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Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Modern Cinema's Holy Grail

Photo courtesy Carlotta Films US
By Stephen Bowie

Jacques Rivette’s OUT 1: Noli me Tangere (1971) is so much a thing of legend that longtime cinephiles recall its infrequent screenings like concerts: Le Havre in ’71, Rotterdam in ’89, New York City (Queens, though!) in ’05. Next month, BAMcinématek revives OUT 1, all 775 minutes of it, via the world premiere of a new digital restoration. Its eight parts will screen several times, in pairs (for a more movie-sized experience) and also as a two-day marathon (for the binge-watchers).

Though Rivette’s final edit split the film into eight discrete segments, the director found its form as he went, printing more than 30 hours of footage during a six-week shoot. As its size became apparent, Rivette considered showing OUT 1 as a movie serial (the black-and-white recaps that open each section are a holdover of this idea) or a mini-series for French television (which rejected it). Set in modern-day Paris, the film follows the work of two separate theatrical companies, then extends its focus to a pair of mysterious street people—a harmonica-tooting deaf-mute (Jean-Pierre Léaud) and a beautiful petty thief (Juliet Berto)—who separately stumble upon a murky political conspiracy. Eventually, the two strands cohere.

Inspired by the structure of the 19th-century novel, Rivette took some elements from Balzac’s History of the Thirteen, but (much like his contemporaries, François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, in their early films) he was less interested in creating a traditional story of suspense than in taking one apart to see how it worked. Working from an outline rather than a full script, Rivette encouraged his cast—including French stars Michel Lonsdale and Bulle Ogier—to improvise, and left in moments where they grew befuddled. He wanted the audience to see them as “actors more than characters”—one of many ways in which OUT 1 fundamentally resists becoming a Hitchcockian nail-biter of twists and resolutions.

Photo courtesy Carlotta Films US

Rivette styled OUT 1 to resemble a documentary in which “fiction gradually proliferates.” In practice, that means the acting exercises that dominate the early hours of OUT 1 function as something of an endurance test. (Shooting on 16-millimeter, Rivette was able to present one of these scenes—more hippie-era encounter sessions than rehearsals—in a single 45-minute take.) But OUT 1’s duration, once one settles into its rhythm, proves a powerful tool for reconfiguring the expectations of the suspense genre. Revelations that would be throwaways in a standard-length film—like the fact about Léaud’s character, disclosed several hours in, that undoes almost every previous assumption about him—have a momentous impact when Rivette drops them as bombshells amid the minutiae of acting technique. A tangible clue, a rare outburst of violence, prompt a reaction of “wait, did that really just happen?” because Rivette embeds them so deliciously within the quotidian. OUT 1 is less of a mystery than a movie about what it would feel like if you suddenly observed a Hitchcock plot unraveling within your own life.

Rivette was the late bloomer of the French New Wave; during the decade in which Truffaut and Godard achieved fame and commercial success, Rivette completed only three features (at least two of them masterpieces, granted, but neglected ones). He would achieve major international attention only with his next film, 1974’s trippy Celine and Julie Go Boating. Implicitly, OUT 1 is about the end of a New Wave that left him behind, and also about the uncertain aftermath of the failed leftist uprising of May 1968—what, if anything, comes next? Ultimately the question the film contemplates is not so much the nature of the conspiracy, but whether it even matters.

In the most straightforward interpretation, OUT 1’s mysterious 13 are former radicals, now hiding in plain sight and languishing without purpose. That’s not really a spoiler, as Rivette fills the margins of OUT 1 with riddles and non sequiturs, leaving the door open for any number of contradictory interpretations—symbolic, paranoid, even extraterrestrial. (In one scene two of the conspirators suddenly start speaking in tongues—or perhaps it’s a surveilled recording, censored by some unseen Dr. Mabuse figure.) The pivotal occurrence at the climax is an outburst of laughter—a plot-negating moment of catharsis not only for a major character, but for the winded viewer at the end of the OUT 1 marathon. It is, perhaps, the most gripping shaggy dog story ever told.

BAMcinématek presents OUT 1 in its entirety November 4—19.

Stephen Bowie writes about television and film for The A.V. Club and his website,

Reprinted from Oct 2015 BAMbill.

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic, tantalising article. We're also screening this in London, over two days on Nov 28-29: