Last Friday was my Jacques Rivette Day. I had seen enough of his films, including “Paris nous appartient” (1960), “Céline et Julie vont en bateau” (1974) and “La Belle Noiseuse” (1991), to know that he was perhaps the most experimental, enigmatic member of that experimental, enigmatic group, the French New Wave. But now it was time for his most singular work: “Out 1” (1971), an exercise in mystery that asks its viewers and its many characters to spend almost 13 hours unpicking its secrets. It was recently released on Blu-ray and DVD for the first time in Britain, so I bought a copy, cleared my diary, and resolved to watch it in a single day.
When I was 6 ½ hours in, a lunchtime look at Twitter brought the news that the director had died, aged 87, after suffering from Alzheimer’s for several years. Part of me was saddened, but mostly I was stunned by the coincidence. It felt as though I’d wandered straight into Rivette’s artistic territory, where lives overlap in magical ways. Maybe “Out 1” wasn’t on pause, after all.
While I hadn’t expected this, I had expected a weird time. There is something weird about every marathon film-watching session. Food is prepared the evening before. Alarms are set for early in the morning. And coffee, endless coffee, is required to stave off the inevitable tiredness. It’s a peculiar blend of devotion and logistics.
At least “Out 1” is considerate in this regard. It is divided into eight episodes, each beginning with a montage of stills recounting the events of the previous one. This may be just a small thing, but it’s one of many that belie the film’s reputation for being difficult. Not that you’d realise it from the first episode. The opening shot lingers motionlessly, for about four minutes, on a theatre troupe stretching to the rhythms of a drum beat. Soon after, there’s a much longer sequence of another troupe ululating themselves into an almost orgiastic state. These rehearsals for two Aeschylean plays in Paris are the events from which “Out 1” will expand: they introduce many of the film’s characters – and the dynamics between them. But, for now, they seem like a provocation: a test of whether we are prepared to commit to the experience that’s in store.
Except the provocateur soon becomes more playful. Even though “Out 1” doesn’t really have a plot in the traditional sense, particularly during its first six hours, it is sprinkled with a thousand different allusions and asides to hold our attention. The longer scenes are intercut with scenes so short that they could be a joke on Rivette’s part. New characters are introduced and then connected to the existing ones in ways that might be as prosaic as drinking in the same café, or as dramatic as falling in love. Missing persons and handguns are briefly mentioned. “Where is all this heading?” we’re encouraged to ask.
Rivette’s freewheeling approach to storytelling was helped by his actors, who improvised many of their scenes. Or, as it appears in Jean-Pierre Léaud’s case, lived them. His character, Colin, spends the first few episodes pretending to be both deaf and mute, communicating only with a harmonica. After that, as he begins to uncover a conspiracy called The Thirteen, inspired by Honoré de Balzac’s “History of the Thirteen”, he explodes into noise and neurosis. He is a human exclamation mark.
Part of the joy of Léaud’s performance is that we begin to identify with him. When, towards the end of the sixth episode, almost ten hours in, he paces around a Parisian neighbourhood shouting lines of Balzac and Lewis Carroll, straining to find the hidden meaning behind them, we’re straining too.
And after the full 13 hours? There is no resolution. The conspiracy that the movie hints at is left open to speculation. Colin goes back to playing a deaf mute. A girl enters a mysterious locked room to find little more than two mirrors facing each other on the wall. She looks into one, but all she sees is her own reflection repeated endlessly into the distance.
This could be a disappointing message. Or, as I found out last Friday evening, it could be an exhilarating one. A film like “Out 1” cannot have anything so contrived as a neat ending; it simply goes on and on, through its own long running time and still further, beyond even its own creator’s death. What a wonderful monument to the man it is.