Friday, October 7, 2011


The late 70s were not an easy time for Jacques Rivette. His filles de feu tetralogy was cut short halfway through by the director’s physical breakdown, followed by a desultory, dismal release for Duelle and none at all for Noroît. The Centre National de la Cinématographie radically altered its heretofore improbably sympathetic funding policies, and it was by the skin of its teeth that Merry-go-Round got made at all (it too was then shelved for five years). Partly thanks to Maria Schneider’s interest in working with both Rivette and Joe Dellasandro, some of the tetralogy money was diverted into a resurrected project, but Rivette was starting from a premise slender even by his own improvisatory standards.

Ben and Léo are strangers, called to Paris by Elisabeth, lover and sister respectively. Telegrams, notes and telephone calls lead them on a merry dance that ends with bogus estate agents in a sleepy village and an ambulance kidnapping straight out of Hergé. Thereafter, it becomes apparent that the girls’ father had appropriated 4 million dollars and possibly faked his own death, and that various mysterious parties - usually not whom they claim to be - are involved in trying to recover the combination, key and location of the safe in which it is presumably stashed. By Rivette’s own admission, the film falls apart after the first half-hour, their search for the information and missing Elisabeth repeating itself three times over, and getting nowhere, not very fast.

For once Rivette’s powers of mystery-story invention seemed to have failed him. He decided to focus on his two leads’ getting to know one another, setting up lengthy improvised sequences of killing time while they search through empty houses. Schneider claimed to have known Dellasandro in Rome, but on set they were not close, if indeed they ever had been, and relations deteriorated. Perhaps in response to this, Rivette inserts with increasing frequency sequences of Ben running through woods and Léo in some dunes, each location representing some kind of inner, psychic space, beset by an undefined variety of terrors. Schneider left before the end of the shoot, and in effectively disconcerting fashion, Léo is represented by Rivette veteran Hermine Karaghuez in the non-literal sequences; in his own headspace, little Joe is menaced by a knight in armour, before each threateningly invades the space of the other, to mirror the real-life tension and confusion.

This is Rivette really at the edge of his abilities to conjure cinema from nothing but fun and games, partly because it seems as though no-one was having much fun. His use of an avant-garde bass and bass clarinet duo, filmed in a dingy studio and inserted between, and sometimes in the middle of, scenes is a welcome and mysterious distraction. Schneider is deliciously sour and moody and Joe is his usual hulking wooden presence, until the desperation of the whole enterprise seems to get to him and he just stops acting – uncertainty and vulnerability flash occasionally in his eyes, and he drops the wooden line readings, making one wish that he’d been made so uncomfortable more frequently in his career. For all that, even by Rivette’s standards, there’s not a lot going on here: the mystery’s grip is fatally loosened, but the film is saved by good old fashioned star power – Maria and Joe make a terrific couple, handsome and charismatic. As a film about two people getting to know one another, it is hardly successful, but the chemistry sparks from time to time in their scenes of goofing around; if the pairing seems like a missed opportunity to create something truly striking, it seems remarkable that it was ever completed at all, and in the days when Rivette was still about cinematic playfulness, even a lost game is a fascinating one. Plus, of course, that music is tremendous.

d Jacques Rivette p Stéphane Tchalgadjieff sc Eduardo de Gregorio, Suzanne Schiffman, Jacques Rivette ph William Lubtchansky ed Nicole Luntchansky, Catherine Quesemand m Barre Phillips, John Surman cast Maria Schneider, Joe Dellasandro, Danièlle Gégauff, Sylvie Matton, Françoise Prévost, Maurice Garrel, Michel Berto, Dominique Erlanger, Jean-François Stévenin, François Mitterand
(1978, Fr, 160m)
posted by tom newth at

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