News and Commentary – Jacques Rivette: Another Giant Has Left Us

Jacques Rivette, one of the great and singular directors of his time, died January 29 at the age of eighty-seven.  He was one of five young movie-obsessed friends (along with Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer and François Truffaut) who met in the late 1940s, each drawn like apes to the monolith in 2001 to film screenings at the Cinémathèque Française. (How obsessed were they? Godard and Rivette once showed up for an early afternoon showing of Orson Welles’ Macbeth; Godard watched repeated screenings through ten o’clock; Rivette stayed on till midnight.)

The very opinionated quintet soon became writers at Cahiers du Cinéma, the film journal co-founded by Andre Bazin in 1951.  From that perch they picked literary fights with their elders – the gatekeeping guardians of prestige and the status quo – and sang the praises of then-underappreciated European titans like Bergman and Rossellini, and even more subversively, of unfashionable Americans—Rivette wrote enthusiastic pieces championing Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger, Nicholas Ray, and “The Genius of Howard Hawks.”  (He also took a brief turn editing the magazine from 1963 to 1965.)

But all of these young Turks wanted, more than anything, to make their own films.  In 1956, Rivette directed the short film Le Coup du Berger; co-written with Chabrol (and shot in his apartment), Truffaut and Godard join the screenwriters in cameo appearances. Still, it would be five years more until his first feature, Paris Belongs to Us (1961)—a landmark of the New Wave (forthcoming, finally, in a special edition from the Criterion Collection.)  

Rivette’s films commonly explore the relationship between theater and film, often have a taste for surrealism, and are regularly infused with more than a hint of unresolved conspiracy.  Many of his early efforts have larger-than-life reputations: The Nun (1966), starring Anna Karina, became something of a cause célèbre, banned by the French government for over a year; Out 1 (1971) clocked in at over twelve hours (yes, you read that correctly—it has recently been released on DVD); Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974) is considered by many to be his masterpiece—David Thomson crowned it “the most innovative film since Citizen Kane” and the “summation of classical narrative cinema.”  Personally I favor his later work, including Secret Defense (1998) with Sandrine Bonnaire, The Story of Marie and Julien (2003) featuring Emmanuelle Béart, and, above all, La Belle Noiseuse (1991).

A nice collection of poster art from Rivette’s films can be found here.  Among the many tributes that have been published, informative appreciations appear in The New York TimesThe Guardian, and The New Yorker.  It has been not been long since those papers were mourning the loss of Alain Resnais, a turning of history’s pages observed by Martin Scorsese: “The news of Jacques Rivette’s passing is a reminder that so much time has passed since that remarkable moment in the late ’50s and early ’60s when so many directors were redrawing the boundaries of cinema,” he reflected in a statement. “Rivette was a fascinating artist, and it’s strange to think that he’s gone. Because if you came of age when I did, the New Wave still seems new. I suppose it always will.”