“Rien n’aura eu lieu que le lieu” (Nothing will have taken place but the place)
– Stéphane Mallarmé, cited in Paris nous appartient (Jacques Rivette, 1961)
Many of the themes and approaches to cinematic form seen in Jacques Rivette’s nearly thirteen-hour Out 1: Noli Me Tangere (1971) – known in English simply as Out 1 – were already present in the director’s debut feature, Paris Belongs to Us (Paris nous appartient, 1961), which portrays a loosely connected group of young people involved in amateur theatre, vaguely bohemian culture, and possibly radical politics. This earlier film’s protagonist is a young woman on the fringes of such circles who seeks to ascertain within them a conspiratorial network itself devoted to unmasking a much more powerful conspiracy made up of forces dedicated to the gradual, secretive consolidation of trans-Atlantic fascism – concerns that come across in turn as justified, paranoid, and mad. A decade later, Out 1’s vastly expanded canvas enables a much more elaborate and concurrently diffuse conspiracy intrigue, which Rivette suggested in interview was both a belated addition to the project and – at least initially – intended as parody (Fischer and Reichart 2015), its political context now the aftermath of the would-be revolutionary and subsequently much mythologised period known as “May ’68”.
The potential existence and identity of a conspiratorial network in the film is never clearly stated. More explicitly, Rivette offers a darkly humorous riff on the idea of a shadowy organisation as described in Honoré de Balzac’s The History of the Thirteen (Histoire des Treize, 1833). Critics typically read the film as being about the fragmented, depressed remnants of loose May ’68 networking. Yet the mysterious organisation that characters in the film may be involved in is also described by at least one, Colin (Jean-Pierre Léaud in his greatest performance), and at times portrayed on screen as, a sinister, criminal cabal. Any such conspiracy could be a reactionary state or corporate operation. Alternatively, one may operate within the other: for example, right-wing agents infiltrating leftist or bohemian counterculture elements (a phenomenon not uncommon at the time) seeking to sabotage any fragmented revolutionary networks from regrouping. This may help explain the confusion of any viewer seeking to understand a given character’s behaviour and increasing paranoia about the roles of others in their perceived circle or part of the network. Similarly unresolved by film’s end is whether the group – or groups, interconnected or otherwise – represents, or has wielded, any actual power, or even exists at all outside the feverish minds of its mainly youthful protagonists.
As strongly and ironically suggested by the title of Rivette’s debut feature, the protagonists in Paris Belongs to Us would like to “own” the French metropolis – and hence, symbolically at least, European modernity itself – and thereby fulfil what would become the new decade’s agenda for part of the young adult population: Overthrowing the old order, one still directly associated with fascism and war-time collaboration. That 1961 story is introduced by way of a sobering but also possibility-laden Charles Péguy epigraph on screen, immediately contradicting the film’s title by announcing: “Paris belongs to no one”. More strikingly still, the question of who “us” may refer to is never made clear in Paris Belongs to Us, or – in much more elaborate-baroque form – Out 1. In both films, the characters come across as floating vagrants within their vertiginous metropolitan homes, precariously occupying spaces they seem not to own, control, or even actually to live in, presenting themselves as self-styled prey and at the same time almost fantastical would-be agents of the political and cultural geo-movements of history.
What follows is a three-part analysis of Out 1’s very particular cinematic vision of Paris informed by the film’s post-May ’68 context and subterranean thematic address. Marshalling a distinct, radical, and intertextual cinematic form, Out 1’s idiosyncratic vision of a real, mythic, and uncanny city half a century ago offers a special resonance for later generations seeking ever-elusive creative and political freedom as they attempt to transform history’s palimpsestic spectres of revolutionary possibility into reality, in a world exponentially defined by network culture, performance, and virtuality.
Après May – Paris and Conspiracy
For many decades, Out 1 enjoyed a mythic status among close followers of progressive European cinema due to having been made by Jacques Rivette (the most innovative French filmmaker of his generation after Jean-Luc Godard), the film’s inherently non-commercial length, and simply that for a long time very few people were able to see it. The duration of Rivette’s features, this one in particular, has long been central to their formally and sometimes politically radical reputation in refusing to abide by the formal and commercial dictates of narrative, exhibition, and distribution. And at the level of the shot or scene – a principle taken to extremes in the early hours of Out 1 – length is foregrounded in a way that time can play havoc with, often blocking, plot development and logic.
The original nearly thirteen-hour version of the film had one public screening (without credits and other minor postproduction touches) on 9 and 10 September 1971 at the Maison de la Culture in La Havre, an apparently already mythic event that would only become more so as Out 1’s only outing in two decades – despite Le Monde’s reviewer describing a “voyage beyond cinema” (Wiles 2010: p. 146). In 1972, another brilliant but very different four-hour cut of the film (also containing some different footage) called Out 1: Spectre appeared in French cinemas, Rivette attempting to rescue the project and recoup the initial outlay for his bold producer, Stéphane Tchalgadjieff. Seventeen years later, a slightly different edit of the long version was at last given a more official premiere at the Rotterdam Film Festival in February 1989, followed by some West German and French television screenings. The film then largely disappeared again for another two decades before extensive festival screenings of a restored version (featuring more tweaking by the director), followed by DVD and Blu-ray release shortly before Rivette’s 2016 death. It is this final, surely definitive, cut of the film’s long version I address.
Out 1’s epic duration has been much commented on, yet it is divided up into conventional movie-length parts or episodes of approximately 90 minutes, prefaced with monochrome images rather elliptically reminding the viewer what has occurred in “the story so far”. Such a form makes the film resemble a unique avant-gardist version of a single-season television programme. While Tchalgadjieff did unsuccessfully attempt to get the film screened on French TV in 1971, despite its radically non-commercial character Out 1’s ultimate and perhaps inevitable home would be on the small screen, first becoming properly available to non-festival audiences two decades later thanks to European network screenings and eventually emerging in streaming form (on US Netflix no less) in the year of Rivette’s death. The general style of shooting features long shots frequently up to 10 minutes in duration. But with the first two episodes comprising very slow, narratively void experimental theatre exercise sequences featuring near-exclusive use of very lengthy hand-held shots, the viewer is given something of a “trial by fire” inoculation, perhaps only to be relieved when a very sketchy and elusive narrative stutters into life after three hours via the quick, strange act of a young woman passing a note to a young man who does not appear to recognise her. This almost subliminal, blink-and-you-miss-it moment kicks off the remaining ten hours’ leisurely, elliptical, labyrinthine, is-it-or-isn’t-it conspiracy narrative.
What kind of story does the film tell? Histoire des Treize is usually considered its primary literary source, and Out 1 even includes a brief scene featuring a Balzac specialist (played by Rivette’s Cahiers du cinéma colleague, ƒric Rohmer) being interviewed by Colin, who asks the subtly bemused academic whether he thinks Balzac’s shadowy organisation known as The Thirteen might be re-activated in the present day. Prominent allusions to Edgar Allan Poe and Lewis Carroll also feature throughout the film, explicitly bringing to the fore fantastical, absurd, and surrealist allusions transcending the French context. Mary Wiles writes of the way Out 1 very loosely adapts and updates for its post-1968 setting Balzac’s:
combination of multitudes of diverse characters drawn from every stratum of society and in its attempt to reflect the dramatic shift in cultural values in the wake of the French Revolution. More than a century later, Out 1 chronicles Paris in April 1970, two years after the cultural revolution of May ’68. Indeed, Rivette subsequently explained that he had hoped the audience would interpret the film as a post-May ’68 reunion of sorts where it would be evident that “the group of thirteen individuals had met and talked for some time until May 1968 when everything changed and they probably disbanded”. (2010: p. 149)
Again it needs stressing that very little in the way of possible narrative events and quasi-political organisation is ultimately cited, let alone confirmed, in Out 1 itself. Indeed, the film’s reticence and obfuscation through its initial hours in even introducing the above ideas and context as laid out by Wiles is quite perverse.
Donatella Valente articulates the challenge and significance of the heavily distended introduction comprising non-narrative, quasi-documentary scenes in run-down subterranean spaces:
From the beginning, we are shown human beings poised as if grappling with a pre-natal and pre-cultural condition, the film already conveying its mythical and collective tone, suggesting how the individual needs to rediscover, through a process of de-construction and re-acquisition, what once seemed natural. Art and life in the late ’60s had stressed this process of unlearning: deconstructing in order to create afresh. The ’70s, on the other hand, were dominated by the realisation that ideals had fragmented and were no longer tenable. (2016)
Built up over its genuinely epic duration, seen in this way, the world of Out 1 comes across – especially in retrospect – as charting a rather oblique historical moment and culture marked by post-’68 disappointments, played out across various unglamorous Paris (and finally Normandy) locales. Here is at once a seemingly casual and humorous yet also highly considered and darkly serious updated version of the world shown in Paris Belongs to Us: a loosely real yet also decidedly uncanny French metropolis whose youthful bohemian representatives are freshly disillusioned that their dreams cannot become reality. (For my analysis of the earlier film along these lines, see Ford 2007.) In neither 1961 or 1971 does the world, city, or even insular terrain within which they hone artistic and possibly political ambitions ever “belong” to the protagonists, no matter their momentary illusions. In Out 1 even the apparent lead conspirators increasingly come across as without any real power or knowledge of their purported domain/s. The characters seem to “belong” precisely nowhere. Just as the film’s two theatrical troupes rehearse in temporary, out-of-the-way spaces in the bowels of the city, what appear their various living quarters, when we see them, look no less anonymous and unhomely. Especially in its later episodes, the film makes the viewer feel the strange, sometimes almost sinister nature of the terrain through which these people move. More accurately, such spaces suggest an eerie, uneasy mood as a result of providing the various “stages” upon which the characters play out their strange behaviour, often unclear relationships, and secretive or illusory organisational business and conjectures.
While the film can be productively seen as charting the post-May ’68 period and some associated disillusionment, it would be incorrect to suggest that Out 1 thereby accurately renders a cessation of radical activity per se. In reality, the history of revolutionary scheming and agitation was entering a new phase, as is clear both in published histories and the era’s filmmaking – most famously perhaps that of Jean-Luc Godard, but also Chris Marker and other European directors such as Alain Tanner (Switzerland), Dušan Makavejev (Yugoslavia), and Jancsó Miklós (Hungary) – often based in, grappling with, and directly commenting on such context and challenges. We now often refer to this period of radical politics and its cultural output as the peak years of “political modernism”. When it comes to cinema, Out 1 can be considered an eccentric early (if at the time almost entirely unseen) example of such work. In this light, rather than a failed would-be revolutionary event, May ’68 is better seen as the casting-off point for a rich period of interconnected radical politics and filmmaking in France and beyond. (For historical analyses of 1968 and the following years regarding politics, see Braidotti 2008 and Falciola 2017; on the copious filmmaking associated with and spurred on by May ’68, see Grant 2016 and – in French – Roudé 2017; meanwhile, for a magisterial two-volume account of French film criticism’s own post-’68 “red years” in the pages of Cahiers du cinéma, see Fairfax 2021).
Abundant historical and filmic evidence certainly attests to the ongoing – in fact, new – richness of radical cinema and politics in France and Europe in the years following 1968. Even so, the sense and possibility of broad-scale revolutionary change that seemed palpable and even perhaps for a short while imminent around May of that year became less conceivable as the 1970s wore on, with radical groups increasingly resorting to drastic measures often without a wide-scale social base. By 1977, the failures of this era’s revolutionary ambitions were lamented by Marker in his epic essay-film, Le fond de l’air est rouge (“The essence of the air is red”, released in English as A Grin Without a Cat). In this context, made (if not fully emerging) at the onset of this fascinating period of radical politics, film culture, and their intersection, Out 1 can be read as concurrently essaying: the immediate disappointments of May ‘68 as would-be revolutionary event; the subterranean, newly fragmented and exponentially paranoid but not necessarily insignificant form of political organising that would mark the following decade; and, in palimpsestic style, the failure – taking in past and future – to foment a large-scale revolutionary break in the organisation of society.
If today Rivette’s film is frequently (and sometimes simplistically) read as a document of post-May ’68 culture, despair, and occasionally experimental theatre, it also offers up or renders a very arbitrary, unsure fiction that begins its never-steady course when a young woman from one of the theatre troupes, Marie (Hermine Karagheuz), passes Colin the mysterious written note that turns out to be an obscure and perhaps authorless communique setting him on an obsessive course in which he seeks to ascertain and prove the existence of a conspiracy perhaps modelled on Balzac’s “Thirteen”. This entirely artificial, slyly deus ex machina note-passing event abruptly destroys the sense of “documentary” realism that the film establishes throughout its early theatre exercise sequences, and properly sets the scene for a very odd drama that only comes to a head with the ultimate breakdown in – indeed – the thirteenth hour by Thomas (Michael Lonsdale), the quasi-patriarch of this world comprising theatre and possibly politics.
Brad Stevens writes that Out 1’s opening and closing shots are in fact intricately connected, despite the apparent time, distance, and realism-fiction journey travelled, bookending a truly singular essay on the period:
Out 1 progresses from an opening shot in which Lili’s [theatre] group is engaged in communal activity to a closing shot showing one of this group’s members in isolation, neatly demonstrating how the communal dreams of the ‘60s were gradually fragmenting. Individuals who had once been part of larger social/revolutionary movements (and thus “in”) now belong to cocooned factions (“out”) which are themselves in danger of shattering into a collection of isolated shards, a process ultimately undergone by the film itself. (2016)
Rather than the earlier documentary gaze established in the theatre exercise episodes – representing for Stevens and many other critics the lingering idealism of the late 1960s – entirely receding, the focus of such a gaze shifts into documenting the mechanism of the film’s halting fiction and the human performances (to which I will return) required to barely sustain it, comprising no less of an “exercise”. Once we finally get above ground and into Paris’s streets and bars, a more recognisable reality from which nonetheless shards of suggestive narrative and thereby conspiracy start to be metered out in miserly fashion, the film becomes concurrently more engaged in charting the sights, sites, sounds, comportment, clothing styles, modes of communication, and overall “mood” of the city circa 1970 for a network of mainly young, vaguely bohemian Parisians, setting up a potential fiction inextricably linked to their elusive, strange behaviour.
Adding to its idiosyncratically realist and appropriately underground aesthetic is the fact that Out 1 was shot on 16-millimetre stock, the common format for documentaries and low-budget experimental work at the time. Further connecting the film to these non-commercial forms is that it features what appears to have been a collaborative mode of authorship borne of collective improvisation, with the on-screen writing credit shared by key on- and off-screen agents. Constructed in this “democratic” way, the film resonates with central principles driving much post-1968 artistic and political idealism. In the early theatre scenes, Rivette apparently “directed” neither his actors nor the film’s cinematographer-cameraman, Pierre-William Glenn. According to recollections by Glenn, key actor Bulle Ogier and others involved in the production, the director preferred to stand far back from the human and filmmaking action like a scientist observing an experiment (Fischer and Reichart 2015). This exemplifies a generative modernist paradox: at the height of Rivette’s power as a mysterious and experimental auteur, one of the reflexive elements of Out 1 is its basic questioning of authorship and thereby intentionality and meaning.
In addition to the fictional elements belatedly and sporadically interrupting the film’s initial documentary realism is another aesthetic and conceptual tradition often specifically associated with the twentieth-century French metropolis: surrealism. This connection becomes apparent through the play with and foregrounding of absurdity and uncanniness at the heart of everyday life throughout Out 1, starting with its experimental theatre scenes. It is also palpable in the overall depiction of Paris life as both realist and theatrical, the surreal hiding within plain view of would-be rational urban reality. This crucial dimension emerges, more overtly, via the antics of certain characters and scenarios – for example, the bizarre intrigues played out by the loner petit-thief Frédérique (Juliet Berto). At the film’s would-be narrative heart, Colin behaves particularly strangely throughout his scenes in ways that openly defy conventional regimes of realistic performance, characterisation, and rational behaviour. He moves manically through Paris quoting adapted fragments of literature and ruminating like a mad detective in his small cave-like bedsit, increasingly desperate to ascertain whether The Thirteen is real, who its members are, and even if he himself is an unwitting participant in any such secret organisation. This involves a journey through the city’s literally and figuratively underground crannies both gritty and convincing as real spaces and consistently suggesting uncanny, surreal, and fantastical connotations given quasi-narrative suggestion via Colin’s fevered investigation.
Wiles compares Colin’s behaviour to that of French Surrealism’s self-appointed father figure, André Breton, citing the former’s apparent realisation that a book shop appositely called L’Angle du Hasard – which can be translated as “The Crossroads of Chance” – is a key network portal, thereby appearing to confirm and deepen his escalating obsession, this eccentric character thereby spiralling further into “the irrational” (2010: p. 155). She explains:
Similar to the surrealist writer Breton, who spent time each day patrolling the same section of the Boulevard Bonne Nouvelle, Colin paces up and down the street in front of L’Angle du Hasard, which he later learns is a front for an underground newspaper. In the guise of a journalist, Colin soon infiltrates the boutique, where he unexpectedly encounters and falls in love with the enigmatic Pauline-Emilie [Bulle Ogier], whom he suspects is one of the Thirteen. As events unravel, neither the actor nor the spectator is permitted to retreat from the irrational, but must enter into the film’s imaginative universe where human dilemmas can be found hidden within the network of seemingly random occurrences. (2010: p. 155)
The film’s surrealism eschews by then well-worn visual clichés, and never sacrifices close attention to the surface reality of Paris – exemplifying the fundamental surrealist principle that the irrational, dream-like, and uncanny exist in repressed form at the heart of banal workaday and domestic life. The observational realism with which the theatre exercise scenes (for more detailed analysis and contextualisation of which, see Álvarez López and Martin 2014), themselves featuring inherently irrational and absurdist connections and body formations, only shifts very slightly – with a comparative increase in editing pace – upon essaying the increasingly irrational, paranoid, and obscure antics of the film’s multiple co-protagonists. Realistic sound and vision is maintained throughout with very few exceptions, such as a scene (anticipating David Lynch’s work) where three lines spoken by Sarah (Bernadette Lafont) and one of Colin’s are rendered backwards as they sit conversing in an eerie, darkened and apparently otherwise abandoned warehouse basement stairwell down which another note has been mysteriously delivered.
As the hours roll by, the film maintains its idiosyncratically objective, detached gaze upon a realistic-looking Paris, with the human behaviour on screen sometimes irrational to the point of apparent madness. These urban-dwellers appear to gradually lose control of whatever relevance and power they presumed, desired, or pretended to wield in their tiny and possibly interconnected circles, one by one eventually travelling to Out 1’s sole location beyond the city: an old multi-story beach house location referred to as the Aubade, located at Hermanville-sur-Mer on the Normandy coast – a classically surrealist human-made-meets-natural locale – where recognisable emphasis on the absurd and uncanny ratchets up further. Wiles evokes this final trajectory, which culminates with the breakdown of would-be patriarch Thomas on the sand:
A surrealistic logic would seem to determine the film’s conclusion, when the locus of action inexplicably shifts from the city to the beach. Like sleepwalkers, the Paris denizens migrate in succession, one after the next, to the isolated villa at Aubade, as if in search of a “dawn serenade” (the translation of “aubade”), a sanctuary in the wake of an apocalyptic misadventure […] Dazed, Thomas collapses, crying at first but then laughing until he falls silent. (2010: pp. 157-8)
Other members of the now apparently abandoned theatrical troupes (again for many critics suggesting the fragmentation of post-1968 counterculture) are also in increasingly poor psychic shape by the time they arrive at the beach. Most notably, Sarah and Pauline-Emilie share an unsettling scene in one of the dilapidated mansion’s many bedrooms, in which the former appears vaguely threatening. Any scheme to take Paris from its “traditional owners”, half-heartedly first played out to paranoid ends in Paris Belongs to Us on the cusp of the 1960s, ends in apparent failure and fleeing the city itself in both films’ final scenes . It is unsurprising, then, that Out 1’s elegiac dimension is often read as not just pertaining to May ’68 itself, but to the global counterculture at large (for example, see Rosenbaum 2015).
In a previous discussion of Rivette’s early 1970s cinema, I have referred to Out 1’s highly generative but also inherently unstable formal-conceptual scaffolding as “the web” (Ford 2016). Encapsulating the much-discussed conspiracy theme, the web also evokes networks of a diverse, ambiguous, and contingent nature, including the banal but vital pursuit of connections between people driven by desire for meaning and continuity. It just as easily, however, results in withdrawal and disconnection. The web also renders distinctions of “in” and “out” hopelessly ambiguous when it comes to knowledge and power. The subtitle added to Out 1’s French moniker upon its long-belated festival premiere, Noli me tangere, is a Biblical term in Latin meaning “touch me not”, “don’t tread on me”, or more prosaically, “don’t come too close”. This is an appropriate phrase (with mythic Christian origins attributed to Jesus speaking to Mary Magdalene following his resurrection) signalling the film’s story of people coming into close proximity and association before moving away without confirmation of ongoing or even temporary connection, searching for and perhaps detecting suggestive slivers of knowledge and meaning before losing the trail, vacating or being shut out of the network that seemed to enable such things but was itself also never quite confirmed. For this cinema, the web’s alienating, oppressive and sometimes sinister dimension exists alongside its playful, connective, and creative potential – despite, or due to, never being fully ascertained.
Evoking the large question of connectivity in all its dense, mischievous and ambiguous effects, the web’s most obvious narrative embodiment is as a secret, conspiratorial organisation. The more vital aspect of conspiracy, irrespective of variously hopeful or oppressive intonation and political character, is the knife’s-edge role it plays in enabling narrative suggestion per se. The connections germane to a web in the form of conspiracy are here never unambiguously good or bad, progressive or conservative. Such organisation in reality occurs across all parts of political life, from the state and corporations (and their extensive collusion) through to institutional medium- and small-scale connections spanning diverse business activity through to underground political agitation. Not rendered in simple negative terms, the web is at the same time often closely allied with the sense of play and magic that pervades Rivette’s cinema as shown through child-like whimsy or occult dabbling (a theme that would increase in prominence in the director’s subsequent work of the era) – here again, most obviously the scenes featuring Colin but also suggested by Sarah’s occasionally eerie and intimidating behaviour, and Frédérique’s obscure solo theatrical scenarios played out at the edges of any would-be narrative. Generating this vaguely magical/supernatural play, dialectically combining both impulsive Dionysian and intellectual Apollonian dimensions, is a demonic or alternatively nihilistic element enforcing arbitrary attraction and repulsion. In this sense, while reality itself may be beyond knowledge, morality, and meaning, even as the web itself appears to be a human construction, an alternative and perhaps more “metaphysical” reading would be that it too is a product of destructive forces outside human control, even as Out 1’s characters act as its apparent agents or minions. (Another way to read the film’s conspiracy, then, would be as a kind of Satanic cult.)
Conspiracy and any perceived power wielded thereby ultimately appears to move on from – or evict – Thomas, who for much of the film presents as one of its co-leaders or -authors. Finally at a loss to explain the claimed (but unseen) reappearance of a supposedly pivotal figure in the organisation, Igor, Thomas breaks down in the wake of his troupe’s dissolution – both events combining to rob him of epistemological, creative, and political power – as two of his actor-lover-minions try to help. A little earlier in Paris, Colin locates and visits what he believes to be the pivotal figure of Warok (Jean Bouise), their conversation making especially clear that conspiracy is akin to narrative, or God, for the desiring believer. Without it, there seems to be nothing. The following exchange occurs after Colin outlines to Warok the organisation such as he has gleaned it:
Colin: Does that… mean anything to you?
Warok: Are you the … the author of this amusing message?
Colin: I’m the messenger.
Warok: The messenger. I see. You see … I think that this is all a joke… of your making and at my expense. Or rather, a joke that has nothing to do with me, but which may be at your expense… don’t you think?
Colin: A joke … A joke? But in that case … the entire magical, mysterious world in which I move would be shattered in a moment. And that’s not possible.
Warok: Of course.
The scene confirms once again that the question of conspiracy isn’t just about a literal (or metaphysical) organisation “behind things”, but also the broader question of the web as connection: the ability and frequently cited desire of humans to be “part of something larger”, no matter its benign, idealistic, or threatening nature – or indeed, reality.
Given added pathos through his infatuation with Pauline-Emilie (who we are told is married to the never-seen Igor), in part at least due to her apparently knowing something about or to be a member of The Thirteen, Colin’s increasing desperation likely resonates with the detective-viewer’s own. At first there appears a mutual attraction between these two characters, before she – and/or the conspiracy or web – insists on Colin’s rejection by literally (again metaphysics makes a performative intrusion) stopping him in his tracks outside L’Angle du Hasard after he attempts to travel home with her. The young man is forced, or pretends, to “freeze” upon Pauline-Emilie imperiously commanding: “No further!”. When Colin then asks two questions about this strange event (saving, he says, the third and final one for later after reducing his list down from five), she answers with impenetrable riddles. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Colin, her own status in The Thirteen or any such organisation remains very unclear. Throughout, apparently “insider” conspiracy figures are shown not to be consistently in the loop or with any control over events. They also often appear unsure as to whether the organisation is functional. The web shows fidelity to no one, no matter how apparently important they can seem at a given moment. In an opaque cycle of connectivity and dispersal, arbitrary evictions occur at the same time as fresh realignments or incorporations are in train. These scenarios are mind-bending, disturbing, absurd, and humorous in turn.
The long outdoor conversation on the Seine between Thomas and Etienne (Jacques Doniol-Valcroze) on the topic of whether to reactivate the group of which they have been apparent members – further reinforcing Rivette’s stated idea that any such network was May ’68-associated, but has likely since disbanded – reveals that neither man in fact really knows if it was ever real, despite still wanting to believe they retain a sense of influence over events, pontificating with pompous confidence. A second Seine-set meeting with the bourgeois-looking lawyer Lucie (Françoise Fabian) joining the two men, shows Thomas’s power waning as she reprimands his carelessness in destroying key documents relating to Igor intercepted from Emilie (Pauline’s apparent conspiracy moniker). The latter appears to have broken ranks by sending incriminating materials to the media. Meanwhile, Pauline-Emilie herself may be part of the group but perhaps not fully, or has some limited access thanks to her husband. (In addition to the above scene in which she is discussed like a rogue element in need of discipline, Pauline-Emilie’s possibly marginal membership is suggested by an early secretive conversation while she is out of the room between her nanny and Thomas concerning Igor.)
While Lucie’s demeanour implies a “professional”, serious, and possibly conservative agenda, Warok seems to find the idea of the organisation and his role in it an amusing distraction. When Thomas asks him if Colin has just visited his apartment (as we have indeed just witnessed in the scene discussed above), Warok lies for no apparent reason other than his own pleasure at further deepening the conspiratorial web’s confusion or undermining Thomas’ confidence in his role. When his lie is revealed (upon Thomas quickly thrusting open the door to find Colin eavesdropping), Warok sounds quite pleased while Thomas shouts in frustration. If Colin is the viewer’s possible stand-in, perhaps Warok is the director’s. (Rivette, for his part, almost constantly smiles in interviews concerning Out 1, as if he finds the whole edifice of the film and its constituent parts highly amusing.) The web is faithful to no one, even those who appear its most central, authorial figures. In his final scenes, Thomas finds himself increasingly agitated as his power further recedes. By the time Pauline-Emilie finally claims to have received a phone call from Igor, Thomas seems entirely out of the loop and utterly traumatised by this turn of events.
Politics Meets Abstract Urban Space – Revolution and Fragmentation
Framing Out 1 as essaying May ’68’s after-effects of necessity means examining the film’s would-be conspiracy as having a vaguely revolutionary agenda, or fragments thereof. Yet the diversity of figures apparently involved with it – theatre people, journalists, a businessman, and a lawyer – suggests genuine ambiguity. If the remnants of May ’68 activism have been infiltrated by state and/or corporate elements, then the “conspiracy” may in fact be a right-wing one seeking to ensure “another May ’68” never happens (a surely far from unlikely proposition). In his interview with the Balzac specialist, Colin describes The Thirteen as a “criminal group seeking power over society”. Such comments suggest a radical right-wing, even fascist organisation, or alternatively a self-declared “vanguard” underground leftist movement mired in secretive and authoritarian plans quite separate from any social base. However we view the conspiracy in Out 1, politics in the broad sense comes across as an assumed but never explicated and highly ambiguous affair. This is very much appropriate when it comes to the complicated story of radical political movements in the 1970s.
While the film’s portrayal of experimental theatre can be read as a metaphor for, and documenting or even critique of, apolitical, insular, underground cultural pursuits after the failure of large-scale political action on the street two years earlier, it is important again to see this historical moment rendered by Out 1 as a Janus-face one both lamenting the recent past and experimentally forging new possibilities. The theatre and filmmaking we see on screen remains highly invested in radical newness and experimentation – hallmarks of most revolutionary periods and movements dating at least from the 1871 Paris Commune, chiming once again with the fact that strategizing and agitation were in reality far from over in the post-May ’68 period. Henri Lefebvre writes in his key 1974 work The Production of Space (La Production de L’espace): “The diversion and reappropriation of space are of great significance, for they teach us much about the production of new spaces”. (1991: p. 167) He goes on to add, however: “Diversion is in itself merely appropriation, not creation – a reappropriation which can call but a temporary halt to domination.” (1991: p. 168) The film’s characters, and on- and off-screen makers, may be indulging in what can look like obscure, literally and figuratively interior activity of a kind that can seem insular and diversionary compared to well-worn revolutionary images, including contemporary media and documentary accounts of 1968. Yet these people are hardly submitting to workaday slavery, consumerist capitulation, and normative nuclear family life, suggesting the ongoing nature of radical activity, even if its form appears splintered and for now subterranean.
Lefebvre argued that any meaningful attempt at revolutionary transformation occurs at the level of everyday life, unless we are to accept an always “top-down” and inevitably repressive version of historical development. In the final 1983 volume of his magisterial Critique of Everyday Life (Critique de la vie quotidienne) trilogy, Lefebvre writes:
The programming of daily life has powerful means at its disposal: it contains an element of luck, but it also holds the initiative, has the impetus, at the ‘base’ that makes the edifice totter. Whatever happens, alternations in daily life will remain the criterion of change. (2006: p. 41)
Out 1 is fittingly ambiguous on every point made by the far from dogmatic Marxist Lefebvre here. Never does the film show any kind of overt political agitation in the form of demonstrations or meetings. Whatever still-ambiguous success ascribed to May ’68 – let alone the more controversial politics of the following decade – while media coverage was inevitably drawn to key student leaders, the germination and ongoing energy of this brief and in many ways forever murky quasi-revolutionary event were controlled by no particular figures or group, suggesting a genuine and rather diverse social base comprising both middle-class leftist students and working-class labour, initially without the support of the Parti communiste français (French Communist Party) or France’s primary unions.
Under no illusion that even the brief popularity of a radical cause is sufficient, Lefebvre professed no surprise that the partially broad-based nature of the May ’68 uprising – at the height of which ten million citizens went on general strike, which he supported and actively participated in from the very start as an older-generation activist and popular lecturer at the University of Nanterre, the initial epicentre of student unrest – was unable to successfully bring about wholesale revolutionary change. For a less ambiguous, more concrete and temporarily successful example we can turn to an earlier event once again centred in the French metropolis, much romanticised by revolutionary leftists and otherwise usually suppressed: The independent workers’ republic known as the Commune de Paris, or Paris Commune, that briefly reigned from 18 March to 28 May 1871 before murderous cessation by the French military. The radical democratic principles of the Paris Commune eschewed control by a single political party or group while managing to evict traditional political, commercial, and religious institutions from the city. In the space of two months and ten days, the Commune’s elected government developed an unprecedented egalitarian programme with immediate outcomes alongside the constant threat of internal authoritarianism in the name of security against the threatening French Government forces, then based at Versailles. When the latter finally took the city and mass-executed Communards, restoring Paris as the capital of a conservative nation-state and ensuring the return of the Catholic Church (symbolised by the building of Sacré-CÏur, looming over the city), the extra-judicial killings were followed by extensive imprisonment and forced exile of survivors suspected of being sympathisers. While the Commune’s radical, before-their-time reforms were wiped out, such progressive policies would sporadically re-emerge during the following century in select, more moderate guises across parts of northern and western Europe. (For more on both the Paris Commune and extensive discussion of Lefebvre’s work, see my essay on Peter Watkins’s epic 1999 film La Commune (Paris, 1871) [Ford 2016a].)
Lefebvre writes in The Production of Space of the mutually-reliant nature of revolutionary uprisings as the inevitable correlative of state oppression:
State-imposed normality makes permanent transgression inevitable. As for time and negativity, whenever they re-emerge, as they must, they do so explosively. This is a new negativity, a tragic negativity which manifests itself as incessant violence. These seething forces are still capable of rattling the lid of the cauldron of the state and its space, for differences can never be totally quieted. Though defeated, they live on, and from time to time they begin fighting ferociously to reassert themselves and transform themselves through struggle. (1991: p. 23)
If violent, oppressive political forces, both national and transnational, caused an earlier and quite real “rattling [of] the lid of the cauldron of the state and its space” at the very heart of political power – the capital – in the case of the Paris Commune, and in a less concrete way for a short period nearly a century later in 1968, the immediate and perhaps more long-term after-effects of the latter are less clear. This forever loose, ambiguous, unresolved histoire is strikingly and idiosyncratically played out by Out 1 through an address that evokes the recent past while also resonating with events further back in history and yet to come, both in the 1970s and even – as I will argue ahead – beyond.
Lefebvre insists on this point: “A revolution that does not produce a new space has not realised its full potential; indeed it has failed in that it has not changed life itself, but has merely changed ideological superstructures, institutions or political apparatuses” (1991: 54). Authentic, “successful” revolutions – no matter what we make of their subsequent political effects – tend, Lefebvre argues, to feature matching aesthetic and spatial transformation: progressive developments subsequently curtailed upon the restoration of regressive state power of pre- or post-revolutionary kinds. Citing the most famous example, he writes regarding the effects of Stalinist cultural repression after the USSR’s first decade: “The prodigious creative ferment in Soviet Russia between 1920 and 1930 was halted even more dramatically in the fields of architecture and urbanism than it was in other areas” (1991: p. 54). The Paris Commune – much cited by the Bolsheviks, but very selectively so (as no vanguard party controlled it) – remade space to some degree, literally occupying central Paris and evicting its regressive institutions, but only in a partial and temporary material sense. Its cultural and political effects, nevertheless, have long remained radical touchstones. By comparison, May ’68 made few significant gestures of spatial reappropriation beyond always-temporary demonstration marches in public spaces and occupation of university campuses. No large-scale “occupation” of central Paris occurred even as the general strike became huge. Appropriately, Out 1 never shows or suggests possible former May ’68 participants planning to occupy symbolically powerful urban space, let alone doing so.
If the reappropriation of space appears no longer possible, if it ever was, in Out 1 – as is apposite in light of the historical context – the human body may be another matter. In an oft-cited passage from The Production of Space, Lefebvre argues: “Any revolutionary ‘project’ today, whether utopian or realistic, must, if it is to avoid hopeless banality, make the reappropriation of the body, in association with the reappropriation of space, into a non-negotiable part of its agenda” (1991: pp. 166-7). If Out 1 is often read at least in part as an elegy for May ’68, the possibility of ongoing revolutionary idealism mixed with mournful address of its protagonists is expressed almost entirely in the form of bodies, more precisely complicated combinations thereof. Whether the temporary use of subterranean and other anonymous Paris locales amounts to any meaningful reappropriation of the city via the body remains highly debatable. Out 1 can be seen as a profound and critical essaying, by means of genuine ambiguity, regarding the “production” (to use Lefebvre’s famous catch-phrase) of a different – i.e. revolutionary – urban space. This stress on ambiguity is inextricably connected in the film to the destabilising, nihilistic and intrinsically modern force of urban reality itself, which defies and perhaps ultimately destroys all traditions, ideologies, and beliefs.
One of the founding figures to famously diagnose the ramifications and never-certain impact of the city’s radical potential and politically ambiguous, destabilising force was Charles Baudelaire. Marshall Berman summarises the seminal nineteenth-century French poet and essayist’s subsequently influential framing of Paris, modernity, and cultural modernism – exemplified in his famous essay on Constantin Guys first published in serial form in 1863 and emerging in English a century later as The Painter of Modern Life (1965) – for enforcing central ambiguity on the city’s inhabitants and thereby Western culture itself:
The first categorical imperative of Baudelaire’s modernism is to orient ourselves towards the primary forces of modern life; but Baudelaire does not make it immediately clear what these forces are, or what our stance toward them is supposed to be. Nevertheless, if we go through Baudelaire’s work, we will find that it contains several distinctive visions of modernity. These visions often seem to be violently opposed to one another… (Berman 1983: pp. 133-4)
A few short decades later, amid the emergence of Berlin as Europe’s newly exploding second metropolis, in 1903 German sociologist Georg Simmel provided an updated analysis of the city’s aesthetic, conceptual, moral, experiential and political violence – a force that concurrently both promised to liberate the individual and ushered in their imprisonment at the hands of state and commercial power (itself also vulnerable to the city’s violence and lack of respect for tradition, despite seeking to control it):
The individual is reduced to a negligible quantity, perhaps less than in his consciousness than in his practice and in the totality of his obscure emotional states that are derived from this practice. The individual has become a mere cog in an enormous organization of things and powers which tear from his hands all progress, spirituality, and value in order to transform them from their subjective form into the form of a purely objective life. (Simmel 1997: p. 184)
Fully cognisant of the destabilising reality of urban space and life, another half-century later, Lefebvre builds on these insights in elaborate form. So too, in its eccentric, slyly radical way, does Out 1.
Once the film leaves its literally underground theatre spaces, one of the things we see the characters consistently do is walk, usually accompanied by talking in the form of conversation (or in Colin’s case, soliloquy). Frequently starting with Baudelaire’s influential notion of flânerie (1965), this is an activity about which an enormous amount has been written in connection to the themes of modernity and modernism (both of which Berman credits Baudelaire with coining) as defined by the city and its human inhabitants. Among Baudelaire’s multiple inheritors, Michel de Certeau offers an evocative, apposite response to the challenges both Lefebvre and Out 1 map out:
The language of power is in itself “urbanizing”, but the city is left prey to contradictory movements that counterbalance and combine themselves outside the reach of panoptic power. The city becomes the dominant theme in political legends, but it is no longer a field of programmed and regulated operations. Beneath the discourses that ideologise the city, the ruses and combinations of power that have no readable identity proliferate; without points where one can take hold of them, without rational transparency, they are impossible to administer. […] Walking is in fact determined by semantic tropisms; it is attracted and repelled by nominations and whose meaning is not clear, whereas the city, for its part, is transformed for many people into a “desert” in which the meaningless, indeed the terrifying, no longer takes the form of shadows but becomes, as in [Jean] Genet’s plays, an implacable light that produces this urban text without obscurities, which is created by a technocratic power everywhere and which puts the city-dweller under control (under the control of what? No one knows). (2011: pp. 93, 103)
With the above quote resonating strikingly with Rivette’s film, even gesturing towards the question of control and potential conspiratorial conjecture and mysteries, Out 1 offers a unique contribution to the tradition sketched above going back through de Certeau and Lefebvre to Simmel and Baudelaire.
When a character or characters walk through the diverse spaces of Paris in the film, they usually give the impression of looking to further consolidate their role in the web/organisation/conspiracy. They also often seem equally concerned about being, or becoming, prey to an opposing organisation or perhaps even their own. None of these walks, however, seem thereby conclusive. As De Certeau suggests, walking is usually free and therefore largely immune to the Western metropolis’ economic and political association laws. Yet its potentially revolutionary nature is forever hampered by walking’s inherently transitory nature. In Out 1, the material and symbolic fact of the city – a point made even more blunt in light of Paris’ post-Haussmann design, creating its tourist-friendly boulevards lined with monotone architecture seemingly immune to further radical remaking, ensuring easy access for security forces, including tanks, in case of any unrest – seems resolutely resistant, implacable, and abstract.
Lefebvre suggests that the “right to the city” – another of his signature phrases – as an idea and possible movement, “cannot be conceived of as a simple visiting right or as a return to traditional cities. It can only be formulated as a transformed and renewed right to urban life” (1996: p. 158). Following Lefebvre, David Harvey further analyses the transforming nature of cities and their shrouded potential for revolutionary reclaiming. While the city’s fabled centrality “has been destroyed”, he writes in Rebel Cities,
there is an impulse towards and longing for its restoration which arises again and again to produce far-reaching political effects[…] It is, moreover, a collective rather than an individual right, since reinventing the city inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power over the process of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake ourselves and our cities is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights. (2012: p. 4)
The characters in Out 1 can be interpreted as seeking to exercise such a “right” for the purposes of secretive political ends. But if we pursue such a reading, how does the city respond to their schemes that, on the one hand, can be interpreted as rational and worked-out, while on the other, as absurd and delusional? Having extensive, close but also fraught relationships with both the Surrealists and later the Situationists (driven by a desire to ally communism and avant-garde culture), Lefebvre was deeply engaged with these important elements of urban reality that he felt were more naturally expressed in art than philosophy or political theory.
For Lefebvre, the arrival of the 20th Century brought about a “shattering” of traditional understandings of space, with enormous ramifications – a process that art, and here especially cinema, played no small part in bringing about. Unlike many of his fellow Marxists, Lefebvre thereby maintained an insistence on the challenge and opportunity of modernist art and culture in seeking to understand urban space as the prime stage upon which any potential revolutionary action would play out. This meant that “the right to the city” always entails engaging with the most confronting, destabilising aspects of urban experience in their most contemporary form. Just predating the big twentieth-century revolutions, Lefebvre suggests in a key passage:
Around 1910 a certain space was shattered. It was the space of common sense, of knowledge (savoir), of social practice, of political power, a space thitherto enshrined in everyday discourse, just as in abstract thought, as the environment of and channel for communications; the space, too, of classical perspective and geometry, developed from the Renaissance onwards on the basis of the Greek tradition (Euclid, logic) and bodied forth in Western art and philosophy, as in the form of the city and town. […] Euclidean and perspectivist space have disappeared as systems of reference, along with other former “commonplaces” such as the town, history, paternity, the tonal system in music, traditional morality, and so forth. (1991: p. 25)
It is this inherently, already fractured labyrinthine spatial and conceptual reality that any would-be modern revolution faces. Therefore, any artwork that seeks to render such a political desire while – in the interests of classical form and aesthetics, or political efficacy and propaganda – ignoring post- or non-Euclidean dislocation is doomed to bad faith and failure. Whether seen as a reflection on May ’68 or presaging the following decade’s more overtly underground politics, with its distended, episodic, fragmentary and serial form Out 1 accepts and exemplifies Lefebvre’s challenge.
The film presents a special example of a text or work that intimately engages with the challenges of the city’s bewildering, non-Euclidean, already modernist reality. This is the spatial and conceptual universe, the decidedly shaky “ground”, laid out – an unavoidably vertiginous realm concurrently rational and irrational, real and virtual, within which anything can occur. Its individual shots may look benign enough in terms of a spectator’s ability to understand the immediate material space on screen. But taken together – across nearly thirteen hours screen time – we face a truly fragment-oriented, disconnected, maze-like, and ultimately nihilistic film-world for which any potential sense of knowledge or meaning is desperately pursued, on both sides of the screen, by way of a loose conspiracy narrative forever complicated and undermined by the sheer material, implacable, abstract force of urban space.
“Also among revolution’s effects, direct and indirect,” writes Lefebvre, “was the definitive constitution of abstract space, with its phallic, visual and geometric formants” (1991: 290). The history of modernity inherently concerns the abstraction and fragmentary force of such space both as a result of its material, especially urban, facts but also by being made “virtual” through art – here, the moving sound-image. In framing the city’s absolutely central role in the history of cinema, David Clarke emphasises this sense of abstraction:
Whereas the social and physical spaces of pre-modern society formed an intimately related, lived totality, modernity brought about their colonization by a thoroughly abstract space, which ensured their fragmentation and disjuncture[…] A world that was once perceived as “a living whole”, so to speak, could no longer be experienced as coherent and complete. The hallmark of the stranger, for instance, was that he or she was immediately proximate in physical space yet distant in social space. (1997: p. 4)
The psychological and social effects of urban space are strikingly played out across Out 1 via what I have called the web, with characters desperately trying to make, maintain, or ascertain connection to others with some sense of common purpose, while their behaviour appears to more often result in alienation and eviction. And once out of the city, nature brings no restorative peace, the “pre-modern” world – strongly evoked by the Ancient Greek plays we see the theatre troupes rehearse, but also the Aubade beach – inaccessible to these quintessentially urban subjects.
Working on The Production of Space at the same time as Out 1’s production, Lefebvre directly addresses the importance of reactionary restoration following the dissolution of May ’68. “The state is consolidating on a world scale”, he writes, reaffirming its control of space. Crucially, at the same time Lefebvre also detected a new countermovement, “other forces on the boil” newly provoked by the instrumental “rationality of the state” (1991: p. 23). With the right connections (again, businesspeople and lawyers appear part of the conspiracy, or participating in their own), such groups may be able to still bring about a “rattling of the lid of the cauldron” – in line with less romanticised but ongoing radical activism through the 1970s. But there is a good chance, perhaps an overwhelming one if we look at history, that it will come to nothing. Their efficacy forever in question, such moments and movements in the film, no matter how we interpret them, ultimately come across as essentially performative. In addition to a striking lack of recognisable successful or even unambiguous “activism” on screen, Out 1 similarly declines to portray oppressive state power. Even so, in line with Lefebvre’s above remarks, it remains important that the film was made within and in part essays a resurgent Gaullist France following a brief moment of national threat or rupture. Lefebvre was interested in how the conservative state easily overplays its reactionary hand at such times, which easily in turn engenders new and usually more “extreme” waves of rather less utopian-seeming rebellion. Such a reality was indeed felt across Europe and elsewhere in the 1970s in the form of increasingly violent, both ideologically more uncompromising and nihilistic, would-be revolutionary vanguard actions (most infamously in West Germany, Italy, Japan, and China).
Charting and summarising the increased ambiguity following a failed or unresolved revolutionary event, and the ushering in of a new period marked by the newly emboldened state and more radical, fragmented and underground movements, Lefebvre writes:
The social and political (state) forces which engendered this space now seek, but fail, to master it completely; the very agency that has forced spatial reality towards a sort of uncontrollable autonomy now strives to run it into the ground, then shackle and enslave it. Is this space an abstract one? Yes, but it is also “real” in the sense in which concrete abstractions such as commodities and money are real. Is it then concrete? Yes, though not in the sense than an object or product is concrete. Is it instrumental? Undoubtedly, but, like knowledge, it extends beyond instrumentality. Can it be reduced to a projection – to an “objectification” of knowledge? Yes and no: knowledge objectified in a product is no longer coextensive with knowledge in its theoretical state. If space embodies social relationships, how and why does it do so? And what relationships are they? (Lefebvre 1991: pp. 26-7)
This passage works to strikingly evoke the complex interplay of space and human relations in Out 1. Every scene can be seen as playing out such a strange, muted drama or would-be loosely political action in the context of urban space as articulated by Lefebvre – in particular here, a city forever “finished”, complete, very likely resistant to further revolutionary upheaval. A space both abstract and real, apparently “instrumental” when it comes to the rationality of invisible state power but never totally defined thereby, always seemingly allowing or even perhaps selectively enabling other “forces on the boil”. Forces that, where they might be ascertained, flail about as directed or authored by organisational-conspiratorial schemes that present in the film as increasingly absurd and illusory, primarily offering the reality of their own performance.
The Power of Performance: Generative Virtuality
Rivette’s stated desire for making Out 1 was initially to go even further in exploring the filmed theatre rehearsal work first portrayed in Paris Belongs to Us then more directly in L’amour fou (1968). Also expanded from those films is Out 1’s highly developed essaying of the Shakespearean theme, wherein social reality is a “stage” upon which everyone plays out a performance of conscious or less conscious, but largely pre-given roles.
This central framing of performance makes clear something that is true of any film featuring human beings: the unique force of an actor’s bodily presence and movement. The way Michael Lonsdale as Thomas carries his large, hunched frame, walks with slight pigeon-toe effect, the delicate yet awkward way he moves his small hands, and the recognisable “grain” of his voice, make it impossible to separate the actor’s tics from our perception of the character – or, from the overall visual, textural, and performative character of Out 1 itself. Sarah/Lafont and Pauline-Emilie/Ogier’s eerie Aubade bedroom discussion provides another example. The scene has a subtly frightening atmosphere generated by an on/off-screen performative combination comprising the former figure’s vaguely threatening gaze and the latter’s palpable nervousness, the ramshackle coastal mansion’s overdetermined strangeness, the film’s own material, opaque documentary-like 16mm textures, and Rivette’s insistence – apparently unnerving both women immensely – that the actors improvise based on nothing (Fischer and Reichart 2015).
The central role of improvisation in Out 1 is signposted as a major theme right from the start via the lengthy theatre exercises, framing what will become multiple modes of performance and the evocation of associated networks and thereby virtuality. Wiles discusses the film’s connection to theatrical tradition, from Ancient Greece to Eugène Ionesco and Antonin Artaud:
Rivette relinquishes artistic autonomy in Out 1 to use chance and improvisation in the creation of an open, indeterminate work. Modelled on the idea of the maze, or labyrinth, Out 1 presents a new genus, the type of film that Rivette had called for in the aftermath of May ’68[…] For Rivette, this experience is at times incantatory and violent, associated with Artaud’s theatrical aesthetics and Greek dramaturgy. At other times, this experience is silent and dreamlike, drawing upon the dream in a manner similar to the enigmatic city spaces of Breton’s Nadja or the absurdist imagery of Ionesco. Uncanny duplications accentuate his dreamlike effect, erasing psychological differences between characters and frustrating reason. (2010: pp. 158-9)
Less obvious and commented on, yet just as important as a structuring tool marking the film’s distinct modernism, is its serial form, especially prominent at the time of Out 1 in France across the arts. This was particularly so in the world of avant-garde music via the theoretical and composition work of Pierre Boulez, who saw both seriality and the labyrinth as important drivers of contemporary art’s continuation through the destruction of traditional forms, marking “certainly one of the most considerable advances in Western thought”. This was in opposition to a “classical” understanding of the artwork as “one, a single object of contemplation or delectation, which the listener finds in front of him and in relation to which he takes up his [sic] position” (Boulez, quoted in Wiles 2010: p. 148). Boulez situated the advent of serialism and labyrinth structures in art as overturning a “Copernican” conception of the universe, in favour of one made up of relative forms, and thereby in permanent revolution. (Wiles 2010: p. 148)
Serialism in music and beyond is today often associated with an elite, institutionalised avant-garde long personified by Boulez by the time of his 2016 death (the same year as Rivette’s), far removed from everyday life. Out 1 can certainly be seen as a particular, eccentric apotheosis of modernist European cinema’s impossibly rich post-war story (see Ford 2011, 2012). Yet the film also comes across as far more “gritty”, intimately connected to underground art, culture, and documentary cinema, but also youthful radical politics, than what is today often decried as “high modernism”. Its employment and exercise of serial and labyrinth – so in Boulez’s understanding, revolutionary – form thereby also exemplifies a real historical materiality and “moment”. The foregrounding of the actors’ performances, starkly so when it comes to pure physical presence, posture, and vocal grain making up a rather non-individuated human mass – most literally in the film’s first three hours – effectively disperses any emphasis on singular characters or even bodies, let alone authorship or perfected formal construction, in favour of live “process”, incommensurability, and extremely ambiguous on- and off-screen outcomes and experience.
Always crossing the actorly, filmic, real, and surreal or fantastical, the emphasis on performance is sustained on screen in ways that combine or undermine apparently opposite modes. Colin’s translation of Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark” appears to be a literary concoction he feverishly cobbles together from piles of books in an otherwise very spare flat, initially inspired by one of three mysterious notes he receives throughout the film (in this case, dropped down the dark warehouse stairwell by an unseen figure). Subsequently pinning the note to his blackboard as another “clue” to the mystery of The Thirteen, Colin rehearses and recites aloud the resulting palimpsestic collage at home before moving outside for a more public performance. The very loud and highly declarative street-level rendering bursts asunder any presumed separation between Out 1 and the Paris in which it was shot. This is made strikingly apparent when the hand-held, documentary-style travelling camera rendering Colin/Léaud’s incantation of the text also picks up two boys who do not appear to be part of the production. Danny Fairfax describes the moment:
Most remarkably, midway through the scene two young boys take to following Léaud. Palpably transfixed by the surreal event unfolding before them, they alternate between lurking at a safe distance from the strange man and boldly approaching him, persistently clinging to his side as they periodically peek their heads into the frame. (Fairfax, 2014)
Recalling the Mallarmé quote at the top of this article, here we arrive at the total marriage in Rivette’s cinema of Parisian space and cinematic work. Fairfax suggests that the above sequence’s “perturbing quality can no doubt be ascribed to the singular confluence of factors produced by Rivette’s ‘direct’ shooting style, effacing the boundaries between the fictive and the real, the planned and the improvised, the controlled and the unpredictable” (2014). Beyond the human actors on and off screen, a very real Paris remains Out 1’s most central and influential collaborative agent. More than any other city, Paris has generated a mythical atmosphere on screen, from Louis Feuillade’s silent-era serial masterpieces onward. However, no director has essayed the city’s uncanny presence and affect more obsessively than Rivette, with Out 1 the radical apogee of this central focus in cinema history.
Colin/Léaud’s frantic walk-recitation above proves just one example of how the “Paris” of Out 1 becomes an especially elaborate variation on the virtual city that the French capital has long been, thanks to tourism, literature, art, and above all, cinema. In Rivette’s film, this already-virtual Paris both plays a leading role within a very particular performance, encapsulating human, filmic, and urban space intriguingly, hopelessly, and mysteriously intertwined. While cities of many kinds have long provided “stages” or background mise en scène enabling cinema’s various narrative scenarios and flights of fancy, here the very prominent scenery comprises fairly marginal, unromantic spaces put to literal and then figurative theatrical use. Throughout, any necessarily intertwined political, conspiracy, and narrative content is suggested in the form of opaque riddles, with radical or revolutionary activity remaining explicitly unaddressed even by those possibly at the centre of any such activity or schemes. Through fragmentation and dispersal across myriad locales, and eventually beyond Paris itself, any such organisation, social connection, or performance is from the start fatally ambiguous.
While the Paris of Out 1 comes across as in some respects a 19th-Century anachronism, with the film’s loose fictional scenario invoking the European past, spanning the immediate (May ’68) to much further back in time (Ancient Greece), this is a genuinely Janus-face work whose portrayal of the French metropolis is concurrently suggestive of the future through its use of a complicated, fragmentary, labyrinthine and possibly dysfunctional version of what we would likely now call a “network narrative” that ultimately transcends the city itself – as communications technology and culture in large part now has. Today, with cities’ radically expanded dimensions (to the point of dispersal) and digital connectivity, major population centres have become so spatially and demographically reconfigured, both increasingly interconnected and centrifugal, that their inhabitants’ experience – notably for a vast majority, living so far from the historic city centre as to never visit it – has little connection to the experiential and experimental romantic-modernist cultural heritage of metropolitan life in earlier periods, and still palpable in Out 1. Our own increasingly disembodied experience of culture is a globally networked, if still highly unequal, de-centred and therefore effectively de-urbanised, ever-advancing “virtual” space increasingly transcending a centre-periphery model. Rivette’s film shows how this dispersal by means of ambiguous networks without clearly defined authors or membership was already occurring five decades ago.
Becoming exponentially virtual does not erase the resonance, generativity, and specificity of material space. Quite the contrary. Rather than generic urban environments or just one chapter in a chronicle of different capital cities, Rivette chose to set his most significant films in this particular metropolis – one always overdetermined when it comes to culture and meaning, thanks to such a long textual and thereby virtual history. For him, space clearly matters – its identity, character, precise location, material details, history and politics, its connotations and palimpsestic virtuality. Implicitly recalling André Bazin’s famous advocacy of the individual shot and deep focus so as to liberate both reality on screen and the viewer’s potential co-authorship (a key chapter in understanding cinema’s virtual potential), Fairfax writes:
The question of space in the cinema is undeniably more diffuse, more indistinct and more delicate to articulate than that of montage. Whereas montage is almost inevitably the product of the conscious decision-making of the filmmaker, cinematic space is determined by external factors: on the one hand, the technical specifications of the camera, and on the other hand, the relationship with the pro-filmic referent. (Fairfax 2017: p. 187)
If Out 1’s shrouded and spectral post- or would-be revolutionary discourse is presented finally as performative, this does not mean it is disconnected from the actual “pro filmic event” of Paris, the recent events of 1968, and the even more difficult to account for politics of the subsequent decade and beyond. The “real” revolutionary moment itself was not only questionable as to outcome and effects but also reality. May ‘68 can more properly be seen as the first virtual revolutionary upsurge substantially fought out via both mass and underground media in concert with and helping generate general strike action.
The type of theatrical space and mode that explicitly dominates Out 1 in its early hours maintains a connection to both material and virtual suggestiveness, even as mass media images and technology are conspicuous in their absence on screen. Patrick Ffrench writes of the film’s initial hours:
Rehearsal space is also a concrete space. What happens when one set overlaps another? What kind of transition, passage or friction occurs when the sets come into contact? How are such contacts manifested in concrete terms? Rivette’s work, like that of Feuillade, to whom he repeatedly pays homage, develops a fascination with thresholds, entrances and exits. […] While Feuillade’s narratives resolve around the movements between the rigorously distinct worlds of respectable society, on the one hand, and the criminal underworld, on the other, Rivette explores the mutual interpretations between the different worlds of theatre and life, or, as suggested above, different configured spaces of play… (Ffrench 2010: pp. 165, 169)
As the product of a modernist whose work invokes both past and future but also material and fantastical in equal measure, Out 1 is mysterious and suggestive in the ways Ffrench suggests. But the film is also perhaps surprisingly precise both for how it presents actual Parisian space and presciently invokes our own more thoroughly networked and virtual era in which everyone with Internet access and a digital device is forever connected via infinitely diverse and co-existing incarnations and understandings of the “web” crossing personal, social, and working lives. This contemporary network culture, both technological and social (these having now well and truly fused), offers unprecedented access to information, communication, and entertainment at our fingertips, yet also makes us forever unsure as to where the truth lies, and who – if anyone – is in charge. It should be no surprise, then, that people are increasingly tempted by conspiracy narratives that echo their own worldview, while scoffing at those of others.
Such is the film’s sly reflexivity, on many occasions Out 1 invites scepticism regarding its own contents, meaning, and edifice, self-consciously risking or encouraging viewer ridicule as to the scenario‘s central conceit by raising the distinct possibility that all this could refer to another well-worn Shakespearean concept: “much ado about nothing”. More than a sophisticated and not-insubstantial joke, however, the human cost of such shenanigans is also explicitly addressed. A late encounter between Colin, Warok, and the latter’s apparent co-conspirator, Lucie, features a melodramatic tirade by Colin suggesting a throwing in of the towel:
This “History of the Thirteen” was a pure adolescent fantasy. And I would even say an ideologically false fantasy. That didn’t prevent this fantasy from leading me quite far into a terrifying nightmare, where I brushed with madness, where I brushed with death. It was there that I met the sphinx, but I did not find love because I asked this sphinx a question, which was a poorly-phrased question, just as the question of the Thirteen is poorly phrased, and is precisely what prevents them from finding reality. For my part, I have left all this behind and I’m doing well. I’m doing very, very, very, very well, and I will leave you to your society chitchat.
As prime candidate for such a properly collaborative ordeal, Paris and the people he has met there seem to have done Colin some damage. More intimately than any other character, this figure exhibits those interior hallmarks of human life within the modern city famously articulated by Simmel seven decades earlier:
The psychological basis of the metropolitan type of individuality consists of the intensification of nervous stimulation which results from the swift and uninterrupted change of outer and inner stimuli. […] These are the psychological conditions which the metropolis creates. With each crossing of the street, with the tempo and multiplicity of economic, occupational and social life, the city sets up a deep contrast with small town and rural life with reference to the sensory foundations of psychic life. (1997: p. 175)
That Colin is the main on-screen conduit between film and viewer makes his plight, in equal parts modern and romantic, humorous and pathetic, all the more affecting. Also important is that his excitement and anxiety is initially brought on not by the material space of present-day Paris but history in the form of literary cultural heritage, representing cinema’s precursor in the city’s becoming virtual. This occurs first via the mysterious note passed to Colin by Marie, then the obsessive collagist detective work he later undertakes alone at home connecting Balzac, Carroll, and Poe via his own feverishly conjured authorial flourishes, to forge a possible conspiracy story – and for the film, narrative per se – and thereby virtual reality out of literal fragments: scraps of paper.
If anyone or anything has driven Colin to the brink of madness, it is his vulnerability to the suggestive power of literature as seen through this character’s determination to make the written page come alive in the present tense. His project much resembles Out 1 itself, which employs the more thoroughly virtual form of cinema. Literature exerts a remarkable hold on Colin’s imagination, causing him to see Paris as a truly labyrinthine, metaphysical, and virtual space run by an elaborate network of conspiracy and thereby narrative and meaning. For present-day viewers, the performative power of the virtual in written, spoken, and audio-visual form has only intensified, as we live ever more through our myriad personal screens featuring constant social media feeds and custom streaming video.
It should be hardly surprising that the effects of Out 1, the long-mythical film Rivette and his collaborators conjured up half a century ago, have only amplified since becoming properly available in our late/post digital era. It embodies an obsessive audio-visual essay on the powers of performance and the intricate, invisible, confrontingly ambiguous – possibly even illusory – networks or webs that enable and dictate our ever more virtual cities and everyday lives. Lives in which we may still glean, dream, and try to follow through palimpsestic history’s always shrouded and fragmentary spectres of revolution.
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