Revered arthouse icon Jacques Rivette, whose films explored the fine line that separates reality from theater and paranoid fantasy, died at his home in Paris on Friday of complications related to Alzheimer’s. The last of the French New Wave directors to find wider recognition, Rivette was known for heady, super-long, and sometimes mischief-making films like Celine And Julie Go Boating, La Belle Noiseuse, and the legendary Out 1, a nearly 13-hour early work that finally made its American theatrical debut last year. Rivette was 87.
Born and raised in Rouen in 1928, Rivette moved to Paris at the age of 21 to pursue his interest in film. There he fell in with a group of young misfits, some still in their teens, who frequented the city’s film clubs and the screenings of the Cinémathèque Française: the hot-headed juvenile delinquent François Truffaut; the eccentric and socially awkward Jean-Luc Godard, who spoke with a lisp and a thick Swiss accent; the bespectacled Claude Chabrol, who was studying to become a pharmacist; and Maurice Schérer, a former school teacher who a decade older than most of the group, and whom Rivette met on his first day in Paris.
All of them would eventually become critics (Schérer under the pen name “Éric Rohmer”) at the seminal film magazine Cahiers Du Cinema, which laid the groundwork for much of what we think of as film criticism today. They then embarked on directing careers, forming the core group of an edgy, ambitious movement dubbed the French New Wave. Rivette—who, like Godard, had come to Paris to apply to IDHEC, France’s main film school at the time, and been rejected—was one of the first members of the group to start making movies, having completed a short while still in Rouen. However, like Rohmer, he did not find success right way.
While Godard and Truffaut found immediate international acclaim with their first features, Breathless and The 400 Blows, Rivette’s feature-length debut was little seen. Begun on a shoestring budget in 1958 but only finished in 1961, the paranoid and unsettled Paris Belongs To Us used what would become the director’s staple themes and motifs—theater, rehearsal, classical references, and hints of conspiracy—to paint a portrait of disillusioned bohemians in a Paris still haunted by the aftermath of World War II. (Criterion is set to release the film on Blu-ray and DVD in March.) Along with Rohmer, whose atypical debut The Sign Of Leo had been a flop, Rivette would continue to work as a critic, eventually becoming editor of Cahiers Du Cinema.
Rivette’s second feature—the 1966 Denis Diderot adaptation The Nun, starring iconic New Wave actress Anna Karina—faced public censorship for perceived anti-Catholic themes, and it seemed for a time like his film career was not to be. His most widely seen work from the period was a series of interviews with one of the idols of the New Wave, director Jean Renoir, conducted for the TV show Cinéastes De Notre Temps. However, radicalized by the riots that swept France in May of 1968 and emboldened by a growing interest in improvisation, Rivette—by now in his 40s—re-invented himself with L’Amour Fou, a 4-hour study of a disintegrating relationship between an actress and a director.
His next project, Out 1, was originally envisioned for TV, but would become one of the most notorious holy grails of cinephilia. Shot on 16mm on the streets of Paris with a cast that included many of the best French actors of their generation, the largely improvised, claustrophobically paranoid serial remains one of film history’s most indelible portraits of delusion and political disillusionment. Acclaim finally came with his fifth feature, Celine And Julie Go Boating, a three-hour feminist flight of fancy about a stage magician and a librarian who become obsessed with an apparently magical mansion that transports them into a gothic alternate reality.
By this point, Rivette’s sensibility—at once unpredictable and thoughtful—had matured into a style, informed by the paranoid early genre films of Fritz Lang and Louis Feuillade, the shaggy, character-centric later films of Howard Hawks, and Rivette’s interest in occult symbolism. The overtly fantastical Duelle and Noroît, both released in 1976, reportedly led the director to a nervous breakdown, but by the time he re-emerged in the early ’80s, he was already considered a master. His next three decades were his most productive, and found the director switching between paranoid explorations of theater (e.g. Gang Of Four, perhaps the best introduction to his work), period pieces (e.g. an excellent adaptation of Wuthering Heights and the two part Joan Of Arc movie Joan The Maid), and stories tinged with the supernatural (e.g. The Story Of Marie And Julien).
In 1991, he made his most commercially successful film, La Belle Noiseuse, an unlikely 4-hour-long arthouse hit loosely based on The Unknown Masterpiece, a novella by Honoré De Balzac, whose work Rivette would reference and adapt throughout his career. (Both Out 1 and in Rivette’s penultimate film, The Duchess Of Langeais, draw on Balzac’s conspiracy-centric three-novella cycle The History Of The Thirteen.) Though the New Wave was a director-worshipping movement and helped popularize the notion of the auteur, Rivette stood out for his fascination with performance and his generous relationship to actors. His final film, 2009’s Around A Small Mountain, was a gentle portrait of a troupe of circus performers; clocking in at 84 minutes, it was the shortest feature he ever made.
Rumors soon arose of health problems, and it was eventually revealed that Rivette had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Before retreating from public view in his final years, Rivette was known as the only one of the New Wave directors to keep up the movie-going habits of his youth, reportedly seeing everything that came to theaters in Paris, and taking time in later interviews to champion the likes of Showgirls and Sigourney Weaver’s performance in Alien Resurrection. Like most of the other critics-turned-directors of the New Wave, Rivette was intensely private about his personal life, though it was known that he had been married twice.