(Available via Hulu Plus)
Among the directors of the French New Wave, Jacques Rivette is uniquely ill-represented on video. From the first three decades of his career, which include the landmark Céline And Julie Go Boating and the monumental Out 1, among many others, not one of his films has been released on DVD in the U.S., and even in other countries, availability remains patchy. Céline And Julie is available from the British Film Institute, and the Masters of Cinema label is releasing a new Blu-ray of Le Pont Du Nord. Out 1 was recently issued in Germany; several others are available, without English subtitles, in France. Given Rivette’s obsession with shadowy cabals, it’s strangely appropriate that it feels as if there’s a conspiracy afoot to keep his work out of reach. Fortunately, no conspiracy is airtight, and this one let Paris Nous Appartient escape onto Criterion’s Hulu Plus channel.
Paris Nous Appartient, Rivette’s first feature, isn’t a surging statement of intent like Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless or François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. Rivette began shooting in 1957, before either of the others, but it took him two years to finish, scraping together cash for film stock and begging for locations as he went. (The finished film is dated mid-1957 by a title card, although the date never comes into play.) By the time the film was finally released in 1961, Godard and Truffaut, as well as their Cahiers Du Cinéma colleagues Éric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol, had beaten him to the spotlight.
Even had it come first, it’s doubtful Paris would have engendered the same kind of excitement: While Truffaut and Godard’s debuts were full of youthful energy and a cheerful disregard for convention, Paris Nous Appartient is infused with the world-weary pessimism of Last Year At Marienbad, La Dolce Vita, and Antonioni’s alienation trilogy, a spin-off of what Pauline Kael called “the come-dressed-as-the-sick-soul-of-Europe parties.” A 1962 article from Monthly Film Bulletin by Tom Milne included in the booklet for the movie’s BFI disc calls Paris Nous Appartient “perhaps the most brilliant and absorbing statement yet of the pressures which the human mind has to bear in this mid-century of fear,” but admits that it was greeted by most critics with “wide-spread and full-throated cries of ‘obscurity’ and ‘obscurantism.’”
In retrospect, it feels as if Paris Nous Appartient is fumbling toward themes Rivette explored more fruitfully in later films. Like the protagonists of Out 1 and Le Pont Du Nord, Paris’ Anne (Betty Schneider) stumbles onto what may be evidence of a vast, far-reaching conspiracy. Its existence is most forcefully argued by American expatriate Philip Kaufman (Daniel Crohem), who is said to be a refugee from McCarthyism. The conspiracy’s aims are never divulged, beyond a generic interest in seizing power, and its leaders remain unseen. But evidence of the conspiracy can be seen everywhere, for those who know how to look for it.
The conspiracy-hunters’ suspicions are stoked by the disappearance of a politically active colleague, whom they, without much evidence, presume has been murdered. Like their theories, much of Paris Nous Appartient is built on a foundation of absence. Even at nearly two and a half hours, the film feels incomplete and jagged. Simple conversations are edited with a feeling of spatial dislocation that verges on amateurish; an abrupt shot of a pedestrian being hit by a car feels as if it’s been randomly spliced in from a different film. But the cumulative effect is more unsettling than alienating, adding to a growing sense of irrational unease that’s difficult to shake.
The blank-faced Schneider is the film’s weakest link, failing to convey the contagious obsession of Out 1’s Jean-Pierre Léaud or Le Pont Du Nord’s Bulle Ogier, and Rivette is still finding his way into the association with avant-garde theater that unites his best work. Anne, who’s never acted before, is cast in an underground production of Shakespeare’s Pericles (though she’s informed that Shakespeare didn’t actually write the play—conspiracies within conspiracies). The ever-shifting production, which due to the film’s patchwork shooting schedule never meets in the same place twice, becomes an internal metaphor for Paris Nous Appartient itself. “It’s a little disconnected,” the director warns her, “but it doesn’t matter, because it’s on another level.”
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Shot at the other end of the 1960s, Agnès Varda’s Lions Love is as guileless as Rivette’s film is paranoid. Though Varda, whose 1955 feature La Pointe Courte was a key French New Wave forerunner, was too old to make common cause with the free-love crowd, she and husband Jacques Demy, who had come to Hollywood to make 1969’s Model Shop, did take part in several love-ins. In an interview on the French DVD—part of a career-spanning box set available directly from Varda’s Ciné-Tamaris—Varda says her aim with the film was to profile “this new generation who sought the Utopia of success without the effort of work.” But Varda has never been a scold, and Lions Love, which focuses on an omnisexual trio composed of Warhol superstar Viva and Hair writers Gerome Ragni and James Rado, now seems more like a tongue-in-cheek celebration of hippie excess.
Varda’s onscreen proxy is filmmaker Shirley Clarke, playing a New York director trying to set up a film at a major Hollywood studio. With her oversize sunglasses and an endless succession of chic hats, Clarke looks more like a fashion-mag editor than an underground filmmaker, and she’s fitfully repelled by the core trio’s indolent lounging. They’re engaged with the business in a way that’s never made clear—they live in an enormous house, for one, and Ragni quotes changes in the studio’s stock prices while squirting mouthfuls of swimming-pool water—but their main occupation is engaging in lengthy, aimless conversations, often while semi-nude. At one point, the three rub their furry manes against each other while murmuring “Star. Star. Star.”
Varda makes herself part of the film as well. Early on, she’s glimpsed behind the camera as it pans past a mirror, and the actors frequently shoot her a glance or address her directly. In one scene, Clarke’s character is supposed to attempt suicide after the studio demands the final cut of her film. Clarke balks at going through with it, and Varda takes her place as the camera rolls, slipping into Clarke’s dress while scolding her for chickening out. This break in the fourth wall may itself be staged, which adds another layer of self-awareness: She’s a filmmaker trying to make a film about a filmmaker trying to make a film.
Egging on her countercultural figureheads while being inspired by them, Varda constantly changes form: Sections of the film are titled with letters floating on water or magic-markered on cellophane; a choir offers a harmonized inventory of the central house’s contents. At one point, she gives the screen over entirely to a television reporting the news of Bobby Kennedy’s death, as well as a sorrowful commiseration from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s widow. It ought to be a sobering moment, but after the frenetic pace of previous sequences, it’s oddly restful.
At times, Varda pokes fun at her characters: As Viva stares into the lens and says, “The only thing that I really care about…” the sound turns echoey and post-synchronized, as if even her crowning statement of purpose had to be looped after the fact. But often, she simply basks in the haze of Viva, Ragni, and Rado’s interaction, which is inventive and charmingly amateurish. (Imagine Maidstone without the masculinist ego-trip.) As shaggy and as cuddly as its title suggests, Lions Love is an unending delight, perpetually high on its own freedom.