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Fame and Blame

The Duchess of Langeais -- IFC

Summer Palace -- Palm

Who is Jacques Rivette? The question would stump many regular filmgoers, but for those who are intemperately close to film history, the name will chime. Born in 1928, Rivette was a leader of the postwar Nouvelle Vague and is still working. Alan Williams, in Republic of Images: A History of French Filmmaking, writes: "Rivette, by most reports, carried his filmmaking generation's cinephilia to its greatest extreme."

That cinephilia is what drove him early in the 1950s to write for Cahiers du cinema, certainly the most influential film magazine in the world at that time. (In 1964 I visited the Cahiers office in Paris, and Rivette graciously gave me a copy--by then scarce--of their special issue on the Nouvelle Vague.) But, like his fellows on the journal--Rohmer, Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol among them--his passion made its way into filmmaking. His total output is something over twenty-five pictures; and a glance at the list explains why, despite his eminence in the profession, he remains on the outskirts of general fame.

Williams cites one of Rivette's chief characteristics: he "is clearly obsessed by duration, by the cinema's capacity of lived time, the duree of Bergsonian theory." As I understand it, this theory holds that the division of time into seconds, minutes, hours, and so forth is inappropriate: time simply exists and endures. It is thus both fitting and otherwise to note that Rivette's fifth film, Out 1: Noli me tangere, runs almost thirteen hours. Properly speaking, time measurement is irrelevant to Rivettisme. (It was shown only once in is original version. It has since been replaced by a more compact version, only 255 minutes.)

My first Rivette was his second feature, La Religieuse, adapted from Diderot, which ran only 140 minutes but, I must admit, seemed longer. What was striking, however, was the director's view of cinema itself, which was more impressive than this particular work. Any picture made by Rivette, I felt and subsequently confirmed, is simply the latest instance of his belief that film is the reason for life. Recently I noted E.M. Cioran's belief that Bach justified the existence of the human race. For Rivette, film is the justification--simply the fact that a phenomenon exists that can complete, if not actually justify, mankind. This is not a thought that one can take away from many films.

Rivette's best-known picture--if that adjective is permissible--is Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), a species of fantasy often compared with Henry James, which again has enchantments despite and because of its length (192 minutes). But length, as an issue, eventually was turned on its head with La Belle Noiseuse (1991), which, like Out 1, is adapted from a Balzac story. It runs four hours and concentrates on a painter doing a portrait of a nude woman. What is evoked between these two and the painter's wife, plentifully erotic yet much more, is for me the fullest juncture of form and content in Rivette. He proved that point himself, somewhat oddly: the following year, he issued a two-hour version that was not nearly as engrossing.

Now we have the latest Rivette, once again adapted from Balzac. The Duchess of Langeais is as near as this director has ever come--initially, anyway--to a sense of compactness: 137 minutes. Aging has certainly not altered Rivette's belief in the syncretism of film and time, but perhaps age has suggested that he finish a bit sooner.

V.S. Pritchett says of Balzac's story that it is "a love affair conducted through the clever conversations about political and religious values." Yet violence erupts because, says Pritchett, "all the important characters of Balzac are driven by forces outside their self-knowledge." Rivette fastens on both themes, tracing the explosion from one to the other in his own semi- contemplative mode.

In 1823 a French general named Montriveau is in a Catholic church in Majorca when he hears one of the unseen nuns singing an old French song that he recognizes. He knows who the singer is. He gets special permission to speak to the nun, in the presence of the Mother Superior, where, after a short while, the nun confesses that this man was once her lover. The interview is concluded-- and the film flashes back.

Five years earlier the duchess of the title, whom we have first seen as a nun, is married (we never see the duke) but is very skillful at flirtation-- apparently one of the requisites for accomplished ladies of the time. She meets General Montriveau at a ball that is held every evening. In a cool yet tacitly glandular way he makes up his mind for conquest, and his maneuvers--their maneuvers, really-- occupy most of the film. Rivette quite clearly enjoys taking us through their Balzacian dalliances, which contrast, especially in pace, with our own ideas of maneuver. They do have period flavor and ingenuity, and take place in gorgeous rooms in which all the people are marvelously dressed (William Lubtchansky's camera savors everything). The very settings and costumes lend these sequences both wit and gravity. But Rivette simply relies on our interest as forthcoming, without trying to earn it in any conventional way.

Eventually, Montriveau's patience bursts--as, in a quite different manner, does the duchess's--and there comes a much-noted scene with a branding iron. Not long after, the film moves back to the Majorcan church and the inevitable finish.

Balzac, through Rivette in this case, is in his own way dealing with the same conflict that engaged Tolstoy in Anna Karenina. The two works cannot otherwise be compared, but they do both center on the abrasions between social protocol and human passion, and the cruelties that can result therefrom. Such drama depends greatly on the actors, and here Rivette is only partly successful. Jeanne Balibar has the person, the beauty, the deviousness, the vulnerability to portray the duchess completely. As the general, however, Guillaume Depardieu (son of Gerard) offers little more than his moderately impressive presence. There is little of patient fire in the man. In the lesser role of an older aristo, we see Michel Piccoli (who was the painter in La Belle Noiseuse), and we can wish that he had been young enough to play the general.

And yet Rivette, late in his life, has once again made a picture suffused with the joy of filmmaking. It belongs in his unique and valuable filmography and will confirm his place just on the edge of fame.

China--source of so many surprises today, not all of them pleasant--has also become a fount of fascinating film. This contrast between the art and the other actions of a country has become quite familiar, but confronted as we so often are with genuine talent in the art, it continues to evoke wonder.

The latest instance is Summer Palace by Lou Ye. The surprise is heightened here because of the political and sexual candor of the film, which prepares us for the news about Lou's troubles with his government. The fact that he managed to get his film to the Cannes Festival irritated Chinese officials, and Lou has been banned from filmmaking for five years. (Not his first censoring: a previous film got him a two-year ban. One other film has never been released.) We would immediately assume that what bothered officials is the fact that the story mentions Tiananmen Square; but very little is made of that event, and college students, on whom the film centers, then go off to military duty. The governmental objections seem to be other.

The screenplay, which Lou wrote with two colleagues, is, in an intriguing way, deceptive. It begins as the account of a young woman named Yu Hong, who, before she leaves her native city to become a university student in Beijing in 1987, celebrates sexually with a local youth. In Beijing, along with friendships and studies, she finds ample time for further sexual frays, more and more of which are concentrated on a young man named Zhou Wei. All of Yu's doings, horizontal and otherwise, are discussed in her diary, from which she gives us excerpts on the sound track throughout the film. This picture, we can think, is going to be a reasonably enlightening chronicle of a young woman's encounter with living and the questions about it that gnaw any intelligent person.

But the story soon ramifies. Other people, including Zhou and those with whom he becomes involved, begin to occupy the screen, and we see that Lou has used Yu, besides his specific interest in her, as a means of entry into a generation. Various couplings and uncouplings follow, different interests and different locales (some of the film takes place in Berlin, where a few of the Chinese have gone to study and work); along come a suicide and an abortion, re- meetings and re-partings. As the film moves through the years into our century, we see that Lou's basic interest is in this group of students as a whole, what they make of the outside world that has opened to them, plus the inevitable queries within themselves. Possibly it is this inquiry that bothered the government at least as much as the sex and the relatively brief reference to Tiananmen Square. (The film's title remains a mystery.)

Lou's filmic means of dealing with his subject is motion. In the vast majority of shots, the camera is dollying or the actors are busy within the frame. Lou has dramatized his theme--of youth and youthful pressures--with a texture of movement. He is greatly aided by the eye of his cinematographer, Qing Hua. (Consolation again for all of us in troubled times: cinematography is becoming globally fine.) Lei Hao is affecting and true as Yu Hong, and Xiaodong Guo has terse masculinity as Zhou Wei.

What will Lou Ye do for the next five years? His record shows that he will not be nicely tamed. Can't the People's Republic of China tolerate a talented filmmaker whose pictures aim at truth about the people of its republic, whom Lou quite clearly loves?

Stanley Kauffmann is The New Republic's film critic. This article originally ran in the February 27, 2008, issue of the magazine.