Friday, May 13, 2016

Jacques Rivette | Paris nous appartient (Paris Belongs to Us)

destroying themselves

by Douglas Messerli

Jacques Rivette and Jean Gruault (screenplay), Jacques Rivette (director) Paris nous appartient (Paris Belongs to Us) / 1975, released 1961


Having just recently moved to Paris, the young Anne Goupil (Betty Schneider) quickly discovers, slightly to her chagrin, just how interconnected people are in this city. A neighboring woman seems to be terrified that her friends are all dying, naming some of them for whom she fears. But Anne is even more startled by the fact that this woman also knows her brother Pierre, with whom Anne is about to have lunch. By later that evening, as she joins her brother at a party, Anne meets and receives more information about some of the same people whom her neighbor mentioned: Juan, a Spanish composer who has just committed suicide; a Pulitzer Prize-winning American author forced by the McCarthy-inspired blacklist to move to Paris, Philip Kaufman (Daniel Crohem), Terry Yordan (Françoise Prévost), Juan’s former girlfriend who is now dating the theater director Gérard Lenz (Giani Esposito), and others.

     The “party” is more like a wake, in which some of the attendees blame others for Juan’s death; and Anne soon is determined to leave, confused—like the viewer—about the relationships of these figures to one another and by their strange behaviors. But after that one evening everything changes in her life.

      At first, she attempts to move ahead with her own activities; she is a college student studying for exams. But as she begins, one by one, to accidently reencounter the figures from the party, meeting up with Lenz and becoming a member of his band of actors for a sort of underground production of Shakespeare’s worst play, Pericles, and then reencountering, quite by coincidence, Philip Kaufman, twice in the same day, she is sucked into the very circle of beings she at first shunned.

       Several of these individuals, moreover, hint at a vague conspiracy to kill off their close-knit community. A drunken Kaufman, in particular, warns her that Lenz is in danger, perhaps because of his relationship with Yordan, and requests that Anne attempt to save him. Yet, Anne cannot, at first, even imagine what she is saving him from, let alone imagine how to begin “saving him” Yet when her previously distraught neighbor also goes missing, Anne determines to get involved.

       Ultimately, she misses her exams, and proceeds, almost like an underground detective, to find the score the dead Juan had composed for Lenz’s production. Of course, as Luc Sante points out in his interesting essay “Nothing Took Place but the Place Itself,” the search for the lost guitar music is also a search “for the truth of Juan’s suicide”; but it is also a larger metaphysical search into the reasons for her generations’—of specifically the year 1957, when the film was made—youthful self-destruction.

        And it is also a search into why these mostly failed individuals have gathered together in a small band. Although the film begins with a quote from Charles Péguy, “Paris belongs to no one,” Rivette’s title suggests that it belongs only to “us,” presumably the figures of the story. And indeed, as the director moves his camera energetically from the small one-room apartments to grander quarters, and spills out into numerous Paris neighborhoods and streets, it does indeed seem, with the obvious absence of others, that Paris does exist merely for the sake of these somewhat paranoid figures.

     The shaggy-dog nature of Rivette’s and Gruault’s plot helps to confirm that, as Anne begins to visit, one by one, figures connected to Juan. She first visits one of Juan’s obviously oppressed lovers, mother to one of Juan’s children. In one particularly frightening scene, Anne visits the home of the wealthy Dr. de Georges (Jean-Marie Robain), who is apparently hiding something, and whose “ward,” as he describes her, seems more than a little deranged. None of Anne’s “visits” actually leads to anything specific, and as much as her new friends suggest an invisible conspiracy, they also adamantly deny it.

       Still, Anne, as beautifully performed with an-open eyed intensity by Schneider, continues her search, she uncovers the fact that even her brother has done some “dirty work” for Dr. de Georges, and that the others have been strangely connected to everyone. If she might never uncover the missing tape, she, nonetheless, finds herself attracted and inexplicably attached to Lenz, despite his critical abuse of her acting. When Lenz also commits suicide, Yordan finally admits to Anne that something indeed is going on, and that perhaps Pierre is on the wrong side of events.

       The final few scenes are even more confusing than the rest of this would-be “detective” tale—no more confusing, however, than the Raymond Chandler-inspired The Big Sleep—as Kaufman and Yordan discover that, in reality, Juan was probably killed by agents of the Falange (Spanish Fascists). Too late, Anne discovers—for Yordan has already shot her brother merely out of her deluded suspicions. Only Anne can now perhaps move on. She does, after all, plan to sit for the next set of examinations.

       So, in fact, this little gathering of conspirators has, all along, been destroying themselves. The Paris they leave at the end of this remarkable adventure, may, after all, truly be “for us,” those outside of their fragile self-deluded angst. And so too must we comprehend Rivette’s fascinating fiction as precisely that, a riveting narrative that has no real meaning in life itself. If this film, as Sante suggests, seems a bit less fresh than the New Wave films it would help to inform over the next few years, it is because Rivette, despite his astonishing inventiveness, always seems to be also be looking over his shoulder back to Cocteau and the other great theatrical imagists of French film—although finding his own voice eventually in longer forms. It is the bridge of that past to present filmmaking that helps us recognize Rivette as one of the most important of contemporary French directors.


Los Angeles, May 10, 2016

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