Director: Jacques Rivette
By Roderick Heath
Unlike most of the New Wave directors to emerge from the critical collective at Cahiers du Cinema, Jacques Rivette’s most admired work came in the early ’70s, a time when compatriots like Truffaut were either negotiating with the mainstream or in total retreat from it, like Godard. Rivette seemed energised by the mood of the waning days of the counterculture and concurrent intellectual flowerings of post-modernist and feminist theory, and he made his best-loved movie, Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), in this period, as well as his highly regarded made-for-television epic Out 1 (1971).
As if rejecting all explicable comment or interest in the fallout of political revolts and the New Wave itself, Rivette began to celebrate imagination, play, and ambiguity of the self as a counteraction and commentary on a repressive backlash in contemporary life. Rivette embarked on what was to be a quartet of films titled “Scenes from a Parallel Life,” each playing on a generic mode and employing a peculiar unifying concept—a war between two goddesses, daughters of the sun and the moon, over a cursed jewel. Rivette made only two of the films before suffering a breakdown and experiencing harassment by authorities, and the completed works were barely screened. Those two films, however, Duelle and Noroît (1976), have a status as hidden treasures.
Rivette’s cinema is an acquired taste, but for anyone who can adjust to his wavelength, which isn’t so much obscure as merely reticent, he’s an alluring artist entirely dedicated to realising the most beautiful effects through the simplest means. Rivette’s fascinating, if still embryonic debut, Paris Belongs to Us (1960), introduced many of the elements he found intriguing: the dynamic exchange between life and art, ties of family threatened by worldly trials, and an ironic juxtaposition of humdrum reality and fantastic theorising, arch paranoia, and forces of power. The goddesses whose war Duelle describes embody the anxiety over the place of everyday humans between blocs of power and favour that can be associated with the counterculture shadow-enemies of Paris Belongs to Us.
Rivette had come a long way since his debut, for Duelle is a carefully paced and utterly controlled work, all the more fascinating because like many of Rivette’s films, a high level of spontaneity was utilised in its production, if not quite as much as he often otherwise favoured. This time Rivette had written a story outline and created the characters and situations rather than give his cast all the room to invent their own, but still did not actually write the scenes until a few hours before they were performed (the scripting credits are given to Eduardo de Gregorio and Marilù Parolini). This edgy, happenstance energy infuses the performances even whilst Rivette’s camera maintains a balletic grace. Rivette, like all the other New Wavers, was also an inveterate film buff, and Duelle sports a magpie’s selection of tropes lifted neatly from favoured films of French poetic realism and Hollywood noir.
The initial model was the great Val Lewton/Mark Robson horror film The Seventh Victim (1943). This is immediately apparent in the way Rivette renders his Paris, like Robson’s New York, a depopulated, magic-realist space full of poets and changelings, dreamers and sufferers. Duelle’s basic plot is slowly fleshed out, and the era it is set in only hazily defined, evoking a Paris where dance halls and gambling clubs unchanged since the heyday of Jean Gabin rubs shoulders with more definably modern locales and styles. It begins on “the last night of the new moon for this winter.” A woman calling herself Leni (Juliet Berto) approaches a young hotel clerk, Lucie (Hermine Karagheuze), searching for an Englishman named Max Christie who stayed at the hotel a year before. Leni claims to be his concerned sister, and pays Lucie to dig up what she can about where he’s gone. Lucie suggests Leni talk to her predecessor at the hotel desk, Elsa (Nicole Garcia), who now works as a taxi dancer at a decrepit nightclub called the Rumba. Leni, in an entirely different guise, approaches Elsa, who recalls Max’s expansive joie de vivre and tells Leni to look up his companion, Sylvia Stern (Claire Nadeau). Another mystery woman, the jaunty Viva (Bulle Ogier), and her helpmate Elizabeth (Elizabeth Wiener), trail Lucie’s brother Pierrot (Jean Babilée) and Sylvia when they return by train from Amsterdam. Later, Viva pays Pierrot’s debt when he loses at cards and ensnares him in her plans to locate the “Fairy Godmother,” a legendary cursed diamond that Max, Pierrot’s former partner in shady deals, had first turned up.
When Leni tracks Sylvia to an aquarium, Sylvia babbles to her about how Max had “fought and defended,” and that he suffered and has recently died. Sylvia is wracked with guilt and sees herself as heir to his struggle. Leni runs off when Pierrot arrives, and shortly after, Lucie receives a phone call asking her to come to the aquarium. When Lucie arrives, she finds Sylvia dead, with a bruise or burn mark on her neck. Lucie hides when Viva enters the aquarium and bends over Sylvia’s dead body, and trails Viva back to a gambling club she frequents, where the two play roles and try to elicit information. Viva theorises that Lucie was brought to the aquarium to set her up. Elsa, whose real name is Jeanne (she felt her real name was vulgar), is falling in love with Pierrot, who promises he can give himself to her completely now. And she discovers the Fairy Godmother itself, attached to a choker band now in Pierrot’s possession, and fondly places it around her neck, setting in motion a fresh chain of contest, decay, and death.
“Duelle” is an invented word, a feminised version of “duel,” and it’s with good reason the film has such a title: the story is strung along by a series of intimate pas de deux between competing characters who exhibit and swap places of command and submission, desire and pathos. Every sequence up until the very central one is dominated by interactions of only two characters; in that centrepiece, a crucial sequence in both the literal (as the 15th of the film’s 30 individual scenes) and narrative sense, as the core characters encounter each other in the Rumba and William Lubtchansky’s gliding camera absorbs them as they chase, challenge, flirt and dance with each other. It’s here the story finally becomes less opaque, whilst, ironically, the cinematic technique becomes more overtly surreal; The Fairy Godmother works an influence on Pierrot, who approaches a mirror, raises his hand—as Elsa recalled Max once doing—and cracks the glass with magical force. This gesture reveals to him the two demi-goddesses, Leni and Viva, in their true forms, approaching each other in ritualistic style and pledging to continue their metaphysical contest for the jewel, holding their hands up like Pierrot’s gesture. This, it seems, indicates the mirror-image, dualistic bind of the two supernatural forces (even if, in their disco-glam outfits, they look like they’re about to start singing “Dancing Queen”).
Lucie, the first and last person we see in the film, is glimpsed initially looking fearful and unsteady on her feet—it proves she’s trying to keep her balance atop an inflatable ball—with Pierrot helping her remain steady. It’s a superb metaphor for both their relationship at this point, a conflation of the film’s parable of human life, and its tenuous, reinventing-the-wheel approach to cinematic form. Leni’s recurring line, “You’ll see me again,” is, at first, a throwaway, but becomes a phrase laden with threat; the intrusion of the goddesses into the everyday lives of the protagonists heralds annihilation in a situation that works in cruel cycles and seems to have happened before, with Max and Sylvia having played out the parts of Pierrot and Elsa—indeed, the drama is built around a pantheistic rhythm, linked to seasonal shifts.
And yet Duelle’s unique approach plays out nearly straight according to the dictates of a noir narrative: the characters battle over an emblem of wealth and steadily annihilate each other and themselves in the process. The Fairy Godmother jewel plays the same poisoned-chalice device at the heart of The Maltese Falcon and especially the Great Whatsit of Kiss Me, Deadly: like that manifestation of raw, consuming power, the jewel leaves marks upon the flesh of those who encounter it and spells inevitable doom. However, Rivette’s dialectic removes standard, dependable props from those familiar arcs, rendering the tale overtly mystical and inexplicable, and the spaces have to be filled in with intuition. Rivette begins with a familiar theme of his, Lucie’s desire to save her brother who’s enmeshed in a mystery (a la Paris Belong to Us), and plays her honest naïveté against the femmes fatale, Viva and Leni. The familiar economic and social parables of noir are present: Lucie, Pierrot, and Elsa/Jeanne all come from a low social bracket and are desperate to rise; the demi-goddesses live and pose as aristocrats, and the jewel is what they all covet.
Such aspirations shade into less modest ambitions, to take on gods and transcend fate and nature. Viva and Leni’s prize in gaining the stone is a chance to live like a mortal for longer than their allotted 40 days in winter: “I’ve been young for far too long,” Leni confesses sadly to Pierrot. As Jonathan Rosenbaum cogently pointed out, the goddesses seem purified metaphors for the idea of movie stardom itself, locked in perpetual, pristine shape. The conceit of employing supernatural drama is on one level amusing and defiantly ludicrous, and yet Rivette, an aficionado of ancient Greek drama (several of his films revolve around attempts to stage the works of Aeschylus and Euripides), employs the idea of gods taking on human form and interacting with mortals with the same blithe tone as those classical works, and for similar ends. Rivette simultaneously exploits the way his characters encapsulate refined concepts often conceived in the traditional binary oppositions of mythical works—male/female, power/impotence, desire/hate, mortality/transcendence, and so on, beginning with the utterly archaic dialectic of sun and moon—and also deliberately evoking the wider pantheon of sexual identity inherent in pagan traditions. Thus, the characters constantly alter the parts each plays in relation to each other. This dedication to fairytale logic is reflected by a recurring motif, a quotation from Cocteau’s play Knights of the Round Table, in which Merlin explains a breakdown of purely mathematical and physical logic: “Two and two no longer make four / All walls can be shattered.”
Similarly, in Duelle, people, within themselves and in relation to others, contain multitudes. Pierrot changes personas with the various women according to their natures (and vice versa), caring and soft with his sister, firm and solicitous with Elsa, challenging and aggressive with Viva, and finally, with Leni, both combative and in sympathy—both of them love Elsa and yearn to escape their lot. Pierrot’s the only major male character in the film, both with the potential to defeat them all and yet also at their mercy. In a droll sequence, Viva, who otherwise is the more constant of the two goddesses, sheds her imperious Marlene Dietrich-ish suits and air of utter command to play the ditzy, seductive drunk to tie Pierrot closer to her. Berto’s Leni alters from genteel fragility in approaching Lucie at the outset, to trenchcoat-clad femme fatale with Sylvia, to seductive butch with Elsa. There’s a vein of tongue-in-cheek costume-play here, one that emphasises the teeming talents of its actresses, but also constantly smudges settled sexual and social identities. Both Berto and Ogier affect ambiguous looks and roles throughout the film as they contend for control, and a crackle of sexual attraction lies underneath all the characters’ dealings with each other, except for Pierrot and Lucie, whose relationship is forlorn in its anxious sibling protectiveness and anxiety. A strange empathy runs between all the characters, alternating with a determination on each person’s part to emerge victorious—that is, alive.
Rivette is a classic art house director, of course, but as I’ve noted before in my review of Fascination, Rivette’s aboveboard filmmaking in works like this bears many similarities to Jean Rollin’s underground horror (the aquarium scene particularly resembles a similar one in Rollin’s Lips of Blood), and I’m starting to wonder if there’s a phrase that can describe this specifically French style of fantastic cinema, airy, beautiful, but deliberately lacking in artifice: perhaps “surrealist-naturalism” would cover it. Rivette’s deconstructive approach is perhaps most amusingly, and oddly manifest in utilising pianist Jean Wiener to provide only source music, at the Rumba Club but also in other, rather more bewildering situations. The links with other traditions are equally apparent—Rivette revealed the depth of homage to Cocteau not only in quoting him but in casting the sinuously graceful, very cool Babilée, who had danced in Cocteau’s stage productions of the 1940s, and his character possesses the kind of haunted taciturnity wielded once by Louis Jouvet in Marcel Carne’s Hotel du Nord. His death—he is put down out of pity by Leni as he begins to succumb to the stone’s corrosive influence—exudes delicate tragedy.
Rivette avoids standard forms of suspense-building, and yet Duelle constructs an increasingly tense atmosphere that comes to a head in brilliantly simple and riveting sequences, like that in which Pierrot, working with knowledge given to him by Viva, attempts to trap Leni by dazzling her with light, confronting her like a gunslinger in a hotel corridor and driving her back, locked in momentary shock as he opens room door after door, and, finally, when Viva chases down Lucie, threatening her with a sword-cane and teleporting her to a different location thanks to the pure magic of a jump-cut. In such a fashion, Rivette manages to both deconstruct how cinema creates excitement and still generate it. Finally, Lucie, apparently the weakest element, emerges ironically as the victor in this war, when she accidentally discovers the power of the Fairy Godmother to annihilate the incarnate goddesses when drenched with her blood, a trick that firsts destroys Viva after she stabs Lucie and her spilling blood reveals this power. With certain, vengeful purpose, Lucie catches up with Leni in the park where she was to duel with Viva, and wipes her out, leaving Lucie to dazedly recite the Cocteau poem, her fate, and indeed what is now her status — victim? hero? new demigod? — entirely ambiguous. Either way, it caps a tantalising experience. l