Va Savoir! (2001): Jacques Rivette’s Subtle Tale of Italian Theatrical Company in Paris (Cannes Fest 2001)

Cannes Film Festival 2001–

Resplendent from the first frame to the last, Jacques Rivette’s Va Savoir! (Go Figure!) is a jewel in his crown, a film that in its high artistic quality, subtle complexity, and sublime mise-en-scene resembles Jean Renoir’s “Rules of the Game” and Ingmar Bergman’s “Smiles of a Summer Night,” both landmark films with which it also shares some thematic similarities.

This superbly acted ensemble piece, which chronicles the fables and foibles of an Italian theatrical company performing in Paris, focusing on the leading actress and her lover-director, is one of the most fluently staged–and most enjoyable–films to be shown in Cannes this year in the main competition.

An entrepreneurial American distributor could do marvels with this subtle, captivating serio-comedy, which is likely to appeal to mature, sophisticated patrons in urban centers. Compared to some recent Rivette works, such as “La Belle Noiseuse” (1991), which dealt with the love and labor of painting, “Va Savoir!” is a far more accessible–and shorter–film.

It’s almost tempting to say that it was worth waiting so long for “Va Savoir!” Rivette’s flawless gem and first feature in years. A leader of the New Wave, this controversial, uncompromising filmmaker has made a small number of films, mostly unorthodox ones that have baffled some critics while fascinating others.

“Va Savoir!” marks Rivette’s 19th feature in a career that began 40 years ago with “Paris Nous Apartient.” With the exception of “La Religieuse,” an adaptation of Diderot’s novel that conformed to the conventions of plot, and the complex but attainable “Celine and Julie Go Boating,” Rivette’s films have typically shunned the traditions of mainstream cinema. “L’Amour Fou” was more than four hours long and “Out 1,” made in 1971 but never released theatrically, runs for nearly 13 hours. (See Review of “Out 1.”).

In the cleverly and aptly titled “Va Savoir!” (an English translation would be “Who Knows Or “Go Figure”), the troupe’s leading actress is Camille (Jeanne Balibar), a French woman who three years earlier left Paris for Turin to move away from an impossibly suffocating love affair with Pierre (Jacques Bonnaffe), an academic who’s now living a presumably happy life with Sonia, a dance instructor. Camille’s new lover is Ugo (Sergio Castellitto), who is the director of the play and the owner of the troupe.

Rivette manipulates well the duo’s past secrets and present missions. Torn and confused by mixed feelings, Camille desires Pierre yet is afraid of meeting him. Their first meeting in a public park is indeed awkward, with each stumbling for words to describe their sincere feelings while maintaining a respectable faade.

For his part, and also unbeknownst to Camille, Ugo is in Paris to investigate the rumored existence of an unpublished play by 18th century writer Goldoni. Ugo’s search lead him to Dominique (Helene de Fougerolles), a flirtatious youngster whose mother owns the library of Goldoni’s friend (where the missing manuscript might be found) and whose half-brother is a womanizer lusting after Sonia and Camille.

Most of the action is set in the theatre, where the touring company performs, with elaborate scenes from Pirandello’s “As You Desire Me” presented on screen; backstage in the dressing rooms; and in the hotel, where the leading lady and her director share a suite with adjacent rooms. Gradually, what is considered public space becomes private and vice versa.

The theatrical production serves as both the backdrop and a revelation site for the complex, ever-changing and overlapping passions of each of the characters. Seldom have the issues of whether life imitates art or art imitates life been given such a shrewdly elusive and astutely insinuating interpretation.

Following Renoir’s expansive mode, Rivette employs an almost Mozartian vision to encompass amorous dalliances, assignations, and betrayals. There is even a botched duel at the end between the two jealous lovers. Rivette also exhibits Renoir’s compassionate humanism. There is not a single character that’s unsympathetic or unlikableno matter what deviations are involved. Quite admirably, the director treats each of the dozen persona in an egalitarian manner, constantly shifting their roles, both on and off stage, from leading to supporting players, depending on the subplot.

Moral and ethical codes are also continuously changed and broken in a mode that would make Rivette’s New Wave colleague Eric Rohmer proud. The amusing irony with which entire tale is related recalls Rohmer’s moral fables and their delusional characters. Issues of love, passion, friendship, sacrifice, honor and redemption are treated with a cunningly knowing manner.

Like Renoir’s masterpiece, Rivette’s comedy of manners is inexhaustibly rich in nuance and suggestive in tone, which changes from reel to reel, until it reaches its emotionally satisfyingand highly coherentdenouement, with all the characters converging on stage.

The sharply observed script is by Christine Laurent and Pascal Bonitzer, who has collaborated with Rivette on eight of his movies. The choice of play by Pirandello, who explored the duality motif and the fine line between life on stage and off, is most appropriate. Camille’s real-life character reflects her stage role, which is called “the Unknown Woman.’ While she is acting her part on stage, she is looking into the audience for inspiration on how to resolve her dilemmas. In one of the film’s many inside jokes, each of the screen characters frequent the theatre and end up backstage, dallying on confessing about it, after the show.

Trusting his material and splendid cast, Rivette does not force the situations into conventionally melodramatic encounters and revelationsthere are no tricks or any exaggerations. Seamlessly staged, with not a single faux pas by the camera or false cut by the editor, “Va Savoir!” stands as a testament to mise-en-scene at its highest glory.