Five Lessons from Ten Great Filmmakers: Jacques Rivette


The Claire Denis-directed episode of Cinéma de notre temps, Jacques Rivette: Le veilleur (Jacques Rivette: The Night Watchman), in the New York Film Festival on Saturday, was made it in collaboration with Serge Daney. The famed critic asks Rivette interesting or sometimes impossible questions while the two men—Daney tall and sloping, Rivette dimunitive and with a Clint Eastwood walk—wander around the same streets of Paris in which Rivette shot his most iconic films. The film cuts between these conversations and scenes from Rivette films, and so is marvelous portrait of Paris as a cinephile wonderland. Through the framing and editing, the film perfectly presents this humorous, self-effacing genius, capturing all his nervous hand gestures as well as his reluctant pauses and laughs. Denis worked with frequent collaborator cinematographer Agnès Godard on this portrait, which is one of their best and least-seen films.

1. Go where the movies are.

“You were in Rouen, you wanted to make films. It was 1949,” says Daney, to ask how he came to Paris.

“I had nothing…” says Rivette. “I arrived in Paris, and a friend who lived in the suburbs offered to put me up. So I went and left my bag in Noisy le Sec or somewhere like that and returned to Paris for this meeting [with a friend from Rouen at a bookshop] at 3 o’clock. The bookshop manager was in fact a young actor called Jean Gruault who earns his living running the shop. Suzanne Schiffman was a regular customer at the shop. And Jean said, the local cinema club is showing Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne and Maurice Scherrer [then critic Eric Rohmer] is presenting it. [Puts hands down on the table, in a ‘That’s it!’ gesture.] So at 6 o’clock I was at the Lain quarter film club to see this film that I’d seen once before while on holiday in Millau. There was a storm and the projection kept being interrupted because of the electricity cuts. It was nice, it added to the film’s suspense.”

“…I met Sherrer-Rohmer just to say hello that day,” he says, explaining how he met and became part of the famous Gang of Four. “But Jean-Luc [Godard], Francois [Truffaut] and I met some months later. I remember going to see Le Regle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game) at Studio Parnasse two or three weeks later on a Tuesday. Every Tuesday there was a film followed by a debate. So I went there with Gruault.  And this ragamuffin arrived and Gruault said, ‘Oh, you’re wearing a tie.’

‘Yes, in Renoir’s honor.’ And it was Francois. But I saw him later at the Cinématheque, where I also met Jean-Luc, who already knew Suzanne.”

“‘Then when the Gazette du Cinéma came out, and the Cahiers… Let’s write about our views, not to become a film critic, that was never my aim, I wasn’t a critic. Francois was, in a big way, but I wasn’t. But from time to time, it was a good exercise. The difficult task of writing down what we thought of a certain director. Or a certain problem that related to such and such a film. God knows it wasn’t for the money, because Cahiers paid badly, if they paid at all. The Cahiers took off in 1952-53, and that became the place we met up every day. That was several years later. We formed a little group. ‘The Hitchcock-Hawksians’ as Bazin called us.”

2. Film can be separate parts or one whole.

Noticing that Rivette almost always films full bodies rather than close-ups, Daney asks him directly and accusatorily, “What do faces mean to you?”

“It’s more I don’t want to separate… to split things up,” responds Rivette. “I know a lot of filmmakers, whether consciously or not, who have this notion about splitting the body into bits. Not just the face, it can be the hand or any part of the body. But obviously the face is the main focus of the body. But I know that when I stand behind the camera and look into the eyepiece, I always have a tendency that I sometimes regret of stepping back somewhat. Because when I have just the face I want to have the hands, and when I have the hands I want to see the body. I always want to see the body in its entirety. And then the person or backdrop… the elements in relation to which this body acts, reacts, moves, etc. I think it’s simply linked to the fact that I don’t have the temperament, the taste or the talent to make heavily edited films. My films focus more on continuity of events taken as a whole.”

“…With Anna [Karina], as with Juliet [Berto] or Bulle [Ogier]—to name just three when I could name others—what I liked about these actresses, and indeed other actors like Jean-Pierre Léaud or Jean-Pierre Kalfon, is their entire body, the overall way the body moves and reacts from head to toe. And that’s what I want to capture on film. I know what I’m saying is only half true. Because a filmmaker like Jean-Luc who films very close in, knows that as he’s filming a particular detail, what he’s not filming will come across. If he’s filming the face or another part of the body, you can feel the parts of the body that you can’t see. I don’t have that confidence. I’m rather timid in that respect. I prefer to keep a certain distance.”

3. Choose the easy things.

“In the interview for L’Amour Fou you said something that sounded strange,” says Daney. “You said, you have to do the easy things and leave the difficult things to the pedants.”

“Yes, yes, I still think that. But it’s sometimes hard to find the easy things!” is Rivette’s response.

“The thing is, what you find easy, others find hard. Does it mean easy for oneself?” clarifies, or complicates, Daney. “If it’s easy for everyone then it’s not a good thing?”

“No, easy can mean what we were talking about yesterday: working with a certain person at a certain time…  Five years before it would have been difficult, five years later it’d be impossible.”

4. It’s sometimes hard to find the easy things.

When talking about a project he’d like to do (which will eventually become Le belle noisese, released the following year) Rivette asks himself a tremendous amount of questions to find the right way in.

“I don’t know whether I’ll ever do it, but for a long time I have wanted to make a film about bodies,” he says, “the way people see bodies and all that implies, but at the same time I’m very scared of doing that because it’s very difficult. It’s something I’d like to force myself to do at least once. But I still haven’t found the method that would allow me to do that in a way that would seem correct.”

Daney says, “For example, some time ago in Les Cahiers your wrote about Rossellini. You said that you’d like to see a photo of a Rossellini film, showing the painter facing his model. Isn’t that the backdrop? Tintoretto, Suzanne et les Vieillards, etc…Behind the primitive scene and the fairly repressed scene?”

“Absolutely. That’s it exactly.”

“What prevents you from doing it now?” asks Daney.

“It’s knowing what the status of the painter should be. Should he be part of the fiction? That’s what I can’t work out.”

“You feel the painter should be in the fiction otherwise he’s a voyeur…?”

“Yes, but on the other hand, what is he doing? Is he really a painter? Is he an actor playing a painter? Do we see his painting or not?  Do we focus on his face and tell ourselves the painting is off camera? At the same time it requires an immodesty that up till now I’ve hesitated to apply.”

5. There are two kinds of filmmakers.

When asking about the solitary existence that Rivette leads after he finishes a film, Rivette responds, “It happens often, after working on something a long time, there is a kind of intermission.”

He goes on to explain, “There are two kinds of filmmakers: the ones I envy, who are able to line up projects, one after the other, as Francois did, who always have subjects more or less prepared in various stages of advancement, just waiting for the right time to shoot. But for me, one project takes everything out of me and then there’s a time of emptiness, which isn’t always linked to worry. [he laughs] It’s just a vacuum period.”

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