The late, great Jacques Rivette’s long-unseen serial Out 1 (1971) begins in a state of febrile convulsion, a seizure or shared hallucination, a frenzied, excruciating, hypnotic baptism of fire that reveals Rivette’s many-headed monster entering into being. Indistinguishable in a mass and huddle of contradicting limbs, this theatre troupe of performers – enchanted, ever-improvising movers and shakers – then pack their bags, tidy up, and leave one Parisian rehearsal space for another. Never too far away from each other in this 20-arrondissement Venn-diagram, and never inseparable, the circumstances of individual characters are slowly knitted together, first those of a character played by Juliet Berto, then one by Jean-Pierre Léaud. Individual narratives become interdependent, and Out 1 becomes a multi-plot film. Just as two theatre troupes use various imaginative, improvisational means to adapt two of Aeschylus’s Greek tragedies, Berto and Léaud’s two outliers approach and endlessly orbit some central conspiracy or secret underground society. In keeping any masterplot or superstructure offscreen, like Henry James’s ‘baggy loose monster,’ the characters who propel Out 1 mid-chase and mid-caper, search through repetition, tedium and play for an omniscient, organising discourse in the wake of the death of the author.
Bundled and pre-packaged with an exhaustive index that Rivette would never, ever afford his viewer, Miguel Gomes’s many-layered mille-fois Arabian Nights we can then perhaps consider abundantly structured. In three looped volumes rather than a linear eight episodes, Arabian Nights enters and introduces its transient semi-fictionalised stories through Gomes himself, narrating—albeit swiftly handing-over to our next narrator Scheherazade—in a prologue of doubt, distress, and melancholy panic that works equally and doubly as epilogue. While over the course of its thirteen hours, the lengthy, longform Out 1 explicitly, experimentally induces a crisis between the post-structuralist theory of its era and the classic, vast Victorian novel, Arabian Nights similarly borrows from a pre-existing literary form to reconstruct and recount accounts of poverty in Portugal, the policy of austerity from “a government apparently devoid of social justice.” Like his previous feature Tabu, in which a handful of New Year days on the film’s iceberg-surface conceal the memory of many months elsewhere, Arabian Nights unfolds in two times and two tenses, where lush and bountiful mythology is incompatible with sober austerity. The framing device, Scheherazade’s endless spinning of fiction, is designed to be one of recursive supplementary—“the supplement supplements, it adds only to replace.” Night after night, the storyteller necessarily supplements their story, and in circular ruins, dreams of the desolate Portuguese are embedded within dreams by two storytellers: the enchanted Scheherazade and restless Gomes.
Day by day, the up-and-atom characters of Out 1—actants and reactants, an aggregate of bodies and egos, all in close proximity but varying degrees of intimacy—navigate and traverse the expanse and sandbox of Paris, diffusing to fill all available space and running time. Meeting on the streets, or talking between tables in the city’s characteristic café culture, some underlying infrastructure and pattern in the film’s wide cityscape-scope and urban plan eventually becomes apparent. When dealing simultaneously with several plots in a multi-plot narrative, and the ambiguous chain of cause-and-effect in Out 1, one versatile approach is to follow the circulation and travel of money. In a telling sequence, another tangent in a film wholly constituted by tangents, a theatre troupe, headed by Lili and Quentin, divide the heavily-plotted city into seven, and hit the streets in search of Renaud, thief and bandit, who has stolen their shared lottery winnings. At a loss, they focus their efforts, landing on some systematic approach to conduct their operation in an orderly way. Eventually, then, to track his movements they monitor his commute on one of the city’s concrete, underground, communication networks—the Paris Metro. For some other irrational reason, he’s hiding out with Frederique (Juliet Berto), a hardboiled conwoman Pink Panthering around Paris. She is a trickster contriving stories and inventing untruths to hustle cigarette money, her whole livelihood depending on her capacity to forge fictions. Even with her eventual tragic fate notwithstanding, it is Frederique that might most resemble a character in a socio-realist 19th-century Balzac or Victor Hugo novel: the down-on-their-luck orphan, the street urchin or destitute prostitute. Elsewhere in the opt-in, pay-it-forward scheme of hype and fiction in Out 1, where information corresponds with commerce, characters perform, self-fashion and assume disguises to gain power – notably our other outlier Colin (Jean-Pierre Léaud), first a deaf-mute beggar, later an investigative journalist for Paris Jour,conveniently “specialising in mysterious crimes.”
The Marxist dialectic that is freely, openly, and abstractly discussed in Out 1 we see as well in Arabian Nights. In the film’s beginning, its first frame, Gomes enters an shipyard where, though once prosperous in the 80s, opportunity has since declined. With a metaphor and parallel between one once-hive of activity and industry, and another (local honey production), the filmmaker introduces his initial idea of restlessness and dream—a poignant piece of dialogue delivered by a disgruntled citizen (“if you weren’t sleepy and wanted to work, there was always work”)—before the film outwardly moves on to its further frames and short semi-fictions. Its first, “The Men with Hard-Ons,” certainly sets the scene. Via the untoward analogue of rigid, inflexible erections, Arabian Nights opens in overview, a survey of Portugal’s busted, impotent economy amid European Debt Crisis, IMF and Troika that is both the specific and broader context to the film’s three volumes. From dream to dream, national affairs to municipal politics, the remainder of Arabian Nights discredits any idea of deficit in voluminously amounting to an ongoing local colloquy of characters and occupations.
Gomes doubles down on his tendency to dismantle his fabrication, to tear away the expected congruity of sound and image, producing instead gulfs and gaps, then jarring juxtapositions that force the audience to compare two different scenarios. Called to think of contradictory constitutive elements separately and simultaneously, what’s overlaid (excerpts of the written text in The Enchanted One), and when, and why, the viewer can choose to spot similarities or, if necessary, take an interpretive, subjective leap to invent them. In The Desolate One, a phone call between mother and daughter (in which a cake recipe is relayed) coincides with a crowd in a courtroom gathering, or combining like the listed ingredients. The voiceover is disembodied, the receiver disconnected. Gomes’s style and flair—this Final Cut Pro copy-and-paste montage, allowing sequences to run long or be cut short and elements overlap—is more apparent and obvious in the elegiac travelogue Tabu. Named for a documentary, but not a documentary, Tabu is a sometimes-silent film that seems to operate on these two levels. On the first, various objects—letters, image, music and song—pierce through and stand out from the second, a retrospective first-hand account, memories delivered in voiceover—a crocodile-tears performance of melancholy—intrepidly exploring memory and ethnography in would-be watercolor and impeccable, inky cinematography.
A split in the horizontal surface of Out 1 concerns the two plots and personas of Pauline (Bulle Ogier), a radical publisher and love interest of Colin’s who later reappears, bizarrely, importantly, as Emilie, wife of the blank, missing Igor. Like the bridge of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (or the reader-author of If upon a winter’s night a traveler...), Colin is Out 1’s messenger – a searching, circling, middling metaphysical detective, attempting to unify disparate elements into a meaningful whole. Instead, Colin is one centre of a text that’s more or less all tedious middle. No fate, and no destiny, all seems contingent on what can be deciphered in Colin’s very, very, very close-reading of coded, contextless paragraphs, quotations ripped from texts and randomly delivered to him. Pitying the supposed deaf-mute whose “poor grasp of reality is matched only by [his] poor spelling,” The Balzacien (an academic, played by a way-harsh Eric Rohmer), imparts some key information. First explaining in detail the grand scope of typical 19th century literature—Balzac’s Human Comedy being Out 1’s off-screen superstructure—he explains then the deus ex machina, an intervening plot device that ensures loose ends are tied, bringing about miraculously a conclusion, some resolution, or peace of mind. After already several hours of perpetual middle, this in fact appears a possibility when several of Out 1’s characters begin to assemble in one place, leaving the city in a foray to the shared seaside house: the Obade. Narrowing focus and substantially reducing scope and setting only creates claustrophobia, and we still do not escape these people’s solipsism—the very fact that characters, readers, are actively authoring a reality of their own making. Like the Jamesian house-of-fiction in Rivette’s more optimistic Celine and Julie Go Boating or the manor of Alain Resnais' Last Year in Marienbad (linguistically constructed as a maze of identical, deviating paths and mirrored corridors), the obade of Out 1 may represent the cramped confines and bounds of language itself. Its first tenant, Sarah, is a bonafide, professional author—previously having written a book on the missing center and conspiracy-member Pierre—who, complaining of writer’s block, states: “I’ve started 20 times, but I never get passed the middle.” Challenging tedium with play, connected by paranoia, characters banish boredom by participating in this constant improvisation and speculation. Colin’s position, always approaching the conspiracy and yet always outside of it, is neatly summarized in a dialogue we see him terminate with Beatrice, off on another frequency, playing his harmonica. Attempting to discuss Thomas’s work, he has described it as hieroglyphs, as birdsong:
the hidden meaning… what he’s trying to express behind the words, behind the gestures. The secondary meaning. It’s the language of birds… a language of rebuses, of hieroglyphs which enables one who is initiated, a companion, a sage, to address directly in a kind of universal language that speaks directly from one unconscious to another, [it] hides its meaning and never enables the uninitiated to grasp it, even if it appears right before their eyes.
After touching on txt-spk, smoke signals and communications elsewhere, Arabian Nights dedicates the majority of its final volume to the story of “The Inebriating Chorus of the Chaffinches,” about the transmission of songs from bird to bird, and generation to generation. Both returning to this almost ancient music and as well depicting the current reality of these men, all of whom are invested in this mythmaking ahead of the chaffinch-singing competition, the looped, recursive Arabian Nights announces its end and also its return. Like the heartrending renditions and covers of “Perfidia” that open of each volume, these new and newer ways to render and re-render the golden oldie (also, “Be My Baby” in Tabu), Gomes’s film reflects on its own act of adaptation, or not, its repetition or repetition-with-difference: the endless rewritings and representations possible in Scheherazade’s endless fictions. This permanent prospect of renewal in classic or archetypal structures (as in Levi-Strauss’s structural study of myth) is perhaps what is struggled with in Out 1, where characters in control of the multi-plot are unable to impose an order—a beginning, middle and end—on their fiction.
Adapting their Greek tragedies, characters enter the frame, limit or container in cathartic, cleansing exercises of improvisation. Planning to incorporate mention of later rewritings—Shelley, Goethe, Beckett and Carroll texts all scattered, strewn and overlapping—their adaptations of these Aeschylus plays eventually go unperformed, the film ending with a minor character, Marie, turning around to face a steady statue overhead, not a figure or fiction to be moulded but instead an already solid structure. What is performed in the film, however, are the variegated plots of co-incidence and sense-making, people’s plural solipsisms only inventing indirection and conspiracy. While an enigma or a center like Pierre goes unseen and unheard from in Out 1, all embedded stories and semi-fictions in Arabian Nights lead back to Miguel Gomes and to his prologue, the frame through which we enter but do not ever exactly exit. In borrowing his structure, Gomes, filmmaking, restlessly at work, delivers a conclusion that quite fittingly positions and puts himself in Scheherazade’s established tradition of storytelling: a homage that recreates as it celebrates.