Jacques Rivette, the so-called ‘man in the shadows’, is, as that sobriquet suggests, probably the least well known of the leading French New Wave directors. The phrase is equally apt as a description of the director’s work, which often seems to take place in a twilight world, one step removed from reality. Indeed, magic and mystery are at the very heart of his vision, and despite the best efforts of many of his protagonists, the mystery usually remains, in the end, unresolved. This is completely intentional and bespeaks a philosophy akin to what the poet John Keats called ‘negative capability’ – that is a belief in the infinite depth of people and the world and a rejection of preconceived certainties that limit an artist’s receptivity to inspiration. Paradoxically, the creative process, another key Rivettean theme, is intentionally demystified in his work. Typically it takes the form of a theatrical rehearsal that is so thoroughly interwoven with the central narrative that it’s hard to know where performance begins and ends.
Rivette’s refusal to restrict the running-time of his films to the accepted two-hour paradigm (typically they run two and half hours or more, or in the case of the legendary Out 1 to nearly thirteen hours), combined with the esoteric nature of his narratives and a deceptively casual technique, has drawn criticism from some quarters and resulted in limited releases for many of his films. Nevertheless he has some high-profile champions, including the critic David Thomson, who, in 2002, described Rivette as ‘the most important filmmaker of the last thirty-five years’. Without a doubt Rivette is a genuinely original director who has pushed the boundaries of cinematic art and his films will reward anybody willing to engage with them.
Note: Rivette has often been forced to shorten his films for commercial reasons, but in the case of La Belle Noiseuse (1991), Out 1 (1971) and Va Savoir (2001), his re-cut versions (La Belle Noiseuse: Divertimento, Out 1: Spectre and Va Savoir+) were re-edited with the intention of creating genuinely alternative takes on the original and are definitely worth seeing in their own right. Therefore we have included them alongside the originals in our following list of Jacques Rivette’s top 10 films:
If you like the films of Jean Cocteau or enjoyed Leos Carrax’s recent Holy Motors, you’ll love this beautifully shot, poetically strange odyssey into the realm of dream and myth starring Rivette regulars Bulle Ogier and Juliet Berto as goddesses of the Sun and Moon battling against each other for the possession of a magical diamond that will allow the winner to remain on earth.
(The Nun, 1966)
In eighteenth-century France, a young woman (Anna Karina) is forced against her will to enter a convent where she faces persecution and abuse. Provoking a storm of protest in France at the time of its release, Le Religieuse is an absorbing and faithful adaptation of the classic novel by Denis Diderot, with a heart-rending performance from Karina.
Paris nous appartient
(Paris Belongs to Us, 1961)
Following a tragic suicide, a mood of paranoia grips a group of bohemians in 1957 Paris. In his debut feature, Rivette introduces key motifs – a young woman investigating a mystery, a theatrical troupe rehearsing a play, a shadowy conspiracy operating outside the law – to which he would return again and again in his career.
Va Savoir / Va Savoir+
(Who Knows?, 2001)
A sparkling comedy about the romantic entanglements of six characters revolving around a theatrical production of Pirandello’s play Come tu mi vuoi (As You Desire Me). Jeanne Balibar stars as an actress whose return to Paris after a three year absence precipitates the revival of an old love affair much to the chagrin of her director and current flame, Ugo (Sergio Castellito).
Sandrine Bonnaire gives a riveting performance as a young scientist investigating the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of her father. Rivette draws on Greek myths, Hitchcockian thrillers and the Film Policier tradition to create one of his most compelling works; full of startling character revelations and unexpected plot twists.
La Bande des quatre
(Gang of Four, 1989)
Four drama students living together in a house in a suburb of Paris become entangled in a web of intrigue when a mysterious stranger enters their lives. Accessible and quintessential, this is a perfect introduction to the themes and settings Rivette has explored throughout his career.
(Mad Love, 1968)
As theatre director, Sebastien (Jean-Pierre Kalfon), rehearses a production of Racine’s Andromaque, his relationship with his wife, Claire (Bulle Ogier), comes under increasing strain. Pushing beyond the boundaries of traditional narrative and acting method, Rivette forged a distinctive new style for this raw and compelling study of a doomed relationship.
Céline and Julie vont en bateau
(Céline and Julie Go Boating, 1974)
A magician (Juliet Berto) and a librarian (Dominique Labourier) team up to solve a murder mystery. Whimsical and audacious, Rivette’s most popular film explores the transcendent capacity of human imagination and our
enduring desire to escape reality through fiction.
A pair of conspiracy theorists (Jean-Pierre Léaud and Juliet Berto) investigate the existence of a secret society and its connection to two rival theatre groups.
An essential rite of passage for any committed cinephile, this boldly experimental 12 hour 40 minute epic grew out of Rivette’s resolution in the aftermath of May ’68, to make films that would leave the viewer “no longer the same after having seen the film”.
La Belle Noiseuse / La Belle Noiseuse: Divertimento
(The Beautiful Troublemaker, 1991)
Reclusive artist Frenhofer (Michel Piccoli), is inspired by a wilful young woman (Emmanuelle Béart), to create a final masterpiece. Rivette’s spellbinding study of artistic obsession and the act of creativity deservedly won the Grand Prix at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival.