Dir. Jacques Rivette. France 2003. 150 min.
For dyed-in-the-wool cinephiles it is not up for debate every new Rivette film has to be seen, at least once, preferably more - and The Story Of Marie And Julien is no exception. But less committed audiences will find the French master's latest offering, the revival of a 27-year-old project, a heavy going affair at least for the first hour or so, before he settles down to reveal some of his cards and allow glimpses of his real intentions. Until that point the film plays out like a sordid blackmail case combined with a strange, inconclusive mad obsession, moving in circles around itself, unable to decide which way to go. Only then does it imperceptibly, at first, and then more clearly, ascend to a different level altogether, as a tale of love stronger than death, deliverance and redemption, in a fashion that will win over audience members who have not given up and left the theatre before. A sure-fire item for art houses, it was passed by both Cannes and Venice, who possibly found it not attractive enough for mainstream audiences, before playing at Toronto in the Masters sidebar.
The film is divided into four sections, each bearing a separate title to indicate the hierarchy of the characters who appear within it. Julien (Radziwilowicz), a middle-aged man without any evident source of income, lives by himself in a big dilapidated house, fixing clocks as a hobby. He also blackmails a rich woman, known only as Madame X (Brochet), and raises his price every time she attempts to bargain with him.
At the same time he courts a young woman, Julie (Beart) he had met accidentally a year earlier and has been unable to forget since. She moves in with him and they have a torrid love affair in which they appear to be equally committed, although he is constantly mystified by her abrupt changes of moods, bouts of lethargy and strange behaviour. Soon she is his partner not only in bed but also in crime, taking over the negotiations with Madame X in as intransigent a manner as Julien's.
At the start the object of the blackmail seems to be associated with fraud; later it transpires that it is linked with a much more serious matter, a sudden and unexplained death in the family. About 100 minutes into the film, however, a new dimension is added when characters who until then have seemed very much alive are in fact revealed to be dead- or more exactly, living dead, for they have committed suicide and will not rest in peace until they are delivered out of their last ties with their former existence by the living. There is no explanation of how exactly all this works: the undead themselves concede they do not understand the rules of the game they are involved in, although they are compelled to obey them nevertheless.
Rivette's visual style is once again mesmerising, displaying the kind of consummate mastery that films buffs who have been following him faithfully since his early New Wave days cannot resist. Slow, elegant and minutely planned, his long sweeping lateral travels and intricately choreographed camera movements are always a pleasure to watch. The precise choice of colour patterns for every camera set-up, the use of an old house with all its labyrinthine intricacies or the presence of mirrors, traditional passages from one world to another, are by now Rivette trademarks and so are, of course, his literary and cinematographic tributes (Julien's remarkably expressive black cat is called Nevermore like Edgar Allan Poe's raven, and of course, the blackmailed lady with a dark past is Madame X). Beart and Radziwilowicz, both of whom have played in his films before, evidently help Rivette establish the troubled mood of the relations between two persons who are madly in love with each other and yet separated by an invisible abyss.
Originally intended as a companion piece to Rivette's previous films Noirot and Duelle, with Leslie Caron and Albert Finney selected at the time for the leads, the feature in its present version, may encounter the same difficulties as the earlier two films. The crime story and the supernatural aspects do not gel together, at times interfering rather than supporting each other and the extremely long exposition and leisurely pace may scare away the sort of buyer with a short fuse who leaves screenings when the first 15 minutes fails to grab them. Rivette's decision to return to his darker register of the past, after the sunny disposition of Va Savoir, may also dissuade newer converts. It is all unlikely to bother his fans.
Prod co: Pierre Grise Productions
Int'l sales: Celluloid Dreams
Fr dist: Les Films De Losange
Prod: Martine Marignac
Scr: Pascal Bonitzer, Christine Laurent, Jacques Rivette
Cinematography: William Lubtchansky
Ed: Nicole Lubtchansky
Prod des: Manu De Chauvigny
Costumes: Laurence Struz
Sound: Florian Eidenbenz
Main cast: Emmanuelle Beart, Jerzy Radziwilowicz, Anne Brochet, Bettine Kee, Olivier Cruveiller, Mathias Jung, Nicole Garcia