Film-Festival Opener, A Critic’s Just Dessert

Jacques Rivette’s Va Savoir (Who Knows?) , from a screenplay by Pascal Bonitzer, Christine Laurent and Mr. Rivette, opened the 39th New York Film Festival 2001 on Sept. 28. David Thomson, in his perceptively appreciative evaluation of Mr. Rivette’s long career in The New York Times , criticized the festival’s choice simply because Va Savoir ‘s running time of 154 minutes may have made those in the audience somewhat restive in light of the after-party at Tavern on the Green. Having sat through opening nights at the festival since 1963, I beg to differ with Mr. Thomson on this occasion, inasmuch as Va Savoir should prove to be a more delicious repast than any of the desserts at Tavern on the Green-and, I am, of course, not speaking as a food critic.

Nor am I speaking as one of the most fervent admirers of Mr. Rivette’s oeuvre over the past 40 years. It’s not that I have invariably considered him the least of his nouvelle vague generation, but rather too often the most in that he has consistently made much longer films than his Cahiers du Cinema colleagues. From the very beginning, with Paris Nous Appartient ( Paris Belongs to Us , 1961), his art struck me as more theoretical than intuitive, more self-indulgent than rigorously controlled, and ultimately, more searching than finding. Nonetheless, any doubts about his emotional and artistic sincerity have been erased by his prodigious and accomplished output in swimming heroically for so long against the mainstream.

Va Savoir is, as far as I can recall, however, in a class by itself in Mr. Rivette’s career with its lighthearted charm, its accessible nuance and its remarkably in-tune ensemble acting. The film combines the best of the old Hollywood screwball comedies with the best of unashamed French intellectual elitism and theatrical articulateness in its characterizations. The point is that 154 minutes go by very quickly when one is too engrossed by the tangled webs of love and desire unraveling on the screen to look at one’s watch even once. My one and only reservation about the film is that it abandons some of its gravity at the very end for the sake of a theatrical somersault with the mise en scene .

But then, the whole film is built upon a reality parallel to a play, and a Pirandello play at that: As You Desire Me , which was the source of a mediocre 1932 MGM vehicle for Greta Garbo. There is only one funny line in As You Desire Me , and Garbo delivers it with impeccable timing. Surrounded by a horde of lecherous suitors, she finds one gaining her ear to whisper: “Get rid of these other fools.” Without missing a beat, Garbo asks wickedly, “Other?” Still, having seen the MGM clinker, I had an easier time than my companion in following the action in Va Savoir .

When the movie begins, Camille (Jeanne Balibar), the French star of an Italian production of As You Desire Me in Paris, walks off the rehearsal stage in frustration at having to speak Italian onstage. At this point of unpromising self-consciousness, the film gracefully pirouettes into an erotic comedy of crisscrossing affinities. Camille’s uneasy lover, actor-director Ugo (Sergio Castellito), is aware that Camille’s ex-lover, a Heidegger scholar named Pierre (Jacques Bonnaffe), lives in Paris, and that Camille is dying to see him. Meanwhile, Pierre is now married to Sonia (Marianne Basler), a mysterious element in the burgeoning quadrille. Indeed, Sonia has more of a past than the others, and is strangely aggressive in bringing all four parties together for a near-disaster of a dinner party.

Though Ugo is jealous of Pierre, he doesn’t retaliate by flirting with Sonia.

Instead, he notices and is noticed by a young, gorgeous blond college student who is studying for her thesis in the library. As for Ugo, he is searching for an unpublished play by Goldoni. The student in question, Do (Hélène De Fougerolles), turns out to be the missing link in Ugo’s search for the elusive manuscript. But first, Ugo must confront Arthur (Bruno Todeschini), Do’s protective and somewhat unsavory half-brother. Madame Despres, Do’s dithering mother (Catherine Rouvel), is less of an obstacle. Meanwhile, Arthur pursues an adulterous relationship with Sonia despite her cool skepticism. A diamond is stolen, a sexual transaction is concluded, and the merry-go-round returns everyone more or less to their original positions, but not before we have been thoroughly and wittily absorbed in a variety of personal destinies.

Even though Mr. Rivette displayed the classical nudity of Emmanuelle Beart for close to four hours in a painterly context in La Belle Noiseuse ( The Beautiful Troublemaker , 1991), he has tended to be discreet in his treatment of sexual activity throughout his career. As Mr. Rivette told Mr. Thomson in The Times , he has always preferred to show the whole body in a shot and thus forgoes close-ups. Needless to say, there are no peekaboo sequences in Va Savoir , even when a sexual act is about to transpire. Consequently, the characters never lose their dignity and autonomy and, yes, their theatricality.

As Norman Mailer observed after the splash of sensation caused by Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1973), the closer actors and actresses came to baring their bodies in passionate embrace, the more they jeopardized the sanctity of the characters they played, as well as their personalities as performers. Everything was reduced to physical documentary. We have come a long way since then, and the end is nowhere in sight, but Mr. Rivette has held the fort on this occasion, and his characters are richer and more satisfying for it.

Summer of Love

Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl , from her own screenplay, would seem to be the antithesis of everything I have written about Mr. Rivette’s discretion in describing sexual activity. Throughout her aggressively postmodern feminist career, which includes eight films, 13 screenplays and seven novels, the 53-year-old Ms. Breillat has had a habit of outraging censors and, I suspect, most male viewers who, out of a self-protective reflex, come to leer and stay to jeer at her female protagonists with absolutely nothing but sex on their minds. My problem with Ms. Breillat’s films over the years arises from those female protagonists. But by now, I have discerned and learned to accept her apparent obsession as a form of anti-realist stylization. There is no small talk in her films; there are not even any double-entendres.

If I prefer Fat Girl to Ms. Breillat’s previous works, it is because she has introduced an interestingly voyeuristic element into her explicit sexual spectacles. Definitely zaftig but not too bad-looking, 12-year-old Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux) trails after her whistle-bait 15-year-old sister, Elena (Roxane Mesquida), as the looker in the family cruises for boys in the cafés of a seaside resort where the family is on vacation. Anaïs functions as a hapless chaperone for her shameless sister, who lets a handsome young Italian (Libero De Rienzo) pick her up and boldly fondle her while Anaïs gobbles a banana split.

Later, Elena orders Anaïs to go to sleep in their shared bedroom while a law student in his 20’s, who has climbed in through the window, initiates the lengthy process of total seduction, first anal, then oral and finally vaginal. Anaïs listens to her sister’s moans of pleasure and pain in writhing complicity. The young man is clearly a scoundrel, as later events make clear. When the scandal breaks, their enraged mother cuts the holiday short and embarks on a long drive home fated to end with a final catastrophe, from which the “fat girl” emerges with a degree of self-vindication that is close to being heroic. The movie is hard and implacable, but worth seeing.

Not-So-Parallel Lives

Amir Bar-Lev’s Fighter is a fascinating real-life narrative documentary of two men who become friends in America after having taken two different paths to survive the Holocaust that consumed the rest of their families. It tells the story of the Stalinist winter that descended on Czechoslovakia after the false summer of liberation from the Nazis. Jan Wiener escaped from the Nazis after the joint suicides of his Jewish father and Aryan mother. The extraordinary details of his escape inspire his friend, Arnost Lustig, to explore the motives of everyone concerned. This causes a breach in their friendship because, as Mr. Wiener argues, his life belongs to him and to him alone, and does not require further analysis or psychoanalysis. Yet what we get are two mesmerizing stories for the price of one, plus historical ironies and a final condemnation of the great mass of people everywhere who never rise up against injustice and oppression. Mr. Wiener, particularly, was not one of these. He was a fighter all his life, and his story and Mr. Lustig’s are well worth seeing.

Song and Sadness

Tony Gatlif’s Vengo is just about the only honest-to-goodness song-and-dance musical with tight-lipped and sad-eyed dramatic passion to appear on the screen this year. Mr. Gatlif has made several films in the past on the music of the Romi, or Gypsy, people. Here, the setting is

Andalusia in Spain, and the characters are aligned on one side or another of an implacable blood feud. Flamenco rhythms are not exactly my cup of tea, but I must say that by the time Vengo ‘s primal story unfolded in its entirety, I was fully in its thrall. Its effects are almost indescribable, at least for me, but I felt a long history of sadness and suffering and persecution rendered artistically in a form that both renders the pain and celebrates the survival of a stubborn people.

Film-Festival Opener, A Critic’s Just Dessert