JACQUES RIVETTE is not a name many American filmgoers are likely to know, but since its release in 1968 his L'Amour Fou has become a minor classic in France. It was released in this country only within the last year, largely because it runs for somewhat more than four hours, and distributors naturally tend to be wary. It is, moreover, a tense, slowly-paced film, taking its rhythm from scenes of a company of actors rehearsing a modern production of Racine's Andromaque under the direction of Sebastien (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) interwoven with scenes of Sebastien's deteriorating marriage to the actress Claire (Bulle Ogier). But the pace arises naturally out of a profound conception and full characters, and the intensity of those four hours is worth the time.
The film was scripted only in outline and fully developed during the shooting by the cooperation of Rivette and his actors. The company actually carried out the series of rehearsals from which the included footage was taken, and Sebastien's articulate direction and consultation with the cast is quite genuine. The production aims at naturalness and reserve, playing down, for example, the effect of the Alexandrine verse to let it emerge of its own accord.
When Claire, in the opening minutes of the film, quits her role as Andromaque in frustration, Sebastien calls in his old girlfriend Marta and attempts to continue without a break. But this split runs the length of the film: the life of the theater on one side and private life at home on the other become two separate strands of action, linked by common characters, mutually reflecting each other, and occasionally crossing over each other in a rehearsal at Sebastien's flat or Claire's visit to watch her husband at work. As the film goes on, both strands begin to come unravelled, and the cast grows so familiar that we feel the break-ups intensely.
Sebastien has agreed to let a television film crew shoot the rehearsals, and the 16 mm footage which they take is intercut with that of the conventional cameras. The effect is to give a documentary depth to the characters, seen now being followed around the stage by the television people, now in grainy images shot by the crew. Actors lounge off stage while waiting to go on, drink Cokes over reading sessions, move from tension to fatigue. The two views together provide a convincing if tiring casualness.
The bare, white stage occurs as the first and last image of the film, and in its recurrences drives the intensity of the film back on itself. Scenes repeated give a feeling of something of incredible difficulty being made. This impression extends to our glimpses of Sebastien and Claire's difficult relationship, where the real meanings and aggressions slip out under lines as prepared as those of the theater sequences. Tone becomes very important, and Rivette handles it very subtly, as he does almost all the elements at a director's disposal. Some tiny scenes almost lost in the film's bulk delicately inform the whole: a baby's crying at the beginning of the film has resonances both of the murdered child of Andromaque and of the id forces, alternately raging and whimpering, which turn the film toward madness.
Rivette uses equal subtlety to tie the whole film together: most of the shooting was done in order as it appears, but some important additional order has been imposed from outside. The action is framed by scenes of Claire on a train and Sebastien in his flat -- both pondering what has led to their final separation. Within this frame, flashbacks and carefully repeated motifs establish a structure of great delicacy. Sebastien's whole problem of fusing the emotion of his private life with the progress of the play is summed up by a scene he shares with the two Andromaques of the production, his past and present lovers. Claire's search for a dog like one Sebastien had compared her to becomes an index of her impinging madness.
That madness comes to a head when, after the tension and estrangement has reached its peak, after Claire has pursued a whole set of fantasies, the poles reverse and the couple come together in a sudden, two-day orgy. They tear the paper off the walls of their flat, scrawl and paint surrealistic shapes underneath, and finally slump back into exhaustion and defeat. Then they separate for good.
THE ACTING BEARS a pleasing stamp of subtle naturalness due in large part to the improvisational style of the filming. Bulle Ogier, best known for her performance in La Salamandre, sensitively depicts Claire as a woman whose self-destructiveness lurks under a surface of softness. Little signs -- as when she teases her husband's friends -- hint at the tension developing underneath. In her increasing paranoia she starts catching random fragments of conversation and music on a tape recorder.
The couple's declines are mutually encouraging: when Claire's taunts grow more intense, Sebastien begins to crack, at one point tearing his clothes to shreds with a razor blade, contorted with all the suffering he had held back so long. Kalfon's performance is as adept as Ogier's: he balances Sebastien's aggressions with his complicated professional finish.
MAYBE IT'S SOMETHING to do with films that get themselves known as legends, but L'Amour Fou and Last Tango in Paris are stunningly parallel, not least because both explore the definitions of love and sheer aggression in sexuality.
Rivette cannot rival the lush symmetry of Bertolucci's camerawork but his structure and psychological treatment make Tango, with its inconsistent plot and shallow characterization, seem even flatter by contrast. Rivette's psychology has its limits as well -- tendencies toward surrealism narrow its view, violence becomes stylized and unbelievable towards its end -- but the basic insights are sound. Sex is merely sketched in Rivette's work, but his actors have a greater sensitivity which produces a far more sensual result than Brando's mechanical and purposeless simulations.
The contrast is all the more marked in relation to technique: the best Bertolucci's improvised segments can come up with is Brando's famous "everything outside is bullshit" line while Rivette's effort enriches the film with a ring of additional depth. The film-within-the-film approach in L'Amour Fou lacks the gimmickry and inside-joking of the similar segments of Tango: in Rivette's film the function is real, and Sebastien is even helped in his direction by seeing rushes of the television film.
In any case, L'Amour Fou can stand on its own without any special status as legend or milestone, although it deserves to be something of both. It is content to be a film carefully conceived at the most basic level of film making, consistent within itself.