Jacques Rivette: Va Savoir

Bresson again

Mouchette and Le journal d’un curé de campagne are returns to an ancient story, the Passion of Christ. In that story, as in Bresson’s two films, there are similar elements: chance (a series of encounters none of which are particularly connected, but all of which lead to a predestined end); predestination (though the path to a final end are matters of chance and coincidence, the end itself is predetermined); freedom (the characters embrace their fate freely, not mere acceptance, but an active embrace as understanding and thereby liberation); God’s grace (the final act and the entirety of the journey towards it are a gift, evidence of the grace of God).

The stories, as narrated by Bresson, only appear to be predestined after the fact, not before. Nothing that comes before determines the final outcome until the outcome is reached and then as a consequence can be read back into the events that preceded it. The outcome is neither logical nor exactly linear. It simply arrives. It arrives because it is in the nature of things, but that nature is an illumination, not a causal chain.

If, indeed, Bresson repeats the story of the Passion, returns to it, his loyalty to it, as is his loyalty to the novels of Bernanos, is literal and redundant. He does not adapt the literary text or illustrate it. He repeats it. Particularly, in Le journal, each act you see is the repetition of the act that has been spoken in the narration. Thus you have a series of different but related materials side by side that you can recognise because of their similarity, but most of all because of their redundance: Bresson’s film, Bernanos’s novels, the Passion or, in other terms, images and sounds, written words, a sacred text, and, finally perhaps, the events that the text relates, that is, a memory.

Why do it this way? Why not adapt the Bernanos rather than present it literally and why not present the story of the Passion rather than transform it and why, more generally, present things in so disconnected, undramatised, non-causal a manner as Bresson does?

Clearly, it is not possible to go back directly and for a very simple reason. If the Bernanos were adapted, it would be falsified. The novel would be lost stance would not be a return, nor a repetition, but an imposture. Bresson is in any case very precise in not wanting any imposture in his films thus his strictures against acting (interpreting) and against fictionalisations as illusions. He wears down and pares down interpretative performances and he defictionalises by presenting the elements of a fiction without their illusions and joins. It is as if stories are reduced to the gestures (the language and elements) that compose them, that is, the reality of their composition and enactment.

If any attempt at a realism would be illusory and false, what then are the alternatives? Certainly, Bresson is not a realist in the sense of seeking out a real-seeming, but a realist in seeking out the truth of things, a truth masked by realistic fiction and the conventions of realistic acting.

In a paradoxical way, Bresson pares down performance and story and text to their absolute minimum, a kind of nudity or bareness as if to reveal their essence (truth) and in so doing attains to an artifice that is more extreme than the most studied imitative performance, but whereas the latter reproduces (imitates), the former, Bresson’s approach, reveals, uncovers, unmasks: the reverse of imitation. In so doing, as with the musical, gestures, words, sounds are purified (they become music, dance), into their abstractness, no longer imitative and representational of something else, but themselves, a purity of gesture, rhythm stripped of representational rationale and, thus, in Bresson’s case, of their realism.

Bresson gives the novels of Bernanos a second chance not by imitating but by composing by means of them, purifying their literariness into forms in film. He uses film in this case to abstract the literariness of the novels, to their writing; that writing then becomes a compositional element in his films just as he reduces performance, heretofore in the service of representation and imitation, to its gestures, its separated out parts, its fragments of movement, body, voice, its components, and with these, he constructs a film. The film then is both the reality of the story and its abstraction, that is, the story, but the story as its forms. These forms, for him, point to a truth that can only be formally reached, the essence of things rather than their surface representation.

Film, for Bresson, registers at once the reality of things and their truth but only on condition that this register is revelatory rather than interpretative, that it strives toward a blankness, confident that the attainment of such blankness, of such stripping down, will reveal a truth otherwise imperceptible and certainly imperceptible by a covering over by fictional imitations and its corollary, fictional acting.
This is not only the second chance for Bernanos but the second chance for the Passion, the recovery of it by the recovery of means, of gestures, of acts, that returns to a past for a present in keeping these dimensions distinct in the redundancy of their actions, both a second chance, a repetition, and an eternal return.

Just as Bresson returns to us the Bernanos novels and the Passion of Christ, he gives us (returns us) to the cinema, perhaps to its original innocence and purity. The move away from representation and the move toward abstraction (the former is never completely effaced and the latter never completely dominant…they are in tension and in conflict and always in simultaneity) reveals, as few filmmakers ever have, the forms of the cinema just as surely as the films reveal the writing of Bernanos. Bresson attains with the cinema a maximum of what might be described as a cinematic redundancy: the event and its duplication and nothing more…the very first films, the beginning of the history of the cinema, and, another history that only the cinema, perhaps, the cinema alone, can recount.

If the novels of Bernanos had been adapted by Bresson, the images would function as a recording and thus be without a life even if they had the illusion of life, a kind of corpse activated. What gives Bresson’s Le Journal life is the encounter between it and the novel, between film and literature. It is their juxtaposition, their coming together (but not in accord, not in effacement) that is the film and the energy and vitality of the film. Equally, it is the juxtaposition of shot and the subject and of shot with shot that is the magic of the Bresson film, where, without any foreknowledge, any clear notion of an outcome, such juxtapositions produce soemthing entirely new and unforeseen, where ‘writing’ in the radical sense of writing gives birth to ideas and to images and to sentiments not known in advance but produced at the moment of writing, not quite improvisation, but close to it, something approaching the sense of chance and accident, to be alive to chance occurrences, chance encounters and to seek out, be open to what they might reveal and produce, what life gives us rather than what we try to enforce upon it.

Bresson’s method, by paring down, by extraction, is a method for making come alive (revelation) what is there, what, if you like, preexists the film but is also its mystery and secret, and that these juxtapositions of pared fragments ignite and open up, like the grace that suffuses the parish priest and little Mouchette descending the hillside. One thing, another thing…and then something else…revealed…and that, that is grace.

Va savoir

There are three film-makers that are inside every Rivette film: Renoir (for the sense of theatre and improvisation and the idea that the entry into the false, into play and theatre and roles, is a path to the truth of things), Rossellini (for the virtues of the imperfect, the heterogeneity and mismatch of different realities, to chance and the arrival of the miraculous, the secret, the mystery…suddenly, without apparent cause as the source of the energy and delight of cinema) and Bresson (for the purity of cinematic forms, mise en scène as an instrument to order space and time, to seek out and discover what the reality of things might yield, every film then, an experiment).

These are less influences than presences. It is as if the cinema is a vast house and in the house a family and as you go about your business, you encounter the other members of the family and they remind you of things, and you chat with them, and you remember. Va Savoir, unmistakably, is a conversation with Renoir and in particular with La Carosse d’or (The Golden Coach) and La Règle du jeu (Rules of the Game). There is same to-ing and fro-ing between identities, the play of theatre and the play of life, and the inversion of the relation by the Rivette in contrast to La Carosse d’or and the homage to Italian theatre and the figure of Camille in the one film and Camilla (played by the Italian actress, Anna Magnani, in the other).

Three aspects of Rivettian method:

1. Rivette’s films are lengthy, three sometimes four hours, in one case, originally twelve hours. Watching them however is not difficult; they are long, but do not feel so. They seem to be aerated, lightened as if the length is necessary for the sense of momentariness and immediacy, of bouyancy. In part, this has to do with method. Rivette seldom cries out ‘cut’ to a performance. He allows it to run its course and for it to arrive at something by itself, letting the film if you like, its own life, not forcing it. Thus, Rivette adds (Bresson subtracts for similar reasons) in order to make more subtle, more nuanced, more playful and possible and thus, lighter and aerial.

Rivette’s films fly, never plumb, but to fly, as they do, they need to risk, at every moment, a possible disaster, to fall, cadere, a cadenza. It is the act of keeping them up that is the pleasure and magic of his films.

2. Rivette always knows about tomorrow, the future. He knows today what he will seek tomorrow on the set, tomorrow’s film. And, he already knows yesterday, the past. But he never knows today, not in any detail. Today, the present is always an adventure, a stepping into the unknown.

Rivette shoots in sequence. Yesterday will have an effect on today and today an effect on tomorrow. This is not the yesterday, today, tomorrow of the fiction but the yesterday, today, tomorrow of the film, of its shooting, its performances, its words, in short of its play.

Knowing tomorrow is not having a script, but an idea. Realising an idea is the mise en scène of the film but that only becomes apparent in its enactment, not before. Rivette’s present is rigorously present and chancy.

3. Rivettian virtues are attentiveness and being disponible (open, expectant).

Let me give you an idea of a how a Rivette film is ‘written’ and the extreme danger that his films court, a danger unthinkable say in the Hollywood film.

When Rivette comes on the set for a day of shooting, he is not at all clear about what will occur. There is no written script, no dialogue. The entry onto the set is not exactly work in the usual sense but a non-work, a getting together, a setting to make things, like you might arrive at a party or in the playground. The set is an opportunity to play and the film the product of that play. In fact, the film is the play itself. There are two elements, the play that the film records and the play of the film in recording it, the world and the idea of it, the world and the discovery of it, both at once, simultaneously. Mise en scène is this interaction and tension.

The risk is obvious.

The metteur en scène does not know exactly where he is going.

The actors know little or nothing about their characters and only have their lines day by day and sometimes only minute by minute, thus they, like the metteur en scène must be able to react at the last minute, to discover themselves instantly and hope that things will work out.

The script writer is in the same situation. There is no script that has been written previously over months in advance of the film, but rather a script that is written on the set at the moment before a scene is shot and often as it is being shot. The film then emerges in this instantaneity and simultaneity, not as a record but as a performance based on the non-work of play.

Everyone takes a hand in the film. The actors because they not only interact with each other and the decor and scene that surrounds them, but because they also interact with the script writer and the director. The company plays together at making a film and thus the outside of composition and structuring is at the inside of the film as if it is that mise en scène that is its subject.

The film is its very subject and the author of the work. The task of Rivette is not to force things, direct things in a definite manner, but to watch and to listen to the way the film is going and the way dialogue and acting and story are proceeding, to be attentive to it and to accidents and associations and to then guide things, bring them to fruition and maturity and seize opportunities as they arise. This gives his films their concreteness, their play, their charm and their magic and generosity.

One of the most obvious qualities of Rivette’s films is their ambiguity or rather ambivalence: there is no right or wrong, no good or bad, no black or white, but a floating between these, a delicacy that is at once aesthetic and ethical. And this ambiguity is connected to Rivette’s manner of working of both manipulating and not, exercising power and renouncing it. Power risks negating what might be, effacing what is and rejecting and excluding. Rivette’s ambivalence allows shadows to emerge (Va savoir concerns doubles, shadows, mirrors that haunt the characters and the film), the forgotten to reappear (Va savoir concerns the return of actions, characters, events and their theatrical doubling), the excluded and hidden to be made present (Va savoir concerns the discovery of secrets and hidden objects in the Goldoni play made present by an accident in the kitchen and by the performance of the Pirandello play and by the failed seduction of Ugo by Dominique, and ring hidden in the sugar jar by Arthur). This entry of spectres, ghosts, shadows, the excluded, the effaced and the ambivalence of a mise en scène which permits these to appear is what in part accounts for the combination of lengthiness and aeration in a Rivette film.

Un réalisateur est un cinéaste qui préfère le réel au vrai, la vraisemblance à la vérité, la perfection de la réalisation à la maladresse pleine de vie de l’idée; il est insensible à la poésie de ces “fautes d’orthographe” (faux raccords, dédain pour le réalisme des éclairages) qui, pour le metteur en scène, sont la conséquence accessoire de son plaisir de filmer, d’inventer donc d’exagérer. Qu’importe au peintre que l’ombre sur la toile ne respecte pas les lois de l’optique (Rubens); qu’importent au metteur en scène la gaucherie d’une interprétation (il n’attend pas des acteurs, comme pourrait le faire le réalisateur, que leur jeu soit impeccable), ou la présence, dans son films, de surprises hasardeuses et fantaisistes:…

Si la “réalisation” (adéquation entre un sujet et son traitement, ce qu’une convention nomme le style), vers lequel se porte traditionnellement l’intérêt principal des critiques, compte moins que l’idée, et la réalité que la vérité, c’est parce que le metteur en scène véritable s’efforce, par cette invention jaillisante, par cette puissance de l’imprévu en laquelle réside la vie même, d’“atteindre la figure secrète, but de toute oeuvre d’art”

[A film director is a filmmaker who prefers the real to the true, the real-seeming to the truth, the perfection of direction to the awkward fullness of life in the idea; he is insensitive to the poetry of “orthographic faults” (false connections, disdain for the realism of lighting) which, for the metteur en scène, are the unintended consequence of the pleasure of filming, to invent, and then to exaggerate. What does it matter to a painter that the shadows on a canvas do not follow the laws of optics (Rubens); what does the clumsiness of an intepretation matter to the metteur en scène (he does not demand of his actors as would a film director that their performance be impeccable), or the presence in his films of risky surprises and the unconventional…

If ‘direction’ (the right match between a subject and its treatment, what is conventionally called style), that which traditionally is the main concern of critics, counts less than the idea, and reality less than truth, it is because the metteur en scène truly strives, by this ebullient inventiveness, by this power of the unexpected, in which there is life itself, to “attain to the secret end of all works of art.”]

Created on: Thursday, 21 June 2007

About the Author

Sam Rohdie

About the Author

Sam Rohdie

Sam Rohdie (1939 – 2015) was Professor of Cinema Studies in the Department of Film at the University of Central Florida. He has held the Chair in Film Studies at The Queens University of Belfast and before that was Professor of Film Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University. He also held academic posts in universities in England, Ghana, Italy and the United States and was an original member of the Cinema Studies Program at La Trobe University, Melbourne. Sam was the editor of Screen in the United Kingdom from 1971 to 1974. His work was widely published in academic film journals and books. His books include Antonioni (1990), Rocco and His Brothers (1993),The Passion of Pier Paolo Pasolini (1996), Promised Lands: Cinema, Geography, Modernism (2001), Fellini Lexicon (2002), Montage (2006) and Film Modernism (2015).View all posts by Sam Rohdie →