The Art of the Fugue: "Textes Critiques" Collects Jacques Rivette's Criticism

A new book finally puts together much of the writing by the French New Wave director and _Cahiers du cinéma_ critic and editor.
Srikanth Srinivasan

Jean-Luc Godard quipped that his criticism represented a kind of cinematic terrorism. Serge Daney said his writing taught him not to be afraid to see. The Parisian publishing house Post-Éditions has made available a long overdue collection of his articles in French to decide for ourselves. Jacques Rivette became a filmmaker even before he became a critic. When he came to Paris from Rouen in 1950, he had already completed a short film, unlike Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer or Chabrol, his colleagues-to-be at Cahiers du cinéma and later fellow New Wave directors. By his own admission, he never wanted to be a film critic, not in the traditional sense of the term. But, considering his own dictum that “a true critique of a film can only be another film,” he never ceased to be one.

Textes Critiques as an object has the appearance of a cinephilic totem: half-a foot in size, portable, with a French flap cover in black and white featuring only an evocative photo of the author taken by Truffaut in 1950. The minimal outer design flows into the volume, a collection of Rivette’s writings devoid of photographs, film stills or images of any other kind‑an austere presentation that reflects the solemn quality of Rivette’s texts. Apart from an insightful introduction by co-editor Luc Chessel, there’s no extra fat to go with the articles: no biographical sketches, testimonies or commentaries. In other words, you don’t get any information about Rivette’s early years, his gravitation towards cinema, his activity during the months he didn’t publish reviews, the momentous “putsch” of 1963 at Cahiers or the (in)famous December ’63 special on American cinema running over 250 pages that appeared under his editorship, partly responsible for driving the magazine to the verge of bankruptcy.

Collected in the first of the five sections of the book are all of Rivette’s writing between 1950 and 1965: about 75 pieces, most of them published in Gazette du cinéma, Cahiers du cinéma and Arts. The second chapter is a re-publication of an extended discussion between Rivette, Jean Narboni, and Sylvie Pierre from 1969 on the topic of montage. The third, short section is a collection of tributes to André Bazin, Truffaut, and Henri Langlois, while the fourth brings together nine unpublished articles. Among the latter is a valuable collection of entries from a diary Rivette maintained between 1955 and 1961—a series of short, Bresson-like maxims, theoretical pilots and notes-to-self. The book ends with an insightful interview between Rivette and Hélène Frappat on the question of what makes an object of art worth critical consideration. No explanation is offered as to why the discussion on montage (published without the accompanying photograms or its original four-column format) merited selection over any of Rivette’s other roundtables at Cahiers or why the Hélène Frappat interview is more befitting a concluding chapter than any other interview with the cineaste. Ce qui est, est.  

The mode of address is clearly different between the pieces from Cahiers and those from Arts. While the former’s specialized audience and acknowledged partisanship gives Rivette—and his young colleagues—license to passionate excesses, emphatic declarations and mystical aphorisms, the wide readership of Arts imparts discipline and argumentative clarity to the articles. Yet Rivette’s prose remains complex, constructed with long sentences and hefty theoretical arguments. Like the American critic Manny Farber, he feels no obligation to even summarily describe the plot, the cast or the circumstances of a film’s production. The focus is squarely on setting up the polemic or deriving general precepts about the seventh art.

In “Critic Going Everywhere,” Donald Phelps characterized Farber’s film criticism as multi-directional, gnawing away at the peripheries of what a film has to offer and “getting as far away as possible from any point, any centripetal force.” Rivette’s writing reaches outward too, frequently spiraling away from the film at hand to arrive at a provisional theory of all cinema—a theory that is always in the making, redefined and refined with every new encounter with the screen. Thus, a commentary on Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux (1947) serves as a launchpad for a meditation of the tension between reality and cinema. An evaluation of Alexandre Astruc’s Les mauvaises rencontres (1955) becomes a demonstration of the possible ways of talking about a debut work. A review of Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan (1957) provides an occasion for revaluating all post-war American cinema.

            Yet, Rivette’s is far from an academic approach that takes films as mere evidence for substantiating a theory. These centrifugal reflections emanating from a single film are nevertheless rooted in it, enabled by it. When he concludes, in a review of Angel Face (1953), “What is cinema but the play of the actor and the actress, of the hero and the décor, of the word and the face, of the hand and the object?”, Rivette is offering as much an appreciation of the specific pleasures of Preminger’s new film as a general manner of looking at the cinema. Despite the constant evolution of Rivette’s critical position, several concerns have a permanent presence in his writing, almost all of them rooted, incredibly enough, in the sparkling, lucid first essay he published at the age of 22, “Nous ne sommes plus innocents” (1950), in the Bulletin of the Latin Quarter Cine-club run by Maurice Schérer.


An abiding belief in realism—not the representational realism of the novel or the psychological realism of the qualité française, but the brute ontological realism of the film image—comes across as a cornerstone of Rivette’s thought as a critic and a filmmaker, a conviction that what is seen on screen derives its power from the camera’s mechanical transcription of what did take place in reality. In his first essay, he prescribes a goal for the filmmaker: “Simply inscribe on film the manifestations, the mode of life and being, the behaviour of the little individual cosmos; film coldly, in a documentary manner: the universe goes on; the camera reduced to the role of a witness, an eye.” And, in a review of Cocteau’s Orphée (1950): “The filmmaker must know to respect what he films, to submit himself to his object.” Such strong faith in the realist axiom perhaps goes some way in explaining the indifference, if not downright hostility, of the Young Turks of Cahiers to vast areas of experimental cinema engaged with more plastic-painterly qualities of the medium.

In this, and their unerring, uncritical celebration of Jean Renoir, Rivette’s earliest articles, like Godard’s, reveal a strong influence of André Bazin. Godard would work his way out of Bazin’s shadow by defending classical editing over long-shot filmmaking in pieces like “Defense et illustration du découpage classique” (1952) and “Montage, mon beau souci” (1954). Rivette, for his part, turns to technology for coming into his own. In “L'âge des metteurs en scène” (1954), an enthusiastic appraisal of the possibilities of CinemaScope, one can see him working with and against the ideas of his mentor. A characteristically Bazinian statement early in the essay—“One must be deaf not to be haunted by the clear, lively timbre of Lilian Gish’s voice.”—makes way for a grim pronouncement—“The search for depth of field is outmoded”—and a Greenbergian criterion: “Could great mise en scène, like great painting, be flat, revealing depth, not through gaps, but through notches?”


One more aspect that Rivette’s written work shares with Farber’s is its eye for the human element of films. The physical presence of an actor, the concrete nature of his/her gestures and movement are, for Rivette, the primordial, structuring components of cinematic aesthetic. In his first essay, he compares the inescapably specific quality of the film image, its uniqueness of time and space, with the universal quality of literary production: “a shot always belongs to the realm of the accidental, to a unique and unrepeatable success; a sentence can be rewritten at will.” The following piece on Renoir’s The Southerner (1945) furthers the thought: “It’s once again proven that the word ‘script’ has no meaning and that there is neither now or ever a ‘script’: a film is people who walk, kiss, drink and bump their heads.”

An even more formidable but unpublished article from the same year, “The Act and the Actor,” made available in Textes Critiques, broaches the question of film actors. After some provisional but compelling reflections on the viewer’s identification with the figures on screen, Rivette goes on to anoint the actor not only as the single most important ingredient of a film, but as its very purpose to exist. “Every film is a documentary on the actor,” he remarks. “Everything must be subjugated to the actor […] Everything is but a means to reach him, from the camera movements that search him to the décor that refers to him.” He continues: “The universe has no cinematic value but in its certain relation with man who confronts and enters it […] Far from subjugating him to some or various ‘components’ of the film, everything must be ordered according to him, from him who gives everything its raison d'être.” And finally, after establishing a monistic relation between the actor and his “acts”: “Movement, gesture, act: these are then the elements the filmmaker employs; he must harness the actor as his only means of expression.”


Rivette’s writing, right from “Nous ne sommes plus innocents,” militates against the pervasive idea of film as language. He traces this original sin in the universalization of D. W. Griffith’s specific idiom by later filmmakers: “The clumsy systematization of a language, of a syntax that Griffith must’ve confusedly elaborated to express himself and which was simply the superficial consequence of his particular universe put the worm into the fruit, which was to literally devitalize cinema in increasingly deaf and subtle forms.” This starkly resembles Luc Moullet’s arguments later in a lecture titled “On the Toxicity of Film Language” delivered in Pesaro in 1966: “The French who imitate American cinema are but appropriating the means conceived by Griffith and DeMille to express in the best possible way their personal universe, marked by Southern spirit and a puritanism that has nothing to do with the universe of the French directors.” While Moullet goes on to declare that “language is thus alienation,” Rivette simply characterizes cinema as a “language without law.” In other words, a means of information and expression with no inherent grammar.


Refusing to engage in the debate concerning cinema as a pure form—which also amounts to a refusal to engage with the other hot debate of post-war French culture between “form” and “content”—Rivette’s criticism, covertly but consistently, thinks of cinema as a non-sovereign if not parasitic form. Certainly, there is mise en scène and authorship, but “nothing opposes or even separates [theatre and cinema]: both pertain to the realization of an ‘active’ universe.” This leads Rivette to some startling aphorisms: “cinema is nothing but what filmmakers do,” “mise en scène is the script,”, “[cinema] exists only its becoming, it’s what we make of it.” And from an unpublished text from 1963: “Don’t box cinema into its (so-called) classical definition. Like tonality is not the entire history of music, American cinema (of mise en scène) is only an era.” This conception of cinema as being in continuum in other art forms goes hand in hand with Rivette’s increasing interest and education in modern painting and music: his reviews of the period allude to an atonal cinema and Jean Fautrier, Jean Dubuffet, and Anton Webern are constants points of reference. It also fits together with Cahiers’ theoretical turn under Rivette’s leadership in the same year. This period saw the magazine’s first interviews with figures truly outside of the domain of cinema—Roland Barthes, Pierre Boulez and Claude-Lévi Strauss. This opening up—and perhaps the eventual subjugation—of film discourse to other sociological disciplines has, as the essays in the book show, as much to do with Rivette’s theoretical proclivities as with the magazine’s general sensitivity to the spirit of the times.  


Throughout the book is an active if tentative search for a definition of what constitutes modernity in cinema. So, Journey to Italy (1954) makes “all films [grow] older by ten years” and Les mauvaises rencontres is “a young film, made by a youngster, for the young.” One gets a feeling that, for Rivette, modernity and youth were indissociable, just as it was for Daney who could see only a “continuation of Vichy” in the old faces still populating the post-war French screens. Elsewhere, in a review of I Confess (1953), Rivette bluntly announces that the secret of modern cinema is beyond the realm of criticism, being available only to filmmakers. But modernity is also, of course, related to conscience. A series of notes on the concept of modern cinema simply begins with the postulate, “Modern art is conscience.” The somewhat mystical passages that follow describe various forms this conscience could take: distance from the object, a rejection of classical efficiency, the preference for confession over fascination. It’s only decades later, in “The Secret and the Law,” the interview that concludes the book, that Rivette rejects the idea of innocence (in opposition to which a modern conscience could be set up) as fiction. Leaning on Kleist, he submits that the best an artist could do is “to see if there isn’t a small door at the back which would allow us to return to the original paradise.


Religious parlance is most obviously present in “Lettre sur Rossellini”: “The genius of Rossellini is possible only within Christianity […] Rossellini has the eye of a modern, but also the mind of one: he is the most modern of us all; it’s always Catholicism that is the most modern.” But it also makes its appearance in diverse other forms—“Sin,” “Soul,” “God”—across the essays: “The flesh is visited by the spirit” (on Under Capricorn [1949]); “More than any other art, cinema knows to approach the mystery of incarnation.” (Tale of a True Man [1948]); “The perfect ‘neo-realist’ actor… body in search of a soul.” (Il Bidone [1955]). While it could be seen simply as florid language laden with colorful metaphors, the historical and cultural climate they were written in demands scrutiny. As Antoine de Baecque examines in La cinéphilie: L’invention d’un regard, the Young Turks at Cahiers du cinéma and Arts were consciously positioning themselves against the Old Guard of the left, hobnobbing with extreme-right figures and assuming conventional, right-wing stances. In a critical context where Truffaut could defend Nazi collaborators and Rohmer could write about cinema as the “expression of a superior race and civilization,” it’s hard to see any irony or innocence in Rivette’s lament that the contemporary public “believes neither in God nor the devil and snickers when one speaks of sin” or his proposition that cinema is at heart a Catholic form embodying the mystery of incarnation.

But the single most important object of Rivette’s critical quest is the relation between mise en scène and metaphysics—a question that features so regularly in the reviews and notes that it seems the critic was unsatisfactorily wrestling with it all through his life. A fetishization of the material aspect of cinema was always a part of post-war French cinephilia, but it was the young critics of the period writing in magazines like Cahiers who gave it intellectual and moral legitimacy by tying the purely material quality of mise en scène to metaphysics, to ethics, to specific ways of looking at the world. That is how Bazin defended the excesses of the young critics in an essay titled “How can one be Hitchcocko-Hawksian?” (1955). That is how tracking shots became a question of morality and vice versa. That is how, in “On Abjection” (1961), a single forward movement of the camera deemed a filmmaker morally contemptible.

Rivette invokes this metaphysics in many forms: as an idea of the world that comes into being just as the world is represented, a personal secret that reveals itself in its conflict with reality, a fidelity to the fundamental laws of the human body. Again and again, the filmmaking enterprise is defined as the unconscious disclosure of an invisible world, “a link between something exterior and something secret that an unexpected gesture unveils without explanation,” and the filmmaker as “the one who has the sentiment of a thing before filming it, who expresses this sentiment by varying his turn of phrase and whose sentiment is linked to a general philosophy (a metaphysics or at least a moral).” This line leads him to declare metaphysics as precisely that which escapes all human control: “Perhaps metaphysics is the arbitrary part of creation, which, surpassing the frameworks of human creation and everything capable of pinning it down, can only be the work of the hand of some god.” A filmmaker’s either got it or he hasn’t: la politique des auteurs as Jansenism.

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