Like a sleeping giant we’ve only heard rumors about or a Tristero conspiracy haunting our peripheral vision, Jacques Rivette’s New Wave Gargantua Out 1 (1971) has loomed out of sight for over forty years. Over 12.5 hours long, filthy with frittered time and elliptical narrative hijinks, a swollen testament to its maker’s defiance, it’s cinema as Neroesque incontinence. It was never actually “lost” — it was merely so huge, so unaccommodating, so anti-everything that being abandoned to the catacombs seemed like its destiny. Of course, no serious movie lover hasn’t ached to exhume it.
Restored, subtitled, and released in an actual theatrical engagement for the first time ever, Out 1 has finally emerged from the shadows — and now faces the guns of a mass audience. Rivettians will plotz. A rambling daydream that aims literally to supplant your life, it’s in effect a serial, in eight ninety-plus-minute chapters, TV-ready but defined by Rivette as a consuming theatrical experience. It consumes, all right, like a drug that won’t fade, but it’s also a lark, a metafiction without any reality, a magnificent irrelevance. Even the title is irrelevant. Rivette testily decided on “Out” instead of what was “in” and hip at the time, and on “1” because the film finally edited out of the endless footage was perhaps the first of several, which in fact it was. Noli Me Tangere — “touch me not” — was a note scrawled on one of the original film cans, accidentally incorporated.
Rivette had always evoked the silent mystery serials of Louis Feuillade in his conspiratorial vision, but here he makes it happen in real time, framed loosely by Balzac’s History of the Thirteen. (Amid the Balzac quoted is the phrase “a door hidden in the wallpaper,” which succinctly points up the legacy of Feuillade.) What’s it about? Rivette set out to make a film that renders such questions all but pointless. The threads running through the movie pit the intimate but secret schemes of collectives against the will of rogue individuals, the latter personified beguilingly by Jean-Pierre Léaud and Juliet Berto as two separate petty-scam artists wandering the streets, each stumbling in turn into the mystery of the Thirteen — a conspiracy, apparently, involving scores of the other characters, though its agenda is never made clear. These travels eventually crisscross with two experimental theater groups exhaustingly rehearsing two different Aeschylus plays and engaging in all manner of primal-scream acting exercises, all in preparation for performances that never happen.
Woven into the mesh are fruitless meetings at a store called the Corner of Chance (owned by serene Thirteen member Bulle Ogier); home invasions (Berto’s fawnlike ditz Frédérique impulsively confronts actor/director/critic Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, playing another Thirteener, at his chess board); visits to a beach house with a rotating cast of inhabitants; a fascinating interview with director Eric Rohmer as a Balzac scholar; lots of questions about a pivotal figure named Pierre, whom we never see; an alarming bar brawl between Frédérique and a thug she knows; and a profusion of multiple identities, multiple masks, and multiple romantic betrayals. Throughout, as usual in Rivetteland, there’s the sense of something ominous happening outside the frame; even the staring bystanders on the street scan as part of the conspiracy.
But it’s hardly a narrative or text, just an experience, like a chess game, or a stroll, or an acting exercise. Or, alongside Léaud’s Colin, an investigation into a secret something that reaches no conclusion. As with Warhol, the imagery is desultory; the attractions lie exclusively with the voracious abuse of time. Out 1‘s length is a strategy against progression, drama, or detail — there are no brilliant, memorable moments, just a brainwashing, an accretion of time that fashions its own rules for watching. It’s not just permissible but inevitable that somewhere in the middle you’ll decide that Rivette’s ropey experiment is completely absurd and you’re a fool for watching it. (BAM is showing it in fourths, two chapters per.)
Rivette has often centered his mega-films around the theater — but the evocation of illusion is ironic, because he distrusts the archness of theatrical drama, and the plays-within-movies never get past rehearsals. (His performances are always perfectly realistic.) Out 1 is almost a documentary about artifice, a giant game of pretend, where a bullet wound oozes orange paint and Lewis Carrollisms are hidden in the streets of Paris.
All that’s “real” are the cigarettes, approximately a million of them. Every inch a snide riposte to hippiedom (for which everything “meant” something), to the inconclusiveness of France’s May ’68 protests, and to the conventional omnipresence of the filmgoer, Rivette’s marathon is an end to itself. To watch it is like committing with unsavory friends to a heist you know nothing about. Still, if I were forced to be a critic about it, I’d have to admit that, for all its immoderation and essentiality, the film is not even Rivette’s premier achievement. It certainly doesn’t have the consistency, magical resonance, élan, and, yes, progression of Céline and Julie Go Boating, made three years later, at one-quarter the running time. Still, as I say, the rules with the long-lost debauch of Out 1 are different, and your waking day spent with it will be yours alone.
Out 1: Noli Me Tangere
Directed by Jacques Rivette
Through November 19, BAMcinématek