Duelle (1976)

20 06 2008

A step-down from Merry-Go-Round but outside of that film, this is definitely one of Rivette’s best. Actually, most of the surrealistic things I tend to take issue with are absent, which is nice. Unfortunately, the void is filled by something even worse, a completely laughable fantasy arc. As with the surrealism in his other films, Rivette rises above the fantasy elements but in this case, they are perhaps a bit too silly to avoid. On the other hand, this may very well be his single most technically accomplished film.

It’s funny that this comes before Merry-Go-Round because it seems like the middle point between that film and Love on the Ground. The manic, spontaneous energy of the former film is present, as is the beautifully saturated cinematography of the latter film. There’s several sequences here (mostly occurring within the film’s first half) that are easily among Rivette’s best. The early scene in the train station is particularly haunting, and manages to perfectly setup the mood for the rest of the film. In general, everything about the film’s technical side is perfect. Unfortunately, certain things begin to interfere with the rather visceral experience. Once again, we have a Rivette film with a narrative that is thankfully downplayed but still overly important in its scope. It only takes a glance at the description to see why it can evoke such a strongly negative response: two goddesses descend to Earth to battle for a stone.

Thankfully, as I have already mentioned, it is quite possible to enjoy the film without paying attention to any such nonsense. It’s probably important to understand that the “plot” is exactly that, nonsense. My own personal problems do not lie within Rivette’s lack of concentration in storytelling. If anything, that is plus. Instead, I am more bothered by the fact that his films must be built around concepts that almost always risk being gimmicks. Considering Rivette’s innate comprehension of capturing beauty, it is slightly disappointing to realize that most of these images are derived from the most ridiculous of scenarios. Still, as I have said countless times before, Rivette really does understand the more visceral possibilities. Here, in spite of the goofiest narrative arc ever, we are given some sequences showcasing cinema at its purity. It helps that all the performances are highly improvised, which helps to reinforce the very “irrelevant” sensibility of the film’s first hour. Even when the details of the narrative begin to sneak into, they does so elegantly.

At around the one-hour mark, the narrative, unfortunately, begins to kick in and become a larger focus. In one of the most bizarrely humorous sequences in Rivette’s ouvere, Bulle Ogier’s character performs some sort of ritual with a character that looks exactly like her. Its worth noting that this doppelganger is wearing a costume straight out of The Wizard of Oz. Just as the train station sequence embodied and introduced the uber-spontaneous first hour, this fantastical silliness signals in the second hour. Lubtchansky’s fantastic camera work remains, but the film takes a sharp turn in a completely opposite direction, almost becoming a French version of Labyrinth.

As much as everything falls apart, the film is still worthy of praise. Ultimately, it takes a very respectable second-place tie with (the visually similar) Histoire de Marie et Julien in my own Rivette rankings. While this is his least cohesive film, it is also one of his greatest technical triumphs. Through all the laughable elements, there is some of the greatest cinematography one is likely to see in any film. Do I wish Rivette would drop some of the fantasy / surreal stuff in his films? Yes, but at the same time they probably wouldn’t be nearly as breath-taking and enigmatic. While some elements remain unlikable, they are becoming close to merely being “Rivettian scars” or flaws that the viewer will have to accept. In other words, the strengths greatly outweigh the weaknesses.