An Always Uncertain End: Jacques Rivette's "Love on the Ground"

Is this love or is it empty intimacy, powerful anxiety, fear of death? On Jacques Rivette’s 1984 film.
Evelyn Emile

—I am still the same.
—Except for one thing. In the past, I was everything for you.
—The past is the past.
Love On the Ground
You think you weep because you can’t love. You weep because you can’t impose death. 
—Marguerite Duras, The Malady of Death

In the apartment play that opens Love On the Ground (L’amour par terre, 1984*), Silvano (Facundo Bo), the author of the piece, plays a man who is in love with two different women. In the morning he loves the character played by Charlotte (Géraldine Chaplin), and in the afternoon he loves the other played by Emily (Jane Birkin).

But when one woman stays late with him and the other returns early, and his duplicity is on the verge of being revealed, he proclaims these words that arrest all suspicious questioning:

I am an illusion! You are an illusion! You all are illusions!” 

It is this declaration—a bit outrageous because it is beyond comprehension and cannot be questioned—that is unbearable. It is not even within my power to write about it. There is mystery and anguish here, and also fun. So Jacques Rivette takes it even further.

Silvano is really crying out under the pressure of a double imposture: within the play he feigns fidelity to the women; outside of the play he feigns authorship, for the text was actually written by someone else. The play is “a kind of adaptation” of a piece written by Clément Roquemaure (Jean-Pierre Kalfon, revisiting his role as theater director after Rivette’s 1969 film L’amour fou), who happens to be watching from among the audience.

But Rivette does not dwell on this imposture as if it were the tragedy of an imperfect or deceptive world. He plays with the reality of film and is open to the possibility of invention, curious to discover what humans reveal and what they create when the illusions they construct, or perhaps the illusions they incarnate, sincere and reasonable as they may be, are acted out within a world that resists them.

The beginning of the film presents a series of encounters that set a pattern for what follows. In the rest of the film, the three actors rehearse and perform Clément Roquemaure’s latest play, an unfinished “theater at home” piece based on a past love triangle between Clément, Béatrice (Isabelle Linnartz), and Paul (André Dussolier), which is to be performed in the very home where the love triangle took place. But no matter how the situation changes or how deep into the performance the actors go, they cannot escape themselves. All that changes is the time.

Although there are patterns that run through the film, much was left open, unplanned, and then found during the shooting and editing. Even the order of shots in certain sequences of the film leaves multiple possibilities open. For example, during a scene when Clément reworks the dialogue of the play, the shot goes from him discussing the dialogue with the group... a cutaway shot of the butler Virgil (Laszlo Szabo) typing on a typewriter.

It is possible that the shot of Virgil is autonomous and bears no relation to the act of crafting the dialogue, but it is also possible that Virgil writes the dialogue from another room.

And then, when Clément looks up from his edited script...

...the shot cuts to the performance of Charlotte and Silvano rehearsing the scene.

Are Clément’s thoughts playing out in front of his eyes? On which plane of reality does the narrative begin? Impossible to tell, but nevertheless, most of the film occurs in a single setting with only a few characters. 

The home of Clément is the setting for most of the film. It is a strange place. Some rooms are decorated with energetic, brightly-colored paintings while others are decorated with subdued, neo-Classical mosaics. The building is too large to be comfortable, and the emptiness of it terrorizes the imagination. Secluded in a private wilderness but still within earshot of Paris traffic, it is a place where “nothing is normal, not even the walls.”

Unexplained occurrences happen after Charlotte and Emily arrive. Visions of escapist debauchery and death appear to them unexpectedly. Paul supposes that the visions are transmitted by his presence. They happen in spite of himself, “like a sickness,” he says. Both women wish to deny what happens in the vision, but neither can deny that the person she sees in it is herself. And then there are the sounds of animals, wind, ocean waves, and musical instruments—sounds without any natural origin—that  carry to Emily’s ears, and there is also the memory of Clément and Paul’s past lover, Béatrice, whose absence from the house makes her reality that much more imposing.

Perhaps Béatrice is not unrelated to the inscrutable forces that arise mysteriously from behind locked doors and in darkened thresholds, but there is no way to know. We learn so little about her, and the more one tries to look for her and bring her to the light of day, the more of an enigma she becomes.

Clément and Paul will never forget Béatrice. They hold her as an ideal, and in comparison to her, other women are too human, too imperfect, and too alive to match her. Yet Charlotte and Emily fall in love with the men anyway. After their first nights spent with Paul and Clément, they give voice to new desires and awakening love.

Emily: “I like his mouth when he smiles, and he smiles all the time, but it’s a mask. Yes, it’s a mask. Behind it he’s fragile, wounded, broken. And he doesn’t want to talk about Béatrice. Or cannot. Charlotte, do you think I can help him?”

Charlotte: “I’d forgotten caresses, or I was afraid or maybe ashamed. But little by little I found the movements and the words again, like anyone. How could I have been so crazy not to understand I was dying for that? So many years not seeing the people I could meet or lose, those who could love me. So many years forgetting the dreams which remind me of love.”

These soliloquies give us the impression we have direct access to the women’s thoughts and desires, and they may even prompt memories of desire in us, the viewers, who perhaps cannot know or feel or say the same so clearly and so self-consciously. But within a day, the feelings change, as if they were only spoken when under a spell. 

Woven throughout the film are encounters with unknown women who also share their experiences of love. They recount stories of unsymmetrical relationships in which they had been caught in a movement of pure love, but then their loyalty was taken advantage of, their desires arrested, and love refused.

Is this love or is it empty intimacy, powerful anxiety, fear of death? These are such violent and terrible things, as we know. But Rivette gives us no consolation. Even if one were to ask, “Am I dead or not?” the verdict is spoken simply and with a smile: “That’s for you to decide.”

*Rivette edited two versions of the film: one is a 125 minute version released in theaters in 1984 and screening​ at New York's Film Society of Lincoln Center this week in the "Jane and Charlotte Forever" series, and the other is a 169 minute version released on DVD in 2002. The version ​I used as a ​reference ​for​ this text is the longer ​​version.

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