Excerpts from Jacques Rivette Interview - L'art secret
Jean-Marc Lalanne and Jean-Baptiste Morain
translated by Craig Keller and Joseph Coppola
This translation originally appeared in part at Cinemasparagus. An additional section was translated by Joseph Coppola and appeared at My Gleanings.
LALANNE/MORAIN: Is the reception that your films receive something that still burns you up? Were you hurt by the bad reception for Histoire de Marie et Julien?
RIVETTE: You always wish there were more of a response. But often it comes five, ten years down the road. As it turns out, for Marie et Julien, I'm starting to get a sense these days of some change of heart. But films today have a completely different life with DVD, which I think is the greatest. First of all because that's practically the only way I watch films anymore.
LALANNE/MORAIN: Which films have you seen recently on DVD?
RIVETTE: I've been really disappointed by the new films I've seen. I'm pretty appalled by the current American cinema, after having thought so highly of it. Scorsese has disappointed me a lot. I think that Coppola is a much more interesting filmmaker. When you see One from the Heart again, you're really struck by a very strong desire for cinema. I'm often struck today by the way in which filmmakers build this image of what their cinema is, and then are no longer willing to let go of it. Even filmmakers that I've liked a lot, like Clint Eastwood, have disappointed me. I couldn't bring myself to go see his two latest films. (1)
LALANNE/MORAIN: Were the cells of cinephiles in the 50s, and notably that of Cahiers, similar to secret societies?
RIVETTE: The secret society, that's always the other people... It wasn't an accident if there were conflicts with other groups, other magazines, such as Positif. But yes, of course...
LALANNE/MORAIN: The story of the cinephilia of the 50s, a foundation, nearly mythological, seen from today, has something of the novelistic about it, almost as if out of Balzac. Did you live this, at that time?
RIVETTE: We were all very surprised by what took place, by what they called the New Wave. No one from among us, whether it was François (Truffaut), Jean-Luc (Godard), Chabrol or Rohmer anticipated that it would take that dimension. Above all, this verified, after the fact, the appropriateness of what we all thought and what François wrote in his famous article, "A Certain Tendency of French Cinema," which nevertheless was an absolute rupture. Cahiers was thus pointed to by the institutions of criticism and film.
LALANNE/MORAIN: Can you tell us about your encounter with the Cahiers group?
RIVETTE: The great difference with the Positif critics, for example, was that we all wanted to make films. When I met François, Jean-Luc and the others on my arrival from Rouen, we would meet each other at the Ciné mathque française on the Avenue Messine where we went just about every night. Already, what differentiated us from other cinephiles, even if we were all snot-nosed kids (I was 21 and François 17), was that we wanted to make films. We had no idea at all how, I, for one, knew absolutely no one. François had just been released from military prison thanks to André Bazin and we fell in together right off because we wanted to become filmmakers. i was enrolled in the College of Arts but I did not have the least intention of pursuing these studies, it was just to be able to benefit from the advantages of the status of student.
LALANNE/MORAIN: Does the desire to make films date from your adolescence in Rouen?
RIVETTE: I retell this often (laughs). The guilty party is Jean Cocteau. The determining factor was the release of La Belle et la Bête, and, most of all, the publication of his diary of the shoot. I had read a lot of Cocteau, whom I liked a lot. At that time, I didn't much know what I wanted to do later on, and when i read this diary -- when he recounted the work with the crew, all the problems that he met up with, his skin disease, Jean Marais' wound, and so on -- I immediately knew that this was what I wanted to do. I told myself that cinema was a place where things happened, where one debated with people, where one invented and tried things, whether they worked or not...
LALANNE/MORAIN: You brought to Cahiers the relish for interviews and the idea of going over to the film set...
RIVETTE: That was most of all an excuse to see what happened on a film set. I went over to the one for Ophuls' Madame de..., I stayed there two or three days in a corner, I watched Ophuls work, Danielle Darrieux, but in the end I did not write anything. When it comes to the interviews, that came from the great vogue, at that time, of very long radio interviews with writers: Gide, Léataud and others. And there was Claudel, who edited the text of these interviews for Gallimard, and who, in principle, corrected nothing. I was leafing through this book when it just came out, and François and I said to each other, "This is what we should be doing!" And that is why we went with our tape recorder to see Jacques Becker.
LALANNE/MORAIN: L'amour fou is a rather overwhelming film about the complexity, the instability of a couple's connections. But that question disappeared in your cinema, up until the two most recent films, Histoire de Marie et Julien and Ne touchez pas la hache where it becomes totally central again. Again we find the same, very naked pain, tied to love.
RIVETTE: (A long silence.) Yes. (Laughs.) But no, I'll respond. I shot L'amour fou telling [Georges de] Beauregard, the producer, that I was going to make a film about jealousy, which wasn't entirely true. We shot it in five weeks, under very tight conditions. The film was marked by what I was discovering at the time in the theater, namely the performances of Marc'O, and his actors... Jean Eustache was doing the editing on Les Idoles (2) but also for the documentary on Jean Renoir, Jean Renoir, le patron, that I made in '67 for the Cinéastes de notre temps series. I remember long discussions that we had on the question of true and false. It followed that the basic principle of the cinema should be reality, and what's more, truth. What I was opposed to was the idea that there were no truth other than fiction. In a certain way, L'amour fou is a fiction-film relative to the sense that it proposed the truth-film: La Maman et la putain. The film is a direct autobiography, all the characters on-screen were literally people I knew from the period. Jean was writing with the will to be utterly faithful to the biographical material, to find the most exact equivalence to it. In Une sale histoire this very volition becomes the film's subject.
LALANNE/MORAIN: In Out 1, that 12-hour-long cult-film, you added to Marc'O's troupe two slightly younger individuals, invented by two of your associates in the New Wave: Jean-Pierre Léaud and Juliet Berto. It's really a great film about the '68 youth-culture without ever coming right out and saying so...
RIVETTE: Yes, I shot two years after '68 and, without ever making reference to the events, the characters never stop referring to what happened two years prior. As for Jean-Pierre's and Juliet's characters, they absolutely do not comprehend the world in which they're evolving. But around them, the secret society of the Thirteen (Lonsdale, Ogier, Bernadette Lafont) never stops commenting upon what's happened. For me, it's clear, the film speaks of '68, or rather the immediate post-'68.
LALANNE/MORAIN: You were the only filmmaker of the New Wave to establish a bridge with the New York avant-garde of the '60s, and Warhol in particular...
RIVETTE: In the '60s, I kept going to the Cinémathèque. Which François, for example, no longer did. It's there that I discovered the New York avant-garde films. I remember discovering The Chelsea Girls, which impressed me a great deal.
LALANNE/MORAIN: Did you meet Warhol?
RIVETTE: Once, at La Coupole, early in the '70s. I was meeting up with Bulle and we were in the same group of people. But he was very hemmed-in; spoke little; looked like a sphinx.
LALANNE/MORAIN: You shot Merry-Go-Round, with Joe Dallessandro, thinking of Warhol?
RIVETTE: I found him magnificent in Morrissey's trilogy, Flesh, Heat, and Trash. But the idea was Maria Schneider's, who really wanted him to be her partner, because she had met him in Rome, I think... The shoot was very difficult. Maria wasn't doing very well; was in a physical state that didn't make work very easy; she was sleeping all the time or not at all; -- without going overboard, I felt like Billy Wilder waiting for Marilyn [Monroe] to get ready without ever being certain that she'd actually show up. Very quickly, Joe understood that he'd get nothing out of this film. The relation with the production was very tense, we had a lot of illness crop up at the onset of the shoot. But he had a kindness to him, and an impeccable seriousness. Total respect for Joe Dallessandro.
LALANNE/MORAIN: After that film, you went on to Le Pont du Nord, which takes a hard look at the end of the '70s and the squashing of the utopias of '68.
RIVETTE: We shot that film in November of '80. At the time, we thought that Giscard had every chance to win a second term. You don't remember the end of the Giscard years with any certainty, but it really wasn't anything to pin a medal to. Ministers were committing suicide, were getting killed leaving their homes, all followed by a series of scandals, there was the affaire des diamants, of "sniffer planes" for locating oil despoits... Giscard's last year in power was delirious. Le Pont du Nord is a slightly polemical film about this deep malaise, this asphyxiated feeling that belonged to the France of the late '70s. But the film was released a few months after Franç ois Mitterand's victory. It was therefore already out-of-date, historically.
LALANNE/MORAIN: The passing of the baton between an individual contemporary to '68 such as Bulle Ogier and a succeeding generation that has no memory of the events, embodied by Pascale Ogier and her punk petit soldat silhouette, is tremendous...
RIVETTE: The idea was to refer to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Passing from the Parisian quartiers outward to the peripheral areas, within those zones that are slightly uncertain, but without ever leaving Paris. We also wanted to show everything that was in the process of being transformed, under construction.
LALANNE/MORAIN: Does the current presidential race interest you?
RIVETTE: It's amusing. If you can't laugh at it, then what will you ever laugh at. No, frankly, I don't have any big thing to say about it.
LALANNE/MORAIN: At what point your films took account of the political mutations inside of France has already been discussed somewhat. What do you think of the films that were speaking more directly about politics, the utopias of collective cinema around the time of '68, Jean-Luc Godard's Dziga-Vertov group?
RIVETTE: The films that you're speaking of were collective in the same way that the regime in Peking was a democracy!
LALANNE/MORAIN: In your connection with improvisation, you've always put into place a collective practice, whereby the actor takes part in the direction...
RIVETTE: In certain films, that's true. None of my films were built according to the same rules of the game, even if I'd resorted several times to a large degree of improvisation, where the actors in part had to invent what they were doing, what they were saying, and sometimes contributing all the way up to the story of the movie. Sometimes this got very risky, but each time in a different way. I've often taken the risk of keeping my mouth shut on my films, but never the same way twice. But in any case, I think that cinema is always collective, even in Bresson.
LALANNE/MORAIN: That's not what Anne Wiazemsky wrote in her recent novel...
RIVETTE: I've read that too, I really liked it. Still, we see that the shoot is somewhat collective. Sometimes, the donkey just would not respect what it was that Bresson wanted... (Laughs.)
LALANNE/MORAIN: Why do the credits of your films always indicate: "direction: Jacques Rivette" ["mise en scène: Jacques Rivette"] rather than "a film by"?
RIVETTE: I detest the formulation "a film by". A film is always at least fifteen people. I don't like "réalisation" very much either, which seems to me very portentous, maybe because its root is "reality." Mise en scène is a rapport with the actors, and the communal work is set with the first shot. What's important for me in a film is that it be alive, that it be imbued with presence, which is basically the same thing. And that this presence, inscribed within the film, possesses a form of magic. There's something profoundly mysterious in this. It's an alchemy that one procures, or does not. Early in the shoot, anything's still possible, but once you've made two or three steps, already you have to follow the course that the film has taken. But that's what's interesting. It's a collective work, but one wherein there's a secret, too. For that matter, the actor has his secrets as well -- of which the director is the spectator.
LALANNE/MORAIN: Then is the cinema, for you, a collective work between people who have secrets?
RIVETTE: Yes. It's a little closer to that. And I think that the story of a film always ends when you talk about it.
1. Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima (both 2006)
2. The Idols (dir. Marc'O, 1968) starring Bulle Ogier, Pierre Clémenti, Jean-Pierre Kalfon, and Michèle Moretti
Originally appeared in Les Inrockuptibles, March 30, 2007. Translated by Craig Keller and Joseph Coppola.