Merry-Go-Round (1981, Jacques Rivette)

When someone in the film world dies I don’t always run out and watch one of their movies – only when it’s someone meaningful to me, like Claude Chabrol, Dennis Hopper and Eric Rohmer. I once considered holding a monthly “death of cinema” screening, inviting people over to watch the work of whoever had died that month (there’s always someone), but as with all my plans to watch movies in groups, it fell through – nobody liked Rohmer’s final film, so Katy suggested I not do that anymore. But Maria Schneider warrants a memorial screening because she starred in one of the few Jacques Rivette films I haven’t yet seen, and I happen to have a nice subtitled copy of it handy.

Maria Schneider at dinner:

Schneider was allegedly exploited in Last Tango in Paris, backed out of Caligula, fired from That Obscure Object of Desire, and not up to the task of leading a Rivette picture, which probably explains her replacement in certain sequences by a different actress. But she’s still revered for her part in The Passenger and for being so naked in the early 70’s. This was actually Schneider’s second movie titled Merry-Go-Round – the first was in 1973, a (West) German remake of La Ronde.

Schneider’s costar is Warhol actor Joe Dallesandro, the houseboy/lover in Blood For Dracula. Yes, this is weird casting for a Rivette movie. But production-wise we’re in familiar territory, with the Out 1/Duelle team of Schiffman, de Gregorio, Tchalgadjieff and Lubtchansky (X2). By the end we’ve got triple-cross conspiracies, psychics, secret weapons, assassinations and meetings in the park, so the Rivette touchstones are all there. It’s also surprisingly good-looking (if not up to Duelle/Noroit standards) for such a reputedly troubled film.

Joe and Maria:

The story goes that Maria’s father is presumed dead and some four million dollars left in his care are unaccounted for. Maria’s elusive sister Liz (Danièle Gegauff, a producer on Out 1 and star of a single Chabrol film) summons Maria and Joe (Liz’s boyfriend) but fails to show up herself, so these two meet and go on an adventure together. Liz shows up briefly, along with a bunch more characters, each of whom want to help either Maria or her possibly-alive father, or more likely, want a share of the money. Most suspicious is Shirley (Sylvie Matton, whose husband directed her and Udo Kier in his adult horror Spermula), who is possibly either Liz’s best friend, the father’s ex-lover, Joe’s sister or none of the above,

Maria’s sister Liz with Suspicious Shirley:

The movie seems to fits neatly in the Rivette filmography, with on-camera musicians like predecessor Duelle, and a couple of characters chasing around the country trying to solve a possibly imagined mystery a la follow-up Pont du Nord. But there are some wrinkles. The grasp on the mystery is soon lost and Joe and Maria ramble, their relationship growing increasingly unpleasant, then the plot returns with a puzzling vengeance in the last half hour. Plus there are unexplained fantasy scenes, with Joe and a suspiciously Maria-like girl (played by Hermine Karagheuz, Marie in Out 1) chasing each other through forests and deserts, with appearances by snakes, rifles and a mounted armored knight.


Jean-Francois Stevenin (“Max” in Le Pont du Nord) is in an early scene with the two sisters, and seems to kidnap Liz (cue Walter: “the girl kidnapped herself”). Seemingly trustworthy lawyer-type Renée (Francoise Prevost of Vadim’s segment in Spirits of the Dead) and the mysterious Shirley put our duo up to collecting the key and combination/location of the father’s safe in order to retrieve the money (this is never done, as far as I could tell). Psychic Mr. Danvers (Maurice Garrel, Philippe Garrel’s father, played Emmanuelle Devos’s dying father in Kings and Queen, also amusingly in a movie called Noli Me Tangere) pretends to be the post-plastic-surgery father of the sisters. Liz is rescued (or “rescued”, depending if we believe Walter) by Maria with Renée’s associate Jerome (Michel Berto, Honeymoon in Out 1, also in a Robbe-Grillet film) armed only with a pipe. In the end it either all goes wrong, or all goes according to plan, as Liz is shot by a sniper and Maria unloads a pistol into poor Mr. Danvers.

Mr. Danvers, we hardly knew thee

Whenever the movie just doesn’t know where to go, it cuts to either the live musicians or the fantasy scenes. I wasn’t sure what to make of them, but they grew on me. I liked the bass-and-clarinet soundtrack, the colorful, mobile cinematography. The physical action, fist-fighting and such, were pretty inept, especially coming right after Duelle starring the sprightly Jean Babilée. Movie was made to fulfill contractual obligations after the collapse of the proposed four-part series that yielded Duelle and Noroit, but then was a huge failure itself, so I’ll bet the exec producers wished they’d just left Rivette alone.

The musicians: Barre Phillips at left worked on the Naked Lunch soundtrack with Ornette Coleman, and John Surman at right has put out 20+ albums and hopefully changed his hairstyle:


It just has the right amount of disregard for plot that nothing seems remotely forced. This is almost unheard of in Rivette’s world. For as great as his other films are, they (almost) all seemed to be dragged down by unnecessary elements that were thrown in at the last minute. Here, everything is so completely natural (one cannot stress this enough!) that the 150-minute running time feels fairly short.

The two sisters, plus friendly assistant Jerome:


We started work with the two actors, and after 8 days, things were going very badly. It was like a machine that, once set in motion, must continue running despite changing regimes, forced or arbitrary accelerations, until the energy was all burned up, exhausted. That’s not at all how we filmed L’Amour fou, even if there too, the spectator feels he’s witnessing an encounter. … It’s an exaggeration to say that we placed Maria and Joe together in front of the camera and waited to see what would happen. We had a starting point of course, and then we made up the beginning of a story, with a father who had disappeared, but all along we told ourselves, this is just a pretext for Maria and Joe to get to know each other. I like that idea: two people get together because a third, who has arranged to meet them, does not show up. There have no choice but to get to know each other. It’s a situation I imagined in the context of the Resistance. Thinking about it again later, I think it was the subject of Robert Hossein’s Nuit des espions. And since I didn’t feel like making a film about the Resistance or the terrorist underground, it became that more banal situation, two people convoked by a third who is only the sister of the one and the girlfriend of the other. But since the relationship between Maria and Joe rapidly became hostile, we were forced to develop the story-line; from a mere pretext it took on a disproportionate importance. Maybe that gives the film a certain vagabond charm, I don’t know, but it really is a film with a first half-hour that’s quite coherent, and then it searches for itself three times, three times searches for a way out.”


E. Howard:

The bulk of the film consists of Ben and Léo wandering around the French countryside, ostensibly searching for clues to Elisabeth’s disappearance or the safe combination needed to get their hands on the missing money. What they actually do is mope around a lot, wander through abandoned houses, and joke and fight and patter, improvising goofy bits like the one where Ben mocks the conspiratorial obsession with the number three by counting off increasingly lengthy numbers consisting entirely of threes. In the film’s best scene, the duo takes a break for dinner at an abandoned house whose refrigerator is improbably well-stocked: they crack open cans of sardines and make salads and drink the juice from jars of cherries, sitting across from one another at a long table with candelabras in the center. Léo jokes that it’s a bourgeois meal, and the two of them have fun playing hide and seek from behind the candle flames, and soon the conversation turns into a lighthearted seduction where it’s obvious that the actors are having as much fun as the characters.

Our heroes, looking tired and frumpy in the morning light:

Rivette again:

I like a film to be an adventure: for those who make it, and for those who see it. The adventure of this filming, I must admit, was a bit fitful: the course which was established at the outset was corrected many times, in response to contrary winds, lulls, or gentle breezes. I only hope that the finished film, with all its detours, keeps something of the dangers of the crossing, of its uncertainties, of its unclouded moments-even if, at the end, one notices that perhaps the voyage has been circular: like a “merry-go-round.”