Notebook is the North American home for Locarno Film Festival Artistic Director Carlo Chatrian's blog. Chatrian has been writing thoughtful blog entries in Italian on Locarno's website since he took over as Director in late 2012, and now you can find the English translations here on the
Notebook as they're published. The Locarno Film Festival will be taking place August 3 - 13.
Jacques Rivette in Locarno in 1991 when he received the Pardo d’onore. © Festival del film Locarno
1. Writing as a filmmaker
“The only true criticism of a film is another film,” wrote Jacques Rivette, commenting on Ingmar Bergman’s Sommarlek (Summer Interlude) in 1958. He was making his intentions quite clear, and indeed his colleagues of the time recall how he was the first to be sure he would be a filmmaker. So a film cannot be explained in words, but Rivette still tried to put into words his own adventures as a spectator. He remained an exception among his fellows film critics (Chabrol, Godard, Rohmer, Truffaut) in consistently refusing any systematic, edited republication of his writings, and yet the director had developed a unique, pungent and punctilious style. Writing means taking a position, lining up on one side or another, possibly even making mistakes. Writing means putting yourself not on an equal footing, but in a rapport of complicity, with the filmmakers you love. Hence the certainty of judgment and the complete disregard for the reasoning to back it up: the task is not to convince, but to convey the plain facts of feeling. Criticism can only be an act of love.
Writing as a filmmaker will involve firing off letters or taking up pen and paper to defend colleagues under attack. Writing criticism can mean helping out a favorite auteur. Which is why, together with his friend Truffaut, Rivette laid down the early rules for the interviews which would become a flagship feature of Les Cahiers du Cinéma, and for many other magazines. It is perhaps not remembered often enough that it was Rivette – although less inventive than Godard and less virulent than Truffaut – who made the first and best attempt to transpose the ideas of André Bazin into critical writings. In so doing, he opened the doors for generation upon generation of filmmaker-writers. Today, not just his famous article “On Abjection”, with its vituperation of the tracking shot in Kapò, but also his longer texts should be compulsory reading. We should go back to The Genius of Howard Hawks and his Letter on Rossellini. This is where Rivette is at his best. The writing is light-footed and free. In the purest spirit of a magazine designed to be an extension of a collective mindset focused around an idea, Rivette writes for friends with whom there is no need to use the language of logic. In these essays his style, codified from the outset in terms of a refined rhetoric inspired by the prose of Charles Péguy, reveals beneath a classical façade the broad smile that will be recognized by anyone who ever met the great director in person.
2. Discovering the value of modernity
More than any other filmmaker, Rivette placed the concept of modernity at the core of his idea of cinema. I can think of no better way of putting this than the description by Maurice Blanchot, in a chapter significantly entitled “Speaking Is Not Seeing”:
“The center allows finding and turning, but the center is not to be found. Research would be, perhaps, that rash seeking determined always to reach the center instead of being content to act in response to its point of reference.” (The Infinite Conversation, translated by Susan Hanson, University of Minnesota Press)
Jacques Rivette’s films have been compared to long walks. Detours. Investigations into a crime we didn’t even know existed. Explorations of a conspiracy whose purpose and members remain in the shadows. Games for which the rules are not stated at the outset, but made clear only as we go along. Endless rehearsals for a performance we will never see. Sketches for a work which, once finished, will be walled up so that no one will ever see it. Rivette is a filmmaker about the search, not the result. His films use the metaphors of game, conspiracy, theater, to assert the oblique nature of cinema, an art which lives by reflection. In the same way, his films are not there just to be watched, the viewer has to go with them, accompany them. From Paris nous appartient (Paris Belongs to Us, 1961) to 36 vues sur Pic Saint-Loup (Around a Small Mountain, 2009), for nearly fifty years Rivette took us out on trips across the roofs of Paris or around a mountain hard to tell apart from any other, reminding us that the journey makes the difference, not the destination. His films can be hard to find, since they were never massive box office hits. Nonetheless, each and every one of them made a huge impression on the cinephile community that was their director’s reference audience. They are films that are waiting to be found, because all of them are put forward with a question mark. What is Rivette’s new film about? Answering that question may be a thankless and inconclusive task – Rivette’s films speak to someone, rather than about something.
Similarly, his standpoint was never that of the filmmaker/auteur. In all his films he chose to credit himself as metteur en scène, precisely because he did not regard himself as the sole creator of the film. He was in it together with his scriptwriters, his cast, his audience. Those three concentric circles were the foundation. As Blanchot admirably put it, Rivette allotted to himself the part of “center of the circle”, the one which would allow the film and its “gang” of viewer-accomplices to turn, but which was not to be found. As a result, viewers find themselves in a situation of ceaseless searching: if they expect to enjoy the film as a visual spectacle, or to see a tour-de-force by a director-magician, their expectations will inevitably be frustrated. Rivette’s films are modern because they reject the concepts of spectacle and absolute authority. They are modern because they depict a world which no longer has a center. The stage has been replaced by a foreshortened view, or one from behind the scenes. Rivette’s films take their cue from the final achievements of great directors such as Lubitsch or Lang. They start out from the play on perspective between theater and reality in To Be or Not to Be, or from the ethical short circuit created by the considerations on the death penalty in Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. Rivette’s films are like the vision of the cosmos, post-Galileo: the earth has discovered it rotates around the sun, human thought must face the abyss of no longer being at the center of things. The cinema did enjoy an era in which it could perhaps represent the world directly, in which it could most certainly state the way things were; now it has to be content with being one subjective, or a collective subjective, view of the world. In the era of modernity, there are no “films on”, but if anything only “films around” and certainly “films with”.
3. The primacy of mise-en-scène
The cinema is an art of space. The art of placing bodies on set in a given space. The presence of those bodies and their movements introduce the variable of time, which in the director’s mind arrives only as and when the space itself has been defined by the perspective established by the camera position. If you can get hold of it, watch Claire Denis’s documentary Jacques Rivette - Le Veilleur: it exemplifies perfectly what I’m trying to express here.
Rivette appropriates the theatrical concept of mise-en-scène and uses it for his work, first as an analytical and then as a construction tool. In filmmaking, the term means giving a sense to a space which is not the geometrical one of the theater stage. Great directors like Hawks, Lang, Preminger and Renoir were all remarkable architects. They built vast imaginary structures whose load-bearing walls were the sightlines of desire. As with all buildings, a film’s structure, too, draws its aesthetic value from the shaping of those lines. As with all buildings, a film is also an attempt to establish order among the indistinct shapes of nature. A film is a building founded on the solidity and elegance of its structure, but also on its functionality. If Rivette’s films have a function, it must be to remind us that there exists an ethical responsibility which the cinema – like the other arts – cannot shirk. Mise-en-scène does not mean making something out of nothing, at the whim of invention, but showing respect for one’s raw material. Whether it be reality itself, a work of literature, an actor or a location, the raw material is the very foundation of the building that is the film. Like many modern architects, Rivette does not hide his foundations, nor clad his materials to hide their true nature. This is where his documentary side comes to the fore, showing how every film exposes its own making. The material has its own value, which must be transposed into filmic terms and not betrayed. Which is why Rivette, like all the great auteurs, rejected the subjective point-of-view shot that reduces the complexity of the canvas to a humdrum straight line. Mise-en-scène is diametrically opposed to the subjective view. It is the search for the best form with which to handle a space in such a way that it becomes a place, defined by lines, but still sufficiently open for a story to take place inside it. Conceived thus, the space provides the Cartesian Coordinates within which the characters and their trajectories can move and have their being.
Rivette’s work is therefore an achievement of great modernity. His films are mapped out within the textures of the city: from his experimental beginnings in Out 1 – a film which goes beyond the traditional concept of cinema to involve interaction with time as experienced by the viewer – Rivette found a wonderful balance between form and free digression, between structure and improvisation. Céline et Julie vont en bateau (Celine and Julie Go Boating) – a prize-winner at Locarno, where it was shown in the Piazza Grande in 1974 – is still, in my view, the finest example of a mise-en-scène open to the outside world, one which has left the theater behind but without forgetting the aesthetical and ethical rules that sustain it.