The pairing, at first, seems bizarre: What possible kinship could there be between the films of David Lynch, now 69, the Missoula, Montana–born auteur whose work plumbs the discordances inherent in so many American myths, and those of Jacques Rivette, eighteen years Lynch’s senior and one of the architects of the French New Wave? But the felicitous couplings of seven movies by each master in the Film Society’s “Lynch/Rivette” series — all fourteen titles in the program will be shown on 35mm — reveal overlapping themes that both directors have returned to. Conspiracies abound, as do the bewilderments of the stage and of performing in general; both filmmakers explore love’s power to derange and the ever-unstable boundary between fantasy and reality, dream and waking. Lynch and Rivette are, in other words, among the greatest at immersing us in insoluble, intoxicating mysteries.
Those enigmas are evident in each director’s debut feature. Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) — flawlessly shot in black-and-white in the desolate downtown of Los Angeles, though greatly shaped by the anxiety-filled years that the filmmaker spent in Philadelphia, where he briefly attended art school — keeps viewers constantly off-balance as we try to make sense of what we’re seeing. Is that pustule-ridden man who pulls levers controlling the world or only the mind of Henry Spencer (Jack Nance), the wary printing-factory worker with the mile-high hairdo? Is that hideous, viscous, mewling creature really Henry’s baby or merely a phantasm, a reflection of his deep dread about adult responsibilities? A similar unease defines Rivette’s immaculately monochrome Paris Belongs to Us (1961), another kind of urban horror story, one in which the French capital looms as the epicenter of shadowy schemes — a recurring motif in the director’s work. “Am I going mad, or is it the world?” wonders the main character, Anne (Betty Schneider), whose involvement with a troupe putting on Shakespeare’s Pericles leads to her entanglement with members of a sect determined to bring down “the Organization.”
I don’t know whether these inimitable filmmakers have ever met — and would it matter if they had? — but one has gone on the record to praise the other. In a 1998 interview with the Paris-based cultural weekly Les Inrockuptibles, Rivette had this to say about Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), Lynch’s stygian, savagely received prequel to his cult-hit TV show: “[It] is the craziest film in the history of cinema. I have no idea what happened, I have no idea what I saw, all I know is that I left the theater floating six feet above the ground.” Counting down the last week in the life of troubled high school homecoming queen Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), Fire Walk With Me may be Lynch’s most unsettling work, with many of his trademarks, including the sinister qualities of small-town life and blonde and brunette protagonists, here deployed for maximum terror. But Lynch had never before created, or shown such compassion for, a heroine as haunting as teenage Laura, unhinged by years of abuse; she is the embodiment of what one character calls garmonbozia: pain and sorrow. Laura’s dolor and forbearance make her something of a secular saint, a descendant of sorts, per the FSLC program’s clever matching, of the eponymous fifteenth-century martyr in Rivette’s 1994 diptych Joan the Maid: The Battles and Joan the Maid: The Prisons. Starring Sandrine Bonnaire as the intrepid French legend, Rivette’s epic biopic(s) forgoes depictions of Joan of Arc’s religious visions and her trial, emphasizing instead the warrior’s imperturbable belief that she is the savior of her nation.
Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), the amateur sleuth in Lynch’s eerily seductive Blue Velvet (1986), also imagines himself as a protector, determined to liberate the damaged nightclub singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) from her thralldom to the sociopathic, nitrous-oxide-huffing Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper). But in saving Dorothy, the sanguine boy detective must reconcile darker desires of his own, unleashed when he spies on the alluring, fragile chanteuse — who will soon command her young lover to hit her — through the slats in her closet door. Dorothy’s apartment is designed to destabilize; her one-bedroom flat “appears to have been furnished, not to mention lit and photographed, to fulfill the surrealist ambition of making everyday objects strange,” in the words of FSLC director of programming Dennis Lim, whose shrewd, recently published critical biography David Lynch: The Man From Another Place occasions this series. (Full disclosure: Lim, a friend, was my editor at the Voice from 2000 to 2005.)
A sadomasochist push-pull, if emotional rather than physical, likewise dominates The Duchess of Langeais (2007), Rivette’s nimble adaptation of the 1834 Balzac novel of the same name. “Hurt him, he’ll never forgive you; love him, he’ll keep you in chains,” advises a friend of the titular noblewoman (Jeanne Balibar) regarding her tormented relationship with Armand de Montriveau (Guillaume Depardieu), a war hero whose affections she can return only when he stops ardently pursuing her.
No two titles in this ingenious dual retrospective evince greater affinities than Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) and Rivette’s Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974). Loosely defined, both films center on two women who are erotically attached, their bonds made deeper by the fact that each duo, drawn to a house with a secret, sets out to uncover a mystery. Identities dissolve and are reassembled; the plots for both films follow an oneiric logic. Mulholland Drive and Céline and Julie Go Boating are about the thrill of losing yourself in an adventure — which just might be the best way of describing the experience of watching any movie by these audacious artists.
Film Society of Lincoln Center