For years now, whenever I've had a chance to write about a Jacques Rivette movie, I've made sure to call the French director the world's least-known great filmmaker, hoping I could push people to take a chance on his movies or hunt down the ones released on video. Rivette's movies have been released here so spottily, if at all, that it's heartening that his new film, "Va Savoir," is getting a major art-house release through Sony Pictures Classics. After being lauded at the Cannes Film Festival last May, "Va Savoir" has been chosen as the opening night selection of this year's New York Film Festival and opens commercially the next day. With a body of work that includes his masterpiece "Celine and Julie Go Boating" (the movies' greatest meditation on the meaning and pleasure of narrative), the wonderful 1994 musical "Haut/bas/fragile," "La Belle Noiseuse," and the two-part Joan of Arc epic "Jeanne le Pucelle," Rivette, who is now 73, deserved this acclaim years ago. Those of us who have loved his movies feel like we are finally able to spill a secret we've wanted to share for years.
All of his themes are contained in "Va Savoir": the intersection between theater and life; old houses that hold secrets that they may never give up; the fact that there's more pleasure to be had in pursuing a mystery than in solving it; the caprices of love; the way women act as each other's instinctive allies. And so are his preoccupations: women so beautiful you break into a grin just looking at them; old books; walks in leafy Paris parks; sunshine; the theater; characters who possess intuition verging on clairvoyance.
I don't think I'd trust anyone who looked at "Va Savoir" and didn't see it as the work of a master. This love rondelet involving six characters who uncouple and recouple moves with both grace and mathematical precision. It possesses the lightness that comes only when a filmmaker has come close to pulling off the insanely complicated, and as such it's one of the few movies that truly deserves to be called Mozartean.
Why, then, don't I feel more enthusiastic about it? I suspect because while the movie is formally dazzling, it's emotionally and dramatically a bit small. There's nothing wrong with a director's wanting to make a trifle (and a trifle by Jacques Rivette only means it's better than 95 percent of what you'll see at the movies this year). What's most enjoyable in the film is the sleight of hand with which Rivette brings his disparate strands together, rather than what his artistry makes us feel for the characters. You can be amazed at "Va Savoir" and still feel emotionally connected to it only intermittently.
Theater and life have blurred so consistently in Rivette's film it's fitting that the new film opens in darkness, with a spotlight locating an actress on the stage. She's Camille (Jeanne Balibar), a Frenchwoman who fled Paris after her affair with the philosopher Pierre (Jacques Bonnaffé) became suffocating. Camille has been living in Italy, where she's acting with a theater troupe and living with the troupe's director, the droopy-eyed charmer Ugo (Sergio Castellitto -- imagine if Serge Gainsbourg had a younger brother who learned personal hygiene). Camille has returned to Paris with the company's production of Pirandello's "As You Desire Me." She fears seeing Pierre but can't keep herself away, turning up at his apartment and meeting his wife, Sonia (Marianne Basler), and hunting him down in the park where he goes every morning to read the paper.
While Camille is circling around Pierre, Ugo is hunting down a rumored unpublished play by the 18th-century Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni. An autograph expert leads him to a private library where the manuscript may reside. The lady of the house (Catherine Rouvel) has no interest in the books, keeping them as a sign of loyalty to her dead husband. But her daughter Domnique ("Do" for short, and played by a stunning ray of sunshine named Hélenè de Fougerolles), smitten with Ugo, undertakes to become his assistant. One of the complications they face is Do's half-brother, Arthur (Bruno Todeschini), a ne'er-do-well who, chronically short of money, occasionally purloins a title to sell. He also may be having an affair with Do. He is trying to have an affair with Sonia.
When Rivette was a critic for "Cahiers du Cinema" he wrote appreciatively of Howard Hawks. And though the two -- a Hollywood dandy specializing in tales of male bonding, and a French cinephile intellectual enchanted by women and the process of narrative -- might seem worlds apart, Hawks has clearly been an important influence on Rivette's long, deceptively random style. In Hawks' best films the plots are either episodic and inconsequential ("Rio Bravo," "To Have and Have Not" and "Only Angles Have Wings") or so insanely complicated that they become inconsequential to enjoying the films ("Bringing Up Baby" and "The Big Sleep"). What does occupy Hawks' attention are the performers he uses (he was always happy to abandon the plot and let somebody sing: Hoagy Carmichael in "To Have and Have Not," Ricky Nelson and Dean Martin in "Rio Bravo").
The critic James Harvey once wrote that the relaxed performances in "Rio Bravo" achieved the status of "pure behaving," in other words, behavior that was completely natural and relaxed in front of the camera. The length of a movie like "Rio Bravo" can't be justified by its simple plot any more than the epic lengths of Rivette movies can be justified by their plots. (At two and a half hours, "Va Savoir" is relatively short; "Celine and Julie" runs three hours and 20 minutes, "La Belle Noiseuse" four hours, "Haut/bas/fragile" two hours and 50 minutes, the uncut "Out One" 12 hours and 40 minutes.) But Rivette's elastic, expansive sense of time allows us to enter into his movies, to savor them. His great gift to moviegoers has been to allow us to live in the cinematic moment of his films as we are watching them and to send us back out into the world with a heightened awareness of the lyricism that can exist in seemingly quotidian moments: what it feels like to walk in a park taking in the surroundings, to stop into a bar for a drink, to sink back into the comfort of your apartment at the end of a work day. Rivette makes life seem like a gift.
"Va Savoir" is at its best when it's revealing the quirks or follies or even small nobilities of these characters. The plot is punctuated by scenes from the Pirandello theater production. If the play's connections to the action are teasing and elusive, Rivette suggests his own connections between life and the theater. Camille, who at first appears to be nothing more than the mixture of self-absorption and fragility that can make actors seem like such pills, talks to herself when she's alone like a stage character conducting a monologue -- of course, she is a character and those of us in the theater are her audience. And Pierre, with habits so predictable Camille can locate him easily after an absence of three years, is like an actor settled into the routine of a long run.
The movie is at its most enjoyable, though, when the characters go off the dutifully followed script of their lives. The conventional-seeming Sonia drops hints of an unsavory and dangerous past, and a capacity for cunning that belies her veneer. Camille really comes alive as a character when she moves past her self-absorption to forge a spiky bond with Sonia (a relationship that carries echoes of the partnership/friendship at the heart of "Celine and Julie"). Balibar is in a tricky situation here. A wonderful actress, she plays Camille so convincingly that she may be in danger of having audiences react to her as if she's annoying rather than an actress playing an annoying character. Balibar knows how to use her long, slim body eloquently, shoving her hands in her pockets or shrugging her shoulders to regain composure after a moment of inadvertent emotional exposure. And when her wide, clown's grin splits her face she seems a natural clown, as if Harpo Marx had momentarily taken up refuge in a chic young Frenchwoman.
The movie's best scenes are those betweeen Sergio Castellitto's Ugo and Hélenè de Fougerolles' Do. (Castellitto and de Fougerolles also give the movie's best performances.) Ugo suggests the friendliest kind of obsessive, more offhanded than ardent, and Castellitto's droopy eyes are what give him both his charm and his slight air of sadness. You understand immediately why Do is attracted to Ugo, and de Fougerolles with her sandy blond hair and doe eyes that peer out of a head held cocked to the side is so ravishing, so sensually indolent that she makes Ugo even more appealing: You understand just how much of a gent this guy is for not cheating on Camille. The most heated sexual moment in the movie is when Ugo massages Do's foot while explaining why he won't sleep with her. And there's a great moment when the air between them crackles with the longing for a kiss and Ugo leans into her lips and then, faithful to Camille, instead plants a gentle peck on the tip of Do's nose.
These scenes are also the most Rivettian, focused as they are on the search for the Goldoni manuscript in an old library, Rivette's traditional house of mystery. We become so immersed in the search for the manuscript, in the joy of tracking something down, that the question of whether Ugo and Do will be successful is beside the point. And that's why the scenes point up exactly what's lacking in the rest of the movie. A colleague of mine who admires "Va Savoir" called it "a Rivette movie for people who don't like Rivette movies" and he's more right than I want to admit. Although the director applied his usual methods, working with the actors to fit their characters into a story that he worked out as he went along, the film feels much more orchestrated than Rivette's usual films. And as such, it doesn't quite breathe, doesn't have the sense of expansiveness that characterizes his best work.
"Va Savoir" is never less than witty, charming, accomplished. And the end, which brings the characters together to the gently melancholy strains of Peggy Lee's "Senza Fina," is a marvel, a resolution (of sorts) pulled from the movie's tangled narrative and emotional threads. In the last shot Rivette pulls back to show us his characters gathered on a stage. It's the perfect capper, and taking in Rivette's elegantly choreographed finale is immensely pleasing. And yet the overlord's eye view of that final shot feels all wrong, or at least an indication of the movie's misplaced priorities -- a way of focusing on technique when we long to be among the characters in the confusion and pleasure of an emotional dance that has, for the moment, rectified itself.