Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Jacques Rivette: Perplexed Under the Big Top (Around a Small Mountain)

Jane Birkin, Sergio Castellitto, Around a Small Mountain, Cinema Guild, 2010.

Fifty golden years later, the influence of the French New Wave is still apparent in everything from Woody Allen to David Fincher. The liberation of the constraints on the film form was heralded by a convergent group of exciting film critics turned fascinating auteurs in their own right. We lost Truffaut far too soon, and only recently kissed Rohmer and Chabrol goodbye, leaving us with perennial provocateur Godard and the most overlooked of the group, Jacques Rivette.

Rivette was the late bloomer, taking his sweet time to compile his film debut, Paris Belongs to Us (1962), which proved to be one of the most challenging pictures in the collective canon. Over the next 45 years, Rivette helmed twenty feature films and a handful of shorts. All of his works share common themes of time, dreams, love, and death. But above all, his works are self-reflective communications on the intimacy and implosive effects of cinema itself. 

From his riveting mid-50s essays on Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks and Nicholas Ray to his eyebrow raising yet dead-on insistence that Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls (1995) is one of the greatest films ever made, Rivette lives, breathes and dreams the cinema. More than any other common thread, The Nun (1966), L'Amour Fou (1968), Out 1 (1971), Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), Merry-Go-Round (1981), La Belle Noiseuse (1991), Joan the Maid (1994), Va Savoir (2001), and The Story of Marie and Julien (2003), aside from being some of the most fabulously kinetic films ever made, are about the sanctity of storytelling through the camera's eye.

In the ranks of the world's great octogenarian auteurs (along with Godard, Resnais, Varda, Oliveira, Bertolucci and Nagisa), Rivette continues rolling full speed ahead, as fresh as when he debuted, only wiser. Around a Small Mountain, his 20th feature as director, is a complex thing of strange, transfixing power. A wandering gentleman becomes caught up in the intrigues of a ragtag traveling circus, becoming smitten with one of the performers, a mysterious woman with a past.

The plotline is almost arbitrary as it takes a backseat to Rivette's transgressions of hypnotic mood, rhythm and tone, as the act and art of performance blurs the lines of reality. A strangely affecting piece, Mountain perplexes us as its performers are perplexed and perplexing. Rivette's vision remains a phantom of the cinemas, a magic trick under the big top.

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