Secret Défense (Rivette, 1997)

Secret Défense: Small Trafficking in Death
Claire Vassé
(Positif, no. 446, April 1998)

After a foray into musical comedy, with the intersecting adventures of three Parisian girls in Haut, bas, fragile, Jacques Rivette now guides Sandrine Bonnaire between the countryside and Paris, but a Paris that is distinctly less playful, closer to the Paris of Paris nous appartient. Without a single note of music – aside from the credits – or dancing, Secret Défense is a film in which the weight and movements of the bodies are all the more realistic for constituting an essential part of the film. For the most beautiful scenes are perhaps the trips on the subway (one of which is filmed in real time) and train that allow Rivette to prove once again that he is the master of prolonging time. This is not to say he is a filmmaker of time: Rivette is above all a director of space, and this latest film affirms so, ostensibly in a somewhat diversionary manner, but ultimately quite neatly.

If the essence of Rivette’s cinema is not time, it is, first, because the films lack a notion of irreversibility that alone affords time its true substance, permeated by tragedy and death. The director of Céline et Julie vont en bateau prefers to shift back and forth between dreams and reality, envisaging life as a vast, endlessly restarting Game of the Goose, like so many mysteries whose resolution remains suspended. Just as Ida in Haut, bas, fragile, is running away from her rediscovered origins, Rivette is running away from the how and why, preferring to suspend time than to complete it with a conclusion that would herald death – or at least give  a foretaste of it.

Curiously, though, Secret Défense defies these characteristics, ending instead in the most definitive manner possible: the death of Sylvie (Sandrine Bonnaire), the mystery having been cleared up. “Paris bores me,” the character of Walser (Jerzy Radziwilowicz) says at one point; and these words could be understood as a direct echo of the filmmaker’s first feature, a kind of confession of weariness from someone who has always wanted to understand the world as an immense game in order to preserve its inconsistency and labyrinthine mysteries. But this may be jumping the gun: if Rivette’s latest film appears to be more linear and more conclusive, it is not without a spirit of twists and turns that strives to deviate from the path, the better to make it go in circles.

The first diversion requires the application of the film’s own mise en scène to resolve the mystery: a story about body trafficking, that of Sylvie’s sister, Elisabeth, whom her father sold to satisfy sordid professional ambitions. And the traffic of bodies is Rivette’s main business more than ever. Rivette is just as happy contriving their intersections and reappearances in his giant, playful race, as he is having them pass away, so that they can be simply and purely interchanged with one another. This is explicitly the case with Ludivine (Laure Marsac), the twin sister of Véro, who appears after the latter’s death and takes her place in the bed of her lover Walser. Trafficking bodies in a way, Rivette tries out roles, movements, behaviors and clothes on the same actress, just like Walser, the director’s alter ego, when he hides Ludivine in the shadows so that he can better orchestrate the surprise of Sylvie discovering her; and so that he can better test her nerves, a matter of experimenting how the surprise will affect her exhausted body as it bends the tiniest bit. More metaphorically, bodies are interchanged by fulfilling tasks that were not initially their responsibility: Walser killed Sylvie’s father so that her mother did not have to,* and Sylvie tells her brother, who wants to kill Walser, “I have to do to do it in your place.” As for the film’s two murders, they also happen to concern bodies being substituted for one another: those of Véro and Sylvie, blocking Walser’s body, the only one actually being targeted.

Secret Défense sticks clearly to its refusal to represent the past, leaving all tangible signs of other temporal layers to the background: photos and the children of the servant Marthe, the symbol of a new generation, that we only glimpse. The film takes place, moreover, over seven days, ending on the day it begins, closing the loop clearly as it ends on the murder of Sylvie by Ludivine, the twin sister of Véro who was killed a few days earlier by Sylvie. In a sense, Rivette is inviting us to a circling dance of death, but one that is in a certain way contested, the murdered body rising to the surface to take revenge on the murderer.

“Rising to the surface” is in fact the major subject of the film, which continually reduces questions of time and death to questions of spatial configuration, as in the case of Véro’s murder. The only difficulty it seems to cause Walser is that the body, which he gets rid of by throwing it into a river, does not “rise to the surface.” The time of the dead, then, is fixed to a space. In this regard, the real-time filming of a scene of travel that is actually about retracing one’s steps is emblematic, as if time could have little sway over a space that eschews time altogether by moving in an endless circle. The association of space with time in order to counter the influence of the latter is, moreover, the most significant maneuver Secret Défense makes to counter the march of time – or rather, to counter the figure of death. When Sylvie finds herself at risk of falling into the depths of the past by looking at a painting of a Middle Ages landscape, she is rudely brought to her senses by the surrounding space, which is made apparent by  the noise of her brother Paul’s motorcycle arriving at the estate. And the past relative to Elisabeth is also put into relation with the space since, above all, it is initially her bedroom that Sylvie mentions to start the conversation about her with Marthe. As for Ludivine, she does not want “to follow the same path as her sister,” that is, by dying. Here again, death is expressed in terms of space, which is, in a way, a compensatory equivalent to the time that is slipping away. “I drove fast to catch the lost time,” Walser explains to Sylvie when he tells her about the circumstances of her father’s murder. As though this spatialization of time was a way of circumscribing death in a territory, of containing it within limits.

If death is present in Secret Défense, it is, curiously, because it is missing, placed at the center of the film only then to be constantly denied by Rivette. This incapacity to stage death gives way, moreover, to one of the most beautiful moments in the film: Sylvie and Ludivine are in the estate’s garden, and Sylvie wants to confess to her that her sister is dead. Very quickly, the scene turns into a confrontation, Ludivine reproaching Sylvie for “her superior airs” of someone who knows more than the others. Of course Sylvie knows more than she is saying but, in Rivette’s universe, death is not spoken, its experience is not communicated. Nobody is qualified to talk about it, not even Rivette, whose complex relationship to aging is expressed by Sylvie's nightmare, imagining that she meets her sister fifteen years after her death, and that her sister hasn’t aged but nevertheless is still the oldest. Despite her position as the oldest, she agrees to play with Sylvie, who ends up suddenly noticing that she is alone, then wakes up. This way of wanting to deny time – or at least of distorting it to try to reduce its fatal effects – is what is at play in Secret Défense.

Rivette’s mise en scène is euphemistic. It makes death a simple desertion of space and not of time. Paradoxically, the weight of death only gains more importance because there is a downside: a simple absence carries the seed of the eventuality of death. The sound work bears witness to this underlying anguish about spatial separation: voices on the phone are in no way muted—a way of attenuating distance, or in fact, of refusing it altogether. But death only becomes more haunting. These voices that echo with such abnormal loudness are voices coming from nowhere, voices of ghosts that float, like Sylvie’s body, which refuses to give way to the desire of her lover Jules to “finally have a moment together.”

As if by a boomerang effect, the death that one wants to push off into space ends up invading the entire film. Rivette is not a filmmaker of time, he does not film “death at work,” but bodies and spaces that traffic in death and lead the spectator on a wandering journey that is both fascinating and enchanting.

*The dialogue between Sylvie and her mother Geneviève is explicit in this regard. When Sylvie asks her why Walser killed her father, Geneviève responds: “For me.” To which Sylvie replies: “You mean: in your place.”

Translation by Ted Fendt
Thanks to David Phelps

Corps à coeur (Vecchiali)


Predator or A-Violence

A new translation, published on The Vulgar Cinema blog, of Martin Barnier's piece on John McTiernan's Predator. The first in a series of translations from the 1996 action cinema issue of French journal Admiranda/Restricted.

Renoir: The Grandeur of Primitives

The Grandeur of Primitives
by Jean Renoir

I often admire recent films but it's an admiration within reason. I rarely lose it and I remain sensible. I think: "My God, what a beautiful photographic effect…;" "That actor's performance is great…," "This dialogue is perfect…," "Great direction…," etc., and I bore myself to death.

Every art that isn't purely individual goes through this. They are only great—really great—in their primitive state… Low-warp tapestry is fascinating; Beauvais' and Gobelins' are, of course, amazing, but good for official receptions. Ceramics from Urbino are adorable and, with just one of those little, awkward vases on your table, you enrich your life. Look at what the art of ceramics became with Sèvres and Meissen. I can watch a film by Méliès, a Griffith, an early Tourneur or a Max Linder ten times in a row. I can only endure a screening of our latest masterpieces once.

For as long as they've existed, men have confused art with the imitation of reality. In primitive periods, either the limitations of the technical means or certain religious rules created by well-advised prophets prevent artists from following this bad tendency. In our time, that of so-called progress, no more limitations, no more rules; and we are witnessing a kind of debauchery. Individual artists—painters, writers, sculptures, musicians—can still pull through. Nothing prevents them from taking in nature as they understand it and rendering it for us in the most unexpected forms. But to make a film, tons of people are put together, and even if one of them vaguely has the idea that one of the characteristics of art is to be artificial, even if this person manages to communicate this point of view to his co-workers, the odious voice of reason quickly makes itself heard. By "reason," I mean the need to make a commercial work and to not shock audiences who are supposedly connoisseurs of that famous "reality." They are, anyway, and how could they not be after twenty-five years of the idiotic perfection of photographic reproduction? Out of this come today's ideals. An actor becomes a star because he looks like lots of people we see in the street. This way, it is believed, people will be happy to see themselves on screen, with just a few, minor improvements: better fitting costumes, smoother skin, and no hairs in their nose. From time to time, a film director looks innovative by keeping the nose hair or by showing a young beginner with rotten teeth. For my part, if I'm shown, in a movie, the same people I can meet at a cafe, I don't see why I wouldn't go to the cafe instead of the movie. It's more comfortable and I can drink there.

Those who came before us were really lucky: orthochromatic film that didn't allow for any nuance and forced the most timid cameramen to accept violent contrasts; no sound, which forced the least imaginative actors and the must pedestrian directors to use involuntarily simplified means of expression.

Happy were the Etruscan potters who, for decorating their vases, only knew two colors.

Happy was Queen Matilda who, for Bayeux's masterpiece, ignored the perfected craft of high-warp tapestry and aniline dye.

Happy were the filmmakers who still believed themselves to be carnies. But the golden age is over. And we must either become "true auteurs" in the classical sense of the word, with all the responsibilities it entails, or let the already wavering flame of our marvelous magic lantern die.

Originally published in Ciné-Club, no. 7, May 1948
Re-published in Jean Renoir: écrits 1926-1971


There's a new issue of LOLA with several articles on Brian De Palma including my translation of Alain Bergala's piece on Obsession: Time Denied: An Apotheosis of the Imaginary. Check it out.