Sunday, February 3, 2008


From a literary work that can be read in about four hours, let's turn to a film that takes about four hours to view: Jacques Rivette's L'amour fou (1969) which the WHC screened a week ago. Watching the film is an interesting experience if only because anything you do for four hours at a stretch is bound to create a certain kind of self-awareness.

The film's naturalism is relentless, an almost documentary-like insistence on what "really" happens. This is particularly the case in the 16mm footage from a camera crew filming the rehearsals for a rather offhand, method-acted version of Racine's Andromaque. That idea alone is sufficiently daunting (at one point Sébastien, the play's director and the film's principle protagonist, muses that the actors are learning to speak the alexandrines as though they aren't alexandrines -- and it's true: the lines from the play rarely sound like Racine) to make the rehearsals somewhat interesting. Also, however it's managed by Rivette, the rehearsals feel like real rehearsals, not so much due to the acting of the actors in the play (who really aren't very good at being on stage), but because of Jean-Pierre Kalfon (Sébastien) who enacts so artlessly the role of director -- a director who, we feel, is only finding his footing by watching the rehearsals unfold. In fact, at various times he loses his footing -- the rehearsals limp along with no definitive readings or scenes taking place -- but Kalfon remains engaging because he seems so dedicated to an idea of performance that his cast is only groping toward.

Set against this process of possible discovery is Sébastien's loss of his wife Claire (Bulle Ogier) who is first engaged to play the part of Hermione. She quits the play and remains for a time as a kind of muse to her director husband, but when Marta, a former girlfriend, is contacted to play the role she has abdicated, the strain on the relationship of the couple becomes progressively more manifest.

What's particularly interesting is the way that this gradual dissolution of the couple plays itself out -- it begins to become dramatically more significant than the play towards the end of the first two hours, with Claire becoming somewhat amusingly flighty and moody (as for instance in her sudden effort to procure a certain kind of dog admired by her husband because its sad face reminds him of her), and with Sébastien attempting, in his sweetly diffident way, to work his charm on Marta. After the intermission, the stress of Claire's depression begins to take its toll on Sébastien -- without his knowing it, she impulsively contacts a former friend and has uninspired sex with him simply to be unfaithful to her husband. The tensions in their married life are presented with a kind of naked and deliberate absorption, but without any of the melodrama that most tales of marital strife wallow in. Rivette is able to register with amazing fidelity the simple, deliberate torture of two people living together when they've ceased to have any common ground -- in desire, affection, interests -- to reference together.

But the great triumph of the film is in the scenes in which Sébastien and Claire reunite -- Sébastien calls his assistant at the theater and says he'll be away for a few days, when instead he and Claire take to their bedroom and let themselves go in childlike abandonment to sex and high-spirited silliness -- drawing all over each other and the bedroom wallpaper, breaking through a door separating their bedroom and living-room, redecorating the latter as a kind of seraglio -- that lets us glimpse for the first time what the couple might have been like to begin with (when we first meet them the problem of the play and with Claire's decision to quit is already present).

What has emerged by the time we reach their orgy of togetherness is a sense of Sébastien having to grow by trying his ideas on the play, and of Claire trying to find a way to compete with his dedication to the rehearsals, or a way to replace his importance in her life. In other words, she seems a woman driven by a kind of gnawing resentment -- of the cast, of her husband's involvement, of his former girlfriend -- who places herself "on stage" within the couple's domestic space, providing cues and situations that Sébastien is expected to read and respond to. When he is unresponsive, she retaliates by going him one better till she seems nothing but a blank and silent mannequin in his presence. Then comes the revelation of joy and humor of the two together -- which ends with Claire's final withdrawal and, after her departure, Sébastien's inability to continue with the play. The drama of their lives -- "l'amour fou" between them is effectively portrayed, riveting for the most part, but only because the nuances are so close to unmannered, artless behavior (not performance) -- has superseded "l'amour fou" of Racine's grand tragedy, which never catches fire with the cast as they have found no way to translate its passionate rhetoric into effective performance.

The lesson seems to be that art is no consolation and that love -- its presence or its absence a state of being -- can only be lived, not acted.


Andrew Shields said...

I've seen a bunch of Rivette's movies, but only from the eighties and nineties. His Joan of Arc movie, Haut Bas Fragile, Secret Défense. Brilliant stuff!

Donald Brown said...

the only one I saw before this was "La Belle Noiseuse."

Andrew Shields said...

Get yourself some more of his stuff from the eighties and nineties, with Sandrine Bonnaire. Brilliant.