantine) and Noroit (Une Vengeance) are set between the same 40-day Carnival period, extending from the last new moon of winter until the first full moon of spring, when the goddesses of the sun and moon are permitted to interact with mortals.
Duelle is the fantasy film which looks like a noir. In it, the two goddesses are searching for a magical stone that will enable them to remain on Earth beyond the 40-day period. One of them enlists a mortal to find someone for her, but this is just an excuse to make her a patsy when things go wrong. Another mortal has the magic diamond which gives him immortality and he tries to pit the two goddesses against each other.
Or something. Honestly, I had no idea what was happening through most of the movie. The dialogue is in French, which I understand only a little of. There were subtitles and though written using English words combined into sentences that made a least a little sense on their own, when strung together into dialogue their meanings were completely lost on me.
It reminded me of when we’d buy bootleg DVDs of foreign-language films while living in Shanghai. The subtitles were always wonky because the original language would be translated into Chinese and then that would be translated over into English, leaving the actual meaning of what was being spoken a bit of a mystery.
Rivette does know how to frame his images and he created some rather beautiful and evocative pictures throughout the film. There were some really fabulous moments involving mirrors and a gorgeous scene set in an aquarium using only the light emanating from the fish tanks.
Noroit is the adventure film which involves pirates, thus making it automatically cooler than the others. Once again, the story was very difficult to understand. This might be the point as Rivette was a bit of a surrealist and often enjoyed allowing his actors to improv through their scenes. On purpose or not, it still makes for a difficult movie to follow.
All I was able to comprehend is that it involved a woman vowing to revenge her brother by infiltrating a group of pirates living in a castle on the French coast. Once again, there are some goddesses at play, but no magic diamond this time around.
The staging of Noroit is very theatrical, and I often felt as though I were watching a live play being filmed. This is especially true in that Rivette often uses wide or medium shots instead of close-ups, keeping background players very much in the frame and making them react to whatever was happening in the foreground. I rarely pay attention to costuming, but more than once my wife and I laughed with glee at the odd assortment of clothes the characters were wearing. It's an eclectic mix of 1960s mod attire, Renaissance costumes, and ragamuffin threads. It is loosely based upon Thomas Middelton’s play The Revenger’s Tragedy from the 1600s and at times, the actors break into English verse, which I assume are direct quotes from the play, lending it an even greater theatrical vibe.
Both films use live music and one can often see the musicians in the background of scenes. In Duelle, they are a jazz group playing in clubs, and in Noroit, they take on a more Renaissance feel.
After a five-year break, Rivette released Merry-Go-Round in 1981 (he released Le Pont du Nord that year as well). It is not considered part of the tetralogy but it uses the same type of improvised on-screen music and the same types of genre codes as the others. It's basically a road movie with touches of crime film thrown in about two drifters who meet in an airport after both of them have received messages from the same woman. When that woman does not show up, the two go wandering about France in search of her.
If Duelle and Noroit were hard to follow, then Merry-Go-Round is incomprehensible. The two main characters wander here and there talking to all sorts of people and not a bit of it made any sense to me. All three films have a pretty loose structure and editing style, but Merry-Go-Round is all over the place. It isn’t nearly as visually arresting as the other two films presented here either.
Arrow Academy has done a fantastic job of presenting these three films. All of them have been very difficult to find in any format in the U.S. for a very long time (if ever). To have them now cleaned up and looking fantastic is a real treat. Video extras are not extensive but what you get is very nice. There is an archival interview with Rivette where he discusses each film, plus new interviews with some of the actors from Duelle and a film critic who spent time on the sets of Duelle and Noroit. Lastly, there is a really nice color booklet filled with a biography of Rivette and several essays.
I had a really hard time getting into these three films. Jacques Rivette is an interesting filmmaker with obvious talent, but there is a certain type of person who can sit through two to three hours of improvisation and surrealism, and that type is apparently not me. Still, for those who are interested (or who already have seen these films and enjoyed them), this is a really wonderful package.