An unusual Rivette film. First thing I noticed was that it’s strange to see an in-film performance of a finished play in front of an actual, paying audience. I thought none of his plays-within-a-play ever made it past their planning stages. The characters go about their business in a straightforward way. Minor mysteries from the past crop up, some coincidences seem almost magical, but the weight of the drama never sets in. Even the lighthearted Celine & Julie felt weighty. Finally towards the end (during the drinking duel in the rafters) I accepted that Va Savoir is purely a comedy, and a very fine one.

image

From the shot above, which is used in the poster art, I’d assumed there’d be more Feuillade influence. People upon Paris rooftops conveys Feuillade, and with Rivette’s ever-present sense of mystery I thought a feature-length homage would be wonderful, but that’s not what we get. Oh well, there’s always Franju’s Judex.

image

The play performed is the Italian “Come tu mi voui” by Luigi Pirandello, being performed (in Italian) in Paris for a week. I think we see a scene from each night’s performance, each time a different scene, and not in chronological order. They’re probably arranged to comment emotionally upon that day’s off-stage action, but I’ll have to watch it again to be sure (I also missed the on/off-stage connections in Rivette’s previous film Secret Defense). That’s Camille (the lovely, angular Jeanne Balibar, of Don’t Touch the Axe and Comedy of Innocence) in the middle with her lover/director Ugo (Sergio Castellitto of Around a Small Mountain) at left. Their relationship is strained with her return to Paris after three years away, now closer than ever to her long-term ex Pierre, but ultimately they’re good together.

image

I’m getting out of order here, but Pierre (Jacques Bonnaffé, at right, of Lemming and Prénom Carmen) ultimately duels Ugo over Camille. I was never quite sure if Ugo is a nice guy, since he acts like such an ass when first meeting Pierre, but this clears it up. His dueling method of choice is heavy drinking while standing high in the rafters above the stage, but he repeatedly tells Pierre not to look down because there’s actually a safety net below them. This scene made me extremely happy.

image

While in Paris, Ugo seeks a lost play by Italian author Goldoni. He checks with an autograph/letter collector (filmmaker Claude Berri), but to no avail. Funny casting a filmmaker in this role, since thirty years earlier Rivette had Eric Rohmer playing a specialist librarian in Out 1.

image

Ugo bounces to this family, descendants of a friend of Goldoni’s who maintain a library of the playwright’s works. The woman (Catherine Rouvel – oh my god, she’s the always-nude girlfriend of the scheming guy in La Rupture) invites him to stay as long as he likes, but after he can’t find the unpublished play all week, he suspects it was secretly sold by her thieving son Arthur (Bruno Todeschini, at left, of Code Unknown and Haut bas fragile)

image

Arthur is also meeting secretly with Sonia (Marianne Basler, who costarred with Gabriel Byrne in a WWII drama), coincidentally the live-in girlfriend of Camille’s ex, Pierre. The affair would be harmless but that Arthur steals a precious ring from Sonia, which Camille sleeps with him in order to steal back.

image

Finally, there’s Arthur’s sister Do (Hélène de Fougerolles of Innocence, maybe in the scene with Edith Scob in Joan the Maid). She helps Ugo search for (and ultimately find) the play, getting ever closer to him as Camille gets closer to her ex (before he locks Camille in a closet). Peace is restored in the end with everyone happy and dancing, the viewer comforted in knowing that the only really crappy character, Arthur, in debt trouble, will soon find out that his stolen ring is gone.

I only noticed this because of the similarly oval-shaped mirror near the end of Out 1:
image

Reportedly there’s an extended cut called Va Savoir+, but little is known about it besides that it had a one-week run in Paris. A message board posts claimed it “wasn’t even an official director’s cut, just an alternate cut Rivette put together for a few screenings, mostly for himself and the other actors,” so I’m not going to worry too much.

Trounced at Cannes (along with decade-faves Mulholland Dr., I’m Going Home, What Time is it There?, In Praise of Love and The Piano Teacher) by a Nanni Moretti film. That must be a good one!

image

Filmbo:

In Va Savoir we are spectators instead of participants. And while there are moments when this pays off rather humorously — take for instance the detective work of finding the missing ring in the flour jar or the duel between the rival male suitors — it falls short of being a top-notch Rivette experience. … there was also the more palpable concept of a theater company producing works that only a few are interested in seeing, accompanied by a quest to find a lost work by an obscure writer… should we be thinking of the oeuvre of anyone in particular?

Only my second feature by Ruiz, as much as I’m always talking about the guy – and it’s kinda what I’d expected. Good movie with some weird craziness in the plot, but at the same time, it’s a French film, a classy drama about restrained rich people.

Camille’s dad is out of town – his mom (Isabelle Huppert, the year before The Piano Teacher), uncle Serge (Charles Berling of Summer Hours) and maid Helene are taking care of him until one day he announces that his real name is Paul and he wants to go home to his real mom. He guides Huppert to another woman’s apartment – she’s not home but creepy neighbor Edith Scob (also Summer Hours) shows them around.

image

When beautiful Jeanne Balibar (the Duchess of Langeais herself) gets home, she tells Huppert about her son Paul who drowned two years ago, but also acts as if Camille is her Paul in the present tense. There’s no sense of paradox or surprise, nothing unusual, just these facts: Paul died and Paul is here. It’s not the kind of thing that could be done in an American movie without some character shrieking “how can that be? how can you say he died if you’re saying he is here in front of you?!” Huppert plays it cool though – invites Balibar to stay at her house so they can figure it out together.

image

In the climax, Balibar kidnaps Camille/Paul and takes him to the barge where Paul had drowned. Huppert shows up and Balibar surrenders and apologizes, everything back to normal.

Ruiz uses a Sam Raimi anamorphic-lens-twisting effect:
image

Is it pertinent that the maid might be having an affair with the uncle? That Balibar is after the uncle as well? That Huppert’s grandmother died of sorrow because of some incest incident? That Balibar’s neighbor Edith Scob is just as creepy and mysterious as Balibar herself? That a family acquaintance dies in a car crash near the end? That Camille has a businesslike 10-year-old friend who everyone had assumed was imaginary? All combines into an overall sense of mystery about identity, parentage, relationships, and what can be known.

image

I thought I’d heard of Denis Podalydès who played Isabelle Huppert’s husband, but it’s actually his brother Bruno I’d heard of.

Unnerving, noticeable music by loyal Chilean Jorge Arriagada and not extremely impressive cinematography by Jacques Bouquin (The Film To Come, Life is a Dream) – he does that thing where the camera is always gliding slowly past the action an awful lot. Overall I dug the movie… looking forward to Ruiz’s other 99 features.

image

I was looking forward to this, due to my recent Rivette obsession, but didn’t expect to love it, since it’s a period piece about upper-class people unable to declare their love for each other because of societal restrictions, and I tend to hate that kind of story. It’s nice to watch fave Rivettian actors Bulle Ogier and Michel Piccoli and Barbet Schroeder (all sharing a scene) but they’re hardly in the movie and they play gentle, wise elder friends and relatives, with a bit of dialogue but no passionate acting showcases. I got my Rivette themes and trademarks served up: conspiracies, secret rooms, performance (explicitly at the convent, but throughout as the two toy with each other), real locations with creaking wood floors, oceanside drama, but all enslaved to this book-to-film adaptation of Balzac – something that I thought Rivette just said he’d never do in the DVD interview on Belle Noiseuse, that he dances around Balzac in his film writing (that one and Out 1) because a direct adaptation would be impossible. In the story, Montriveau is one of the notorious 13, but the name of the group is never stated here. Anyway, we also get very good performances from the leads – Guillaume Depardieu, lookalike son of Gerard who once played his dad in flashback in Les Misérables, with his false leg used to great effect here on the wooden floors… and Jeanne Balibar, who I don’t remember from Code 46 or Clean, and haven’t seen yet starring in Va savoir.

Not much outward passion to the movie, emotions seem detached (I know, that was the point, sorta) but it has a quietly affecting ending aboard Montriveau’s ship after he breaks into the convent and finds the Duchess dead. The plot being easy to follow, I started paying attention to nerdy cinema stuff like the quality of light (all supposedly from sunlight and candles) and the sound (music used very sparingly, as usual). Sound was rough because of the loud hissing and gurgling noises coming from the ceiling at the Landmark, and picture was even rougher since the film was projected out-of-focus (except for the left third of the screen, which looked lovely). So it was easier to measure the quality of light than, say, the details of costumes and decor. I’m not much for decor anyhow.

Definitely closer to Hurlevent (Wuthering Heights) than to anything else I’ve seen Rivette do. At least I learned how Duchess of Langeais is pronounced (vaguely: “lawn-jay”). This Balzac story was previously filmed a few times, from a 1910 lost silent to a 1995 TV version adapted by the co-writer of Goya’s Ghosts.

————
Excellent analyses found on other sites:

E. Howard:

Games are the film’s central conceit, in fact, whether they be word games, mind games, literary games, games played between appearance and feeling. The game being played at the narrative level takes place between a General and a Duchess … But this is only one game that Rivette is toying with, and he plays an entirely different one with the audience, a game of subtle winks and sly nods that continually disrupts the placid surface of the narrative … This narrative disruption is mirrored in the way the General’s story to the Duchess, about his time lost in the desert after escaping from the enemy’s imprisonment, is continually interrupted, usually by the listener’s short attention span and her tendency to divert the flow of the conversation just as the story is reaching a critical juncture. This results in the General’s story being doled out across three successive evenings that they spend together early in their relationship. On the third night, as they settle in to continue the story, Rivette frames the Duchess in a tight closeup as she asks her would-be lover to finish the tale. At this moment, she turns a sly sidelong glance directly into the camera, maintaining eye contact with the audience, as though to include them in the game.

This game of narrative interruptus is also carried through in the way Rivette uses the text of the film’s original source, a novella by Honoré de Balzac. This is a rigidly faithful adaptation… with texts from the novel periodically included as intertitles to highlight certain moments or get at the characters’ internal states. The titles are also used to convey the passage of time, which is parceled out in scrupulously precise measures: “one hour later,” “twenty-two minutes passed,” “she waited twenty-four hours.” These titles often seem to abruptly cut off the action, sometimes flashing up on screen when, after a long scene of near-stasis, a character is right in the middle of completing the scene’s first real movement or action (most often: leaving the room). The passage of time, like everything else in the film, is subject to Rivette’s subtle humor. After the Duchess kicks her friend out of her house, a title informs us that it one hour passes (a very common interlude), and surprisingly in the very next scene there’s the General again, still standing in her parlor, walking around it aimlessly, looking like only five minutes has passed since she ordered him to leave. Rivette’s use of these titles is obviously very sardonic and mannered, as when he uses a long series of images of the Duchess at a party as though it constituted a clause in between two dashes in a sentence: “the Duchess searched for him —” followed by the visuals and then, when the dangling phrase had almost been forgotten, “— in vain.”

J. Romney:

Characterised as a sort of Napoleonic wild beast ill at ease in the tameness of Restoration Paris, Armand – a general newly returned from Africa who initially fascinates married duchess Antoinette with stories of his exploits – is associated from the start with the great outdoors, prowling Mallorca’s windlashed ramparts, while Antoinette is first seen doubly imprisoned, in nun’s cowl and behind a grille.

The film is largely set in a series of enclosed salon and boudoir interiors, an overtly theatrical domain in which Antoinette is a surpassing mistress of mise en scène. Preparing for Armand’s first visit, she arranges herself for maximum effect on a canapé, in discreet déshabille, ordering her servant to lower the lighting (the thematics of light and heat later extended in the fireplace that Armand pokes with barely contained sexual frustration, and in the brand with which he threatens Antoinette).

As actress, Antoinette is skilled at the well-timed entrance and exit, whereas Armand habitually arrives too early, or storms inopportunely into the star’s dressing room. It is part of Armand’s revenge that he at last masters both mise en scène and performance, in a startlingly excessive scene that replaces Antoinette’s poised comedy of manners with a lurid melodrama: in it, he plays a menacing Byronic ravisher, supported by masked men hovering around a brazier. This sudden eruption of violence in the middle of an analytical drama may seem wildly incongruous, yet the tonal discontinuity comes directly from Balzac’s story, and Rivette achieves the seemingly impossible in making such a disjunction work convincingly on screen. The violence at the heart of the story, together with its cautionary-tale aspect, is foregrounded by Rivette’s reversion to Balzac’s original title for his novel. The reference is to a veiled warning that Armand gives Antoinette, the axe being the English one that beheaded Charles I – the implication is that the reckless cause their own downfall. In reality, however, Armand himself figuratively wields the axe that will destroy his own chance of happiness.

D. Kasman:

How strange that a filmmaker who through the years has so loved process, often in terms of acting and theatre, of seeing the expression of things worked out awkwardly before us, and conspiracy, in terms of the hints that everything out there, out of sight and out of the film frame, may be connected, has decided to adapt a reserved, 19th century historical chamber romance. Oh, but with such a surprise we then get to engage in the pleasures of the hunt! For then we find things like this: how is the navigation of social rules and norms—a very real thing with a very allusive existence—like the theatre and how is it like a conspiracy? Well, it is not without reason that Rivette opens the film at the melodramatic peak of the couple’s aching separation—the Duchess a nun on a remote Spanish isle and separated from the General by the convent’s metal bars—and then transitions and flashes back five years to the couple’s meeting and affair through two sweeps of a theatre curtain. The stage then is not the actual island (filmed on location), but is the interiors of the Restoration period, in all their glory, wood boards creaking like an empty stage. …

It is like a game played again and again with different moves but the same results, the repeating drama inside the haunted house of Celine and Julie transposed to thinking, feeling participants. The drama exists in a hanging kind of closed-off world, all frustrated performances that are almost content, as the playfulness and acting gets close to true expression, true connection. But something holds everyone back, holds the drama back, holds the love back, and gradually both General and Duchess become obsessed with this vague, menacing limitation, a mysterious stopgap to happiness that can neither be seen nor surmounted.

Whew, I love all these themes that get read into Rivette’s work. I always wonder whether he’s aware of them and consciously shaping his films in this way, or if the themes are unintended and they are more or less created by the critics, or if they’ve just become a part of his creative process, so much that he doesn’t think about them as consciously as he used to, and they become more subtle and have to be drawn out by a viewer well familiar with his previous films.

D. Ehrenstein:

The film is “dryly funny. Especially so when “the 13” make their appearance in the last act, looking more like a left bank version of the Keystone Kops than a fearsome secret society.