Lovely French actress Emmanuelle Beart spent hours in the nude as an artist's model in La Belle Noiseuse (1991), surely the major reason that Jacques Rivette's film got North American distribution. Rivette, born in 1928, remains the least-seen in the USA of the original "Nouvelle Vague" critics-turned-film directors (Truffaut,Godard, Rohmer,Chabrol). I can think of only three other works in his distinguished, forty-year, career to be shown here commercially: The Nun (1965), L'Amour Fou (1968), and Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974).
Two reasons for the relative obscurity of this major filmmaker are Rivette's disinterest in publicity, and aversion to travel. I have never seen him at a film festival anywhere in the world, even when one of his pictures is showing. He stays home in Paris, and reads, works, and goes to lots of movies. He's one of the filmmakers who has viewed everything significant in the history of cinema, and he's written seminal critical appreciations of such directors as Hawks, Lang, and Preminger.
Even more, it's Rivette's films which cause problems attracting profit-minded distibutors. For one thing, they are enormously long. La Belle Noiseuse clocked in at 240 minutes, and that's typical. Simply, Rivette makes his movies as lengthy as he feels they should be (he's his own editor), just the way novels can be any duration. The rhythm of his cinema is private, personal, and not tied to the metronome of commercial cinema. The pulse of MTV? Hah! In 1971, he made a film called Out One stretching eleven hours.
As for his stories: well, they are intentionally half-baked ones, sketches of narrative which hold the promise of climaxes, catharses, denouements, but which never quite get there. The hours of watching a Rivette movie are not rewarded with a "payoff" at the end. Often, the movies just shut down. So where is the pleasure of Rivette's very radical brand of cinema? It's in agreeing to have our attentions redirected from trying to find out things (and in Rivette's gameplaying, he teases us to believe there are mysteries to unravel) to simply seeing what's unfolding before our eyes.
The old cliche of "enjoying the process" is the secret to watching Rivette. Many of his films are about rehearsals of dramas instead of the actual productions, and here's a meaningful key: we the audience peek into rehearsals for a movie, conceptions of a movie, improvisations for a movie. For Rivette, this "before" - when actors are still more themselves than their parts, when they are trying out their roles like someone dipping feet into cold water - is where the interest lies.
That's a Rivette-length lead-in to plugging Haut/ Bas/Fragile (1994), his 169-minute sometimes musical. This time, Rivette tantalizes by setting up three stories of young women which--watch out!--normal cinema logic tells us eventually will come together. Ninon (Nathalie Richard) runs away from a murderous boyfriend and an unseemly life (as a hooker?) for a new apartment and a job as a messenger girl on a moped. Louise (Marianne Denicourt) comes out of a 5-year coma, plus life in a mental institution, avoiding her mysterious father while taking over her dead aunt's house. Ida (Laurence Cote), brought up adopted, works in a decorative arts library and seeks out her real-life mother.
This is Rivette, so the daydream narrative (Lewis Carroll is always an influence) meanders all over the place. Two of the young women, Ninon and Louise, gradually criss-cross, but far less for story than to sing a silly tune together, and to improvise a dance on a nightclub floor. Ida's story never connects with theirs, except for sharing some characters. As for Ida finding her mom, it might be nightclub singer, Sarah (Anna Karina). It might not be.
What does it all mean? Nothing, a cloud puff, and I'm sure Jacques Rivette would agree. But Haut/Bas/Fragile is, in its underformed way, an amusing and charming almost three hours in the dark. I was especially enamored of actress Nathalie Richard (the lesbian costumer in Irma Vep), who uses lots of screen time liesurely dancing.Of course, Rivette lets her. Why not? What's the hurry? Parts of what Richard does seem vaguely choreographed, Twyla Tharpish, most of her stuff seems made up on the spot, a talented amateur swinging out with the music. In truth, tied to my seat watching, I felt like jumping up and dancing too: the triumph of Jacques Rivette.