Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Sep 28, 2009 7:45 pm 
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Intervention and redemption in a traveling circus

Being far from an expert on the French master Jacques Rivette, I can do no better than to quote extensively from an essay on this film by the French critic Hélène Frappat.
Around a Small Mountain/36 vues du Pic Saint Loup [Frappat writes ] "casts a novel, unprecedented, never seen before" light [un éclairage « inouï, inédit, jamais donné jusqu’à maintenant »] on Jacques Rivette's oeuvre. The quote is from Vittorio (Sergio Castellitto), a new, Italian incarnation of of the mysterious character of guide/savior/intercessor whose mission, since Va savoir, consists in releasing a princess from her spell -- in other words, her past or her grief. This gracious princess inconsolably mourning her late love by a graveside (like John Wayne talking to his departed wife in She Wore A Yellow Ribbon), is Jane Birkin.

Having played the ingénue in L'Amour par terre and the great painter's former model in La Belle Noiseuse, Jane Birkin strips bare, in Around a Small Mountain, the enigma of all Rivette's heroines: confined behind the bars of the Rue de Rivoli, in a moment of distraction snatched from the film's Cevennes mountains, she brings to mind Anna Karina, imprisoned in a convent in La Religieuse, haunted by a mistake she didn't make her heart aches like Sandrine Bonnaire's in Secret Defense; madly in love with a ghost, like Pauline (Bulle Ogier) in Out 1, she moves like a tightrope walker in an intermediate state between life and death similar to the coma from which Louise (Marianne Denicourt) emerges at the start of Haut Bas Fragile.

Yet Around a Small Mountain introduces a novel space-time that changes the rules of the game: the circus. Despite appearances, the circus is not the continuation of theater by other means. Jacques Rivette makes it a synthesis: it's a magic circle of light, surrounded by banks of empty seats, occupied after nightfall by whispering ghosts closed in by crinkled walls of blue canvas.

Since Paris nous appartient, the theater has constituted an acid test for Rivette's heroines, each novice actor becoming herself through the words of someone else : her role. For the traps of theatrical language, the circus substitutes clown's masks and acrobats' death-defying feats: 'It's the most dangerous place in the world where anything's possible, where eyes are opening and my eyes were opened.' Like Lola Montes, fully aware that she risks her life in the ring, Kate (Jane Birkin) must perform the whip numer in order to be excised of her grief. 'I feel like I've had an operation. I'd become used to my sickness, to my grief.' Interpreting Rilke's advice to a young poet, Vittorio, who stages the risky number designed to free Kate of the memory that stops her from living (the tragic death fifteen years earlier of the man she loved), provides one of the keys to the puzzle: 'All the dragons in our lives are perhaps princesses in distress asking to be released.'

In Jacques Rivette's oeuvre, the circus becomes the images of the peril that art compels us to confront in order to release our fears. Unlike the heroines of Haut Bas Fragile who develop 'terrifying games' because 'there's no bigger thrill than fear,' Vittorio, the accidental stage director, gives himself the mission of saving princesses.

In this respect, Around a Small Mountain is an encapsulation or even, to employ an expression rarely used today, poetic art: Jacques Rivette provides his audience with a stunning opportunity, in 84 magical minutes, to experience the existential test to which art (occasionally) raises us."

All it took him was a few blue-dyed clothes floating on the surface of a river, a makeshift table where the fruit stands out like a still life, lovers looking for or dodging each other in the undergrowth, a clown looking us in the eye ('All's well that ends well!') a circus tent framing the trees' green foliage, a full moon over the mountains, watching over our dreams. All is well that ends well: as Jacques Rivette allows us to discover today, 'it's art that makes life' and not the contrary.
This is very short for a Rivette film, and its delineation of his themes is correspondingly clear, simple, skeletal -- suited to the simplicity of the little dying circus, whose director has himself recently died, and whose remaining members say this is its last tour. Castellitto's character encounters Birkin's on the road when the vehicle she's driving, which pulls the circus tent, has broken down. He arrives in a shiny German sports car like the deus ex machina that he is -- the present equivalent of Cocteau's motorcycles. Ms. Frappat doesn't mention it, but he falls in love with Kate from then on, and yet, after lingering around the circus for a week or two, he is called away to Spain on business and leaves her. By participating in a reenactment of the dangerous whip trick that had accidentally killed the most important person in her life 15 years earlier, Kate is purged of the lingering sorrow and guilt she has been feeling. She may not presumably return to her Paris occupation of dyeing cloth for designers.

I tend to agree with Variety reviewer Boyd Van Hoeij, that Jane Birkin's performance is more emotionally rich and her character is more rounded than Sergio Castellitto's. Castellitto is a versatile pro, and it's a bit surprising -- perhaps he's over-awed? -- that he doesn't endow Vittorio with more nuance. As Van Hoeij also notes, Rivette uses a lot of improvisation, and potentially the most fun are the clown "numbers", intentionally "threadbare" at the outset, then enriched at Vittorio's presumptuous suggestion in subsequent performances. The artificiality of the film is underlined by the fact that during the circus acts the audience is almost never seen.

The film may provide a kind of skeleton key to Rivette, as Castellitto's quoted remark suggests, and thus may specially appeal to students of his work. On the other hand, it lacks the richness of the director's preceding three films, the 2001 Histoire de Marie et Julien/The Story of Marie and Julien, the 2003 Va savoir, and the 2007 Ne touchez pas la hache/The Duchess of Langeais. But in its simplicity, clarity, and its sense of resolution, this is very much an enlightened artist's late work, and resembles Shakespeare's late Pastoral romances.

Nominated for the Golden Lion at Venice. Shown as a part of the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, 2009.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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