If there’s any truth to the old chestnut that great works of art teach you how to experience them, few films exemplify it quite so fully as Jacques Rivette‘s Out 1. Then again, when so few films are akin to Out 1 in the first place, comparisons will only go so far before discourse hits a wall. Or so I, in the two weeks since seeing it, have been inclined to think of a conspiracy-filled, paranoia-fueled, melancholy-drenched 13-hour movie that’s no less indebted to Fritz Lang and classic melodrama than Aeschylus and Balzac. If this weren’t a particularly good film, its restoration and subsequent theatrical release, which begins at New York’s BAMcinématek this evening, would still be something to celebrate — mostly as a signal that people with a power to save rare films are placing their resources where it counts. But given what is, to my mind, the grand scope of Rivette’s achievement — something that, if you feel it at all, might only be perceivable in full sight of the thing, once every piece can click together in one’s mind —Out 1 now stands as the great cinematic happening of 2015.
You might be wondering what in God’s name this thing is. Fortunately, for an item that’s remained so elusive since the early ‘70s, Out 1’s history has been rather well-documented — best of all in Rivette scholar Jonathan Rosenbaum’s piece, as well as Dennis Lim’s rundown from 2006. Both are essential overviews, and not just because the latter’s Claire Denis quote remains applicable to the experience one can still get today. In so many words, this combination of Lang-ian intrigue, experimental theater (an in-vogue thing at the time), and vision of Paris after the failed May ’68 protests was long kept out of the public eye on account of both its great length and the author’s own fiddling, ensuring that it would eventually become a key item in the cinephilic legend of the “lost film.” Showings have been infrequent over the decades, sometimes likened in their scarcity to rock concerts more than a typical theatrical exhibition. That’s coming to an end. A recent tide to make Rivette’s (altogether wonderful) work more available, including a recent Blu-ray release of one film and an upcoming U.K. release of five, has, in this specific outing, gained significant momentum. This is more than a restoration; this is also a reclamation.
Unless you’ve seen the whole thing for yourself, however, it’s likely that much of Out 1 remains a mystery on the most basic fronts of plot, character, structure, and tone. Even the title hasn’t ever really been settled. For the purposes of Carlotta Films and Kino Lorber’s theatrical release, it’s being referred to as Out 1: Noli me tangere. Rivette supposedly added this subtitle as a tongue-in-cheek signal to distributors — precisely those who eventually ensured it would go almost completely unseen for 45 years — for that translates to “touch me not,” which just so happens to be the words Christ supposedly spoke to Mary upon encountering her after the resurrection. Is there something biblical at play? I’ll concede total ignorance, despite the fact that something of the sort crossed my mind during a late-game, Twin Peaks-esque verbal manipulation that indeed feels spiritual in its speaking-in-tongues expression. And then social rebellion of José Rizal‘s novel, Noli Me Tangere, comes to mind via this film’s political undercurrents. Let’s not get too obsessed with that, though; there’s a 13-hour movie to discuss. Yet most sources, including the onscreen cards, refer to it as Out 1, and the puns continued when he assembled an alternate, four-hour cut entitled Out 1: Spectre, which reconfigures the narrative rather heavily. Any associations with a certain other film being released this week, as I think is needless to say, entirely coincidental, up to and including the fact that Michael Lonsdale, who audiences probably best know as Moonraker villain Drax, is this picture’s second or third lead.
Now, as for why someone should actually care. I will assume that what’s been described thus far is not necessarily everyone’s thing, and even those who go into this with bated breath, thrilled at the opportunity to finally see Rivette’s opus (particularly in a theatrical environment), will realize they’ve little idea of what they’re getting themselves into. Before any matters of plot or execution are described, it should be noted that Rivette hoped to toy with his viewer’s conceptions of how runtime dictates everything relating to onscreen action. Hardly the first time a film’s asked us to meet it halfway, sure, but an esoteric, 13-hour one’s sense of “halfway” is inevitably a greater distance than we’ve probably ever been accustomed to. (E.g. Fassbinder’s lengthier Berlin Alexanderplatz is “easier” viewing, what with its more linear plot and formal dressings.) If you’re going to disagree with any of Rivette’s philosophy, it’s probably his belief that “anything actors say and do is interesting.” Even I, a great admirer, felt hesitant while trudging thruogh Out 1’s first two episodes, which largely consist of experimental practices by either theater troupe. Some would cut to the chase and call said practices “nonsensical,” though that’s a bit unfair; I detected a pattern to the performance and a significance in the 30-minute-length exercises — such is the nature of this trance that it’s genuinely startling when light from the real world creeps in because someone who’s being stepped on breaks character to say “ow” — while I hoped we’d ever-so-gently move away. To observe this over 200 minutes in the form of a single film would be unbearable, or just irritating.
In the spirit of a work that’s about the destruction of systems as much as anything else, Out 1’s initial flashes of narrative, which first play more like dissonances than part of the larger fabric, begin consuming the movie entire. During the early chapters, we’ve also been following parallel con-people stories. Jean-Pierre Léaud is Colin, a deaf-mute (or so it seems) who earns money by playing a screeching harmonica tune for confused café patrons who inevitably pay him to go away. Juliet Berto is Frédérique, a cartoonishly attractive, stylishly dressed woman who uses these qualities to attract men — at restaurants, mostly, but also in their own homes, which they (obviously) let her enter with no hesitation — and, through one means or another, eventually steal their money, then take off. Both adventures are fun, albeit plenty depressing once you realize that this is all they have, and thus the sort of caper amusement Rivette wishes to subvert — but only for the sake of something grander: conspiracy! It, of course, forms gradually. Upon exiting a café, Colin is handed a note by one of the theater troupe’s members (the movie does little to emphasize this connection; it’s nevertheless critical) that makes mention of a group, The Thirteen, in language alluding to both Balzac and Lewis Carroll. About two or three movies’ worth of action after this, Dominique, now casually situated in a stranger’s home, breaks into a locked desk and finds a series of notes alluding to the same group, this set of correspondences subtly expanding our assumption about who, exactly, they might be and what they might be doing.
Things are explained by the trusty Eric Rohmer, who sports a fake beards and throws out one of cinema’s greatest put-downs in his cameo as a Balzac scholar, and you’ll get an answer to this mystery in due time — more or less. There are two great jokes at play this scene, each of which lays out the “mission statement” pretty amply. First is that it’s a lengthy exposition either telling us everything we need to know or nothing that’s of use — I’m still not 100% sure — and second is how it tacitly acknowledges Out 1‘s first two chapters as an obligatory set-up. (Again, Rivette wants you to run with him and enjoy the ride; he’s not unaware of the oddity that comes with sitting through something this massive.) It’s a starting gun of sorts: Out 1’s next nine hours alternate between a crumbling of order in the theater troupes (unique, precious artists will only stay together for so long) and the construction of conspiracy on Colin and Dominique’s part (uncouth, paranoid bozos will only stay grounded for so long), one piece intersecting with another at many turns — sometimes within a given shot, and often to comedic effect — but never all at once. An alternation between entropy and accumulation is essentially the center of dramatic action. It’s intriguing, thrilling, maddening, and even funny in ways that are traditional (e.g. in the spirit of a good spy picture), yet specific to Out 1‘s worldview and its viewer’s personal experience.
Until context begins consuming the narrative and entropy starts winning. At Out 1’s heart, as many will tell you, is a termite portrait of the post-68 Paris, a place where the young “radicals” have either regressed to play-acting — or never really succeeded in the first place, since this sort of experimental-theater business has always distracted from accomplishing much of anything significant. (This is primarily couched in the great Bulle Ogier’s Pauline / Émilie, an identity-switching character who serves as a head-shop proprietor by day and a Thirteen member / doting mother by night. See also: this moment.) The overriding melancholy should seem disconnected to our current moment, and yet it feels no less alive today, in the United States, than it must have in Paris circa 1971 — not that anybody really saw it then or there, but hopefully you understand my point all the same — in large part because Rivette and his DP, Pierre-William Glenn, capture the world with an intimacy that prioritizes performance and surrounding. This is never at the expense of formal consistency, ingenuity, or, more importantly, logic.
And it’s an experience that alternately unmoors these happenings from its time and makes said time so very immediate, so very tactile. Set dressings, such as they are, come down to practice rooms or eerily vacant living spaces, while the city of love, seen through a man-on-the-street lens, has hardly seemed so imposing or uninviting. It’s clear that many of the onscreen “performers” are just unsuspecting Parisians walking down the street. Many stare into the camera with a confused expression as Léaud runs down the street excitedly repeating Carroll, and one sequence, in which troupe members ask people about the location of a missing partner, becomes unexpectedly confrontational when suspicions about its production creep into the viewer’s mind. All of this will inevitably raise questions that trace back to the entropy-accumulation conflict: the line between performance and reality, the stakes in a narrative vs. the destitution of real life, who’s really crazy, etc.
No matter its status as an item that contains multitudes, Out 1 retrospectively feels most like an experience that’s about duration and longevity, not merely of. The sense that we’ve come to know more about these characters than any normal-length — or, for that matter, most any extra-sized — picture could afford is delineated through, and perhaps collapsed into, individual moments of emotional realization. The narrative directions are not necessarily new in and of themselves; what matters is the high-wire act Rivette plays by creating meaningful visual and aural echoes (or contradictions) through the long, long line stories are running across.
Without compromising the effect of its unfurling by spelling things out too clearly, I’ll merely point toward one character’s decision to take a certain step in their life, here seen in a fixed shot that’s held for what feels like several minutes — a moment when every trace of conspiracy and deceit melts away, when the romantic future of two people (who we’ve been observing for God knows how long) is all the movie can even deign to concern itself with. That the style in which it’s photographed will recall a key moment of both development in their relationship and narrative intersection is never really announced, and it almost doesn’t need to be. If we can perceive this in the moment — if we can chart the progression of it, and in some sense still be intrigued by it — then perhaps almost everything to come beforehand has been exactly as it needs to be. If not, the remaining 13-or-so hours can be considered on a longer-term timeline.
Which, make no mistake, they shall. If the traditional post-viewing digestion process is akin to, say, an Alka-Seltzer tablet dissolving in a cup of water (and let’s just pretend your brain is that cup), Out 1 is a brick-sized pill that requires your brain to become bathtub-sized — or something like that. Here’s a picture invades the mindset so dominantly that subsequent conversations are not unlike a stoned exchange of words inside Ogier’s head shop. Better that than running down the street and shouting about Lewis Carroll, right? (This movie might not have an answer, but it’ll force us to wrestle with one all the same.) While those who take the plunge might not love what they see, they’ll know they’ve seen a work that stands apart from virtually anything else in the history of cinema. And though we might not yet realize it, the medium is already a far richer, far more wondrous place for having Rivette’s masterwork back in its fold.
Out 1: Noli Me Tangere is now available on Blu-ray.