The Story of Marie and Julien (2003, Jacques Rivette)

“Something is going to happen.”

I enjoyed the movie a lot, more than the other post-breakdown Rivette films I’ve seen. Along the way, tried to draw connections to his other work and figure out what it all means. Might be difficult since I haven’t watched related works Duelle and Noroit yet, but this was supposed to be part one of the still-unfinished four-part series, so I thought it might work.

We’ve got such Rivette favorite themes as…

Performance and ritual:

…secrets hidden in an old house:

…and a sinister photograph:

We’ve got such late-period trademarks as the fade to black after each scene, the ordinary household details of daily life, and the minimal music score.

So yeah, I followed the story, tried to figure out what was happening and why, and guessed I had an alright grasp of things. Bopped around the web looking for opinions.

DVDverdict didn’t like it much:

Béart and Radzilowicz, improbably matched as lovers but fine as actors, go through their paces with all due seriousness, but in the end there’s little momentum, little of interest, and little reward. At the core of the story is forbidden love, and what we will do in its name, but Rivette’s proficient, clinically precise filmmaking refuses to embrace the one element of his story upon which even Marie and Julien’s personal tragedies hinge.

On a separate review on the same site, DVDverdict rather did like it:

One’s growing realization that the strange emotional affect of the characters, and dialogue that sometimes comes off as artificial and intellectually abstract, are both servants of plot and not merely pretentious art film conceits is a great source of delight.

Then I hit up Senses of Cinema, which proved that neither I nor DVDverdict had any idea what we were watching, and made me feel bad all week for not having thought of any of this stuff by myself.

Before getting into that, despite author Michael J. Anderson’s statement that “a traditional analysis which details the plot and characterisations utilised in the narrative is of little use in talking about Rivette’s film,” I’m gonna lay those out just so I don’t forget ’em later.

Julien (Jerzy Radziwilowicz, Walser in Secret Defense) works from home as a clock repairman, alone but for his cat.

He dreams of a chance encounter with Marie (who he met one time a year earlier) that ends with her trying to stab him. Goes out and has a chance encounter with Marie, who agrees to go out for coffee but never shows up. So he goes back to blackmailing Madame X (Anne Brochet, of Intimate Strangers and a 1992 French Phil K. Dick adaptation), who runs a phony business and may have killed her own sister.

Finally Marie (Emmanuelle Béart, of La Belle noiseuse, Strayed, an Assayas, some Chabrols and Mission: Impossible) mysteriously reappears. They’re both lonely and attracted to each other, and he soon asks her to move in. Cue transition from part 1 (“Julien”) to part 2 (“Julien et Marie”).

Julien et Marie:

The two have hot role-playing sex together, finishing each other’s erotic stories. Marie moves in but remains mysterious, spends her free time secretly rearranging an upstairs room, and sometimes disappears to a hotel and has to be tracked down. She is let in on the blackmailing plot, but while Julien is meeting with Madame X, Marie appears to be meeting with X’s dead sister (Bettina Kee of Va savoir).

More dead than alive:

Things get more ghostly when Marie also appears to be dead, having killed herself months earlier after an argument with her then-boyfriend, as we move to parts 3 (“Marie et Julien”) and 4 (“Marie”). Keeping in mind the dream at the beginning and the unreal tone to the meeting pictured above, I start to wonder which parts of the story are actually happening.

Marie acts more strange, starts chanting in a foreign language, and remodels the upstairs room to look exactly like the one in which she hung herself, then is stopped by Julien when she tries to ritualistically repeat that action. The blackmail plot plays out, and the two sisters meet and work things out.


“Now I am yours. You are mine. Where I must go you will accompany me. For what I must do you will help me. Don’t fail me, or you will lose the very memory of me.”

Julien rebels and it happens. Marie disappears to him, though we still see her. This is where an ordinary ghost story would end… he broke the rules and the prophecy came true… but Marie becomes real again, her blood is restored and they get their happy ending.


Oh, and I’d read an article on Kino Slang a while back about this movie but had forgotten and thought it was referring to Duelle. Fun to watch the documentary moments in the film as Julien’s cat responds to the camera crew and boom mic offscreen.

Alas, 30 years on, Rivette gets reproached when in Histoire de Marie et Julien he crystalizes some of his former narrative terror and anti-illusionism into one brief shot of a cat on a man’s chest recoiling from the camera and the boom, the whole appartus bearing down on them in a tracking shot. A Bazinian anti-illusionism. Once the camera settles, the cat stares up at the boom mic. Perhaps the man is “covering” for the cat when he looks up too and says “nosing around upstairs again?


On to the great analysis from Senses of Cinema:

Rivette structures his film not as a dream or a series of dreams, but instead eviscerates any distinction between dream and reality, establishing a logic present only in fiction – there is no distinction between consciousness and subconsciousness, dream and reality, life and death, but rather, all is fiction.

With the opening “Julien” intertitle, Rivette suggests that this character may be constructing the narrative: for instance, there is simultaneous depiction of desire (that Marie needs him, that she is free, that they meet on the street; and more directly later in the film, a cut from Marie stroking Julien’s arm to the pair making love) and anxiety (the knife, the fact that she stands him up) woven throughout the opening section of the film. Yet, this evident focalisation – the narrative being told through Julien – does not last, as Marie quickly becomes a co-creator of the pursuant narrative. In a more directly self-aware moment of creation, for instance, Marie speculates about two sisters in a photo that she and Julien are examining: “one is dead, the other alive.” Likewise, Marie asks Julien to tell her about the “forest”, which leads into an erotic fantasy narrated first by Julien, and then by Marie herself. (At this point they are co-creators of the narrative, taking turns constructing the incident.) Moreover, there are also scenes in which Julien plays no part at all, such as a mysterious nocturnal meeting – that once again Rivette suggests may be a dream – between Marie and the dead woman from the photo, who imparts a fragment of information and gives her a secret hand signal. And then there are also the subsequent intertitles: “Julien and Marie”, “Marie and Julien” and “Marie”, which similarly denote shifting narrative perspectives.

Indeed, if anything, Marie seems to occupy a special place in the narrative, as it is she and not Julien who seems aware of the fact that they are in a narrative.

And there’s more about the theatricality of the film… stuff that I should’ve been able to catch. Ugh… next time I need to either try harder, or find articles to read BEFORE watching the movie. Maybe I’ll try that with Duelle then see if I can fend for myself with Don’t Touch The Axe.