An Agony in Eight Fits: Jacques Rivette’s "Out 1"

The French New Wave director's magnum opus comes to MUBI.
Michael Pattison

MUBI is showing Jacques Rivette's Out 1: noli me tangere (1971) in four parts in the UK and most other parts of the world, beginning April 25, 2016.

“How strange, it’s like being in a cloak and dagger story.”

—Frédérique, Out 1

“Is this a game?”
“It’s lots of things.”

—Sarah and Thomas, Out 1

The word is casual. The world, too. In Jacques Rivette’s seminally bizarre, alluringly demanding twelve-hour-plus opus Out 1 (1971), listless Parisians float into one another’s lives as if they live in an incestuously tiny village. They come, they go, they never quite collide. They drift: their stories, if they can be called that, don’t so much intertwine with dramatic intricacy as overlap prettily like translucent jellyfish. Outward, inward, engines in decline. Eventually, of course, drifting accumulates its own tensions, acquires its own charms. Little things begin to matter, take on revelatory qualities. Hopes for a bigger picture are dwarfed by a fixation with finer details. Out 1 is a treatise—a very long treatise—on the act of spending time.

With whom? With many! Out 1’s vaguely radial plot uncurls like a group of gymnasts—one whose members all differ in expertise, whose movements are all bound to one another without ever quite being in sync (the opening shot is like an optical illusion, as bodies de-contort in attempted unison). Two seemingly separate experimental theater troupes are workshopping plays by Aeschylus: that led by Lili (Michèle Moretti) is working on Seven Against Thebes, while that led by Thomas (Michael Lonsdale) is working on Prometheus Bound. In the first couple of episodes (there are eight in total, most of which run for 90-100 minutes), Lili and Thomas’ respective clans work through interpretive, glossolalic routines.

They do so at length. Cutting between them, we watch each group develop its material through slow-burn, lose-yourself, group-orgy improv—often followed by endearingly erudite brainstorming sessions, which are shot in zoomed-in medium-long shots like those political debates Ken Loach films so well. Rivette’s film must feel out its structure rather than following some pre-etched through-line. It’s extremely claustrophobic: early on, the only respite afforded to us from the dreary interiors and harsh acoustics of the workshop spaces are scenes involving Juliet Berto and Jean-Pierre Léaud, both of whom inhabit their own distinct stories as street people. Berto is a swindler who seduces men and steals their money. Léaud is a mute who aggrieves bistro customers by playing insufferably discordant bursts of noise on his harmonica—palm outstretched till they get up and leave or give him a coin. 

The only thing connecting these individual set-ups is the loose, ad hoc nature with which they’re filmed. The troupe sequences play out like audition tapes or dress rehearsals, the shadows of Rivette’s film-crew made visible by the anything-goes intimacy of the shoot. In exterior scenes, passersby gaze directly into the camera like startled goats; when Léaud harasses pavement-café coffee-drinkers, it’s not entirely clear who’s in on what. Botched lines, fluffed readings, blooper-reel laughter: in terms of other successfully droll subversions of traditional storytelling, the only recent equivalent that comes to mind is Bruno Dumont’s P’tit Quinquin (2014). Free from the burdens of scripted dialogue, Rivette and co-writer/director Suzanne Schiffman present a rough-and-ready canvas on which action can be fleshed out. It’s amusing, baffling, atonal; warming, chilly, childlike.

There’s an inescapable innocence, too—not just in the thespian frolics, or the paper-thin divide between ennui and eroticism when one character tries to initiate a threesome with two others, but in the way in which everyone seems desperate to be the willfully paranoid protagonist of their own espionage thriller. As things open out, we discover a Paris rife with conspiracy and adventure: underground publishing, secret societies, blackmail. Trysts, sects, mise-en-abîme. These kids dig kayfabe. “You wanted to meet me here? But they’ll see you through the windows,” says one character excitedly. “Are you crazy? Cafés are full of cameras and bugs,” notes another. We’re introduced to Emilie (Bulle Ogier), who runs a shop under the name of Pauline (window sign: “$ WANTED / any kind of BRead”) and whose husband, Igor, has been missing for some months. Plots thicken by way of blackboards and chalk diagrams. One of the film’s lasting sequences involves Pierre Baillot, as theater troupe member Quentin, charting a vague cartography of the city in public with a tape measure. 

None of these attempted thrillers amount to much. Indeed, it’s as a backdrop for an anti-thriller that Rivette reworks the French capital most effectively. Captured by Pierre-William Glenn on grainy 16mm, the city feels less shadowy than monochrome, less a scheming organism than a lethargic, suburban park for chance encounters. The film feels a lot more like a documentary than a fictional feature, coming most alive on those distinctly geometric street corners where characters loiter at crowded Métro entrances. The percussive genre music with which the film begins turns out to be banal, diegetic—revealed and cut dead when Lili turns her tape deck off.

This is a world of imagined intrigue, a document of people flirting with (rather than caught up in) drama. Affairs are alluded to rather than evidenced. Pivotal chunks of time are dedicated to characters we never see. None of the revelations to do with a defunct network of spies ever really come to anything. A three-way conversation along the Seine, about the unwanted circulation of some mysterious letters, is especially exasperating in its flexiloquence.

You get out what you put in. A promise, a dare. This and other clichés have followed Rivette’s epic like seagulls will a trawler. Likewise, no discussion of this daunting film seems complete without obligatory and facile references to May ’68; never mind that its events take place in the spring of 1970. While any artwork sensitive to the objective moments of its time will ineluctably capture something of their essence, to view Out 1 as a knowingly coded encapsulation of the social and political malaise following that fiercely brief revolutionary moment is to blacken it as some predetermined, decipherable puzzle. 

Not that the opposing wisdom, which advocates “letting the whole thing wash over you,” is any better. Though the mystery is partly the point here, the increasingly melancholic mood of Out 1 does feel rooted in some kind of concrete sense of passing. It’s the revolution turned inward, against itself: we’re witnessing the dormant after-threads of a utopia, the fits and sputters of a fading romance suffering its death agony. Rivette explained the film’s gnomic title as a simple rebuke to any notion of being “in”—of being fashionable, a part of something. Led by an exceptionally mature Lonsdale, a charmingly ambiguous figure with a long spine and idiosyncratic mannerisms (the ways he holds a cigarette, the way he swigs a bottle of pop), Rivette’s characters are all misfits who long in some way to partake in some greater, meaningful cause. 

Rivette’s film is also commonly known by its secondary title, Noli me tangere. Latin for “touch me not,” it sounds like a warning. In its original form (a four-hour version, sub-labeled Spectre—a ghost copy—was also released), Out 1 is a perversely flabby beast with peculiar, muscular limbs. Its greater tensions are to be found at its peripheries, or in bursts. Ellipsis is a key strategy here; asides are told with the same consistency as main plot strands (the film ends with an inexplicably brief shot that references an earlier, now-forgotten sequence in which one character embarks upon the futile quest of searching the city for someone else). This tension between trivial information and gargantuan plot mechanics is indebted to Rivette’s two most obvious reference points, Lewis Carroll and Honoré de Balzac. The film’s central mystery emerges after one character (“Équipage!”) links Carroll’s 1876 nonsense poem “The Hunting of the Snark” to three novellas Balzac wrote as part of his Comédie humaine (1799-1850).

Enjoyed theatrically by several repertory cliques since its restoration last year—though it’s fine, even advisable, to consume it in parts—Out 1 has become the ultimate binge-watching experience for many cinephiles. It doesn’t so much anticipate the kind of serial storytelling so beloved by today’s critical community as hark back to a less refined, more experimental age. Balzac and Carroll, yes, but also Feuillade, and the early serials of French cinema. Whereas the tightly orchestrated, beat-driven structures of television programs preclude their genuine sprawl (spin-offs notwithstanding), Rivette could fashion an entire world here from an outrageously freeform arrangement. While others might connect to Surrealism with a kind of engineered randomness (good luck describing how something as complex and time-consuming as making a film can approximate Breton’s notion of psychic automatism), the result of Rivette’s obvious patience for chance and authenticity might be the closest the medium has come to channeling that artistic movement. 

It’s not just the loose, associative framework. Repetition and duration are essential to the immersive experience of watching Rivette’s body of work, and Out 1 in particular. Together, repetition, duration and association create the dreamlike, even purgatorial mindset that only serves to heighten those occasions in which the director’s dormant brilliance truly does bedazzle. In a film that for so much of its running time piques in the same instant as it denies, hinting at connections that never come to fruition, perhaps the deepest joy is the simplest: of watching performers perform. Final word, then, to the absolute pleasure of witnessing two characters—nay, actors—who have previously been kept apart finally being thrown together in the same scene. Take your pick—there’s plenty of them—but for me, it’s when Léaud and Lonsdale sit down so casually to fire cryptic suspicions at one another. Such sparks! 

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