Monday, December 7, 2009

Jacques Rivette's Histoire de Marie et Julien

All of Jacques Rivette's films are built upon a love of the classical cinema, in particular the films of the classical Hollywood cinema, which he spent the better part of the 1950s watching at the Cinémathèque Française in Paris. In at least one case - his unusual 1966 film with Anna Karina, La religieuse - he built upon that love in the most direct of ways, making what was essentially a classical film, a mode he returned to recently in the ravishing The Duchess of Langeais (2007). In most of his work, though, his tribute to classical narrative is not by way of imitation, but through a trickier departure into self-reflexivity and demanding experiments with film duration. In other words, Rivette sees the classical cinema, and a critical reflection on the classical cinema, as a short cut to modernism. This is no surprise: as a critic for Cahiers du cinéma in the 1950s, Rivette spoke of favorite Hollywood auteurs (in particular Nicholas Ray and Otto Preminger) as the most modern, even revolutionary, of directors. Rereading his criticism again, it becomes apparent that they were modern to him (and for his other fellow Cahiers writers, the future directors of the French New Wave) because his love for their films never took the form of settled reverence; instead, his writing carried a present-tense sense that these Hollywood movies had the visual power to take him just about anywhere, despite the fact that most of them insisted on the kind of invisible style and narrative closure his later films would eschew.

His critical appreciation for Hollywood, while full of interesting insights, in fact only becomes concrete in his films. What Rivette urges us to appreciate is how the seemingly placid classical narrative cinema becomes phenomenally and breathtakingly alive in the right hands. For Rivette, in the eyes of the viewer trained to look beyond the film image as a mere vehicle for narrative information, classical auteurs could be seen as creators of movies that might spin into a number of different tantalizing directions all at once, even as their films exuded all the qualities of finalized aesthetic objects, proceeding as they do in the most effortlessly economical and stylishly "invisible" of ways.

Jonathan Rosenbaum perhaps said it best, in an important essay on Celine and Julie Go Boating's relationship to Hawks's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: " of the more pleasing aspects of Celine et Julie is the way that it clarifies and helps to redefine much of the cinema that inspired it...Seeing [Gentlemen Prefer Blondes] again after Celine et Julie reveals how even the garish cartoon-like simplicity of one of Hawks's more bloated efforts can accommodate a formal play of exchanges between the leading ladies that is far from simple ... Celine et Julie, by exploring some of the same parameters in a quite different context, illuminates the potential richness of such a film behind its various commercial disguises, throwing up a rich and ravishing jewel box of possibilities."
And as much as I love Celine, for me, the most "rich and ravishing" - and indeed the darkest - "jewel box of possibilities" Rivette has yet to give us is 2003's exquisite ghost story, Histoire de Marie et Julien (unlike the more recent Duchess, which was given good U.S. distribution by IFC, this film was never given a theatrical release in the U.S., so I'm partial to the French title).

It begins with a dream: a man named Julien (Jerzy Radziwilowicz) is resting on a bench, gazing at passers-by, with the camera panning left and right, following and then leaving behind several random people, as if to suggest the possibility, at this early point in the film, of multiple potential narratives. Then we finally fix our gaze - of course - on Marie (Emmanuelle Béart), a woman Julien encountered a year before. Then, Julien wakes up - a dream, perhaps? - but shortly thereafter encounters her again, setting into motion a tortured romance that will give shape to the rest of the film.

In both sequences, a quotidian occurrence (running into an old friend in the street) is marked by two intensely melodramatic gestures: in the "dream sequence," right before Julien wakes up, Marie pulls out a knife, as if to threaten the man who, later in the film, will become her lover. At the end of their second meeting, which takes place in front of a busy street, Julien narrowly prevents Marie from walking into oncoming traffic. What's curious is that, in both instances, the melodramatic gesture is drained of its emotion, and is presented as just another aleatory aspect of the story world, a pattern that begins to characterize many such moments throughout Marie et Julien.

Already in these first two sequences, all of Rivette's meta-themes are cropping up: the tentative boundary between art and life, dream and reality, fiction and fact. And like other Rivette characters, Marie and Julien - who enact the aforementioned melodramatic gestures as if they were as simple as getting up in the morning or pouring a cup of coffee - soon come to an awareness that they are living in a work of fiction, and that these gestures are, in a sense, demanded of them because of that very fact. On a literal level, the film will become largely about their re-acquaintance with one another after a year apart; but it is also about the way in which Julien is slowly immersed in the mystery of Marie's life, a framework that lets Rivette parallel Julien's romance with Marie with the viewer's own erotic attachment to the pleasure of narrative (surely we're fascinated by this film not only because Marie is a fascinating and rich character, but because Beart is playing her).  Rivette's film is structured in four parts with four separate intertitles - "Julien," "Julien et Marie," "Marie et Julien" and, finally, "Marie" - and the position (or absence) of the character's name in each title suggests the degree of agency the character has in shaping each section. (Michael J. Anderson, in a perceptive essay on the film, has suggested that Marie is more aware of her status as a fictional character than Julien; I think this is mostly true, although as Julien loses his control over the shaping of narrative events by the end of the film, I'd argue Julien begins to match her awareness. It's an intriguing reflection of the power of women in Rivette's work, though, that the men only reach this awareness once their agency is lost).

Julien, for example, attempts to control the shape of the narrative through a bizarre blackmailing subplot involving a woman known only as Madame X (Anne Brochet). As the film proceeds, though, Julien's maneuvering is revealed to be part of nothing more than what Hitchcock used to call a MacGuffin, a narrative thread or motif that diverts us from what the story is really about. In this case, what the film is really about is Marie's (and Beart's) power to control the narrative through the power of her (erotic) presence, which is even more powerful here than it was in the director's earlier La belle noiseuse. It's telling, then, that the film's key shifts in narrative agency occur in some of the frankest sex scenes Rivette, or any other French New Wave director, has filmed. These scenes that are nevertheless filtered through Rivette's sensitive attention to mise-en-scene: Marie is on the bottom in the first sex sequence, as if to indicate Julien's narrative power over her; then, a switching of these roles in the next sex scene, with Julien at the power as Marie begins to command direction of the story. 

We've been down this road before, for past Rivette characters have become strangely aware of their status as fictional creations, and he has routinely given us sequences in which we see characters learning how to take advantage of this fact, transporting themselves from one fictional realm to another. Both Celine and Julie Go Boating and Va Savoir, for instance - two of Rivette's most joyously alive films - contain ostensibly clear markers of transition as the characters journey into a world of fantasy. In Celine, it's the magic candy that ports the titular characters into a world of fiction; in Va Savoir, a film set around the production of a stage play, it's the liminal spaces between stage and life - staircases, hallways, dressing rooms - that serve as the tissue connecting the theater to the stage of the actors' everyday lives. Of course, the ultimate point of these markers is their dissolution, since for Rivette what's most interesting is showing how his characters learn to derive pleasure from their status as fictional beings. But in Marie et Julien this principle becomes even more rigorous, because Rivette has done away entirely with those transitory scenes familiar from the earlier films. Here, there is no magic candy, and neither Marie and Julien are of the theater. Instead, Rivette makes his transitions invisible, using nothing more than cutting to suggest our (and the characters') transport from fiction to fact, from dream to reality, and back again.

In this way, Rivette, now well into his sixth decade of making movies, has made his most profound tribute to the "invisible" storytelling of the classical cinema. By refusing to make the mechanism of his movie a clear part of the diegetic world, Rivette allows Marie and Julien to become like ghosts in the machine, invisibly moving the film from one point to the other, without the aid of magic candy or any other reflexive device.  (And I actually mean "ghosts" in a literal sense, too: this is a film about characters, living in environments stuffed with books and other markers of fiction, who are aware that they will die as soon as the reader puts the book down or the viewer shuts off the film; they can only enact their power so long as someone is there to view them, a fact that has the darkest of repercussions for Marie and Julien's romance).

Powerful ghosts in the machine are, of course, what classical cinema characters in fact always were. One of the reasons we don't often consciously notice the formal workings of the classical Hollywood style is because it's the actions of the characters that we're interested in; their actions hold the world of the classical film together. Marie et Julien is a story about two of those kinds of characters, told by a director who understands that kind of cinema better than anyone else; except this time the characters are aware of their power, and they use it to tell the story they want to tell.

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