Revisiting Rivette

AFS Essential Cinema rings in new year with Jacques Rivette

Jacques Rivette on the set of <i>The Duchess of Langeais</i>
Jacques Rivette on the set of The Duchess of Langeais

When you think of the filmmakers who came out of the French New Wave, you can be forgiven for omitting Jacques Rivette. While a founding member of that movement, Rivette remains largely unknown outside the realms of devoted cineastes and Francophiles. With running times that often near (or topple over) the three-hour mark and narratives that embrace experimentation and improvisation, he can be a tough nut to crack. But he never made anything less than the film he intended to make, and his influence can be seen in the works of Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, and a slew of other contemporary directors whose work is often at the vanguard of originality. In other words, he is due for a revisitation.

The Austin Film Society is doing its best to right this wrong with the latest Essential Cinema series. Guest curator Zachary Brailsford has picked iconic and unappreciated gems from Rivette's filmography, films that highlight Rivette's strength as a director who had a predilection for investigating the relationship between the director and actor and for exploring film as a system of signs rather than a narrative process.

First up is Rivette's final film – before he retired in 2009 – Around a Small Mountain. His shortest and most conventional film, the story concerns Kate (Jane Birkin) as she returns to the traveling circus her family owned after a mysterious tragedy. With a delicate whimsy, Rivette tells a sweet story of healing and redemption.

Perhaps his most notable film, 1974's Celine and Julie Go Boating is a playful riff on magic, Alice's Adventure in Wonderland, and the idea of spectatorship. Julie meets Celine after Celine drops a scarf running through a park, and down the rabbit hole they go in a surrealistic story about friendship, ghosts, magic memory candy, and cats (of course).

In 2001's Va Savoir, a woman returns to Paris after a self-imposed exile in Italy. She's back as part of a theatre troupe staging a Pirandello production, but she also has ulterior motives, as does her boyfriend, the play's director. As they try to keep their secrets intact, new relationships emerge and coincidental connections reveal the farcical nature of desire.

Based on a story by Honoré de Balzac, 2007's The Duchess of Langeais is a period piece set in the drawing rooms of early 19th century French high society. Having returned a war hero from a brutal campaign in Africa, Armand de Motriveau (Guillaume Depardieu) is introduced to the titular duchess, Antoinette. He immediately falls head over heels for her, but she keeps him at a distance. As they thrust and parry through ballrooms, Rivette, at his most novelistic, slowly ratchets up the tension until obsession, scandal, and a kidnapping seal both of their fates.

In the finale of the series, 1981's rarely seen Le Pont du Nord, Rivette returns to the freewheeling style of Celine and Julie, as again, two women meet and embark on an adventure, this time with sinister overtones. Marie and Baptiste (real-life mother and daughter Bulle and Pascale Ogier) happen upon a map that reconfigures Paris as a sprawling game board, an increasingly unnerving labyrinth in which the deeper they delve, the more conspiracies and danger they find. This is one of Rivette's most uncanny films and a fascinating examination of post-revolutionary Paris.

Rivette's films forever question the systems of thought that so many of us take for granted. Whereas Truffaut wore his sentimental heart on his sleeve, while Godard preoccupied himself with his Marxist manifestos, and Rohmer worked the same thematic soil over and over, Rivette explored new frontiers with every film, examining the theatricality of the medium and the significance it has on our culture.

Upside-Down and Inside-Out: Five Encounters With Jacques Rivette

Jan. 8: Around a Small Mountain

Jan. 15: Celine and Julie Go Boating

Jan. 22: Va Savoir

Jan. 29: The Duchess of Langeais

Feb. 5: Le Pont du Nord

All screenings at 7:30pm on Thursdays at the Marchesa Hall & Theatre.

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Jacques Rivette, Austin Film Society, Essential Cinema, Around a Small Mountain, Celine and Julie Go Boating, Va Savoir, The Duchess of Langeais, Le Pont du Nord, Zachary Brailsford

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