Critic's Notebook: Jacques Rivette Brought Magic, Mischief to French New Wave

'Celine and Julie Go Boating' (1974)

Though he was overshadowed by more acclaimed contemporaries, Rivette's best work was experimental and uncompromising.

One of the most elusive and contrary members of that freakishly gifted cohort that rose up to remake cinema during the French New Wave, Jacques Rivette transformed Paris into a magical theater stage in his freewheeling films. Rivette, who has just passed away at the age of 87, never achieved the same global renown as contemporaries like François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, partly because he was intensely private, but also because his signature style came to be defined by long, slow, semi-improvised dramas peppered with literary homages. Even so, his work was fuelled by a restless experimentalism, while his film criticism had a savage wit that only a true lover of the art form could pull off. As Godard said of his friend and colleague, "it was as though he had a privileged access to cinematographic truth."

Rivette's feature debut, the bohemian ensemble piece Paris Belongs to Us (1961), was the first of many in his body of work to use theatrical rehearsals as both dramatic backdrop and metaphor. Between film and stage directing, he wrote for (and later edited) the influential film magazine Cahiers du Cinema alongside fellow embryonic New Wavers Godard, Truffaut, Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol. At Cahiers, he helped reshape modern film criticism, with his haughty Marxist rigor and love for golden-age Hollywood directors like John Ford, Howard Hawks and Nicholas Ray.

Social and political engagement was woven into Rivette's work, on screen and off. In 1966, his anti-religious drama The Nun — starring New Wave icon Anna Karina — scandalized the French Catholic church and was briefly banned by the government. In 1968, he led the campaigning protests that helped reinstate the recently sacked Cinematheque Francaise head Henri Langlois. In May, with Paris ablaze, Rivette and his fellow cultural revolutionaries succeeded in partially shutting down the Cannes Film Festival in solidarity with film industry workers fighting for more creative autonomy.

Some of the folklore around Rivette derives from films that very few people have even seen. His legendary 1971 epic Out 1 is a 13-hour multi-plot conspiracy thriller about a secret society operating in the shadowy corners of Paris. Largely improvised on 16mm film with a starry ensemble cast, it blends post-1968 political paranoia with allusions to Balzac and Lewis Carroll. Screenings are rare, which only amplifies the film's mystique.

Critical acclaim came late for Rivette, in 1974, with his fanciful feminist fable Celine and Julie Go Boating, a rambling three-hour fantasia full of literary echoes and post-modern structural tricks. Co-starring Julie Berto and Dominique Labourier, this surreal masterpiece helps explain why Rivette became a keen David Lynch fan in later life. He suffered a breakdown soon afterward, but recovered sufficiently to enjoy a run of more conventional, sporadically successful features in the 1980s and 1990s. The most notable of these was La Belle Noiseuse (1991), an erotically charged interrogation of the artistic process co-starring Emmanuelle Beart, Michel Piccoli and Jane Birkin. This Cannes prize-winner became Rivette's biggest commercial success, albeit in its heavily edited two-hour "Divertimento" version.

A lifelong cinemagoer, Rivette maintained a voracious appetite for the work of other directors, even those he hated. His judgments were sometimes harsh, but often surprisingly anti-canonical. In a 1998 interview, he excoriated James Cameron, Michael Haneke and even Stanley Kubrick: "Kubrick is a machine, a mutant, a Martian ... he has no human feelings whatsoever." And yet in the same article he praised the critically disdained Luc Besson and hailed Paul Verhoeven's gaudy trashfest Showgirls as  "one of the great American films of the last few years." 

Perhaps this was just mischievous Gallic humor. But maybe, after a bumpy career of boldly experimental twists and turns, Rivette had simply learned from experience that conventional wisdom is often wrong.

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