Va savoir

(Jacques Rivette, France, 2001)


Like every other part of culture, film culture is obsessed with the promise of youth. Most awards, and most publicity, are geared toward up-and-comers, the hot new things. In cinema, especially, there is the cult of the first time feature director, who must dazzle us all from the word go, like Quentin Tarantino or Baz Luhrmann.

I once heard a novel idea spoken at a Film Festival panel. Rather than give the obligatory high-profile prize to the latest 'promising young director', the Festival wanted to shun youth for a change and shine the spotlight on someone, no longer so young, who had not only fulfilled the promise of their earliest days, but had in fact surpassed it. Someone whose gift has become so dependable, so familiar to us over three or four decades, that we are in danger of taking it for granted.

Someone like, for example, Jacques Rivette. In the early 1960s, Rivette made one of the most important films of the freewheeling French New Wave movement, called Paris nous appartient (1960) – a film in which, as an opening title solemnly informs us, Paris belongs to no one. His career has been steady, if not exactly prolific, ever since. In Australia, film buffs really only know a few highlights of his career, like Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974) and La Belle noiseuse (1991). But every one of his movies unmistakeably bears his signature and develops his delicate obsessions – with theatre, with strange groups and conspiracies, with the city of Paris, with the magic of hidden objects and the poignancy of solitary quests for identity. Rivette's Va savoir, a gentle comedy of love and masquerade, is among his loveliest.

Camille (the luminous Jeanne Balibar) is an acclaimed actress, nervous about performing her latest Pirandello play in her home town – Paris doesn't belong to her, either. Her lover, Ugo (Sergio Castellitto), is her possessive director and co-star. And her ex-lover Pierre (Jacques Bonnaffé), a rather earnest philosophy professor, is lurking. This is only the beginning of a complicated web of intrigue that involves six characters who manoeuvre around each other with diverse agendas in mind.

Rivette is a director who likes to take his time – his longest film, Out 1 (1971), runs for twelve hours. Va savoir is a mere two and a half hours (although there is a longer, director-preferred cut that has since appeared, called Va Savoir +), but it has the same leisurely rhythm that he has long mastered. Rivette is also a master of space. This film presents a kind of dance where the forces of attraction and repulsion, suspicion and surrender, curiosity and disenchantment, constantly draw bodies together and pull them apart. In Rivette, the joy is in watching this understated but marvellous choreography of the staging of bodies in a charged, emotional space – the fulfilment of that very aesthetic of mise en scène which Rivette eulogised, as a critic, forty-seven years previously:

The physical separation of the characters, empty spaces distended by fear or desire ... seem to me to be ... the language of true filmmakers, and the sign of maturity and mastery ... If, as Bresson has said, the cinema is the art of connections, then the first are those of confrontations, looks, distances, and their variations.

And everything about Rivette's late work – the style, the plot construction, the wonderful acting – reaches toward the "intelligence, equilibrium, lucidity" which he admired so much in models like Mizoguchi and Murnau. (1)

Casual – or even learned – viewers of Rivette films often vaguely notice something strange that they cannot account for. It's simple: Rivette doesn't like to use a conventional musical score to redundantly underline character emotions or plot information, and whenever that standard prop is absent, the tone of a film becomes radically different. Rivette is something of a militant minimalist, but with a sure purpose – if he holds something back, it is so he will be able to use it, just once, in an entire movie. (Even in his sublime musical, Haut bas fragile [1995], he held back for the first 'real' song for a full hour!) It is in this way that the placing of music becomes a true artistic gesture in his work. The only music in Va savoir is in its very final moments. And when Jacques Rivette, forever young at the age of 74, chooses the Peggy Lee song "Senza Fina" ("No End") as the closing gesture of his film, it is truly one of the most beautiful moments I know in all cinema.

MORE Rivette: Lumière and Company, The Nun

© Adrian Martin April 2002


1. Jacques Rivette, "The Age of metteurs en scène", in Jim Hiller (ed), Cahiers du Cinéma – The 1950s: Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985), p. 278. (The piece originally appeared in Cahiers du cinéma no. 31, January 1954.)

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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