36 Vues du Pic St. Loup

Jacques Rivette has always been fascinated by performance, so it's appropriate that his latest film — and possibly, though it hurts to think so, his last? — 36 vues du Pic St. Loup, is a gentle, low-key work in which various long-lingering dramas and pains are resolved through performance and play. The film focuses on a small traveling circus, the last vestige of a dying form, setting up in one small town after another, performing in near-empty tents, with a few scattered families sitting stoically watching in the stands. The circus represents a fading grandeur, an old tradition of public performance that now seems outdated. The circus' bright colors are faded with age, its routines are built on old vaudeville-style humor and spectacle, and there's something quaint about it all, as though the whole troupe was composed of time travelers from another era.

The film opens with a silent interlude by the side of the road, where Kate (Jane Birkin) is frustrated by her stalled jeep. A passerby in a flashy convertible, Vittorio (Sergio Castellitto), helps her get the jeep started without saying a word, then drives off, but the pair will meet again in a nearby town, where it turns out that Kate is with the circus, and Vittorio begins following the troupe around on their tour, seeing each of their performances and hanging around them during the day. Over the course of the film, Vittorio remains an enigma, an aimless wanderer who puts the rest of his life on hold to travel with the circus for a few weeks, but Kate similarly begins as an enigma only to have her mysteries gradually revealed throughout the film. Kate had been with the circus — which was founded by her now-deceased father — many years ago, but had left after a tragedy, and only recently returned. Her traumatic past continues to haunt her, even fifteen years later, and though she seems to think that revisiting the circus on what seems to be its final tour would bring her some closure, she's as confused and lost as ever while hovering around the site of her sad past.

Vittorio, who becomes embroiled in the circus' dramas, is fascinated by Kate and takes it upon himself to resolve her issues, to discover the root of what's bothering her and to help her overcome it. As he says dramatically at one point, he wants to "save" her. The film's approach to drama is both low-key and theatrical. The film is circumspect about its melodramatic components, slowly meting out little bits of detail about Kate's past or creating miniature dramas with the other members of the circus. The clown Alexandre (André Marcon) is in love with Barbara (Vimala Pons), the acrobat girlfriend of another cast member, Wilfred (Tintin Orsoni). Kate's niece Clémence (Julie-Marie Parmentier) lightly dodges an admirer, while flirting innocently with Vittorio, letting him pump her for information about Kate. These stories are developed through the most minimal whiffs of suggestion, as Rivette's characteristic probing camera slowly wheels around, coasting in graceful arcs that mirror the curve of the circus' ring, inching in towards closeups as these characters enact their little stories with the same stoical reserve that they apply to their performances. At one point, Alexandre and Wilfred act out a theatrical show of jealousy on an ad-hoc stage that is alternately bathed in light or encased in darkness, while Barbara and Clémence look on. The theatricality of it, the self-conscious presentation of this drama of jealousy, enforces the sense that this is, beneath its serious themes and dark secrets, a very playful film for Rivette, a light film dealing with serious ideas.

Certainly, the recurring sequences of the actual circus performances betray Rivette's interest in play and acting and entertainment, which ultimately trump emotionally exhausting melodrama. Vittorio initially ingratiates himself to the troupe by being the only one to laugh during the circus' opening routine, by the clowns Alexandre and Marlo (Jacques Bonnaffé). The clowns have a bit involving a chair, a stack of dinner plates, and a revolver, and throughout the film Rivette returns to this number again and again, each time revealing more and more of the bit. He obviously appreciates these clowns, who maybe aren't especially funny — indeed, the arena is always silent during their performances with the one exception of Vittorio's loudly appreciative laugh — but who have a certain dignity in enacting this old form of humor, this old form of entertainment, for modern audiences who largely don't show up and don't get it when they do.

Rivette treats the occasional performances by Wilfred similarly. The performer juggles torches or dances in the air, suspended by wires, and by modern standards these are not especially grand or impressive feats. They are small acts, acts that might have seemed extraordinary long ago, but to modern stimulus-overloaded senses, they seem humble. But Rivette still makes them seem, in their small way, magical and graceful, and more than that he makes them seem real. He stresses that these are very physical acts. His precise soundtrack captures not only the woosh of the fire as Wilfred juggles his torches, but the fleshy slap of the torch's handle hitting his hand. When Wilfred is twirling in the air, the grace and beauty of his movements are contrasted against the metallic clinking of the wires, which stretch and clang together with every movement. The sounds root these performances in physicality, in the material, and paradoxically that's what makes them so magical: they are little bursts of creativity and expression emerging from the routine of everyday existence, which is why even the quarrels and jealousies between these performers are enacted theatrically, as performances.

It's appropriate, then, that the film's climax takes place in the ring, with Vittorio taking the place of Marlo as one of the clowns in the opening bit. Here it becomes clear why Rivette spent so much time setting up this act, because Vittorio and Alexandre here divert from the script, improvising awkwardly in response to the shattering of the plates that had previously formed the basis for the whole gag. It's a celebration of improvisation from a director who has always appreciated the power of spontaneous acting, who has always left room for his actors to bring their own ideas and their own ad-libbed words into his films. As a result of the improvisation, the performance becomes both more and less real, constantly shifting between even more over-the-top theatricality than ever and bursts of emotional nakedness that eventually lead Vittorio to, as it were, break the fourth wall of the performance and address the offstage Kate directly. It's funny, and loose, and leads towards Vittorio's delivery of a speech that might as well have come directly from Rivette's mouth.

"This ring is the most dangerous place in the world," he says. "And also the place where everything is possible." As a summation of Rivette's career, and of his view of the cinema and art in general, it would be hard to find a more perfect epigram. The circus, the theater, the cinema: these are venues where it is possible, through play and pretend, to get as close as possible to the real heart of things, to use artifice to explore the deepest emotions. And it is also possible in these creative realms to be totally free, to enact magic, to invent, to delight through outrageous feats and stunning images. Rivette has always thought this way: art is a game, an act of pleasure, and yet it also has the ability to cut deeply, in some ways even more deeply than life itself. This metaphor isn't so metaphorical here — Kate's sad past involves art cutting very deeply, and literally, indeed — but in the end it's through art and performance that these characters can heal the wounds opened, long ago, by art and performance.

This is a modest film of small-scale pleasures, its proportions trimmed to accommodate the fading majesty of the circus. It is, indeed, the shortest proper feature Rivette has ever made, an oddity from a director who has always worked in extended duration. He's still dealing with time here, though, just in a different way. Like many late films by old masters, 36 Vues du Pic St. Loup is about the passage of time, about age, about how events resonate through the years for such a long time after their initial impact. The circus lingers on, an increasingly irrelevant souvenir from another time, just as Kate is haunted by memories of the past. But the circus performers are movingly aware of their own irrelevance, and they soldier on anyway, and it's through this connection to the past that Kate, late in life, is given an opportunity to finally move on and try something new, whatever that may turn out to be. This is Rivette's quiet but heartfelt ode to the things he loves — performance, artifice, the old-fashioned, the irrelevant, the out-of-touch, the quaint. It is a simple film, and a surprisingly direct one from this often circuitous artist, and as such it feels like a rather self-conscious statement of principles from the aging director. When, in one scene towards the end, Vittorio, Alexandre and Clémence take turns approaching the camera head-on, delivering bits of exposition and morals to be taken away from the film, it reinforces the sensation of the director taking an opportunity to speak to an audience that perhaps he feels has been as remote as the sparse, mostly unseen audiences at the circus' performances. It's a touching, affecting film, though more so for what it says about its director and his pet themes than for its intentionally spartan story.