Sooner or later in life, everyone reaches a point where personal obsessions and rather weird views seem to overtake either their private or professional output. Indeed, Arrow Academy’s box set of The Jacques Rivette Collection presents one such unique phase from one of the men most commonly associated with the French New Wave period. By the time he made the movies included in this six-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo ‒ Duelle (Une quarantaine), Noroît (Une vengeance) (both 1976), and Merry-Go-Round (1981) ‒ Jacques Rivette had veered off of the road less traveled he and his contemporaries had become so famous for frequenting.
Shortly after the late Rivette finished up his celebrated Céline et Julie vont en bateau (1973), he dreamed up the fantastical notion of creating four experimental fantasy films ‒ a love story, a fantasy, an adventure, and a musical comedy ‒ which he dubbed Scènes de la vie parallèle (Scenes from a Parallel Life). And, despite his having obtained funding for the proposed quartet, the project would only ever be half completed. This was partly due to a nervous breakdown Rivette suffered as he filmed the first chapter of the series, while the rest of the blame could safely be attributed to the theory that Rivette’s “new wave” wasn’t the best idea.
In the years that have followed, Duelle (Une quarantaine), Noroît (Une vengeance), and Merry-Go-Round have become comparable to movies like John Landis’ epic disaster Oscar or Steven Spielberg’s less-than-revered 1941: Either you admire the films for what they are, or you flat-out detest everything about ’em. Frankly, I tend to lean towards the latter opinion ‒ although I feel it necessary to point out that the repressed artsy teenaged movie snob still inhabiting my otherwise thoroughly crushed soul was at least able to squint and turn his head enough to see what Rivette was attempting to do here. Well, for some of the time, that is. I think.
With a wide array of inspiration ranging from classic literature to film noir, their actual plots left to roam off in the distance somewhere, Rivette focuses his camera instead on the surreal esoteric stylings (as well as ramblings) of his characters. In the case of Duelle (Une quarantaine) and Noroît (Une vengeance), the very vague stories center on two women at war with one another. Duelle finds two goddesses ‒ the Queen of the Night (Juliet Berto) and the Queen of the Sun (Bulle Ogier), who have been granted temporary leave with humanity ‒ attempting to take possession of a magical stone that will make the vacation permanent.
Alas, unless you actually know what you’re watching ‒ and providing you never stop to ask why it is you are doing so ‒ you probably won’t know what it’s all about. Instead, we see lots of actress Hermine Karagheuz, who has been hired by one of the goddesses, run around playing amateur sleuth. Meanwhile, the current queens of cosmic hierarchy hurl bizarre, lengthy monologues and soliloquies as they confront various forms of mortal temptations such as a seedy dance club where Karagheuz’s gigolo brother (Jean Babilée) routinely seduces the ladies. Or something like that. Interestingly enough, the English-language title of the 121-minute still motion picture was Twhylight.
In Noroît (Une vengeance), a slightly perplexed Geraldine Chaplin plays a woman scorned. After her brother is murdered by a cruel band of modern-day crossdressing female pirates in Brittany who attire themselves in contemporary Jacobean fashions (look, it could happen), she vows revenge on the gang and their leader, as played by the very sadistic Bernadette Lafont. Once again, we see a venerable assortment of monologues and soliloquies. This time, however, the dialogue varies between French to that of Old English from the 15th Century, presumably so any and all Americans who might watch the title will occasionally pay attention.
Like the previous chapter, Noroît (aka Nor’west) is a lengthy (145 minutes!) exercise in experimental film. Both films ‒ which would have made the second and third parts of the proposed tetralogy ‒ go the extra odd mile by incorporating live improvised music performed on-screen, a motif originally intended to culminate in the musical comedy portion of the series. And while the premise of an entirely improvised musical may pique my curiosity somewhat, I can only imagine what the runtime of such a flick would be, as the third and final film in The Jacques Rivette Collection ‒ 1981’s Merry-Go-Round clocks in at a whopping 160 minutes.
The longest film in the set is also the one which shows the most promise. Alas, even with the addition of Warhol Factory legend Joe Dallesandro as its male lead (because who doesn’t love hearing French spoken by an American with a heavy Brooklyn accent?), Merry-Go-Round seems to slow down and stop far too often to properly entertain the average passenger. This time, Joe joins forces with Last Tango in Paris survivor Maria Schneider for a little mystery (very little, at that) about Maria’s missing sister and the hefty inheritance their maybe-not-dead-after-all father left behind.
While it too boasts a “live” improvised music score (this time of a free jazz persuasion), Rivette goes with a different method of delivery here, jumping to his musicians via cutaways ‒ removing much of the surrealism present in the other titles from this set. But fear ye not, kiddies, Oncle Jacques has plenty of other distractions to bewilder those who are inexperienced to experimental film, including numerous moments representing the main characters’ feelings. To this extent, we have what could very well amount to an entire half-hour of Joe Dallesandro getting in some good exercise as he does little more than run around a forest in a state of panic ‒ something we can all relate to, right?
Meanwhile, Duelle‘s Hermine Karagheuz ‒ cast as the conscious of Maria Schneider’s character, due to Rivette’s having had much difficulty with his controversial lead actress, as well as the fact that the film was completed over the course of three years ‒ climbing sand dunes by the sea in search of “something.” Ultimately, Merry-Go-Round feels like the sort of movie an uncertain American distributor would have released after they had cut out all of the surrealism, trimmed the title down to 80 minutes in length, and subsequently marketed it as a realistic detective story. No such version was ever created, however, so I guess the original will have to do.
In actuality, neither of the three films in Arrow Academy’s handsome, Limited Edition box set would ever stay around long enough in theaters for anyone to truly see them, whereas the people who did see them damn near booed them out of existence altogether (Rivette himself would later claim Merry-Go-Round was his worst film). In that respect, it is truly admirable Arrow Academy has put so much time and effort into this trio of esoteric French surrealism. All three films were recently restored for this release, and the separate presentations are well above-average throughout, as are the French (and sometimes English) LPCM Mono audio tracks.
Removable English subtitles accompany all three titles, but are only limited to translating French dialogue. As far as special features go, Noroît (Une vengeance) is a true barebones affair, offering nothing whatsoever as a consultation to anyone who may agree with the general observation of audiences and critics. Duelle (Une quarantaine)‘s single bonus item ‒ an eleven-minute featurette entitled Remembering Duelle with lead actresses Bulle Ogier and Hermine Karagheuz is a rather amusing choice of words for a title, as both ladies admit they never really knew what was supposed to be going on in the film (so don’t feel too bad if you didn’t, either!).
Merry-Go-Round‘s supplemental material is much more substantial, although I think it goes without saying many folks who pick the title up might not make it that far. First off are two separate interviews with the late Jacques Rivette, one from 1990, the other from 2004. This series of interviews runs nearly in an hour in length, and might just provide an answer to anyone who wonders just how mad the poor guy was following his nervous breakdown in 1975. Lastly, there is lie-down with former Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, who is most assuredly Rivette’s biggest fan, and who never hesitates to hint at how much he gets these films as opposed to everyone else.
Arrow Academy’s US release of The Jacques Rivette Collection rounds up with a tangible extra: a hefty booklet containing many essays, stills, and a biography of our late auteur. It should be noted that this US edition is a lot lighter than the UK variant from 2016, which featured the filmmaker’s 1971 magnum opus Out 1 (likely due to copyright issues). But when you realize Out 1 is divided into eight parts and is nearly 13 hours long, you may reconsider whether or not its exclusion is something to fuss about, as it doesn’t take too terribly long for one to say “mise-en-seen it!” as the rest of The Jacques Rivette Collection unfolds.
Best Recommended for established Rivette fans only. Or extremely curious people with a lot of time on their hands.