Note: This is our first review in a smaller series of coverage from the 2010 San Francisco International Film Festival.

One of my favorite living film directors is Jacques Rivette. Rivette was once part of the original "French New Wave," a group of film critics for Cahiers du Cinema that decided to turn director and make their own films. The group also included Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol. The other four achieved some measure of fame, but Rivette was always the "outcast" of the group. He was the most "experimental." He completed three "New Wave" style films in the 1960s, the latter of which, L'amour fou (1968), ran over four hours. and followed them with his monumental Out 1 (1971), which ran nearly 13 hours. (The film has rarely been shown, and I keep hoping for a DVD box set someday soon.)

After that came arguably his most beloved film, though it was hardly a hit: Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), a magical movie about two women who visit a strange house. It ran just over three hours. Other highlights include the remarkable La Belle Noiseuse (1991), which ran four hours; it's about an artist regaining his muse when a beautiful young woman stays at his chateau. At least an hour of the film is devoted to watching the artist paint while Emmanuelle Beart poses naked. The amazing, epic Joan of Arc story Joan the Maid (1994), starring Sandrine Bonnaire, runs over four hours in two parts. Up/Down/Fragile (1995), Secret Defense (1998), The Story of Marie and Julien (2003) and The Duchess of Langeais (2007) each run between two and three hours. Va Savoir (2001) was two and a half hours as released in the United States, but runs closer to four hours in its director's cut.

Rivette has always used these immense lengths for musing, exploration and discovery. He's usually interested in things like the artistic process, or sometimes, very simply, romance and mystery. Very often cinema and theater and literature mirror and clash with one another. The long running times allow the viewer to sink into these movies, to become slowly, patiently, meditatively involved. I want to mention all this before I begin discussing Rivette's new movie, 36 vues du Pic Saint-Loup, or -- as it is being shown at the San Francisco International Film Festival -- Around a Small Mountain. The most astonishing news about it is that it runs only 84 minutes. Apparently, this is the actual running time, not just an American edited version of something longer. Now, I'm always grateful for any lean-and-mean movie that runs less than 90 minutes, but in this case it did not seem like enough. Around a Small Mountain is certainly not a bad film. It's charming and has most of Rivette's usual touches, but it feels like a minor film.

Jane Birkin (a veteran of Rivette's films Love on the Ground and La Belle Noiseuse) stars as Kate, a French woman who starts the film stranded at the side of the road, the hood of her car propped open. Vittorio (Sergio Castellitto, from Rivette's Va Savoir) cruises by in his convertible, turns around, returns, fiddles with her engine, and fires it up, all without saying a word (and all in one shot). Later, Kate finds him in town and invites him to the circus; she works there, and is returning to it for the first time in 15 years. Vittorio becomes fascinated with the circus life and starts hanging around. He watches an act that involves a bullet and a plate, and laughs hysterically among a tiny, otherwise silent audience.

The next day, he offers some enigmatic advice on how to improve the act, and winds up befriending the clown, Alex (André Marcon). He also befriends a young, pretty high wire artist, Clémence (Julie-Marie Parmentier), and helps her evade a clueless male suitor. But he always returns to Kate, who doesn't seem quite as interested in him as he is in her. It turns out she's thinking of her lost love, Antoine, who apparently died during a dangerous bullwhip act. Kate is now pondering resurrecting the act, but the bad memories are haunting her. Vittorio seems always at the ready to offer his help, but whether it's accepted or actually very helpful is another matter. (Sometimes his answers to direct questions are interestingly evasive.) Perhaps a little more time spent mulling over these relationships and conundrums would have been helpful. They might have deepened the film past the level of whimsy.

Then comes a truly bizarre sequence in which several characters emerge, one at a time, from a tent flap, and circle around to come through again. Each time, they speak directly to the camera, offering some kind of moral or epilogue for the movie, any of which could apply. It could be argued that Rivette was picking out his own epitaph here, and a friend of mine has suggested that Rivette has deliberately made his final film here. He's now 82 and is reportedly not in the best of health. The best thing about Rivette, however, is that he has never really courted or enjoyed commercial success, and he makes films for himself. Somehow Around a Small Mountain has answered something that he, possibly at the end of his life, was thinking of. Or perhaps he's just in a silly, happy mood. Perhaps he will be the only one to ever know the truth. But for those of us who care about him, it's worth the effort.