Like a collector of stray dogs, I have likewise assembled my personal canon of misfit filmmakers, artists who have fallen out of fashion or just never caught on. Jacques Rivette, whose new The Duchess of Langeais (6 screens) is currently struggling in art house theaters, is a prime example. According to his bio on the IMDB, he has always nestled in an uncomfortable place between film snobs and film populists. His films are too playful for intellectuals and yet too severe for mainstream consumption. He was a critic at Cahiers du Cinema alongside Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Claude Chabrol (some of his writing has been translated to English; I especially love his piece on Howard Hawks and the 1952 film Monkey Business) yet his work does not seem like that of a film buff; it springs more from literature and from his own temperament. Indeed, he's very hard to pin down, perhaps partially because hardly anyone has seen very many of his films. His 12-1/2 hour film Out 1 (1972), which has been called his greatest achievement, has screened in America so few times that probably less than a thousand people have seen it.
His most popular film to date, Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), has enchanted a slightly higher number of viewers, but it's hard to see. (It was released on VHS back in the 1990s, but has yet to surface on an American DVD.) This film embodies that playful element. It goes all over the place, from a magic show to switched identities to a strange, possibly haunted house. Some viewers may demand to know exactly what's going on, but if you relax and roll with it, you'll find that it's a lot of fun; you can almost feel Rivette grinning too. Some say it has something to do with the "magic of movies." This is the earliest of Rivette's films I've seen, though his earliest feature goes back to 1960. Paris Belongs to Us debuted at about the same time as his Cahiers colleagues, but made far less of a cultural impact than Breathless or The 400 Blows. Those films were headline makers, but the word "radical" never really applied to Rivette. He plugged along with films like The Nun (1966) and L'Amour Fou (1969). In the 1980s he made what most critics consider his weakest films, and certainly his bland reading of Wuthering Heights (1985) is the worst Rivette film I've seen. But things pick up with Gang of Four (1988), the story of four acting students living together in a big house that has some sinister, mysterious past.
Rivette often deals with ghosts, murder and other ideas lifted from B-movies, which is perhaps one reason highbrow critics aren't particularly enthusiastic about him. His 1991 film probably pleased Russ Meyer, however. La Belle Noiseuse (1991) runs about four hours, and around one quarter of that time is devoted to gazing at the gorgeous Emmanuelle Beart as she poses nude for a painting. She and the painter (Michel Piccoli) butt heads for a while, then shut up for many long minutes as we watch sketches and paintings emerge from blank pages; it's mesmerizing. Many found it boring, but several mainstream critics, such as Gene Siskel, saw enough in it to name it one of the year's best films. Rivette next made another four-hour film, Joan the Maid (1994), starring Sandrine Bonnaire. I'll just say that Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and Bresson's The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962) are two of my all-time favorite films, and that Rivette's deserves their company. Secret défense (1998) was a murder story very much in the Fritz Lang vein. Va Savoir (2001) was a delightful comedy set around the theater, and The Story of Marie and Julien (2003), which never received U.S. distribution, was one of his best films, a Hitchcockian thriller once again starring Ms. Beart.All of these films run about three hours or more, which may be another reason critics started fidgeting. This brings us to the present day, with Rivette's latest. It's a costume drama, and I admit that due to my own boredom with that genre, Rivette's film didn't interest me as much as some of his others had. But even without an hour of onscreen nudity, The Duchess of Langeais manages an undeniable erotic energy between its two protagonists, General Armand de Montriveau (Guillaume Depardieu) and the duchess of the title (Jeanne Balibar), who play a sexual tug-of-war with one another. Some have read Rivette as a literary filmmaker, adapting Balzac and paying tribute to the theater, but a more coherent theme is this never-ending game between two people, mostly men and women, but sometimes two women (as in Celine and Julie Go Boating). His love of long takes and naturalistic detail only enhance the battlefield and strategies, as if he were staging and shooting a boxing picture. This is the very stuff of cinema, and Rivette is at home here.