Between two worlds
Jacques Rivette and Gaspard, who plays Nevermore (click to enlarge)
Those who are unfamiliar with Rivette may not be so quick to go along for the ride. When it opened to favorable reviews in a limited but adequately-publicized release, Va Savoir (2001)—his most accessible, viewer-friendly work in years—the cultivated, upscale East Coast crowd I saw it with moaned an audible sigh of relief once the ending credits rolled and the houselights came on…and (most of) that picture was a romantic situation comedy! Marie and Julien isn’t entirely lacking in humor, though one wishes it had more because of that sly, impish wit Rivette let run free in Va Savoir and especially Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974). But he’s often been drawn to the mystical and supernatural, memory-haunted houses and romantics holding on to old ideals, or the trap of our facades we construct out of vanity; and dwells in scenarios which (temporarily) distrust love as an unsigned contract between fickle minds easily swayed by heat and passion.
Apt to employ the MacGuffin to bond otherwise disparate characters, Rivette and co-writers Pascal Bonitzer and Christine Laurent (his frequent collaborators over the years) have created a hazy blackmail scheme to involve Radziwilowicz’s Julien with the ethereal ‘Madame X’ (played by Anne Brochet) and her truly ghostly sister, Adrienne (Bettina Kee). In the meantime, Julien is haunted by prophetic dreams of Béart’s Marie, an uncertain figure from his past who’s returned to fall in love with him after a year’s absence.
As always, the enjoyment in Rivette comes from seeing between the lines and questioning those arbitrary props and images he’s so fond of using. Julien’s vocation, tinkering with the inner mechanisms of large, industrial clocks, provides the necessary metaphor for his control issues and self-imposed alienation, while his fear of loss and abandonment is made gradually apparent. Marie’s flighty demeanor, living out of suitcases (are they empty?) in rented furnished rooms, is his antithesis, a wraithlike figure beyond his possession.
Opposites attract in Rivette—the painter, his wife and the model in La Belle noiseuse (1991), the titular figures running through Celine and Julie…, the students and teacher in Gang of Four (1988)—and the love shared between Julien and Marie begins in their sexual longings and make-believe scenarios, to wander the periphery of Madame X and Adrienne, as Julien becomes simultaneously au fait and hopelessly bemused.
Whether this is “good” Rivette or not is inconsequential. As it appears to lack the motivational spirit of his best work, Marie and Julien is nonetheless a layered meditation that should repay through repeat viewings. Working once again with the underrated cinematographer William Lubtchansky (under a budget he places in the vicinity of “about three cents”), Rivette saunters along with his nouvelle vague compatriots Rohmer, Chabrol and Godard, each remaining true to their art and their radically different visions. Now in their seventies, they’ve been making pictures for over forty-five years, and represent a film culture and language—once so fresh and vital—that’s nearing extinction. That’s a warning signal for some of us, as my mind rarely comes alive at the cinema anymore. Except when in the presence of such a rare gift of dimension and substance and elegant romanticism as Marie and Julien.