Home Movies by Charles Taylor: Idyll worship

The great French director Jacques Rivette sings the everyday ecstasies of life in Paris.

Published September 2, 1998 4:43PM (EDT)

In movies, as in novels, length is often equated with importance. When a
movie creeps past the two-and-a-half hour mark ("Oscar length," as some of
my colleagues say), it's usually because the subject is "epic." French
director Jacques Rivette makes movies that routinely run to three or four
hours or even longer, and yet his subjects are almost always resolutely
ordinary. The plot of his 1995 musical "Haut/bas/fragile"
("Up/down/fragile") could easily be summed up as "three gals in Paris." For
nearly three hours Rivette follows a trio of young women (Natalie Richard,
Marianne Denicourt and Laurence Côte) over the course of a Parisian
summer, bringing each to a moment of decision about her future, and then
ending the movie, seemingly as arbitrarily as he began it.

"Haut/bas/fragile" doesn't contain a wealth of incident or reach big,
dramatic climaxes. Even the musical numbers appear sporadically, casually.
The length allows us to enter the picture, wade around in it, savor the
ordinary moments that pass us by in life, let alone in movies. In one of
the scenes that moves me most (for you it may be another),
Côte's Ida comes home from work, puts away her groceries, greets her
cat and settles down to read a letter from her parents. That's all that
happens, but the scene radiates freedom, the freedom of having your own
place, of looking after yourself for the first time, even the freedom to be
in a funk -- as Ida is -- over where your life is headed. Rivette is trying
to do in film something like what Manet did with "Le déjeuner sur l'herbe."
He wants us to become so alive to our surroundings that we can appreciate
the deep satisfaction of a suspended idyll.

Despite the ordinariness of his subjects and his settings, Rivette is no
naturalist. He adores the coincidences of 19th century novels, as well as
the conventions of Gothic tales, ghost stories and melodrama. His films
typically contain grand old houses with locked rooms or hidden compartments
that may yield the solution to a mystery. Sometimes they only create
bigger mysteries, like the locked door in "Love on the Ground," behind
which can be heard the roar of the ocean. Rivette doesn't solve these
mysteries. If he did, that would be the end of the story, and Rivette loves
stories. His plots are often like the walls of the house that
Denicourt's Louise inherits from her aunt: They're
dotted with places where pictures once hung, leaving us to wonder what the
pictures might have been.

Rivette's films are collaborations with both the cast (who are involved in
creating their roles and determining where the story will take them) and
with the audience. In "Haut/bas/fragile," it's up to us to decide whether Ninon will own up to the secret she's kept hidden from
her employer; whether Louise will find happiness with Lucien (Bruno
Tedeschini), the young man her wealthy, overly solicitous father has hired
to keep an eye on her; whether Ida, who's adopted, has actually discovered
her real mother. Rivette involves us in the processes of storytelling in
order to keep the conventions he loves from becoming frozen in place. We
must sift through the stories to find what's most alive in them.

That approach is perfect for "Haut/bas/fragile" because the movie is about
the impossibility of taking responsibility for anyone's life other than
your own. All three of Rivette's women are in the process of reinventing
themselves. Louise, whom one character likens to a sleepwalker, has just
awaked after five years in a coma (I told you Rivette was no naturalist).
Ninon (Richard, who played the costume designer in love
with Maggie Cheung in "Irma Vep") is starting over as a moped courier
after leaving her pimp. Ida, the youngest and least settled of the three,
is in the holding pattern of someone just starting her life. Convinced she
needs to find out where she came from before her life can begin, she's
offered teasing clues by the strangers who remark on how familiar she
looks, and by the elusive song she hears wafting in from faraway radios and
being hummed by passersby, a song she's convinced she can remember from the

The musical numbers in "Haut/bas/fragile" achieve what Woody Allen failed
to do in "Everyone Says I Love You." Allen expected us to be charmed by
watching actors perform songs and dance numbers without the technique to
bring them off. Here, the actors had a hand in writing the songs they
perform, and like their dance movements, they're kept simple. Using very
modest means, Rivette gives "Haut/bas/fragile" that special quality movie
musicals sometimes achieve, in which the actors' simplest movements seem a
form of dance. When Ninon and her suitor dance around his scene shop, or
Lucien and Louise perform a lovely pas de deux in a park gazebo,
there's grace in the slow extension of an arm, the arch of a back. And
Rivette knows how to shoot dance scenes, a seemingly simple task that
countless directors screw up by moving the camera in too close and not
allowing us to see the full bodies of the dancers.

Rivette acknowledges his movie's debt to low-budget MGM musicals of the
1950s, like Stanley Donen's "Give the Girl a Break," but his roots go much
deeper. Like Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer and Chabrol -- his fellow Cahiers du
Cinema critics who went on to create the French New Wave -- Rivette
reaches back to the gentle, unforced lyricism of French films of the '30s,
the era of Renoir and Vigo and Rene Clair. In "Haut/bas/fragile," the
streets and parks of Paris have a pink-gray luminescence, and life seems to
proceed on an updraft of slightly melancholy buoyancy. Now 70 and one of
the giants among living filmmakers, Rivette has never wavered from his
madly ambitious determination to preserve and poeticize the most fleeting
moments of life in his films. Rivette's greatest legacy may be the new way
you look at your city when you emerge from one of his movies, suddenly
seeing the beauty of overlooked buildings, the charm of tucked-away parks,
the comfort of small apartments. There are millions of stories in Rivette's
naked city, and they're all ours for the making.

(If your video store doesn't stock "Haut/bas/fragile," you can request that
the store order it -- or purchase it yourself -- from its distributor, Cinema Parallel.)

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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