Jacques Rivette, who recently celebrated his 85th birthday—and is still active—seems to me to be one of the most uneven, and certainly less prolific, of the major figures to come out of the French New Wave. Both he and Eric Rohmer started earlier than the rest of the Cahiers du Cinema crowd, making several shorts beginning in the late 1940s, but Paris nous appartient (Paris Belongs to Us) was Rivette’s first feature. Like some of his later films, it can be accused of being too long, one of a number of reasons Rivette is often viewed as an acquired taste. (Celine and Julie Go Boating was well over three hours, L’Amour Fou was over four, and Out One: Spectre was cut to a similar length from its original 13 hours; Rivette’s second feature and most commercial project, La Religieuse, an adaptation of Diderot’s novel starring Anna Karina, ran a mere 135 minutes.) A few years after André Bazin’s death, Rivette replaced him as editor of Cahiers—Rohmer was Bazin’s immediate successor before leaving for political differences—and it is probably fair to say that Rivette’s films remained mostly loyal to Bazin’s original radical vision of what movies should be (although Rivette disparaged the concept of auteurism). This was something of a turnabout from the director’s early admiration for the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Otto Preminger, Robert Aldrich, and Fritz Lang (from whom Rivette borrows a sequence from Metropolis for Paris Belongs to Us), among others. Francois Truffaut, who mostly shed his radicalism for commercial respectability (albeit with more than a touch of genius) wrote to Jean Renoir, his mentor and that of Rivette, in 1960: “All of us at Cahiers…are so shocked by the gap between our ideas as cinephiles and our discoveries as film-makers that we don’t dare write anything any more.”
Like Claude Chabrol, Rivette was the product of a family of provincial pharmacists, and like so many of his New Wave colleagues, he moved to Paris and became a protégé of Henri Langois at the Cinematheque Francaise. He worked for Renoir on French Cancan (which we are screening once again on September 15), and 12 years later he made a lengthy television documentary on the master. Paris Belongs to Us was originally intended as a script for Roberto Rossellini, and it took Rivette four years to direct it himself and get it released. He was able to finish it with help from Truffaut and Chabrol, who attained acclaim at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival. Upon viewing the film, one will certainly appreciate some of the complexities of getting it made—and of the director’s mind, as reflected in his subsequent work.
In spite of intermittent raves from prominent critics, Rivette’s films have not had much international commercial success outside of occasional breakthroughs on the festival circuit. This has tended to blight his ability to finance his films (unlike Jean-Luc Godard, whose work has been similarly oblique since the heyday of the 1960s, when he seemed to make more of an effort to please audiences). Rivette was only able to make five features in the 1980s, seven in the 1990s, and four in the 21st century.
In a sense, Rivette’s choices have sometimes seemed perverse. Paris Belongs to Us, for example, is based in an unsuccessful attempt to stage Shakespeare’s Pericles, hardly the Bard’s biggest box-office draw, presaging Rivette’s own future struggles to realize his projects, however visionary and unique. Yet the distinguished American critic, Jonathan Rosenbaum, comparing the film with the first works of Chabrol, Truffaut, and Godard, calls it “the most intellectually and philosophically mature, and one of the most beautiful.”