The sad news of Jacques Rivette’s death on 29 January 2016 came just a month or so after some of his most important and representative works were released in a prestigious blu-ray box set, more or less simultaneously in France, the UK and the USA. This will allow cinephiles to see the hitherto legendarily inaccessible Out 1: Noli me tangere (1970), with a running time of 12 hours and 40 minutes, a unique experiment in cinematic duration, improvised acting and narrative deconstruction, but also a precious glimpse into an underground Parisian network of artists, intellectuals and misfits surviving on their wits in the atmosphere of paranoia and disappointment following the collapse of the May ’68 movements.
But the box sets also allow us to explore Rivette’s arguably even more obscure and mysterious films of the later seventies, the tenebrous diptych of Duelle and Noroît (both 1976) and the curious coda of Merry-go-round (filmed 1977, released 1983). Rarely mentioned in the laudatory obituaries following Rivette’s death is the singular fact that – perhaps alone among the great male auteur directors – every one of his twenty feature films would no doubt pass the famous Bechdel test of female autonomy in the cinema. This is self-evidently the case of Rivette’s most famous seventies film, the glorious Céline et Julie vont en bateau (1974), in which a pair of boisterous young women (Juliet Berto and Dominique Labourier) play, cheat and invent their way to rescuing a little girl from the nightmare of heteronormativity (which, it turns out, resembles a play based on Henry James in which the somnambulant actors can remember some of the right lines but not necessarily in the right order).
In the mid-seventies, Rivette undertook what was planned as a series of four films about women protagonists, variously known as the ‘Filles du feu’ (after Gérard de Nerval) and the ‘Scènes de la vie parallèle’ (loosely recalling Balzac). Having completed Duelle and Noroît, filmed back-to-back between March and May 1975, Rivette began work on a third volume but collapsed from nervous exhaustion and walked off set, according to legend ‘disappearing’ for over a year. As the series titles suggest, all these films are concerned with the fantastical or magical and have been interpreted as a deliberate retreat from the depressing realities of the return to centre-right technocratic politics in France after the short-lived euphoria of May ’68.
Duelle tells the story of a sun goddess, Viva (Bulle Ogier), and a moon goddess, Léni (Juliet Berto), who, for forty nights of the year, roam among the mortals of Earth battling for possession of a ring that will allow them to remain permanently in our world. Yet the details of this plot seem of secondary importance, as do the hypnotic dialogues that wash over us somewhat as in L’Année dernière à Marienbad (Alain Resnais, 1961), evoking past events whose reality always seems rather dubious.
The interest of the film is rather in watching Rivette’s actresses: Ogier’s aloof, fragile elegance and Berto’s dissipated but almost self-parodic turn resembling a heroine of classical melodrama. As in Céline et Julie, there is a sense of mature actresses gleefully sending up the roles traditionally allotted to them by the cinema, while also reconnecting with the more childlike pleasure of dressing up. In one scene, Viva and Léni are opposed to each other through their costumes, gold and silver respectively. Elsewhere, Berto wears such improbable accessories as a shiny red silk blazer, a blue cape over a red-and-white checked blouse, or a black sowester for an outdoor scene.
These colourful costumes stand out against the locations, typically anonymous hotels with smoky drapes, hideous floral wallpaper, antique furniture and rather lonely-looking potted plants. To these drab stairwells and lobbies are added an underground parking garage and, in one extraordinary scene, what appears to be the vast, hangar-like gambling hall of a racetrack. Seemingly filmed without permission or warning, the scene creates a truly uncanny atmosphere through the presence of the imperious and impassive gold-clad Bulle Ogier in an otherwise exclusively masculine crowd, the men glancing with suspicion and fear at the camera. Naturally lacking the budget for special effects, Rivette uses some of the most elementary tricks of editing and lighting (jump cuts, fades) to convey the supernatural goings-on between these goddesses but, in the end, the most striking effects of strangeness in the film are achieved through the generation of atmosphere, built up through pacing (the long, slow, unhurried rhythm of scenes typical of Rivette), through the chilly, disengaged performances, and through the choice of dingy, peripheral locations and wan, late-night artificial lighting. The whole film exudes the slightly unreal atmosphere of the early hours of the morning, the commingled sense of exhaustion, elation and regret that attends the end of a long night of intoxication. It is for this reason that Duelle seems, indeed, to belong to a ‘parallel life’, on the dark margins of the legitimate world we know.
Noroît, the flipside of this rare doubloon, is a sombre pirate adventure, more than loosely based on the early-seventeenth-century Revenger’s Tragedy. Filmed on a small island and in a fourteenth-century fort on the Breton coast, Noroît conveys a rather exalted sense of actors on holiday, somewhat as in other radical cinematic experiments of the 1970s like Godard’s Maoist western, Le Vent d’est (attributed to the Dziga Vertov Group, 1970). Here, the performers walk on cliff tops, ride horses and enjoy play fighting with guns, knives, swords and fists. The guns, in particular, reveal the extent to which Noroît is the work of a group of friends playing at movie-making, since they delight in anachronistically mixing iconic firearms familiar from cinema history: the Winchester rifles of the western, the tommy guns associated with 1930s gangster movies, and something resembling a World War II gatling gun, that wouldn’t be out of place in a film by Samuel Fuller.
Yet these boys’ toys are mostly wielded by women dressed in costumes even more joyously lurid than those of Duelle. For most of the film, Bernadette Lafont, as head pirate Giulia, wears a sort of shocking pink leather cowboy suit with matching silk shirt and neckerchief. Geraldine Chaplin, her rival, sports a purple and electric blue tie-dyed tunic. Other women in the film wear a red velvet gown or a bright yellow pant suit. Meanwhile, the men in Noroît are outnumbered, undressed, ogled and fought over, but in themselves rather interchangeable and uninteresting, relegated to the status that women have occupied for most of cinema history.
The climax of the film (which, in true Jacobean style, results in a stage littered with bodies) sees the characters serially engaged with each other in hand-to-hand combat, these battles often resembling choreographed dances rather than rough scraps, and augmented by a litany of witchy incantations. One warring couple even appear to dance an elegant capoeira with each other, albeit one that ends in death. The musicality of Noroît is representative of the ‘Filles du feu’ project more broadly, since, for each film, Rivette took the radical step of having musicians improvise the score live on set and, more often than not, visible within the frame. In Duelle, Jean Wiener composes directly on the piano in the background of gloomy nightclubs and hotel lobbies. In Noroît, Robert and Jean Cohen-Solal and Daniel Ponsard stand in the corner of the set extemporizing an atmospheric modernist score mostly for cello, flute and percussion, although with occasional glissandi in the high notes of a clarinet that sound disconcertingly like aggressive squeals of electric-guitar feedback.
With typical prescience and acuity, Serge Daney once observed that all of Jacques Rivette’s films seem poised between playfulness and terror, as though the games being played – among the characters and the actors, between the film and the spectator – could, at any moment, tip over into the stuff of nightmares. Something about Rivette’s films, with their secrecy, their quiet violence and their chaste eroticism, recalls the atmosphere of the cinema’s best vampire movies (perhaps Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction  or Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive ), works that are less about blood and gore than about the peculiar melancholy of a half-life condemned to exist in the shadows. Although he never actually made a vampire film, Rivette’s entire corpus hints at the nocturnal, vampiric aspect of the cinematic illusion itself, even as it celebrates its powers of make-believe and magnificent obsession.
Douglas Morrey is Associate Professor in French at the University of Warwick. He has published widely on French cinema and on contemporary French fiction. He is the author of Jean-Luc Godard (Manchester University Press, 2005), the co-author of Jacques Rivette (Manchester University Press, 2009) and the author of the forthcoming Michel Houellebecq: Humanity and its Aftermath (Liverpool University Press, 2012).