“Surreal and mysterious, in a career that was dominated by surrealism and mystery.”
Numerous factors contributed to the creation of the French New Wave. The stultifying atmosphere of 30s and 40s French films, limited largely to adaptations of literature certainly helped, as did the advent of smaller recording devices for picture and sound. People like Henri Langlois (who ran the Cinémathèque Française) and Andre Bazin (who helped found Cahiers du Cinéma) were instrumental. But someone had to make the first French New Wave film, and the credit usually goes to Jacques Rivette, with his short “Le coup de Berger,” while his Paris Belongs To Us was the first New Wave feature to go into production (though not the first to be finished or screened). He went on to direct a couple of dozen films between 1961 and 2009, the year of his final feature. Since his death in 2016, Rivette releases have increased in number and quality. Now we have The Jacques Rivette Collection, a limited edition Blu-ray release of three of the director’s films from a tumultuous period of his life in the 70s and 80s. It’s a solid collection of the director’s work, but probably not the place for viewers to start.
The first two films in the Jacques Rivette Collection stem from Rivette’s attempt to film and release a set of four films that would span a number of genres and offer him a chance to make his mark on familiar cinematic fare, transforming these elements with a rigorous (and minimalist) approach to dialogue and narrative. The first result is Duelle, the story of the Goddess of the Moon (Juliet Berto, Weekend) and the Goddess of the Sun (Bulle Ogier, The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie) fighting to obtain a magical gem that will let the winner remain in 20th century Paris.
Similar themes surface in Noroît, where a pirate, Morag (Geraldine Chaplin, Doctor Zhivago), finds her dead brother washed up on the beach. She vows revenge against the pirate who is responsible for his death (Bernadette Lafont, A Cat in Paris).
Nervous exhaustion caused Rivette to abandon this cycle of films during the making of the third outing, and instead the third film in this set is Merry-Go-Round, a mystery where a young woman asks her boyfriend and her younger sister (Maria Schneider, Last Tango in Paris) to come to Paris to deal with her father’s estate, but when they arrive she has disappeared and they must find her.
Rivette’s original plans, coming off the punishing Out 1 (which is some 13 hours long) and the critical smash Celine and Julie Go Boating, was to direct a set of “parallel lives,” all of which would feature two female leads going through a fantasy, a love story, an adventure, and a musical. Duelle is the fantasy film of the proposed tetralogy, with time travel elements, Goddesses, and a magic jewel. Rivette is not known for his linear narrative, but he is known for improvised films that focus on characters living in contemporary France, especially Paris. And yet, his approach works surprisingly well in Duelle. However, instead of an improvised film we have a script that focuses on paring down the language until it borders on the mythical (or meaningless). What stays, however, is a narrative that feels elliptical and improvised, forcing the viewer to fit the pieces together (if, indeed, they can be put together). As a mood piece it works, casting a fantasy spell.
Rivette’s next plan was the make an adventure film, and nothing is more adventurous than a pirate film, especially a pirate film that’s basically a gender-swapped version of The Revenger’s Tragedy. Noroît has revenge by a sibling instead of a spouse, but many of the reversals, shenanigans, poisonings and court intrigues will be familiar to those who’ve read an Elizabethan revenge tragedy. Once again, the film lacks Rivette’s improvised storytelling, but like Duelle the film plays with language. This includes switching between French and English, and Early Modern English at that. Geraldine Chaplin and Bernadette Lafont as rival pirates is a brilliant move. Even when the plot gets a little convoluted, the star power going on here keeps everything moving along at a quick pace.
Rivette is back to his old tricks with Merry-Go-Round, a largely improvised film. This time, however, everything that could go wrong did. The film took three years to complete, both Rivette and his star Maria Schneider were ill, and apparently did not get along during the making of the film. All these problems show in the final film, which wanders when it should offer plot points, and skimps on the atmosphere in a way that the other films in this collection (and Rivette’s other films generally) don’t do. Probably due to Schneider dissatisfaction, Rivette even introduces a character called “The Other” who offers a kind of parallel version of Schneider’s Léo. There’s potential there to make something surreal, but instead it just comes off as unnecessarily off-putting.
But whether the films are classics or not, Arrow have treated them like cinematic royalty. Each film was scanned from the original camera negatives and then restored at 2K to produce these 1080p/AVC-encoded transfers (the first two films at 1.85:1 and the third at 1.37:1). Duelle looks the least well cared for of the three films, but its transfer still showcases an impressive amount of detail and film-like grain for much of the running time. In fact, the biggest problem with this transfer is the variability in quality, with some shots looking rich and detailed, while in others the resolution seems to drop in wider shows. Much of the film has a kind of yellow cast to it as well; this might be intentional, but means the film doesn’t always look impressive. In contrast, Noroît features beautiful colors, especially in its gorgeous outdoor locations. It does sport a bit of the variability in detail that plagues Duelle, but overall it’s an improvement. Unsurprisingly, being the most recent, Merry-Go-Round looks the best of the three films. Gone are the variable detail levels and color casts, replaced with a beautifully film-like presentation with vivid colors and plenty of resolution.
The audio tracks are taken from optical negatives (rather than the magnetic reels, which were damaged), and are presented in LPCM 1.0 mono in their original French. All three tracks are very listenable, with audible dialogue and clear score. The first two films don’t sound like rich, contemporary recordings and seem to suffer a bit for their budget so they don’t have the depth we usually expect from newer recordings. Merry-Go-Round corrects these faults to a certain extent, sounding a little fuller overall. All three films feature improvised scores, and the musical cues in all three films sound excellent, especially given their age.
Each of the three films gets its own keepcase, and all three are housed inside a cardboard slipcase along with a booklet featuring essays on the films and production photos. Duelle gets an 11 minute featurette with the two actresses reminiscing about the making of the film. Merry-Go-Round gets 50 minutes worth of interviews featuring Rivette discussing his career, the films in this set, and his personal life. We also get an interview with critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, who has a lot to say about Rivette. DVD copies of the films are also included.
This set has a couple of things going against it. The first is that its title is a bit misleading. While it’s true that this is a collection of Jacques Rivette films, it’s hardly a collection of his most renowned or well-regarded films. Duelle and Noroît are minor films at best, and Merry-Go-Round doesn’t even rise that high.
Fans of Rivette might also be disappointed that we in America don’t get the deluxe version of this set that Arrow released in the UK, which features Rivette’s previous Out 1, a 13 hour opus. Though we can get the film over here (from Carlotta Films), I’m sure at least some will be disappointed that it’s not all in one neat package like the Brits get.
For fans of Jacques Rivette, this is a lovely set of some of his minor films. It doesn’t have the heft of the UK version, nor does it include some of the classic films (like Criterion’s Paris Belongs to Us), but what’s here will interest fans who’re looking to dig deeper. Considering the age and budget of these film, the 2K restorations here represent a significant step up from previous releases, and the extras are informative, if a bit thin.