Thursday, December 07, 2006

L'Amour fou

The screenings in the Museum of the Moving Image series "The Complete Jacques Rivette" (something of a misnomer: there will be no complete versions of 'Jean Renoir, le patron,' 'L'Amour par terre,' 'Jeanne la pucelle,' and 'Va savoir') mark the end of a cinephile-era. The most legendary of Rivette's films — 'L'Amour fou,' 'Out 1,' 'Out 1: Spectre,' and 'Merry-Go-Round' — will have been screened in New York at long last, and in good prints at that. So what's left for me now, as movie-mad groundling scouring the augurs of his heroes? Pretty much nothing, beyond a most-complete-version of Feuillade's 'Tih Minh,' and Godard's 'Six fois deux' and 'France/tour/détour/deux/enfants,' which I'm much more likely to see on a DVD before any kind of public screening hits town. With all the aforementioned films almost certainly taking their residence in my nervous system someday — a feeling probably akin to that of the dead in the next world finally getting a chance to be reunited with the deep souls they knew on earth following THEIR respective, and long-expected, expirations — I'll have "seen it all," all of my own personal "cinephilic holy grails" in any case, as Dennis Lim, or someone, has coined. And speaking of coin, the DVD releases are impending, in due time, in due time... And the screening room at Moving Image is already one step further from the cacophonous, bewildered spaces of Anthology, where 'Spectre' came beamed like an artifact in all its pinkness and pops, true archaeology... And yet, something comparable to my excitement for this weekend's screening of 'Out 1' has already arrived with yesterday's release of Lynch's 'INLAND EMPIRE,' which I'll see for a first time next week... — The cinema that moves me most deeply contains the pain and the glory of the Crucifixion. In its form and vision of a world it scars me and turns my gaze upon my own past and future.

Such is the case with Jacques Rivette's 250-minute 'L'Amour fou' ('Mad Love', 1968), which I am able at last to assert as one of The Great Films. The time in my life when I needed this film and both 'Out 1' and 'Céline and Julie Go Boating' most, during a period of crisis, has passed, but the promises made by "the literature" (Rosenbaum, Hughes, Martin, Frappat) have all held true. Much of what I "imagined" them to be, great and secret shows, happened to conform to the actuality of the films, all present there in their images, intimations, forms, ideas — in their aesthetics and in their experiential principles — so either I had a few manic flashes of prophecy or Rivette is the filmmaker who has turned out to be as weirdly in touch with the disposition of me, one spectator, as he has proven to be with his actors on- and off-set. 'L'Amour fou,' 'Out 1: Spectre,' and 'Céline and Julie Go Boating' will always remain mysterious, profound enclosures of self so long as I live, even if they are no longer, strictly speaking, wholly "imagined" films. (Still, there will always remain that one bout inaccessible: Léaud's on-screen breakdown at the end of the work-print of 'Out 1,' although maybe this is the form it's best that prized, diabolical piece of movie assumes.) However, until 'L'Amour fou' becomes available to anyone who wants to see it, and at any time, I'll share some description, clarification, reflection, of a moment, which is to say four hours, in time:

-The print. Beautiful. And the subtitles were good. I think everyone said a silent prayer that the opening '60s-era logo for New Yorker Films implicitly telegraphed: "...who no longer hold the rights for video versions of the film."

-Aspect ratio. The film was screened in 1.66:1, and the compositions looked dead-on. In her book 'Jacques Rivette, secret compris,' Hélène Frappat lists the screen format as 1.85:1, so... I don't know? Hopefully any digital release will take a 1.66 frame, rather than a 1.85, is all I'm saying.

-The opening credits. The first appearance of Rivette's signature opening-credits "design template," which is to say all titles/names/words are announced in a white, Janson-esque font on top of black. The percussion on the soundtrack foreshadows the opening of the long version of 'Out 1,' wherein the body exercises metamorphose into (gradually make themselves known as) dance.

-35mm and 16mm. When I was younger and had read about the film, I had either misread descriptions of the way in which the varying film-stocks interacted within Rivette's film, or I had read descriptions which were not written clearly enough for the "uninitiated" to understand. My confusion took the following route: The film switches between 35mm and 16mm footage? Does this mean two projectors are needed to screen the film? Does this mean it's in the lineage of the same materialist processes that make Godard's own Un film comme les autres so reviled by audiences? It was only later that I realized — and yes, seeing the film confirmed this — that the 16mm footage has been blown up to 35mm, and is incorporated into the montage. The film, then, is, as Frappat succinctly describes: "35mm." Also note that the film, and all its footage-as-shot, is black-and-white. (It also contains some of the most gorgeous cinematography of the 1960s; I'm thinking particularly of the close-up on Bulle Ogier's face while she reclines in the bathtub.)

-What one might talk about when one "talks about 'L'Amour fou'." First it might do to sketch out the premise: Jean-Pierre Kalfon is directing, rehearsing, a stage-performance of Jean Racine's 'Andromaque' with a group of young and beautiful actors (which includes that freckle-shrapneled john from Godard's '2 or 3 Things I Know About Her'). His wife (although the fact that they're not just a "couple," but married, isn't made explicit until around the 2h30m or 3h mark), played by Bulle Ogier (who, if I might interject another parenthesis, has never looked more beautiful than in this film in which her hair is cut in simple bangs, her costume is unadorned, and her eyes are so fetchingly mascara'd), descends from the stage during the opening rehearsal and leaves for home; Kalfon's direction to his wife, who has been cast in a primary role, fails to penetrate. Effectively having left the production for good, Ogier thereby assumes the role of homemaker and paranoid idler throughout the duration of the film. 'L'Amour fou' is thus the document of Ogier's and Kalfon's relationship discord inside their apartment (not "marital" discord — whatever legalities are involved between the two, their relationship is something beyond the traditional assumptions inherent to the term), set against, and existing within a fluctuating state of exchange with, the tumultuous rehearsals inside the barren theater — which are being filmed the entire time by a crew headed by André S. Labarthe.

Bon. This is where things get complicated, and interesting. As such, I'll attempt to be as clear as possible with, however, no guarantees of success. — In 'L'Amour fou' and 'Out 1: Spectre,' Rivette posits freedom and liberation, but the overriding frameworks represent absolute Control. Which in turn represents the structure, the entity, that most terrifies his characters, who flinch at shadows and break down in frustration. The montage of 'Out 1: Spectre' is punctuated by black-and-white still images — photographs, if you will — of the film's characters in conversation, in solitary motion, etc. The images often do not correspond to any scenes, situations, present within 'Spectre' itself; and these still images also "predict" situations that take place later in 'Spectre' while seeming not to originate from any shot that exists within 'Spectre.' The appearance onscreen of each still — accompanied by a loud electronic hum, and occurring at times seemingly key, at other times seemingly at "random," at their "own," in varying rhythm — arrives like an apparition that foretells fates and doom; that describes paths not taken, exhilarations and tragedies unknown. Yet these stills do not exhibit their own sentience nor (perhaps the opposite now, to arrive at the same ultimate idea) do they register an absolute blankness, a non-sentience. Who "shot" these stills, after all — when, and how? Rivette has described them as expulsions of sorts, hailing from some computer-brain outside the film-world, and indeed, they register as the prophecies of an extra-filmic intelligence, one which — most disturbingly, given the concerns of the "plot" and of the characters — has the ability to consider and enact permutations to the fiction; to variously control and concede to the fiction which it has nevertheless set in motion.

In 'L'Amour fou,' the extra-filmic intelligence or entity — which, let me reveal if it's not already clear, is not just Jacques Rivette, but a subconscious within and around Jacques Rivette — sets about juxtaposing Rivette's own 35mm film footage, shot under his own direction, with the 16mm footage of the rehearsals shot by Labarthe, and thereby ostensibly "not under" Rivette's direction at the time of the shooting. To further complicate matters, Kalfon — in character, no less, as a Kalfon-not-Kalfon — is "really" directing these actors (whom Kalfon himself, the "real" person, has chosen): for the production of 'Andromaque' that they rehearse in 'L'Amour fou' is meant actually to be produced and performed in front of a general audience. To summarize: Rivette directs Kalfon, who in turn directs his rehearsals under his "own" auspices, which Labarthe-not-Labarthe (for he too is a character in the "diegesis" of Rivette's film) then captures on film, and which the 16mm announces stylistically as "documentary footage."

More profoundly than in perhaps any other film, 'L'Amour fou' provides a discourse (but, make no mistake, a discourse with a real story, this isn't mere cold "meta-text") on where the border exactly, or non-exactly, runs between fiction and reality in cinema, theater, and life. (More on this below.) In the shuffling of 35mm and 16mm footage, the film asks: "Who is filming the truer fiction?" "Can we see, either somewhere in the magnified grains of the 16mm image, or in its synchronized real-time cut-backs to the more expansive 35mm footage, the precise moment where the reality drops off and the fiction takes over, or vice-versa?" As a result, Rivette's fictional framework internalizes Labarthe's documentary framework, and the juxtaposition of the two stocks created in the editing process (where the entity exerts his influence!) subsumes even the 35mm footage shot by Rivette himself. A "super-story" thus results in which the documentary footage (like the revenant-stills of 'Out 1: Spectre') appears seemingly at the volition of the extra-intelligence, in dynamic rhythm and proportion (the latter the result of the duration of the footage used between each cut), and given the context of its positioning vis-à-vis the 35mm footage the very method of inserting the 16mm footage comes to mean different things at different times. (Particularly in the second half of the film, in which the couplings of footage stand in as metaphorical representations of the two very different and very similar people making up the Kalfon-Ogier duo; recall nuances of earlier conversations between couple and actors; throw Kalfon's direction into relief against his personal relationships with the actors and professional/personal relationship with Labarthe and his crew; provide a glimpse of where the various sexual affairs that take place between Kalfon and his actors begin and end; echo the "needs" expressed by Kalfon and Ogier "in character" during the razing of the apartment; and so on. As Jonathan Rosenbaum so often draws a connection between the concerns of both Rivette and Thomas Pynchon, I would contend that these footage-juxtapositions and their eventual proliferation of meaning beyond one's initial and naturally cursory sense that they "attempt to penetrate deeper into the reality of the rehearsals" underscore certain similarities with Pynchon's narrative aesthetic. Namely with regard to the way in which Pynchon tends to advance his fiction in each novel; no matter how similar the "trajectories" of his books, the reasons why his narratives progress the way they do changes from 'V.' to 'Gravity's Rainbow' to 'Mason & Dixon' to 'Against the Day.') Because such a technique could so easily come off as arbitrarily, thoughtlessly employed meta-wank, or as the repetition of an idea whose one-time expression would have been times enough, the shifting, constant renewal of "meaning" becomes the very validation of its existence — an assertion, or implicit proposal, that parallels the dreams, hopes, and terror of 'L'Amour fou''s protagonists. A dialectic between formal elements, control and non-control, fiction and reality — a series of recursive nestings and escapes given hilarious (the nearly-sold-out audience at Moving Image howled with laughter and appropriately so!) and terrifying acknowledgement in the scene in which Bulle Ogier pulls apart one matryoshka doll after another after another after another, until she's left with a pebble-sized peasant. She later reconstitutes the shells into a towering Gaudí-esque cone on her nightstand, and like Rivette in his film makes (discovers?) something of mystery and wonder in all elements...

Yet perhaps the grand mystery of Rivette's cinema, one which supersedes and indeed envelops that of the liminalities of fiction and reality, is the relationship between creation and destruction, their own liminalities, and their vicinity to (and masked pantomimes as) the main gestures of life: love and self-fulfillment. Creation and destruction are after all the base elements of existence: the beginning and the end, generation and degeneration, alpha and omega. How to organize oneself, how to find structure amid chaos, reverse (deflect, distract?) what Pynchon calls "entropy"? Through fiction, through play. The work of theater encapsulates and recreates the "play" of childhood abandoned in adulthood. It lends order to the chaos it allows, to the chaos it creates. Human beings come together and separate, make love and fall apart.

-The climax. That's why the destruction of the apartment by Kalfon and Ogier near the end is so amazingly moving, particularly in retrospect. It's a scene that really must be seen to be understood, and that being after hours of having watched during the rehearsals a type of "formalized" theater take shape contrary to its best, quasi-sentient efforts. I won't make an attempt to describe the apartment-"wreckage" other than to say it's the purest expression of manic elation in movies, and the melancholy that follows is of a desperation that knows not yet what it has effected, is the fear that does not know its incarnation harbors still worse.

I would also mention that this "destruction" scene does not possess the kind of emotional tenor I had been expecting from my readings of Jonathan Rosenbaum. (Although since, sorry, I don't like to know the plots of films before I see them, it's possible I missed something in a skim.) For anyone expecting a recreation of the most violent freak-out imaginable in the 1967 disintegration of Jean-Luc Godard's and Anna Karina's marriage, you will not discover this — but something else instead.

Note however, that earlier on, the blood is real.

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