Histoire de Marie et Julien (The Story of Marie and Julien, 2003)

French director Jacques Rivette’s recent death may not have been a surprise, but it was unwelcome for fans of his kind of long-form slow-burn filmmaking — always a rarity on the film landscape — which seems to have aged little in the intervening years, unlike some of his mainstream contemporaries. The 1970s was a difficult decade for a lot of the old nouvelle vague filmmakers — difficult in the sense of seeing them struggle to integrate narrative with a rapidly fragmenting anti-authoritarian politics, though plenty of essential works came out of it — but Rivette continued to put out excellent films in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s that repay the effort in watching them. The 2.5 hour running time of Histoire de Marie et Julien is about average for most Rivette films, but it allows for the development of feeling between two actors who seemingly couldn’t be more mismatched, Polish emigré Jerzy Radziwiłowicz as a clock repairer, and Emmanuelle Béart, who for various reasons doesn’t seem defined by her work. That said, the development of the story makes it clear that they’re not supposed to be, as there are increasingly odd hints that Marie isn’t what she seems. It’s all elaborated very subtly in the filming over the course of the four-act structure, with a certain quality of detachedness to Béart’s performance and the use of various mysterious objects imbued with an uncanny power (something of a favoured device for Rivette). As ever, Rivette’s cinema rewards greater attention from the viewer, so for my own part I can only confess to having watched it at home (never ideal) and that a cinema screening — should one ever come around, and one can only hope that there will be some retrospectives mounted over the next few years — may be the best way to experience his films.

The Story of Marie and Julien film posterCREDITS
Director Jacques Rivette; Writers Pascal Bonitzer, Christine Laurent and Rivette; Cinematographer William Lubtchansky; Starring Jerzy Radziwiłowicz, Emmanuelle Béart, Anne Brochet; Length 150 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 30 January 2016.

Jeanne la Pucelle (Joan the Maid, 1994)

I’m on holiday in France this week, so I’m re-posting some reviews (of French films, naturally) that I wrote many years ago when I was on LiveJournal, back when I was watching a lot more arthouse films. In fact, I saw this film during a retrospective of the work of Jacques Rivette, so I have several other reviews of his films from the same time. I’ve picked one that’s (slightly) more widely available than some of the others I saw, such as the 12-hour Out 1.


Over the course of his career, Rivette has more and more adopted a stripped-down visual style. Often there will be empty frames, clear contrasts and frontal lighting, and a smoothly-gliding camera, all offset by very basic black titles and baroque music. This is very much evident here as well, over both parts of this lengthy film (and even this seems to be slightly shortened from its length on the original French release).

Of course, a filmic portrait of Joan of Arc was always going to measured in relation to earlier efforts by Bresson and Dreyer, both of whose films focus on the trial and burning of Joan as a heretic. Rivette’s film also features her final moments, though perhaps unsurprisingly given its illustrious cinematic forebears, it replaces the trial with a titlecard. This kind of elision isn’t unusual in Rivette; what isn’t elided are the long sequences of questioning doubt and loneliness. There are some battle scenes, but so depopulated as to seem absurd, as if the director were just making a gesture towards the existence of people by having more than one or two. This again is a conscious strategy — a stylised presentation of a time far removed from our own, with very different customs and only tentatively grounded in historically verifiable fact — and as such is not entirely inappropriate.

Despite being in her 30s, Sandrine Bonnaire seems like the right choice for Jeanne, and brings something of a monomania to the part, without subsuming it in a haloed divine grace. This is very much a human protagonist confronted by political chicanery and human cynicism.

For a film of over four hours in length, it sustains the dramatic momentum admirably. However, it achieves an odd alienation effect, as if it were not transcendent enough to fit with the cinematic archetype as created by Bresson and Dreyer. It may be hard for the character of Jeanne to escape the forces of history, but it is just as difficult for this film to escape its own cinematic history.

(Originally written on 17 May 2006; reposted here with slight amendments.)


CREDITS
Director Jacques Rivette; Writers Pascal Bonitzer, Christine Laurent and Jacques Rivette; Cinematographer William Lubtchansky; Starring Sandrine Bonnaire; Length 280 minutes [in two parts: Les Batailles and Les Prisons].
Seen at National Film Theatre, London, Tuesday 16 May 2006.