Rivette the intransigent

The texts of the filmmaker and critic Jacques Rivette are brought together for the first time. For him, “every lucid description contains judgment” put himself on stage in his writings.

For the first time, all the critical articles published by the filmmaker Jacques Rivette (1928-2016) between 1950 and 1969 in various journals, including Cinema Notebooksof which he was the editor-in-chief between 1963 and 1965. This volume includes a significant number of unpublished works and various texts, notably a collective text entitled “Montage”, taken from issue 210 of Cinema Notebooks and the long interview with Hélène Frappat published for the first time in 1999 in The Cinema Letter.

In full

The filmmaker ofOut 1 always refused during his lifetime to have his early articles republished. He only considered this possible after his death and by entrusting the editing work to young critics. Did he see in these essays only the erratic apprenticeship of a future filmmaker? Or on the contrary did he consider that his activity as a critic had an autonomy (principles, a style, specific goals) that risked blurring the vision that one had of his later work as a filmmaker? The mistake would indeed be to believe, in a teleological reconstruction, that film criticism would have been for the young Turks of the Cahiers a last resort, a way to bite their lip while waiting to become a filmmaker. Moreover, Rivette shot two short films in 1950. It is important not to distort Godard’s adage: “Writing was making films” formulated in an interview with Alain Bergala. This does not mean that they wrote as future filmmakers, that criticism was only a means; it is quite the opposite, for them, “writing to Notebooks “It was a literary activity in its own right,” adds Godard further to clarify the specificity of this activity. “Their films do not exhaust their articles,” indicates Antoine de Baecque in his History of Cinema Notebooks. In reading Rivette’s volume, one must therefore try to forget his cinema in order to fully listen to his critical discourse.

Thinking about cinema

Almost fifty years separate the first speech from the last, but the grouping of the texts allows us to highlight the coherence of Rivette’s thought over time. Because it is indeed a question of thought, and this is undoubtedly what makes this volume so valuable: Rivette seeks, beyond the particular film he is talking about, to think about cinema. His style is striking for a permanent sense of abstraction that is in no way sclerotic, but is rather a way of giving legitimacy to cinema by giving it the impetus of reflection, in both senses of the latter word: reflection of thought and reflection of the mirror. The young Rivette does not seek to write about cinema, but by transitively writing his personal experience of cinema, he seeks to write himself, to think about his present activity as a young critic. Far from being a cold and theoretical analyst, he rejects critical impressionism and speculates while taking care not to distinguish the subject and the object of his study. In his “Letter to Rossellini”, when he praises Matisse and the Italian filmmaker for “the common sense of the sketch” (p. 100), he gives himself a lesson, a precept to follow in order to succeed in writing his texts. If he chooses the epistolary form, is it not because it is a flexible form, suitable for sketching out ideas without dwelling on systematic thought; does he not see in “these quick films improvised with makeshift means” a model for the impetuous flow of his ideas in his letter-criticism?

Classic and modern

Some of the sharp ideas he formulates beyond the films he discusses are still current today in French criticism. For example, he is wary of the screenplay and, beyond that, considers that cinema can in no way be assimilated to a language. The paradoxical relationship between the “politics of authors” and literature appears clearly here: Rivette wants to cut cinema off from other arts (literature, theatre), but he does not refrain from referring to illustrious writers to legitimize the one who occupies it: thus, he compares Bergman and Simenon (pp. 207-8), praises the Cornelian qualities of the Hawksian hero (p. 137), summons Goethe to evoke Rossellini (p. 102) etc. This paradox makes the situation of the filmmaker as Rivette postulates it untenable. It is as if the filmmaker were everywhere and nowhere in his film. This is the endless challenge, the high demand of the critic: to evoke the elusive filmmaker, to describe the impalpable of the staging. This is why Rivette’s last critique ends with the notion of “mystery” (p. 264) which seems to invite us to infinitely prolong the quest for critical judgment.

The refusal to choose between classicism and modernity that he evokes in an unpublished text by comparing and contrasting Visconti, Antonioni and Losey, is a position that also applies to his writing. Rivette is discreetly lyrical when he seeks to describe certain stagings, with a lyricism that is both abstract and incandescent. About Fleischer, he speaks of the ease with which these “perpetual variations of places and faces” are resolved (p. 153). For Rivette, staging is not a technique, but a metaphysics. Only the reference to music allows one to approach the staging of a filmmaker. About Mizoguchi, he evokes his universe of the irremediable, but it is to reach “this irrepressible ascending line towards a certain level of ecstasy” that he compares to “the breath of a musician” (p. 197).

Classicism and modernity are two inseparable categories. This is why Rivette, who carefully read Paulhan’s Flowers of Tarbesrefuses to choose in his cinematographic tastes between the Terror which would seek originality at all costs in ideas or in form, and the Rhetoric of commonplaces. Certainly, he condemns the films which he qualifies as “rhetorical” and admires those which are not and of which he regrets “speaking in such a pompous way” (p. 214). But we know that the young critics of the Notebooks loved nothing more than small films by artisans who worked within the restrictive Hollywood genres: Rivette cherished the films of filmmakers like Hawks, Ray, Mann; The Bait signed by the latter, he considers it to be his masterpiece, precisely because it does not seek “to distinguish itself from the usual western (…) but by taking the fundamental virtues of the genre to the extreme” (p. 80).

Similarly, Rivette’s writing is, like the Terror, bold in its choices, uncompromising in its theoretical aims. But in seeking to describe films with precision, in stepping aside to share his tastes in a common space (“any lucid description contains judgment”, he states in an article on Kazan p. 228) and in advocating a moral vision of cinema, the critic also leans towards Rhetoric. The composition of the volume shows the oscillation between the constraining exteriority of the critical article which takes as its object a film or a filmmaker and a writing which has remained unpublished, at once more intimate, more extensive and more fragmentary, notably in a personal diary written between 1955 and 1961 (called “Cahier Gallia”) and an essay on modern cinema.

“Linked Lightning”

His sense of abstraction would only be classical if he did not reject the purity. In his journal, he exclaims as if to launch a slogan: “Proceed by linked flashes” (p. 355). The flow must be interrupted by dazzling bursts. He sometimes knows how to cut to the quick in a lapidary formula or synthesize his words in a maxim that barely parodies the moralists of XVIIe century: in fact, he seeks not to shine, but to find the sentence impersonal enough to radiate a universal into which he can project himself. For example, he declares: “He who searches too feverishly risks not finding himself” (p. 52). At the end of the Letter on Rossellinihe pretends to apologize for the length of his text: “We must excuse the solitary; what they write resembles love letters that have been addressed to the wrong address” (p. 112).