Jacques Rivette: The Outline and the Adventure
Or, how to let the film dangerously live its own life and tell what only happened once during the shoot due to a coincidence of secret plotting.
By Marc Chevrie
“Reorganizing chance: that is the basis of our work.” (Jean Cocteau)
“You have to set off knowing that you don’t know anything and want to discover everything. (…) Allow yourself to be overtaken by the surrounding elements, and then afterwards you will maybe manage to overcome them, but first they will overtake you. You must first be passive before being active.” (Jean Renoir)
Plot elements. A book is often the basis of a Rivette film; here it is a novella by Schnitzler, The Prediction, in which a character has a vision of his death that comes true the moment it is performed in the theater. There was a desire to integrate certain elements from the novella into the film, but everything derived from Rivette wanting to have women as the main characters, as well as a magician (more important than in Schnitzler’s book and ignoring the powers with which he is gifted, evoking visions without having them), and especially to base the film on the idea of the domestic theatrical performance. This partially determined the collaboration of Pascal Bonitzer, who, coincidentally, had just taken part in one of those performances. Rivette likes coincidences too much to not take that into account. The work of the co-writers (Bonitzer, Marilu Parolini, and Suzanne Schiffman, two of Rivette’s old collaborators, and Rivette himself) consisted in integrating these disparate elements in a group structure with the help of several references: Céline et Julie, The Rules of the Game (the romantic intrigues), Rebecca (a vanished woman whose shadow weighs on the house). This led to finding a certain number of narrative principles, but not to a script. From one end to the other of the film’s development, Rivette refuses to apply any pre-established plan, wanting, instead, to constantly remain open to the possible, to the unforeseen, and to chance, to preserve a portion of them, to be situated in the middle of them to play with and re-appropriate them. An art of creation, not of a finished product, that refuses like a straitjacket the safety of a written outline. As Bonitzer says, “A jazz musician isn’t asked to write a score, Jackson Pollack isn’t asked to do a rough sketch.” The four collaborators instead go to see the sets, meet the actors, and, over the course of on and off conversations, dream aloud, stitch together a possible network, a fiction – a work of tactical construction and scaffolding. Things start to come together by successive eliminations, by the need to make choices. Suzanne Schiffman acts, says Bonitzer, “with her efficiency, her Cartesian side, her sense of narrative economy, as the first assistant who is going to have to take charge in the field of a material that has to not go in every direction.”
Rather quickly, however, Bonitzer writes the beginning of an outline (the prologue and the meeting with the magician) to put in the file for the avance sur recettes, along with the two plays that the characters will have to rehearse and perform, from the plans for Labiche’s plays given by Rivette. The remainder of the written material consists of a biographical sheet for each of the characters and a list of numbered scenes providing a course of action, mostly related to the work schedule.
The rules of the game. This plan – a simple list of the situations – is given to the actors before the shoot, from which comes the need for explanations that Rivette barely or does not give. André Dussollier: “He doesn’t want to say everything, he gives the minimum. He amuses himself both with what he tells and the mystery that he sets up. They definitely knew a lot more of it, they had a lot of material, but they weren’t giving it to us since he wants to be open to everything that can happen and he wants a film that is in the process of creating itself.” Logically, he is the same way with his crew. William Lubtchansky, to whom the script is usually given, must, in the Rivette’s case, steal information here and there (in particular from Suzanne Schiffman who acts as a go-between and source of reassurance) “that he doesn’t really want to give us.” Lubtchansky agrees to the choice of the big house in which the majority of the film must take place in, decorated based on the mock-up that Rivette let Roberto Plate do according to the dual principle of theater and the reference to Matisse. This big set, necessitating a lot of work, lots of material to put up and take down, demanded a crew of four electricians (plus two grips and two camera assistants). The photographic material is classic, the Kodak 400 ASA film stock that allows for, in particular, with an equal quantity of light, having a depth of field that is a determining factor in Rivette’s mise en scène. He wants the set to be seen and for the colors to be perceived in a rather raw manner, which implies, for Lubtchansky, “to not leave the walls in semi-darkness, in any case not in a uniform fashion, with parts of the image where it smacks, where the colors are really felt.” Otherwise, all while knowing where his cinematographer is going, there are no precise demands. It is likewise for the sound. Pierre Gamet: “He plunges me into the film. It’s up to me to understand what he has in his head and to react in function of it.” There are therefore neither experiments nor rehearsals before the shoot. It is a time for defining the rules of play, dealing the cards and putting the crew, and especially the actors, in a state of permanent risk (of permeability) already, of maintaining for as long as possible the role of chance.
GAMES OF PRINCIPAL AND CHANCE
On a thread. At the moment that the shoot begins, the financing (with the avance sur recettes and help of the Minister of Culture) is far from having been obtained: two and a half million out of the six that it will ultimately cost (nevertheless two or three less than in more standard conditions). On the financial side as well, and very voluntarily, Rivette works “without a net.” The schedule, established collectively, provides for a maximum amount of time (four out of seven weeks) in the big house that becomes a bit like a studio for the crew, smoothing out a certain number of material constraints. The actors are available on set almost permanently.
If there is any obligation – to save time, to group the shoot by steps – it is overall chronological, and it is important that it is since the scenes are written as they go along. Although it takes place on three floors, the big final sequence is, however, saved for the end because the ending is not only not written, but can only be determined during the shoot, in the movement from which it is must be born. Far from indecisiveness, this is a willingness to remain open until the very end to interesting things and to the logic of characters progressively discovering themselves during the writing of the dialogue. Consequently, some lose importance, others are developed.
If there is no script, there is as little improvisation and the actors have a very precise text, written over the course of the shoot based on the initial plan. The writing consists of adjusting each time what has been shot with the possibility of making something coherent within the time decided at the start (at the end of each week, what has been done as well as the following events are finalized). It is up to Marilu Parolini and, for the most part, Pascal Bonitzer to write the details of the scenes and the dialogues, “to fill the orders,” as they say. These are the orders of a game from which the film, without the safety barrier of a pre-existing script, makes its moves. And this takes place on set. Bonitzer works in the house where the fiction he is writing is playing itself out. “Being on set, I was inspired by what was happening there. I saw how the actors worked. There were the sets, the atmosphere. All that fed, as we went along, what I was able to write, taking into account the fact that we had, even if it wasn’t rigid, a line that was, overall, marked out.”
The film, constantly developing, evolves like this until the final week. Dussollier: “When you shoot a Rivette film, you don’t have any overall view, they keep it for themselves in their secret conversations. The scenes being written day by day in view of what is happening on set, you become even weaker than usual. One has the impression of being on a string. Rivette wants that, wants to keep to himself the role of the deux ex machina that nobody knows, in order to change, invent, and redirect it each time.” This is obviously a dangerous move. Nothing else is sought after than the weakening of the actor by the absence or reduction of material that pushes him to bring his own. Caroline Champetier: “Contrary to another director where the character would already exist, he wants to meet a character. What he gives to the actors is the need for a character, the need to create it, and that’s what they work with, not with something that is done, closed, finished, and that has to be executed.” That’s why he says little about the characters, gives few instructions about the outline, correcting instead the way to do or to say this or that thing. Dussolier: “He has a very refined view of what works or not. But he says very few things, he has a cold, clinical opinion. He’ll say, ‘Ah, that’s no good! Don’t do that like that!’ The way to get there, it's up you to do your best.”
The application. It goes without saying that Rivette shoots without a shot list. Even if, sometimes, what he wants to see is so precise that the camera movements get made almost beforehand, he does nothing as long as he has not seen the scene performed by the actors. He has certain desires: that the scene is played in a certain corner of the room, on the bed, but he waits to first see what happens between the actors, without lighting or camera. Then they make their proposals, there is an exchange between them, Rivette and Suzanne Schiffman. Dussolier: “At first, he gives a vague suggestion, but he clearly waits for someone to take over. I see if I want to be next to Jane or move and lie down on the bed. And if that pleases him, he’s a taker. If something isn’t right, Suzanne may intervene. But he’s the one who always directs the movement and who decides.”
When the scene has been seen two or three times, there is a discussion between Rivette and Lubtchansky about how to film it, in a sequence-shot or in several shots. Lubtchansky: “the problem is not knowing where to put the camera but how the scene is played out. From there, it films itself, there is only one possible camera position.” Rivette says how he wants to see the scene and with which lens: depending on the film, he has a regular one - the 25mm here (for the vastness of the sets and the choreography of the direction) - aside from certain shots with the 50 or 75 to see the actresses or to try something different. It is William Lubtchansky who, from these directions, frames the shot. Only then can he begin to light: “We come to an agreement overall, he knows how I work, and mostly, he leaves me to do what I want to do. For example, the shadow on the wall in the beginning, when the characters go up stairs, he left me free to put that there or not, but he saw it, and he used it in his mise en scène.” This is an attitude specific to Rivette, of waiting then of re-appropriating and mastering the unforeseen (“Surprise me,” he simply said to his set decorator).
The lighting done, the first rehearsal with actors and camera takes place, with lighting, then a few changes, and they shoot. Filming, far from being comfortable and safe, as if done before it was started, is done instead in playful jubilation of the difficulty to overcome. The long sequence-shots, with movements and focus changes, are often very complex (Gamet: “He says it himself, it’s a bit 'why make it simple when you can make it complicated?'”), and impose the importance of creating, performing with difficulty, and, consequently, risk.
If Rivette does any retakes (four or five at least), it’s not only to improve the performance, but because he thinks that he can get something else from the actors. If the first take is good, he will do another one, not for safety, but, instead, to see what could happen otherwise and unexpectedly. And he always prefers to keep a take that is less good technically if the actors do something special. Suzanne Schiffman: “I even think that those are the ones he prefers. It often happens that when they are less good technically, he is certain that those are the ones where the actors are best.” Hence the script supervisor Lydie Mahias’ witty remark “He retakes shots to have continuity errors.” This is why it isn’t a question of listening to the takes or redoing them for the sound. Pierre Gamet: “You know that with Jacques you have to immediately have a good result. That’s why you have to really know how to survive. He loves being surprised, he adores mistakes, and systematically, if there is a take where there is someone who falls over or makes a noise, if there is mic shadow, that’s the one, the mistake, that will be in the film. Same thing if the actress stutters or messes up.”
The risk of direct sound. Pierre Gamet: “He gives us a lot of freedom. But he puts us in tough situations, he pushes the crew to their wits end, you have to go there, play the game. You have to be available at every instant and take up the challenge each time, with plenty of risks. I risk things that with others I would never risk because that’s an unconditional of direct sound. With Rivette, there is an aural mise en scène that is obvious when he puts musicians onscreen, but that exists elsewhere. There is something that happens in the shot at the level of the sound, it doesn’t simply copy the image. He will never dub. He wants direct sound in all its rawness. In a house, you have to have the windows open to the outside. You have to record with what you have. The challenge that I try to take up with Jacques is to overcome the problems and go to the limit with the boom (I find that wireless mics are somewhat of an easy solution). This demands a virtuous boom operator, my collaborator Bernard Chaumeil, who delights in Rivette’s films where you have to capture the dialogue in crazy positions, in very mobile takes, sometimes within small sets that require him to do acrobatics. This is terrifically exciting. I had to use a wireless mic one or two times because there were even conditions where there was absolutely nowhere to boom from, but I only do that when I can really do nothing else. It isn’t the same sound, the same presence, the same respect of the place that you’re in. And it’s unfortunate to not go all the way with the risk, to not play Jacques’ game. It’s up to me to overcome the sounds of insects, footsteps, etc. As soon as the crew moves, if there is no dialogue, I stop, and as soon as I can, I get up. I work with a mono Nagra on which I try to mix the maximum number of things over the course of the shoot, and often with two microphones. The camera moves around a lot, there are characters off-screen that have to be recorded. It’s really work about moments, about feeling, you have to be very attentive. Most of the time, when you hear a noise from outside, it’s because it was there during the shoot. At a certain point, there was a helicopter that passed by during one of the takes, and Rivette added the sound of one on top of the one from the shoot that had given him the idea. And if there is a sentence that is said that wasn’t planned, he is excited. To recuperate chance, accidental sounds, he loves that.”
Rivette doesn’t go to the rushes. Suzanne Schiffman: “It doesn’t do anything for him, it demolishes his morale because it is never as good as he dreamed. Whereas when he can see it and re-watch it at the editing table, its no longer the same thing: he can cut into the material that he has.” He prefers to store up during the shoot so as to discover the film and boost his confidence while editing, which doesn’t begin until the shoot is over. There is often an enormous amount of material (L’amour par terre was rather an exception in this regard): he shoots a lot and considers everything that is filmed as usable. As opposed to other filmmakers who eliminate while editing, he works by accumulation during the shoot and then makes a puzzle in the editing room so that everything works and nothing is lost. Even if in this case he knew the order of the pieces of the puzzle, contrary to some of his other films that are constructed more so while editing. This one being a lot more “in place” since the shoot didn’t lend itself to that style, the editing was more classical (a bit like Duelle and Noroît), and thus unusually short for Rivette: twelve weeks, in comparison to six months for Céline et Julie or seven for L’amour fou.
It’s the viewing and choice of takes that constitutes the essential editing work (Rivette prints several of each, indeed all of them, to be able to compare them, to use some of each). The assembly follows next, without much hesitation on the places to cut, for example (it’s Rivette – always present – who decides the images to cut on and the continuity). It is the actors’ performances, more than anything else, that determine the choice of the take. Now, there are first-take actors and others are last-take actors. In this case, Geraldine Chaplin is a first take actress, while Jane Birkin simmers the scene over time, adding things, useful nuances. When the dilemma is too difficult to resolve, Rivette and Nicole Lubtchansky (who also does the sound editing) often use several takes. Not (save one exception) for the image, since, in this case, he had foreseen an editing plan since the shoot, but, unusually, for the sound. While editing, he plays with the direct sound by taking a sentence that he prefers in one take to replace it in another.
In the sound mix, Rivette’s films have, first of all, a great respect for voices: there is no question of manipulating the sound to make the film smoother but so that the voices are not respected, especially since he loves very firm entrances, that one sequence follows another in a very direct manner (this passage is even amplified a bit sometimes), and because of his great respect for (already very rich) direct sound that is mixed first, before ambiances and sounds “to bring in some air” are added. The mixer can make suggestions, but Rivette is involved a lot, knowing what he wants. Except, precisely, for the added sounds: bells, rain, the ambulance siren that goes by. With other filmmakers these are decided beforehand and mixed before the mixing session, but Rivette doesn’t accept that, feeling like it would put him in a straight jacket. He decides where there will be bells but they are only edited during the mix. There are always things added, but for him the principal is that there are things that can only be determined at this stage. This is where the unusual length of his mixing sessions and the importance of the choice of the mixing room comes from. He puts himself in front of the mixing panel, to raise the level of a line of dialogue, to bring out effects, particularly for the added sounds. This is part of the game and because he better feels what this gives, how something should be mixed. After the freedom and delegation, after having “played dumb”, to again cite Renoir, it is now a matter of appropriating and definitively mastering the material produced (and not managed) during the shoot. It is also why the color correction is always very long (one must be resolved to finish up, to close things). Willy Lubtchansky: “He intervenes a lot there. Color correction is very important to him. And it’s tougher than on the shoot. Because during the shoot he leaves me be, whereas there he has very precise demands that have to be satisfied.” Meaning that here, the definitive overcomes chance, but also that with Rivette, instead of an invention phase (pre-production) preceding an execution phase, the film is invented from one end to another, not in phases separated from each other, but successive moments of the same spirit, the same burst, the same adventure during which the truth of the film is revealed little by little. Only like this are the moves made. It is up to viewers to make their own.
Translation by Ted Fendt, 2012