DVD Review: The Jacques Rivette Collection

STUDIO: Arrow Video | DIRECTOR: Jacques Rivette | CAST: Bulle Ogier, Juliet Berto, Bernadette Lafont, Geraldine Chaplin, Maria Schneider, Joe Dallesandro
RELEASE DATE: 5/23/17 | PRICE: DVD/Blu-ray Combo $55.23
BONUSES: Vintage Rivette interviews, new interviews with Duelle stars, Jonathan Rosenbaum interview
SPECS: NR | 415 min. | Foreign language drama | 1.85/1:37 widescreen | mono | French and English with English subtitles

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie | Audio  | Video  | Overall

In one of the two very rare interviews with filmmaker Jacques Rivette (Around a Small Mountain) that appear in this box set, he uses a term coined by his friend Francois Truffaut. He calls one of the films in this box “a great sick film,” meaning it doesn’t quite work but still contains some great moments and inspired madness.

The films in The Jacques Rivette Collection are a mixed lot: an underappreciated gem (Duelle, 1976), a peculiar but compelling adventure film (Noroit, also ’76) and the aforementioned great sick film, the unusual and often unruly Merry-Go-Round (shot in 1978, released in ’83).

The box contains both standard DVD and Blu-Ray version of the films, as well as a booklet which includes, among other pieces, a fascinating article in which three writers offered reports from the sets of two of the films.

Noroit (1976)

The films hail from one of the oddest periods in Rivette’s career, a moment when he pursued his most ambitious project and then abandoned it midway because he suffered a nervous breakdown. Duelle and Noroit comprise half of the project and Merry-Go-Round was his “comeback” film after what he gently called his “health problems.”

Duelle and Noroit were the second and third film in what Rivette intended as a tetralogy, an unusual quartet of films that would span different genres, focusing on goddesses who had come to Earth. Like his best-known film, Celine and Julie Go Boating, his proposed “Les filles du feu” (Women of Fire) tetralogy would situate these fantasy figures in real settings, thus blending artifice and reality in mind-bending ways.

Duelle is the most impressive and entertaining film in the collection. A tightly controlled fantasy, set in real Parisian locations, the film recounts the rivalry between a “goddess of the sun” (Bulle Ogier, Le Pont du Nord) and a “goddess of the moon” (Juliet Berto, Weekend). The film sounds bizarre, and it is. But it is also the clearest version of what Rivette’s fantasy tetralogy would have been like. More importantly, it stands on its own as a demonstration of the kind of cross-genre filmmaking that Rivette specialized in, which distinguished him from the other figures in the French New Wave.

Essentially a straightforward fantasy, Duelle is also a film noir and a melodrama. Noroit is a strange mixture of adventure, choreographed action and fantasy. Its protagonists are a woman pirate leader (Bernadette Lafont, Le Beau Serge) and a traveler (Geraldine Chaplin, Welcome to L.A.) who are at odds. Unlike Duelle, the film does actually contain a duel between its principals (and many of the supporting characters, who were played by dancers skilled in swordfight choreography).

Merry-Go-Round is indeed the most ambitious and uneven of the films in the collection. Essentially a tale of intrigue and romance, it is wildly over-plotted and includes various fantasy moments that don’t seem organic to the world Rivette has created. They, in fact, were actually “work-arounds” conceived to compensate for the fact that the film’s star Maria Schneider left the film due to “health problems” (Rivette was nothing if not discreet).

Merry-Go-Round nearly crumbles under the weight of its explanatory sequences — the film was the first time Rivette openly mimicked his hero Alfred Hitchock and the classic Hollywood film of intrigue. Duelle and Noroit operate, however, like the best of Rivette’s pictures, starting out slowly and then speeding up as they go along.

Noroit is a lopsided adaptation of the Jacobean play The Revenger’s Tragedy, which initially seems at odd with its pirate theme and garish Seventies fashions (Lafont wears a purple leather pantsuit throughout). Duelle, on the other hand, was conceived of as a noir and its main source (Rivette was nothing if not eclectic) was Cocteau’s The Knights of the Round Table.

So while Noroit and Merry-Go-Round will appeal only to those who’ve seen at least one or two other Rivette films, Duelle is a crazy joy. It features an onscreen piano player (the French jazz and film soundtrack legend Jean Wiener) who plays all the music for the picture (he’s in every scene, regardless of the unlikelihood of there being a piano in certain settings). The cast approaches their unusual roles with the proper degree of sincerity and an air of mock-Hollywood melodrama.

The supplements that appear here are companions to the ones that were in the recent Out 1 box — that miniseries and these films, all produced by Stéphane Tchalgadjieff, are available in one giant box set in the UK from Arrow. A featurette about Duelle finds Rivette’s favorite actress, Ogier, discussing the odd real-life rivalry that developed between her and Berto during the film (the two had been friends, and went back to being friendly after the film wrapped).

Ogier starred in the preceding Rivette films where the actors devised their own dialogue based on Rivette’s scenarios. She emphasizes that in Duelle everything was fully scripted ahead of time — in this case the pianist was the only one who ad-libbed his part.

The most invaluable supplement is one made up of two filmed interviews with Rivette. The first, from 1990, finds him describing his “Women of Fire” tetralogy, which was to comprise four features of different genres shot back to back and edited only after the final film was shot. The first was to be a love story, the second and third were Duelle and Noroit, and the fourth film was to be a full-blown musical starring Anna Karina and Jean Marais.

Merry-Go-Round (1983)

As it stood, Rivette shot the second and third films and then suffered the nervous breakdown, which shut down production of the first film, a love story starring Leslie Caron and Albert Finney (later made by Rivette in 2003 as The Story of Marie and Julien). The intention was for the films to overlap in terms of themes and cast members (although the latter never happened in the two that he did complete), and for the ambient music to become a larger component with each installment.

Rivette explains that he undertook this very daunting project in order to avoid the social reality of the day — Out 1 was a very potent statement about political life in France in the “post-May 1968” period. He wanted to give fiction more “free rein” in the tetralogy.

The interviews with Rivette are endearing, because he was very prone to self-deprecation and, though quite certain of his ideas as a filmmaker, he expressed them in a fashion that indicated he was still open to suggestion. His discussion of Merry-Go-Round in the second interview (from 2004) is incredibly honest, as he describes how it never truly fit together for him, due to his own and Schneider’s “health problems,” thus making it an eternal “work in progress.”

An interview with critic Jonathan Rosenbaum supplies some concrete details of the film shoots. For instance, Rivette showed the cast of Duelle the Val Lewton noir thriller The Seventh Victim (1943), while he showed the Noroit ensemble the Fritz Lang adventure Moonfleeet (1955).

Rosenbaum also discusses where the films fit in terms of genre. His contention is that “all French films are fantasy films,” due to the history of French art cinema. Thus, while Rivette’s films are seen as peculiar to American viewers, they were not considered that offbeat in the European marketplace.

Buy or Rent The Jacques Rivette Collection

About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”