Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Le secret Rivette

Included in Jean-Luc Godard’s palimpsest Le livre d’image are photographs of Jacques Rivette and the title of one of his ultimate interviews “Le secret et la loi”. Though it’s an elusive allusion, it’s an important instance of Godard acknowledging the passing of his friend in 2016 in his own work (aside from a brief note to the Cinémathèque). It’s a tender gesture – one of sorrow and pride – as it’s a sign of lack due to regret and the missing of a friend and an act of solidarity to what they experienced together and their long history. 
Speaking to Alain Bergala, Godard remembered highly the esteem he held for Rivette:
“Rivette, lui, représentait une sorte de terrorisme cinématographique… J’aimais beaucoup un film et si Rivette disait ‘c’est de la connerie’ je disais comme lui. Il y avait un côté stalinien dans ces rapports-là. Avec Rivette, c’était comme s’il avait détenu la vérité cinématographique, différente de celle des autres, et pendant un temps j’ai accepté ça.”
This form of memorialization is part of a longer tradition for Godard of eulogizing his nouvelle vague peers who he had been friends with in the fifties: both in an enigmatic fashion, he would express his conflicting feelings towards François Truffaut in a special Cahiers issue “Le roman de François Truffaut” and he would make a short video-essay for Éric Rohmer. Now Rivette has been assumed.
The idea of the complot – conspiracy – is strongly present in Rivette’s film and his mysterious aura. There’s the Balzacian secret society in Out 1 (1971). There’s the elusiveness to Céline et Julie Vont en Bateau (1974) and Le Pont du Nord (1981), which don’t follow standard dramatic arches and conclusive resolutions. Rivette does something different and his private persona and his reticence for interviews and reluctance to re-publish his writing has only heightened his mystery. All of this recalls how Bulle Ogier, who had worked with Rivette on numerous films, speaks of him in the documentary Le veilleur,
“It’s hard to talk about Jacques Rivette because he’s so secret that if you say something about him or about his films or the way he works or lives, you feel terribly indiscreet, impolite… It would be in bad taste. A betrayal almost.”
Because he was so private, the publishing after his death of an anthology of his writing (and the same thing could be said about the opening up of the Chris Marker archives) seems somewhat indiscreet as it provides such an easy access point to his film criticism that he wished to remain obscure, even though there are some privileges of having them all in one place. 
The French publisher post-éditions, under the editorship of Miguel Armas and Luc Chessel, has recently published Jacques Rivette: Textes Critiques where you can find for the first time in one book ‘all’ of Rivette’s published film writing from his first essays in Bulletin du ciné-club du Quartier latin and Gazette du cinéma to the majority of it from Cahiers du Cinéma and Arts. There are long reviews to short capsules, top ten lists to unpublished writing; a long group essay “Montage” with Jean Narboni and Sylvie Pierre (1969) and “Le Secret et la Loi” by Hélène Frappat (1999). In terms of what it doesn’t have, you can’t find many of his interviews or the plethora of material that still makes his archive at the Cinémathèque française such a treasure trove (though even this, I suspect, is still lacking material).
What can be gleaned now from being able to go over the entirety of Rivette’s writing all in one place? First off: the pleasure of being around such a legendary cinephile, film critic and filmmaker. It needs to be said: Serge Daney was right about Rivette and Rivette was right about the films that he wrote about. For anyone who grew up with the Cahiers politique des auteurs and watched the films of Hitchcock and Hawks through their eyes there’s a real pleasure of re-reading and discovering some of Rivette’s original arguments and hyperbole.
On Howard Hawks: “L’évidence est la marque du génie de Hawks; Monkey Business est un film génial et s’impose à l’esprit par l’évidence” (“Génie de Howard Hawks”).
On Alfred Hitchcock: “Les films d’Hitchcock relèvent du secret professionnel… seul le metteur en scène, j’entends celui qui s’est posé les vrais poblèmes de son art, peut en pressentir la beauté” (“L’art de la fugue”).
On Roberto Rossellini: “S’il est un cinéma modern, le voilà” (“Lettre sur Rossellini”).
On Josef von Sternberg: “Anatahan, couronnement logique de l’oeuvre de Sternberg, est également le meilleur film japonais.”
            But beneath these claims Rivette is situating himself within a larger context of French film theory and criticism. There are reoccurring concepts that are interspersed throughout his writing such as realism, mise-en-scène, genius, liberty and modernity. There’s an evolution to his thought from participating in debates around cinégénie along the lines of Louis Delluc and Jean Epstein; to debates around realism along the lines of André Bazin and Maurice Schérer (Rohmer); and finally, to debates around structuralism along the lines of Roland Barthes and Claude Lévi-Strauss. All of the while implementing his own point of view. Rivette’s writing has the pointedness and authority of defining the films and filmmakers of his era. His film analyses are able to explain how these directors gives expression to an idea through their representation of the world. He would write on some of the most important filmmakers, dictating the Cahiers line as it was being conceived. I would highly suggest reading his pieces on Monsieur VerdouxUnder Capricorn and Les quatre cents coups.
Rivette’s first essay “Nous ne sommes plus innocents” (1950) is interesting for laying down many of his key theories that he would remain loyal to over time. In particular how through its focus on humans and their gestures there can be an existential position on the world that comes across. This is the réel and présence of a film, the focus on bodies and gestures, as opposed to conventional storytelling which is seen as superficial and formulaic. Rivettte described realism as:
“Inscrire simplement sur film les manifestations, le mode de vie et d’être, le comportement du petit cosmos individual… l’univers du créateur n’est que la manifestation, l’efflorescence concrète de son regard et de son mode d’apparaître.”
This idea, with some variation and adapting to specific refence points, reappears numerous times throughout his essays. For example, Rivette wrote on Jean Renoir’s use of improvisation,
“L’esprit d’improvisation anime en effet son oeuvre entière; mais se refuser à prévoir, filmer chaque plan suivant les seules nécessités de l’instant, ne sont pour lui qu’un moyen, pour appréhender le concret plus directement, sans intermédiaire, et dans toute sa spontanéité.”
            Though abstract, these excerpt from Rivette’s earliest texts read like a manifesto of what he would champion the most and bring to his own filmmaking practice: intimate behaviours of individuals, capturing the way of life of beings, an improvisational spirit, refusing preconceptions and the necessity of the instant in all of its spontaneity.
There’s an attempt in “Le Secret et la Loi” for Rivette to directly explain some of his ideas and what they mean for him. He presents his theory of film rather succinctly: narrative films circulate around laws and secrets. For Rivette la loi is,
“c’est-à-dire quelque chose qui est construit par la raison pour donner à l’homme ce qui va lui permettre de constituer, de prolonger, de faire survivre son humanité, c’est-à-dire, et là je continue à essayer de citer Legendre, ce qui va lui permettre de faire exister tant le sujet que la fiction, deux termes qu’il met sur le même plan.”
For Rivette le secret is,
“Mais secret au sens le plus fundamental: pour continuer à citer Paulhan qui dit qu’il ne faut jamais oublier que le propre du mystère est d’être mystérieux, ce secret-là est un secret de l’être, un secret que ne connaît pas le cinéaste, c’est un secret que le cinéaste porte sans le savoir, c’est le secret de choses très personnelles, très existentielles, très suggestives, et que le film se trouve porter: au-delà de ce que voulait consciemment le cinéaste, il dit des choses sur lui, et donc, à travers lui, sur l’humanité, choses qu’il n’avait pas la moindre intention de dire.”
            These points offer a way to re-read the anthology and Rivette’s body of work. He’s speaking about the symbolic and the super-ego to use Lacan’s terms. What social factors motivate behaviour in contrast to a subject’s most intimate and hidden desires. For the modern filmmakers that Rivette wrote about they were able to accomplish this. But what’s so great is that Rivette’s theory doesn’t leave you with anything tangible. This emphasis on the relation between both terms relies on the imposition of a point of view while simultaneously eluding mastery. It only leaves more questions unanswered, creates more thought and allows more mysteries to propagate. There are still new inquiries to be had.