Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Perpetual Narrative Machine of OUT 1

Almost 10 years ago Jacques Rivette changed my conception of what cinema could be. His 13-hour-long masterpiece Out 1 (1971) was for many cinephiles the holy grail, almost as improbable as the full Greed (1925) or The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). Then there it was at the National Film Theatre in London, surpassing all expectations. The mere achievement of finally seeing it paled beside the fact that this unwieldy, near-plotless monstre sacré of a film turned out to be so captivating, so intriguing, so formally fascinating, and so damned watchable, that the breaks between each of the eight episodes were unwelcome, and I actively resented being sent home on Saturday night to await the next day’s final installments. We were immersed in it, and did not want to be ejected.

And now it returns, finally, to the BAM Cinémathèque in New York, from Nov 4-19, and elsewhere, the remarkable resurgence of a submerged continent, as B. Kite has it, to describe a massive work of human comedy that has been almost totally excluded, ignored, and forgotten. The reason for the film’s invisibility was due almost entirely to its length. Rivette had offered it to French television, who turned it down, and so following a single workprint screening at the Maison du Culture in Le Havre in 1971, it surfaced only rarely and barely-noted thereafter, until our dreams came true in the mid-2000s, when an actual print was sent on tour. And then it vanished again. All that remained was a bad Italian TV-rip online until, just as unexpectedly, a limited German DVD set arrived at the end of 2013. That made less of a splash than the fervency of Out 1 message threads might have one expect but now, thanks to a reported €700,000 restoration, distribution from Carlotta Films in the US, and a massive DVD/Blu-ray box set (including three other MIA Rivette gems) from Arrow in the UK, Out 1 can take its proper place as an essential fixture of the cinematic landscape, and of any budding movie buff’s education.

The film was a grand experiment. Rivette was embarrassed by conventional scripting after his debut, Paris nous appartient (Paris Belongs To Us, 1961), hearing his words read faithfully over and again. He turned to a pre-existing text for Suzanne Simenon, la religieuse de Denis Diderot (The Nun, 1966), but still felt this was not the way for him. And so, for L’amour fou (1969), he abandoned a script entirely, in favour of a bare-bones scenario and controlled improvisation. This not only suited his directorial temperament, but led to a significant increase in running time; thus he decided to go all out with his next project, Out 1, of indeterminate scope, financed on the basis of a mere four pages. The unprecedented length was also influenced by a nine-hour screening of Jean Rouch’s Jaguar – the rushes, essentially, for Petit à petit (Little by Little, 1971) – which Rivette found “just fabulous”. Albeit his initial conception was to divide the 30 or so hours of Out 1 footage into four separate films, following each of two experimental theatre groups, and each of two outsiders, linked by the shadowy background presence of a secret society known as the treize (thirteen), in the event of editing, and under the seductive influence of Jaguar, it became clear that the four strands worked far better playing off one another in a single long film (the quatralogy idea was taken up again a few years later, however, for his magical and incomplete filles de feu series, also produced by the remarkable Stephen Tchalgadjieff).

I knew not even this much when I walked into pokey NFT 2 in April 2006, and could not have imagined what was to follow. I knew there were two theatre groups improvising around two plays by Aeschylus; I knew that the film was somehow based on (in the event, more infused with) Balzac’s trio of novellas, L’histoire du treize (The Story of the Thirteen, 1833-1839); and I knew that there was a barely more-available four-hour edit known as Out 1: Spectre (the long version informally subtitled noli me tangere). In what little I could find to read on either film, Rosenbaum aside, it was not always clear which of the two was under discussion and, in some instances, whether the commentator was aware themselves. I was feeling a little trepiditious, but excited at the voyage into territory virgin for myself (formally), and in any sense largely unknown to almost everyone. The test of endurance was a challenge about which I felt enthusiastic. My opening statement is no hyperbole: the film was an awesome and deeply profound experience that, far from being any sort of test, has made more than one viewer feel as though they have experienced, as Le monde had it in 1971, “a voyage beyond cinema”.

I was not in the slightest bit prepared for the long opening scenes of collective theatrical improvisation. Rivette describes these as a documentary look at the practices of modern, Brook-ish, Living Theatre, 45 minutes of hysteria, beginning gently enough but crescendoing into writhings and moanings, faintly sexual, faintly sinister, and almost utterly abandoned. He was taking advantage of the fact that, prepared for the film’s prodigious length, the audience was likely at the start to be far more tolerant of something conventionally unacceptable in cinema; but these exercises also introduce us to the film’s own method, a search for a way into the text (of both plays and film), with scant regard for actual plot or narrative.

A sort of narrative does emerge, however, after a couple of hours: we learn that the two groups have somehow been connected in the past, via their leaders Thomas (Michel Lonsdale) and Lili (Michèle Moretti); and all of a sudden we cut to a young deaf mute (Jean-Pierre Léaud) in a cafe, handing out cards offering “a message from destiny”, and frantically blowing his harmonica either in thanks, or in fractious solicitation. Shortly, he receives his own message from destiny, handed off by one of Lili’s group, Marie (Hermine Karaghuez, from here on a talismanic presence in Rivette's oeuvre). He soon receives two more, in even more anonymous fashion, apparently nonsensical prose poems in which he serendipitously discerns reference to Balzac’s treize, setting him off on an obsessive quest to decipher the notes, and to discover the nature of the treize in real life.

These notes were the only writing Rivette did for the film, with mischievous pleasure, coded messages in the hoary Jules Verne tradition, and they serve as the basic MacGuffin that kickstarts the plot, such as it is (as opposed to Balzac’s use of the treize as deus ex machina to facilitate his denouements). The other plot motor is the second outsider, Frédérique (the wonderfully hippie-gypsy Juliet Berto), a small-change hustler who steals some letters from one Etienne (director Jacques Doniol-Lacroze), who is found playing chess against himself. She discovers in them reference to the treize and, possibly, other secret societies. As Eric Rohmer, in a delightfully droll cameo and patently false beard as a Balzac scholar, explains to Colin, secret societies are “everywhere” (not least Cahiers du cinéma’s own conseil de dix). Frédérique’s interest in the group is confined solely to finding someone who’ll pay to get the letters back, but none of those she approaches seems very interested – the correspondence contains little incriminating nor, therefore, informative for us the audience, a defused MacGuffin which finally reveals no more than Colin’s investigations do; nor even the conversations between members of the treize when they finally meet in pairs and threes towards the very end of the film, walking in circles, just as the plot has begun to do, or from sunlight to shadow, just as our awareness of what is going on is continually obfuscated.

It is these groupings that concern Rivette considerably more than actual plot or narrative. Together with that eminence grise of the nouvelle vague, Suzanne Schiffman, he devised a large grid in place of conventional script, on which were arranged meetings of characters in different configurations. Thereafter he gave his cast, a near-who’s who of the era’s screen-acting talent (mostly poached, for L’amour fou, from the progressive theatre company of Marc’O, with the sorely-missed exception of Pierre Clementi), an almost entirely free hand to develop their characters and lines. The grid was initially formulated to maximise efficiency across the six-week shoot, with many of the ideas deliberately left to be crystallised during or after filming (or, just for fun, in the case of some of the plot elements, not at all), but its combinations were also far from exhausted – Rivette toyed with the idea of returning to the characters for another installment, Out 2 (the “Out” incidentally, being simply a reaction to the specious modism “In”). He changed his mind, however, and so after nearly 13 hours the film provides what Rivette calls a “false” ending: as a way of tailing down, inserted in the final episode, nominally outside the “real” time of the film, are repeated shots of the Place d’Italie, the camera positioned as in earlier sequences where members of Lili’s group attempt to track down interloper and thief Renaud. Beyond their function as a disruptive device, these lacunae carry in their familiarity the tantalising possibility of significance, but Rivette calls them “empty” shots – apparently random street shots have been interspersed throughout, but this have an unsettling, liminal feel to them. He describes them as disturbing and indeed they are, both in a literally formal sense, and in their deliberate flouting of conventional “meaning” in montage. They are of a piece with the gradual disruption and breaking down of the film’s formal elements (disjunction of sound and image; dialogue played backwards; inserts of black leader), in parallel with the deterioration of the theatre groups’ projects, the two outsiders’ quests and, most significantly, the film’s narrative, exposed as bogus: one can imagine it ending in self-destruction like Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), admitting the impossibility (and dishonesty) of sustained artifice, and refusing any sort of manufactured resolution to the ongoing fiction. Instead, however, we get a very brief, again repeated, shot of Marie, gazing into the middle distance before a gilded goddess statue, its significance completely obscure.

Marie belongs to the second rung of characters, recurring but rarely at centre stage, and speaking infrequently, but it is she who is priviliged to kickstart the plot motor with her delivery of Colin’s first note. That fleeting appearance grants her a special aura of mystery that is never dissipated, only reinforced, by the ending. Mysterious significance (significant mystery?) is the film’s stock in trade (the apparent founder of the treize, director-surrogate author of Colin’s notes, never even appears onscreen!), and Marie’s two unexplained appearances are appropriate bookends. She may even still be looking for Renaud in a theoretical continuation of the fictional world beyond the end of the celluloid. Whilst the shots of the Place d’Italie are deliberately devoid of anything other than structural meaning, returning to the plot-starter Marie implies unknowable significance for the story’s tattered remains, whilst shrugging off all conventionality connected with cinematic endings. It is not that the world of the film is an exact representation of real life in its general lack of structure and dynamic event, but that it has, particularly over the length of time involved, become something like an equivalent, which therefore cannot reach a natural, neat, and resolving end.

If there is a little bit of Balzac in this ending – Rastignac’s “à nous deux, Paris!” at the end of Père Goriot (1835), and the cast of his ongoing, interlinked Comédie humaine – there is yet more in the film’s opening, following Balzac’s typical mode of dedicating the first half of his novels to description and set-up, saving the narrative and action until the context has been firmly established. Here, however, the setting is less preparation for the story to follow than for the improvised nature of the film itself; furthermore, unlike Balzac the social historian, and ignoring the explicit wish of the Rouchian ethnologist who pops up a couple of times (to study the French people as he studies the Malagasy), Rivette deliberately avoids touching upon contemporary socio-politics, beyond the cultural (current theatre practices), and a faintly implied sense of disillusionment and disorientation in the years following the uprising of May ’68, the apparent failure of the treize (and the disintegration of the theatre projects) standing for the failure of utopian dreams. Instead, the film is jam-packed with mirrors, from Thomas’s rehearsal space, to Frédérique’s first appearance, to a stunning mise-en-abîme of infinite (narrative) possibility in a haunted seaside house at the end. These are not the mirrors of Balzac-contemporary Stendahl; rather, as clued by the presence of the Snark in one of Colin’s notes, looking-glass portals to a magical world of mystery – not quite Balzac’s, but certainly Rivette’s later vie parallèlle – recognisably similar to our own, but transformed to embrace the endless possibilities (and pleasures) of art.

This returns us to Rivette and Schiffman’s grid and its apparently limitless possibilities of configuration – a self-generating perpetual-narrative machine. The connections between characters established and revealed by this methodology give the impression of one of those immensely complex, mysterious, and largely hidden underlying formal structures, as employed in Perec’s La vie mode d’emploi (Life A User’s Manual, 1978 – Etienne is no doubt practising the knight’s move) or implied in Un manuscrit trouvé à Saragosse (The Manuscript Found at Saragossa, 1805-1815, entirely manipulated by the Cabal). In the film as in these novels, however, the characters are no mere ciphers, moving within the structure rather than serving it, living independently of (and beyond) the arranged nature of the work. Rivette did in fact compare Out 1 to a large novel of 1000 pages, and whilst movies usually struggle to attain to the kind of heft and all-encompassing monumentality of works like those of Proust and Musil, say, Out 1 does manage something of a weight, and texture in particular, entirely singular in the cinema.

Much of this is to do with length, of course, and there is no escaping the fact that a 13-hour film sounds unreasonable, unfeasible, and possibly unbearable (particularly when one gives a description of the opening couple of hours, met usually in my experience with reactions of horror). One of Out 1’s fundamental achievements is that none of these preconceptions is true. David Thomson, with typical lack of humility, flippantly sours an interesting and favourable short commentary when he calls it an “egocentric monstrosity”. It does indeed draw attention to its unusual self, although this in turn encourages an increased concentration on the part of the viewer to understand something so rare. More importantly, it seems impossible in any other form (witness Spectre, a fundamentally different film), marrying that form so harmoniously with the content, not least through its concern with the theatre groups’ improvisation and creation, which continues throughout, the pacing and sustenation of which should by all rights test all limits of engagement. If the breakdown of the narrative were not so well managed, along with the film’s formal breakdowns, the lack of conventional resolution would leave the viewer feeling as irritatedly non-plussed as at the end of some very long shaggy dog story; instead, one reluctantly accepts that after almost 13 hours is it probably time to leave these people behind, and that one has been eased out of the experience as gently as is possible.

This sort of exclusive engagement with a group of characters and a milieu of some definition sounds familiar. Binge-watching did not exist in 1971, and I won’t say Rivette invented it, because the seduction of the soap opera was already a fact of life on the installment plan. His concern was more with that sort of open-endedness, whether the film be watched over eight successive nights or even weeks or, as he came to prefer, over one weekend. Although rarely self-conscious, the soap opera storyline is known by everyone to be a spurious and recycled exaggeration of life – the appeal lies in watching the machinery turn, and taking enjoyment from engagement with the characters. This analogy is not as arch as it seems: like Scener ur ett äktenskap (Scenes From A Marriage, 1973) and Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980), this is the work of a major, “serious” film-maker, structured for convenient television viewing, with each episode prefaced by a series of black and white production stills suggesting a recap of the previous episode. Rivette admits his offering it to television was “naïve”, however, and imagined the appropriate viewing arrangement to be split over two days with intervals. Aside from the fact that it would be a most bizarre and unsettling TV series, the episodic demarcations are for the most part arbitrary – the eight titles each name two characters, “from” one “to” another, though not always indicating the protagonists of the opening and closing scenes (and, in one instance, the break brashly taking place mid-conversation). Unlike the Fassbinder or Bergman whose episodes are separate components, together comprising a whole, here the intervals are evidently a disruption: the integrity of the complete 12 hours and 55 minutes feels sacrosanct, an indivisible part of both its meaning and significance – noli me tangere indeed.

The cumulative effect is exhilaratingly overwhelming: overwhelming to watch a 13-hour movie; overwhelming to find you don’t want it to end; overwhelming to find it can remain unfailingly engaging over such a period with neither substantial plot, nor psychological investigation or development; overwhelming to be confronted with something so vast and harmoniously complex that it is almost impossible to comprehend how the whole thing can be pulled off so deftly, amusingly, and in such a profoundly affecting way. It is impossible not to be sucked in. Even if one recognises none of the cast, even if one is not that interested in experimental theatre (some tolerance for experimental film is implied), even if the vagueness of any possible plot summary sounds infuriating, once you’re hooked, you’re held, ready to shuffle off any world but this, to live inside its captivating and charming mystery.

Try in vain, however, to pin down the overwhelming sense of meaning in the film in its entirety, or to corral its various elements into an ordered interpretive whole. This last is in nature of the beast: if the film has one central concern, it is with the never-ending contraposition of order and chaos, design and chance, influenced in part by Rivette’s conversations with Pierre Boulez about his methods of “guided chance”, and conjoining-twin Rivette touchstones Lang (fate) and Renoir (freedom – Rivette was avowedly liberated by the television series he made on the latter, following the dissatisfactions of La religieuse). As director Gerard (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) has it in L’amour fou, of Racine’s Andromaque: “The reason I want to stage it is because it's 'unplayable.' It's shreds and patches, yet it all hangs together somehow.... It shows a chaotic but not absurd world, rather like our own, flying off in all directions, but with a purpose. Only we don't know what.”

No surprise, then, that the film eventually dissolves under investigation, both an adventure and a formal exploration into the unknown, a boundless mirror-world dream full of dead ends, blind alleys (Léaud presciently chose for his character’s name colin-maillard – blindman’s bluff), but also full of possibility. Its suspense has been generated not only by the delightfully counterfeit MacGuffins, but by its very form, the collision of improvisation and control, the wonder of “what will happen?” both onscreen and off. But just as the opposition between order and chaos can find no resolution, so the film originally ended with individual break-downs for the four main characters in the face of trying to make sense of it all (only one remains, for Thomas, and even if it is a put-on, it appears to provide some catharsis). The point is not to bring the game to any conclusion, but to enjoy its playing.

(originally published on

posted by tom newth at

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