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Think But This ...
36 vues du Pic St-Loup

David Phelps


  To the dark, to the past, to the dead ...
            – Percy Bysshe Shelley, Prometheus Unbound

The plot of Jacques Rivette’s 36 vues du Pic St-Loup (Around a Small Mountain, 2009) is a joke – as it is the point of almost all Rivette’s films that plot is a joke, to be delivered finally by the characters themselves. A compound of deliberately undeveloped Hollywood clichés about the out-turned maverick – the heist film’s one-last-job; the Warners device of a sidelines admirer given the spotlight at the fatal second; the noirish structure of a foreign detective with no identity but surrogate voyeur who enters a small town solely to expose a long dormant conspiracy and curse ... is transposed to the velvet portrait underworld of an unattended children’s circus. The script might have been designed by a Rivette expert (like Pascal Bonitzer) blind to any logic but that of a Rivette film: a vagabond-turned-wizard outsider infiltrates the self-contained plot of a self-contained space (house, tent) and play; the play, scripted, ritualised and fatalistic, turns into playground in rehearsals; a conspiracy is hinted at in evidence of social and metaphysical orders determining the infrastructure of everyday life; and then, in a talismanic ritual, the coil shuffles, another world opens at the disposal of the half-conscious protagonists, and by some miracle of happenstance, they transgress/transcend social reality in the graces of death, love, or a community theatre production, each of these Another World that signals the tentative victory of brute spontaneity over fate. Here, all bonds of narrative logic loosed, Vittorio (Sergio Castellitto), without past or future, makes a spontaneous, unreasoned stop-over in a small town with a circus that Kate (Jane Birkin) is returning to after a traumatic incident (à la the ultra-Rivettian Greatest Show on Earth, 1952) fifteen years before – which, in Freudian shorthand, she must relive to move on with her life.


Rivette, who has always grounded the visions of a visionary in the mechanics of a pen’s brushstroke and (here) the whirling wires and levers of a mid-air dance act, forgoes any explanation for why these two magicians are moored to a traveling circus. Instead, he gives them modern, material correspondences to Gods in exile passing through a closed-circuit society that they can tamper with but not quite belong to: Birkin is English and Castellitto Italian, both recognisably displaced every time they speak a word of French; Rivette establishes Vittorio as magician simply by having him fix Kate’s car at the film’s start, as modest an act as everything to follow, but a pantomime of cautiously raised hands and bursts of movement that mime forceful thinking and a flurry of inspiration in what should be a boring mechanical act (in Rivette, magic is mechanics, but mechanics is magic). Especially, there are the performances to question whether, as rambling artists, they are audience or performers: Castellitto, cat-like, eying a scene before pouncing in on it with perfect calm (Rivette’s camera does the same); Birkin, with cranial beauty, a body that can’t act but reacts, that looks around and thinks. Both play the usual Rivette character, physically three-dimensional in a full-bodied space with floor and sounds of chirping insects; and mentally, whether by reticence, meditation, invocation, in another world altogether.


It is a movie obsessed with ritualising stale roles and flat-footed acts and bringing art to life – and vice-versa. Here the Other World is simply The Past, and the shabby invocation/MacGuffin to control it is not to recover and enter it, but shrug it off. The ritual – Kate having a newspaper (Le Canard Enchaîné or ‘chained journal’, a real French satirical paper) torn in her hands by a chain-whip – is dryly symbolic, bookended by a series of puns on casser (‘to break’) as ties to present and past and logic are cut from the private world of fantasy. It is also a restaging done on a stage. The tent, like the bedroom in L’amour fou (1969) through to every room in Don’t Touch the Axe (2006), is a place to remake the world, a head-space. Where Rivette’s small towns around the small mountain Pic St-Loup are given in the dry natural light of Southern France – so that a viewer can watch shadows on the pavement and know whether it is about 3pm, 4pm, 9pm (and know where in this space the characters are) – the tent, in accented blues and reds rising and falling as the tent flutters in the wind, looks the chimerical texture of early Technicolor or an MGM musical, like near-Platonic versions of natural forms.


Time and space become indeterminate. Except at the beginning and end, it is impossible to tell whether the acts performed inside are in rehearsal or public performance as Rivette’s camera films from the perspective of the audience – so the audience cannot be seen. It becomes clear that each performance is a rehearsal for the next (whatever its public function) and Rivette, respecting Bazinian space-time as the ultimate illusion, shows a dismal clown show as a documentary of real people in clown make-up kibitzing with each other in character either because that is the role or because they are flubbing the role altogether. The point is beyond Tati’s in Playtime (1967) and Parade (1974) that real life follows art, that ‘Playtime starts when the lights go up’, that reality (as always in Rivette) is a game with an invisible set of rules art can clarify, invoke or extirpate. The point is more that the cheap tent with its modest clown routine is very literally a world of imagination and reimagined, restaged lives, of chance and second chances, where what is irrevocable in material reality (as in the mind) can be remade and riffed on a thousand ways. Only imagination recovers the past.


It is an old point that Rivette makes new: Shakespeare made it in his late comedies in which indolent spirits play God and artist to remake webs of sex affairs that come undone and restrung as emotions pass and all is forgiven – and forgotten. So did Renoir in The Golden Coach (1952) – a film Rivette is remaking here. Re-creation is recreation, recall is recall, spectacle is speculative, and what might have been is not. But art, as in the circus of Ophuls’ Lola Montès (1955), lets one think otherwise; in Rivette, believing is seeing. As the kids must believe in Neverneverland before it will exist, must invent the fiction to make it reality, Rivette’s characters convince themselves that they are in love to be in love and that they are free from the past to be free from the past. Sometimes it works. The first work of magic (art-turned-real) in any Rivette film is that as life and theatre collapse, Rivette’s characters are the equivalents of Shakespeare’s director Gods and hoodwinked mortals in one: they are self-possessed.


Another is that Rivette, like Louis Feuillade, frames spaces as stages, even outside: the movie exists only within the world its characters have created. Characters enter the frame as they would enter a doorway on-stage to join a scene; if they are not in frame, they are ghosts, with no relevance to the scene at all except as ghosts, and when the audience is not seen in the rehearsal/performances, it may as well not exist. As a proper play, the film has two soliloquies, and both are played to the dead in invocations. They are also played for the camera which, like Dreyer’s, seems to enable their actions as it pans to empty doorways to call a character forward into the scene, or to tables to summon characters there in the same shot or next–its own form of invocation. Finally, at the climax, there is a curtain-call: the characters step from the tent into reality to face the camera and thank the audience in a recited dialogue that is both the film’s stagiest bit and the moment when theatre at last dissipates into reality, even visually: the back of the tent opens onto the grass, so that the tent forms a continuous space from front lawn to back.


As characters exit out in the ‘real world’, only to be regurgitated by the tent a few seconds later like alternate versions of themselves, Rivette achieves his own equivalent to Puck’s valediction or the wink at the final moment of Hitchcock’s Family Plot (1976): a gracious thank-you for playing along as another stooge in the artist’s plot, and for being complicit all along. It is a moment that reasserts all the themes by breaking the form in one first and last acknowledgement of Rivette’s long-take camera as an audience member unto itself, waiting to see what it can find. As the characters perform for it, the camera becomes the only justification for their actions. There is no reason for the couples pairing off as they do in cosmic harmony. It is simply in the stars, or the script, and Rivette nods to both of them that things turned out all right in the scheme of things, and that there is ultimately some scheme (mortal or divine) of which we can receive glimpses.


The structure  of 36 vues is ostensibly the most disconnected and lateral of all his films, with the usual improvisatory climax surfacing from nowhere as a deus ex machina in which God disappears and the characters enjoy a moment of anarchistic freedom against the tinny, half-tyrannical structure of a play. But, as always – Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974) culminates similarly but ends where it started, in affirmation of a larger, circular cosmic structure – there is a rigorous form to support and enable these small modern fables of entrapment and release. The rotating between interludes – interludes of circus acts, interludes of soliloquies, interludes of quickly discarded subplots, of city work life, of characters discussing the things they did in other interludes, and maybe three or four scenes about the stage-set murder of a lover that’s haunted Kate and destroyed her life – is Rivette’s cubistic 36 variations on a tightrope act: people, as usual, trying to defy material reality and, if only by illusion, make themselves its master (the last shot of Va savoir, 2001). Shots of an actor hang-gliding in space; of a town lit up at night as a tableau of café and street scenes (as actors nod to it from a stage and the lights rise and fall); of Vittorio calling Kate that the tent is on fire and she has to come back, while he laughs outside the standing tent; of all the clowns redoing the same act in new accents and of Vittorio pursuing Kate across a series of blank walls as they progress and go nowhere and he remakes his argument at every cut; and the moment when Rivette himself redoes a shot of an actor mounting a stage halfway-through in a new take – all these moments begin with the recognition of a physical place and perspective that characters are tied to before moving into the phenomenological arena where people can reimagine the world as they like – and, if not make it so, then think it so. Like almost all of Rivette’s works, 36 vues is a movie about people learning to get over themselves, work by communal instinct, improvise, and reach that strange moment with strangers where anything goes. In other words, like almost all of Rivette’s works, it is revolutionary.


But rituals reign. As in the rest of Rivette’s post-Duelle (1976) films, reality is its own form of art; civilisation and civilities are enacted, acted, and pantomimed, as much outside the tent as in: the opening moments, the silent, circling pas de deux as Vittorio conducts Kate’s car engine as if it were an orchestra, not only set up the former’s preposterous role of surrogate God, but Rivette’s own ability to calibrate a perfectly funny clown act, with all the pathetic, circuitous clown acts still to follow. Vittorio’s own advice to one clown to improve –‘valorise the plate’, hold his prop to the audience to give it some symbol of personal meaning – is dismissed by the clown (‘this has been my craft for fifteen years’) and then followed the next time he performs. Rivette has his actors valorise the mundane likewise. As in early silent film where actors are seen entering a flat, tableau-like room and turning it into a physical space by inspecting it and eventually finding some use for every prop and decoration in the room, Rivette’s characters – voyeurs first looking around to find out what they’re looking for – notice, valorise, then exploit their space. An actor calmly picking up a plate of apples that’s been sitting on a table to the right of screen for an entire scene is enough to give a standard still-life actual temporal life, the air to move in; again there is a distillation of everyday living (as in late Dreyer) to the principle of expediency and functionality: only the gestures that matter are performed, and only the props that matter are displayed – and both, then, matter that much more. As a clown valorises a plate, Kate, shying away from the circus ring, eying it like a spectre, and motioning it away with her hand as she tries and fails to enter it, raises a melodrama in a single gaze and tells the audience everything it needs to know about the ring, like a spell, being both a curse and spell-breaker.


Life turns out to be the last refuge of art; Kate in her workaday life dyes cloth the Fauvist-strength hues of the circus tent. But as she complains to her co-workers in Paris , she needs the country sun to illuminate her dyed fabric to the proper shade of red. More than an excuse to rejoin the circus, the line is some demonstration of life illuminating art (quite literally so) that’s in turn derived from life: the countryside dyes. Still, reality plays its part as stage, setting tones, inscribing possibilities. Even the hoary device of using wind to accentuate the drama at the end has a real power, because the wind has been used lightly all along. The wind doesn’t just add drama; as in Straub, it is its own drama. Rivette takes his forms from the world around him like Kate’s dyer and all his characters who use routine to transcend routine. By the end of 36 vues, they are, at best, improvising clowns on a half-stocked stage; at worst, condemned to minute variations of breaking plates over each other’s heads for eternity, and able to think only of how each plate might be handled. Their fixation on plates is like Molloy's on pebbles in Beckett: a distillation of thought toward single objects that would be transformative if only the objects of thought weren't so resolutely mundane, real, themselves.


Comedy and tragedy, the malleable art inside the tent and the irrevocable reality outside it, are Rivette’s own bass and treble clefs he plays in juxtaposition as two alternate forms of the same impulses. Where the clowns’ stunted act is about a series of cowards running away from a gun (or plate) in fear, and then not even sure what they are running away from, so is the film’s main stage the story of a girl running away from what, she does not know – maybe the past, or, its opposite, maybe the present – until, like the Beckett-like clown, sure of his instinct but not sure what the motivation for it is, it is fear itself she is running away from. After a few allusions to the round-robin sex affairs of the side players (reality now the comedy), Rivette shows an interlude of two acrobats rolling on stage together and lifting each other up in a giant erection (art now the serious counterpoint). The hang-gliding bird-man becomes the corollary to two characters’ fear of heights as one stands on a chair near a cliff. Etc. Only correspondences incidentally, these rhymes are more of Rivette’s own alternate variations and resprung seeds; even his own films get remade in shorthand in the tent, as the opening shot of Out 1 (1971) is reinterpreted by the rolling acrobats, the meandering clowns restage a hostage scene from L’amour fou, Kate’s involuntary recall and Vittorio’s break-through at the climax are stand-ins for scenes from Céline and Julie, while the final shot, of a full moon (for wolves, loups, loops) invokes the secret Shellyian Intellectual Beauty from Duelle and Noroît (both 1976) that comes out, changes the characters’ lives by giving them some power of possibility against an oppressive Power—and disappears behind the clouds.


Ostensibly an open world by virtue of what is being filmed (anything quotidian that the characters find worth flirting over) and a closed circuit by virtue of its structure as a synaptical network of rhymes and qualifications, Rivette’s film formally connects his one-shot stage-scenes outdoors, each a self-contained cell, by a series of disconnected pans that unwrap a tableau and set a stage, then cut in, sometimes from a different angles, sometimes to a different scene altogether, to lock the space and characters down as live-theater. Seemingly evolved from Kenji Mizoguchi and Straub-Huillet, these pans set up the artwork before bringing it to life, have a distant air of perspective on the statue-like characters who become relative to a landscape of meadows and a mountain, and open up a space as much as they close it down into its own closed-circuit of back-and-forth motion. Late in the film, Rivette films the circus’ he-man softly catching and juggling flaming torches thrown to him from off-screen, and then pans to the girl who’s been throwing the torches now receiving one back and balancing it on her nose – and there is a similar pan later from the chain-flicker to Kate sitting in the chair as the chain is flung from off-screen to break her newspaper. These movements, as immersive in the Bazinian real-time realities of death-defying stunts as they are removed from any stable perspective on the action (Rivette’s gaze wandering after a while from one actor to another), make reality unreal by posing a tension (whatever is going on off-screen) and then resolving it matter-of-factly: as always in Rivette, it is the digressive, deadpan realism of a shot dryly explaining how fantastical things are possible that seems as hypnagogic as a swinging pendulum. There is also the signal, in these circus pans, that Rivette, like his characters, has now physically entered the scene, with his camera in the midst of the act, where before action was self-contained.


But there are pans throughout forming ties between spaces and breaking from them, opening the world up and closing it in: numerous establishing shots, including the first of the film, anchoring the humans’ stories in the countryside and its mountain, Pic St-Loup, which the traveling troupe revolves around like a constellation. These pans, bridging one space to another and providing the pillow-shot links between scenes in and out of the tent, are the ultimate connective tissue in a film about people trying to break ties with the earth and form new ones with each other in an insulated, Hawksian family of cranky old professionals and eager young ingénues. Paradoxically, they ground the film in transience, in spaces and scenes left behind. It is the structuring principle of the whole film that everything is seen in the after-effects: not just Kate’s trauma, but love affairs and a number of the clown acts are portrayed after the fact as the participants at a stand-still discuss what happened. Everything is stuck in place; and then everything – spaces, scandals, towns, hopes, ghosts, and clown acts – breaks down, breaks out, moves, and moves on, even as the centre holds.


36 vues ends with the two leads having nothing left to say to each other; like the couple in Anthony Mann’s Man of the West (1958), only a trauma binds them together, and once the ties are broken, there is nothing to keep them together. While most of Rivette’s films seem to end in death as the characters’ last, Romantic resort to breaking ties with their lives, this one seems the first of his career to move beyond that moment and articulate how much his characters need those ties as a framework to explode. Kate cannot live with her trauma and cannot live without it: it is her emotional bind to the people around her. As the creation of a romance in L’amour fou is only in its own sadomasochistic destruction, in the apartment walls that can be torn down, the characters end the film without a structure to rebel against, and move on. But Rivette finishes with the moon as genuflection to a fate that played its part in the first place. Both leads do their own imagining of how they might meet again, as in the end of Céline and Julie, to relive/restage the plot in opposite roles. Vittorio’s line in the film as he stands in the ring, ‘this is the most dangerous place in the world, and the one where anything is possible’, has already been appointed Rivette’s tagline and epitaph. But probably just as appropriate are the final words of the film, the ones anyone has to wonder about a Rivette film, inside of it or out, and the last of Rivette’s appeals to freedom in ‘doubt, chance, and mutability’: who knows?


from Issue 1: Histories


© David Phelps and LOLA 2011.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.