Reviewer: Jeffrey M. Anderson
Rating (out of 5): ***½
One of the legendary members of the French New Wave, Jacques Rivette was always a bit more experimental than his colleagues. One of the ways in which he played around was with lengthy running times. His monumental Out 1 (1971) runs nearly 13 hours (here's hoping a DVD box set comes sometime soon). His masterpiece Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974, not on DVD in the US) runs just past three hours. Another masterpiece, La Belle Noiseuse (1991), runs four hours.
Rivette has always used these immense lengths for musing, exploration and discovery. He's interested in complexities of the artistic process, or sometimes, more simply, the mystery of romance and and the romance of mystery. Very often cinema and theater and literature mirror and clash with one another. The long running times allow the viewer to sink into these movies, to become slowly, patiently, meditatively involved. This brings us to Rivette's latest, 36 vues du Pic Saint-Loup, or Around a Small Mountain. The most astonishing news about it is that it runs only 84 minutes (the actual running time, not just an American edited version of something longer), but in this case that doesn't equal lean and mean. Around a Small Mountain is certainly not a bad film. It's charming and has most of Rivette's usual touches, but it feels like a minor work.
Jane Birkin (a veteran of Rivette's films Love on the Ground and La Belle Noiseuse) stars as Kate, a French woman who starts the film stranded at the side of the road, the hood of her car propped open. Vittorio (Sergio Castellitto, from Rivette's Va Savoir) cruises by in his convertible, turns around, returns, fiddles with her engine, and fires it up, all without saying a word (and all in one shot). Later, Kate finds him in town and invites him to the circus; she works there, and is returning to it for the first time in 15 years. Vittorio becomes fascinated with the circus life and starts hanging around.
He offers some enigmatic advice on how to improve the act, and winds up befriending the clown, Alex (André Marcon). He also befriends a young, pretty high wire artist, Clémence (Julie-Marie Parmentier), and helps her evade a clueless male suitor. But he always returns to Kate, who doesn't seem quite as interested in him as he is in her. It turns out she's thinking of her lost love, Antoine, who apparently died during a dangerous bullwhip act. Kate is now pondering resurrecting the act, but the bad memories are haunting her. Vittorio seems always at the ready to offer his help, but whether it's accepted or actually very helpful is another matter. (Sometimes his answers to direct questions are interestingly evasive.) If Rivette had spent a little more time mulling over these relationships and conundrums it might have deepened the film past the level of whimsy.
Then comes a truly bizarre sequence in which several characters emerge, one at a time, from a tent flap, and circle around to come through again. Each time, they speak directly to the camera, offering some kind of moral or epilogue for the movie, any of which could apply. It could be argued that Rivette was picking out his own epitaph--it has been suggested that Rivette deliberately made his final film here. He's now 82 and is reportedly not in the best of health.
The best thing about Rivette, however, is that he has never really courted or enjoyed commercial success, and he makes films for himself. Perhaps Around a Small Mountain has somehow answered something that he, possibly at the end of his life, was thinking of. Or perhaps he's just in a silly, happy mood. Perhaps he will be the only one to ever know the truth. But for those of us who care about Rivette and his work, it's worth the effort.
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