Duelle (France, 1976) * * * *
D: Jacques Rivette
The touring Jacques Rivette retrospective (or "revival," more appropriately, given how underappreciated and underseen his films are in the States) continued last Saturday night with a rare screening of his 1976 fantasy Duelle. The fictional title word, I learn from the program notes, is a neologism intended to feminize the world "duel." And yes, this is a duel between two women, with a third caught in the middle.
It seems to operate in the same whimsical universe as his best-known work, Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974): like that film, it is an unapologetic fantasy with a twisting narrative, and told in a deliberately counterintuitive manner. But it is also an episode in an unfinished series of films to be called "Scenes de la vie parallele" ("Scenes from a Parallel Life"). Originally envisioned as a four-part series embracing myth in the storylines and a mannered mise en scene based upon the movement of the actors through the screen, he only completed two of these films in the Seventies before being forced to abandon the project. (Recently, he completed a third, The Story of Marie and Julien ).
My understanding is that a lot of critics have rejected Rivette--at least, one can assume as much, given that his reputation needs to be "revived," despite the fact that he's still making films. With Duelle, I can see why, although it's a film that I can embrace. A glimpse at the plot might help you understand: Lucie (Hermine Karagheuz), who works at a hotel, is asked by a mysterious woman, Leni, to help track down her lover. Only gradually does Lucie learn that Leni is actually trying to track down Lucie's brother, Pierrot (Jean Babilee, slightly resembling Eddie Constantine in Alphaville--a comparison that will get you far in interpreting this film). Pierrot is also being sought after by Leni's friend Viva. Both of the women--Leni and Viva--are actually goddesses of the Moon and Sun, respectively, granted 40 days to take human form at the end of winter, and seeking a magical diamond called the "Fairy Godmother." The gem is cursed, but should one of them possess it, they will no longer be subjected to the rules governing the seasons. Pierrot does not have the gem, but one of his many lovers does: Jeanne, a miserable dancer who keeps it in her drawer, and covers with a scarf the tainting black mark that it's left upon her neck.
While the plot is fairy-tale fantasy, it is structured like a film noir. The Fairy Godmother is really just a surrogate for the Maltese Falcon, or, more accurately, the glowing package in Kiss Me Deadly. Leni approaches Lucie just as a pretty woman might approach Sam Spade in his office--and the fact that she's presenting a red herring, and harbors ulterior motives, is to be expected in this genre. Early on, Lucie is summoned to a nighttime meeting in an aquarium, and discovers her contact dead on the floor. She subsequently tails a suspect through the streets of Paris. All of this detective work eventually reveals the truth--that Leni and Viva are immortals, and they're after a magical diamond--which leads to a series of climactic setpieces straight out of a Philip Marlowe book, if they weren't so fantastic.
But if it doesn't play quite as exciting or suspenseful as it sounds, that's by design. Rivette underlines the artificiality through a number of curious, if not outright mischievous, devices. Most obviously, although the film has the basic story structure of a detective story, in the first hour it skips to disparate characters and events rapidly without stopping to introduce them. We actually learn much--that Leni and Viva know each other well, that Viva is beginning to work her wiles on Pierrot, that Jeanne possesses the diamond--but because we have so little context, we're frustrated and struggle to pull the meaning together. (To this end, as the film unfolds and reveals its design, the structure reveals not incompetence but bravura storytelling. How appropriate that this Cinematheque series is entitled "Parisian Labyrinths," for this is what the film resembles.) In another playful device, the score is entirely improvised--on set, with the pianist (Jean Wiener) in full view, playing his scores to fit the action just as a silent movie organist might. This is in line with Rivette's preoccupation with revealing the artificiality of cinema in order to draw attention to the relationship between the viewer and the film. Because of that damned pianist, it's impossible to completely lose oneself in the film; Rivette wants you to engage with it instead. But engage with what? Well, you could observe the way the actors seem to drift or swim or even dance across the screen--no one seems to just walk. (It can't be an accident that the centerpiece of the film is a ball in which all the major players are exchanging partners on the floor.) This technique is undoubtedly part of the new filmmaking technique which this series was meant to introduce. The only difference it makes, that I noticed, is a heightening of the film's dreamlike quality, for everyone moves as though in a dream. I would have to view the film a second time to see how it affects the "mise en scene," as Rivette implies.
But I can imagine that many critics, upon seeing this film in its original release, could find it all empty and meaningless (i.e., "commercial"). It does, after all, bother to tell you an actual story with a beginning, middle, and end. There's also all that nonsense about goddesses and magic. How could a film critic be bothered? Jonathan Rosenbaum is quoted in the program notes as excusing the film's complex storyline thusly: "Narrative habits [as a viewer] die hard, and the burning desire to know what is going on in the story terms might well divert one from the fascination of not knowing what will happen next in formal terms, in the constantly fluctuating relationship between chance and control...The irony of the situation is that the plot is important chiefly as a vehicle, and one mainly has to 'know' it in order to be able to dispense with it." Rosenbaum is here bending over backwards to excuse his enjoyment of a film with so much plot in it. Good lord. Get bent, Mr. Rosenbaum. I honestly don't believe Rivette--and his co-writers Eduardo de Gregorio and Marilu Parolini--poured so much work into this enormously dense screenplay just so that the viewer could dispense with it. There's a general tendency in film criticism to praise the director's techniques over the screenplay, and this is the extreme endpoint. In fact, this screenplay masterfully merges Raymond Chandler with Borges, filtered through a feminist lens. Still, he has a certain point, though he overstates it. Rivette is toying with the viewer's capacity to handle a plot which seems too tangled to infiltrate--but didn't Chandler do that first with The Big Sleep (and in particular, didn't Faulkner do it with his more-confusing screenplay)? In fact, a closer re-examination of Duelle's plotting, once the film is over, and you see that it wasn't so confusing after all. All the events make sense in retrospect, as in any fine mystery. It's just that Rivette's art house mannerisms tease one into believing that it's just Bunuelian (or Lynchian) surrealism, excavating the Unconscious, and no rhyme or reason will come of it...until it does.
But you may find yourself in one of these two camps--which, I impress upon you, are not the only options: the one who wants Duelle to have less story and more abstraction, and the one who followed the story dutifully and wants it to have more resonance of meaning. Fair enough. I would like to pose a third runway on which to land from this dizzying trip: you engaged in a game with Rivette--a fairy tale puzzle for adults--and there needn't be a winner. There is the sun. There is the moon. And there is, in the middle, the mortal--the Lucie, spilling a drop of her blood on the diamond to trump them both with her own mortality and her own limitations. Learn, as Lucie did, that the riddle of Duelle will not be solved by acting as an absolute. Embrace your limitations. Rivette is the wiser. It's as much as we can do to follow, like lost detectives, along the path he's led us along, and enjoy all the shadows, sights, and inspirations along the way.
[Note: although the still--one of the few I could find--is in black and white, the film is actually in color. The print screened at the Cinematheque was unfortunately battered and skewed toward the pink.]