“Rivette is arguably the greatest artist working in cinema today.”
– MK Raghavendra
Rivette seems to be the least discussed of the bande de cinq, and I would suspect the least often seen. He is described by Marc Chevrie as being “vaguely legendary but largely unknown.” His films are famously long and meandering, with plots that circle around and at times avoid narrative certainty. Championed by film critics Jonathan Rosenbaum and David Ehrenstein, and critical theorist Gilles Deleuze, he appears unapproachable at a glance.
His defenders often point out that he created the short film, Le Coup de Berger, that on some level initiated the Nouvelle Vague, and that his Paris Nous appartient was second only to Chabrol’s Le Beau Serge as the movement’s earliest feature film. This makes him historically interesting, but his greatness lies elsewhere.
Thematically, his films generally concern mysteries (and sometimes magic as well). At times these mysteries are personal secrets, as in La Belle noiseuse, La Histoire de Marie et Julien, or La bande des quatre; at times they are wider-reaching, as in Céline et Julie vont en bateau or Merry-Go-Round; and sometimes they stretch beyond the characters’ comprehension entirely, as in Paris Nous appartient. To unravel these secrets, the characters engage in repetitions. They place new individuals into the positions held by another in the past and then reenact their conflicts. Sometimes they reenact the mysteries of others without being aware of doing so. And they famously enact their dramas in other venues, such as the stage.
The only thing unapproachable about Rivette’s films are their plots, and that only at times. His characters are among the most human in cinema. Their stories are not predetermined, but created through the filming process, between director and actors (to the point that Juliet Berto, Bulle Ogier, Dominique Labourier, and Marie-France Pisier received co-writing credit for Céline et Julie vont en bateau). The greatness of Rivette’s cinema for me lies in its use of dialogic filmmaking, in which the characters move through the world driven by their own motivations, and not through the control of a director or writer. He trusts his actors to create the reality of the world around them, and they produce a remarkably unique cinema.
Rivette in an interview with Jean-Marc Lalanne and Jean-Baptiste Morain:
“I detest the formulation ‘a film by.’ A film is always at least fifteen people. I don’t like réalisation very much either, which seems to me very portentous, maybe because its root is ‘reality.’ Mise en scène is a rapport with the actors, and the communal work is set with the first shot. What’s important for me in a film is that it be alive, that it be imbued with presence, which is basically the same thing. And that this presence, inscribed within the film, possesses a form of magic. There’s something profoundly mysterious in this. It’s an alchemy that one procures, or does not. Early in the shoot, anything’s still possible, but once you’ve made two or three steps, already you have to follow the course that the film has taken. But that’s what’s interesting. It’s a collective work, but one wherein there’s a secret, too. For that matter, the actor has his secrets as well — of which the director is the spectator.”
Full interview here.
“For [Ornette] Coleman as for Rivette, the thematic material is kept to a minimum and mainly used as an expedient — a launching pad to propel each solo player into a “statement” of his own that elicits responses from the others. Apart from the brief ensemble passages written by Coleman, there is no composer behind Free Jazz, hence no composition; the primary role of Coleman as leader is to assemble players and establish a point of departure for their improvising.
“Rivette’s role in Spectre is similar, with the crucial difference that he edits and rearranges the material afterward, assembling shots as well as players. And the assembly is one that works against the notion of continuity: sustained meaning, the province of an auteur, is deliberately withheld — from the audience as well as the actors.”
–Jonathan Rosenbaum. “Work and Play in the House of Jacques Rivette,” in Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995, p. 142-52.
Some of Rivette’s actresses:Juliet Berto (Out 1, Céline et Julie vont en bateau, Duelle)
“Without any doubt, the most constant privilege of the masters is that of seeing everything, including the most simple mistakes, turn out to their advantage rather than diminishing their stature.”
–Jacques Rivette. “On Imagination,” in Cahiers du cinema 27 (October 1953): p. 59-60.
Some articles and links:
A page dedicated to Jacques Rivette with articles and interviews.
Senses of Cinema article by Saul Austerlitz
Rivette’s page at They Shoot Pictures Don’t They
A book review by Daniel Fairfax that gives good contextual information
Other lists of Rivette’s films: