Screened Saturday, January 27 2006 on 35mm at National Gallery of Art in Washington DC
TSPDT Rank #958 IMDb
My first (and probably not my last) field trip to complete this project. I was skeptical that this film would play in New York again anytime soon after last December’s Museum of the Moving Image Rivette retrospective. Many, many things to say about this film, but first and foremost: it helps tremendously if one is familiar with Racine‘s play Andromaque (synospsis linked), which is the production being rehearsed by the director Sebastien (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) and his ensemble over the course of this film. The play is about a series of unrequited loves set into destructive motion. In the play, it is Orestes’ intrusion into the court of Pyrrhus that sets the downward spiral of the plot in motion. In the film, it is the presence of a documentary film camera observing the rehearsals of a play.
This incipient intrusion – one we take for granted in today’s age of “behind the scenes” production videos (which most often are anything but) – proves to be the catalyst for a cataclysmic unraveling of two parallel relationships in the film. The first one involves Sebastien and his actress-wife Claire (Bulle Ogier – I’d call this her greatest performance but that would unfairly dismiss so many others). Claire, distressed by the distracting presence of the documentary crew, walks out of the production, and her subsequent home stay leads her down a mad path of alienation, paranoia and estrangement from Sebastien. Meanwhile Sebastien, made self-conscious of his directing technique after watching rushes of the doc, adopts an increasingly hands-off approach to the production, effectively casting the production adrift in endless rehearsals without a clear sense of focus. Four hours of shit slowly hitting the fan (and sliding down the walls) ensue, with the emotional climax being a two day long orgy of sex and Led Zeppelinesque apartment trashing between husband and wife — a cinematic “limit experience” if ever there was.
While the relationships between work and play, the theatrical and the real, time and creation, etc. are commonly identified as the main themes of Rivette’s filmography, L’Amour fou, with its “inciting incident” (did Rivette read Syd Field?) of the camera crew on the production, summons yet another thematic binary that may either be subordinate or supercede the others: that of intimacy and intrusion. There are numerous relationships within and without this film upon which to consider the factor of intimacy: between Sebastian and Claire, Sebastian and the theater group he is directing, the theater group and the documentary camera crew, the film and the viewer, etc.
“the cinema is necessarily fascination and rape …”
- Jacques Rivette, quoted in interview with Cahiers du Cinema
What does it mean that the initial violation commited in L’Amour fou is by a 16mm film camera? What are we then to make of the 35mm camera that occupies the master view of the proceedings? The 35mm footage seems to take a largely omniscent narrative position, presenting us rather plainly with the facts as they unravel in sequence. And yet there remains such an air of mystery and failed apprehension throughout this film that it seems implicitly to be an inquiry on the limits of what straight shooting of spaces and interactions can tell us. I admit that that’s a hazardous argument to make given that the film is neither a straight documentary account of the production, nor is it entirely a work of fiction.
I even wonder to what extent this film is (intentionally) a failure, insofar as it seeks to capture the essence of a failed production, squaring its lens with catatonic fixation on some of the most painful rehearsal scenes I’ve ever seen.
However one wants to evaluate such scenes (and there are many of them), one can safely say that it’s yet another way in which Rivette draws a line in the sand of intimacy and alienation — this time between the film and the audience. Of course running time has consistently been another way for Rivette to push us through a state of liminality, on the other side of which our perceptions of cinema among other things are altered. This most definitely happens in the 5 minute proscribed intermission between the two two-hour halves of the film — it is in the second half that much of the disorientation and weary indeterminacy experienced in part one finds a cathartic outlet in Claire’s carryings on, the rampant weekend, and even the cracks of disaffected smiles and hung heads among the acting troupe. Even as it shows the crack in intimacy and trust between Sebastian and his ensemble, it revives the intimacy between us the viewers and the onscreen production, as well as with the film; a certain understanding of reality — that this production is doomed — is reinforced. But even so that understanding comes with a tinge of regret at what might have been.
For fun: a cellphone video made by Craig Keller of an excerpt from Jonathan Rosenbaum’s introduction to L’Amour fou screening December 3, 2006 at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City.
If the above video is found wanting, here’s a capsule review by Rosenbaum.
Don’t mean to set up a feud, but for dissension’s sake here is Keith Uhlich. He makes a provocative contention that L’amour fou amounts to an intermittently successful dry run to the greater accomplishments of both versions of Out I.
The funny thing is that if you can disregard its stylistic, narrative, and physical challenges, Lâ€™Amour Fou is eminently watchable and approachable. As I mentioned, the plot is quite thin. It follows the dissolution of a marriage between Claire, an actress (brilliantly played by Bulle Ogier), and Sebastien, her director (Jean-Pierre Kalfon). This specificity allows the characters to be developed to an extent thatâ€™s almost unparalleled in cinema. Rivette uses the longer running time of the film to establish their relationshipâ€™s end as the result of a recurring cycle of self-destructive behavior, and not just the fallout from a nasty squabble. Neither in the duo is any more to blame for the breakup than the other. She realizes he will only respond to her when she acts needy and hurt. He stops responding to her because she acts needy and hurt. Their circular routine of self-destruction is unequivocally mutual. To ask who the instigator is would be as pointless as to ask if the chicken or egg came first. Watching their breakdown is both harrowing and fascinating. The only real question for the audience is how long the two of them will both buy into the illusion that itâ€™s going to work out.
“Man, that was an some kind of movie. Amazing movie! Those French people, man they are crazy!”
- Homeless man emerging from the free screening at the National Gallery I attended. According to an inside source, apparently since the Smithsonian film screenings are all free, there are quite a few homeless and otherwise underprivileged cinephiles roaming the streets of DC.
A Double Life (1947) is a strangely complex Cukor film that always makes me think of Lâ€™Amour fou.
John Hughes, while interviewing Jacques Rivette
(right on — and how about Minnelli’s Two Weeks in Another Town?)
Shooting a film should always be a form of play, something that might be seen as a drug or as a game. Even during the â€˜breakdownâ€™ scenes near the end of Lâ€™Amour fou I was not being tragic as many people thought. I was joking, having fun, and so was Bulle. Itâ€™s just a movie, not some kind of cinÃ©ma-vÃ©ritÃ©!
Rivette, from the same interview
“…the fruit of an impossible encounter between the two extremes of absolute control and absolute freedom.” — Jean-AndrÃ© Fieschi
“There is a feeling of exhiliration and liberation in L’Amour fou — almost as if Rivette had always known that this was the way he had to make films but hadn’t, until now, had the courage to try.” — James Monaco
“I reject the word “script” entirely — at any rate in the usual sense. I prefer the old usage — usually scenario — which it had in the Commedia dell’Arte, meaning an outline or scheme: it implies a dynamism, a number of ideas and principles from which one can set out to find the best possible approach to filming.” — Jacques Rivette
quotes taken from here
I no longer remember what made me buy this book. At the time I bought it, I had never seen a Rivette film. I don’t know if I had heard of Rivette. I was just starting to think about film seriously. I had a friend who might have told me about Rivette: possibly he had seen “CÃ©line et Julie vont en bateau” (1974) though probably not, since the film hadn’t been well distributed; and since neither of us lived in Paris or New York I don’t know what opportunities we would have had to see Rivette films even if we had known about him.
Probably the cover. I remember being taken with the name Rivette. It looked very modern, cool and sharp. I was in my destroy-all-sentimentality phase, and the sound of the name Rivette attracted me with its crispness and hardness.
The book itself was amazing. I read it and immediately wanted to make Rivette-like films.
Further down the Fujiwara essay:
I was most strongly struck by Rivette’s text on Fritz Lang’s “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” (1956) which is included in the volume. I hadn’t yet seen “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” either. When I finally was able to see it, a year or so after my encounter with the Rivette book, it disappointed me at first; “While the City Sleeps” (1956) seemed more important. It was only after repeated viewings that I realized the greatness of “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” to which I then devoted a long period of monk-like study.) For me this is still one of the most staggering pieces of film criticism. Why? One reason is its ability to find a single image, one that, without Rivette, probably would have tempted few viewers to single it out: the hand of the governor poised over the unsigned pardon â€” an image that if this were an average Hollywood production would probably have been entrusted to the inserts department or an ad-hoc second unit, but which I am convinced Lang shot â€” and position this image as a sign organizing the whole film (reminding us, tacitly, how definitive and defining hands are throughout Lang’s work â€” the hand in “M” (1931) being the example that will instantly come to mind), makes it graspable by our intelligence. The way he writes about the hand â€” tucking his reference to it away in an inconspicuous part of the text, even though it gives him his title â€” tells us how much deviousness is required to understand such a film.
This proclivity attributed to Rivette, to capture the hidden (and usually menacing) significance in images, gestures, and moments that would otherwise pass unremarked, it’s enough to drive a viewer mad in looking for those same lynchpin, crystalline moments in Rivette’s films — a Sisyphean effort if ever there was, it seems, given how they seem to stretch out into an infinity of time and space, every vanishing point offered itself vanishing (there were four or five moments in the last hour of L’amour fou that felt like an ending… and yet… and yet…). Reading this above quote made me think what might be such an equivalent moment in this film, where four plus hours of celluloid are encapsulated in one frame. Somewhere in the rampant apartment debauchery sequence? The memorable scene when Claire opens up one Russian Doll after another? The thing with Rivette’s films, I suspect, is that such moments can’t be pinned down to a key image or gesture — more akin to the films of Otto Preminger, the thing that matters most seems to hang invisibly, tantalizingly in the ether. I submit as evidence the opening scene, which to me is the most significant in the entire film, the moment where everything is set like Greek drama into an irreversible tragic trajectory. But where exactly, dear viewer, does the end begin?