Rivette, Jacques: French New Wave Leader, Dies at 87

Jacques Rivette, one of the leaders of the French New Wave, whose career spanned five decades,  died Friday at his home in Paris. He was 87.

His output was small but distinguished.  In his two dozen features or so, he often explored the fine line between reality and fantasy in non-conventional narratives.

Rivette’s death was confirmed in a tweet by French culture minister Fleur Pellerin, who called him “one of the greatest filmmakers of intimacy and impatient love.” The director reportedly had battled Alzheimer’s disease for several years.

Rivette, the least known of the major French New Wave directors, frequently took an experimental approach to storytelling. Some off his films were partially improvised by the actors, and their prolonged running times allowed audiences to meditate about what he was doing.

Lengthy narratives, of three hours or more, were the norm for the helmer, with several much longer than that.

His longest opus, 1971’s Out 1: Noli Me Tangere, about theatrical rehearsals and conspiracy theories, clocks in at 750 minutes.

His most famous and perhaps best work, Celine and Julie Go Boating, in 1974, runs 192 minutes, while one of his more widely distributed films, La belle noiseuse  of 1991, is four hours long.

Rivette was less concerned than his peers with the requirements of classical cinema or mainstream theatrical exhibition.  As a result, his films never achieved the level of commercial success of the works of his New Wave colleagues, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer and Francois Truffaut.

Even his critical status and recognition of his work lagged behind those of his peers. Rivette was never nominated for an Academy Award and picked up a best-director nomination at the Cesars, the French Oscar, only once, for La belle noiseuse, which was also nominated for best picture.

Some of his features premiered at major film festivals.  He received some recognition at the Cannes Film Fest with La belle noiseuse, a film in which Emmanuelle Beart plays a painter’s muse, and which won the Jury Grand Prize.

His 1966 film The Nun competed for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, as was his 2001 Va Savoir (Who Knows?)

At the Berlin Film Fest, his 1989 film The Gang of Four was nominated for the Golden Bear, received honorable mention “for the charm, the common sense and the fantasy of the screenplay” and also won the Fipresci Award.

Rivette’s last two films, The Duchess of Langeais and Around a Small Mountain, premiered in Berlin Fest in 2007 and Venice Fest in 2009, respectively.  The former was nominated for the Golden Bear and the latter nominated for the Golden Lion.

Born in Rouen, Normandy, Pierre Louis Rivette arrived in Paris in 1949 to study.  In the next year, he began writing for the film-club publication Gazette du Cinema, which also published articles by Godard and Rohmer.

All three subsequently joined the team of Andre Bazin’s magazine, Cahiers du Cinema, as critics before proceeding into filmmaking as a full-time career.

Rivette’s first Cahiers article was published in 1953.  In his articles, he praised the work of U.S. directors such as John Ford and Howard Hawks and the emerging auteur theory.

He borrowed the money necessary for his feature debut, Paris Belongs to Us, from the magazine itself, and he and Chabrol became the first of its critics to shoot a feature.

Paris Belongs to Us, like some of Rivette’s earlier shorts, featured appearances by Godard and other future New Wave names.  It had a dense if enigmatic plot, which became Rivette’s hallmark.  The film, which was released after Truffaut and Godard had made their successful debuts in 1959, was not a hit.

Rivette was appointed editor-in-chief of Cahiers du Cinema in 1963, giving the magazine a more political slant before dedicating himself to his directorial career in 1965.

His sophomore feature, a Diderot adaptation of The Nun, which premiered at the Canes Film Fest, was a hit due to controversy with the French censors, who initially banned it, and the open letter penned by Godard to defend the film.

The director’s most productive phase was between 1967 and 1974, when he made Mad Love, Out 1 and Celine and Julie Go Boating.  The three titles offer the director’s most fully realized expression of his intellectual and often multi-layered approach to narrative, driven by the realization that the world is too complex to be reduced to a single idea and that the only way to express it is via dialectical exchange of ideas.

The role of art in this exchange is a recurring motif, with many of Rivette’s films, including Love on the Ground, The Gang of Four and Va Savoir, set in the world of theater, where Rivette and his actors explored the artificiality of performance as a way of getting closer to an emotional truth.

Like a theater troupe or substitute family, many thesps would come back to work with the director numerous times, including “Mad Love’s” Bulle Ogier; Anna Karina, who arguably had the best role of her career in “The Nun”; and “Boating” star Juliet Berto and Beart, who besides “Troublemaker” also starred in 2003’s “The Story of Marie and Julien.” The last is a film about life and death with fantastical elements that harks back to the work of Jean Renoir, for whom Rivette worked as an assistant in 1954.

Martin Scorsese, who thought highly of Rivette’s work, released the following statement: “The news of Jacques Rivette’s passing is a reminder that so much time has passed since that remarkable moment in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when so many directors were redrawing the boundaries of cinema. Rivette was one of them. He was the most experimental of the French New Wave directors, probably the least known in those early years. I vividly remember the shock of seeing his first two films, ‘Paris Belongs to Us’ and ‘The Nun.’ Two very different experiences, both uniquely troubling and powerful, quite unlike anything else around. Rivette was a fascinating artist, and it’s strange to think that he’s gone. Because if you came of age when I did, the New Wave still seems new. I suppose it always will.”