Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Noroit (une vengeance) (dir. Jacques Rivette, 1976)

"It is the Judas of the hours, wherein.
Honest salvation is betray'd to sin."

- Thomas Middleton, "The Revenger's Tragedy"
as spoken in "Noroit"

See if you can follow this. In the early 1970's, Frenc
h filmmaker Jacques Rivette conceptualized a four film project to be titled "Scenes de la vie parallele" ("Scenes from A Parallel Life"). Each film was going to revolve around a battle between two goddesses, one of the moon and one of the sun over a special diamond that had the ability to both take away and give mortality. Each of the four movies was to be fashioned after a particular genre, those being a love story, noir, pirate revenge tale and musical. In that order. Because of a nervous breakdown suffered by Rivette, and a subsequent abandonment of the project, only two of them were filmed and released. The first, released in 1976, was Duelle (une quarantaine), the film noir, which was chronologically the second part in the series. The second and only other movie in the project to be produced in it's intended vision was Noroit (une vengeance), the pirate film. Also released in 1976, it was to be the third installment of the doomed-to-be incompleted project.

A quick browse through my top 25 list should reveal the high esteem in which I hold Rivette as a filmmaker, and Duelle is indeed one of his richest accomplishments. An intoxicating, mystical air breathes in every frame of the film, apparently leading up to a promisingly epic battle between the two goddesses which in fact never ends up taking place. Finally getting a copy of Noroit recently, I was obviously excited to watch it. Could it induce in me the same breathless wave of awe Duelle had done as I watched it for the first time, and then once again over a single weekend?

In a word, the answer would be no. At least not u
pon an initial viewing. That is not to say that the film isn't brimming with magical moments. If anything, Rivette's charmingly bullheaded refusal to play by anything resembling the rules of a traditional narrative structure are at a peak here, and it works in creating many isolated moments of beauty that stand outside of any attempts at moving the "story" along. In fact, Noroit is the most beautifully photographed Rivette work I've seen to date, often punctuated with small, silent moments of the swaying sea against the backdrops of lush green hills while people wait silently in the shadows for mysterious meetings involving secret agendas the viewer is never completely let in on.

The story, to the extent that there is one, invo
lves Morag (Geraldine Chaplin), the victim of a mostly-female pirate gang who apparently inhabit their own colony, and her attempt to exact revenge against them. Specifically, their sinister leader Giula (played by Bernadette Lafont, so wonderful as Sarah in Rivette's towering masterpiece Out 1: Noli me tangere) who is mostly a quiet, sulking presence throughout the film, only displaying at the rarest of moments (mostly involving bloodshed) a wicked and menacing cheer. One or both of these characters may be goddesses and have possession of a certain powerful stone, but unlike Duelle, Noroit is content to play oblique cat and mouse games with identities, only revealing it's true fantasy core in the final act.

I must mention my favorite aspect of the film, w
hich would be the music. Or rather, the way in which Rivette has decided to soundtrack his film. In both Duelle and Noroit, Rivette has chosen the method of having the music scoring any given moment to be played by actual musicians appearing in the scene, always lurking around the periphery of the frame. In Duelle, you would occasionally hear the haunting, jazzy piano improvisation of Jean Weiner, and if you looked hard, sure enough there he would be in the background of the frame, hunched over his piano playing away. In Noroit oftentimes a scene will be playing out to the tune of a trio of stringed instruments and a flute, only to have the camera finally pan to a section of the room where the men will be huddled in a corner or off to the side, either looking away or passively watching the scene unfold just as the viewer is. It is a startling effect at first. One would think this could take you out of the film, or perhaps make it hard to concentrate. Strangely enough it transcends this notion and ends up being a stroke of inspiration, with the troubadors seeming at times to play the role of Greek Chorus, giving the material an almost mythical quality. Their constant yet disconnected presence is one of the films most potent touches.

So all of this is to say that I was visually captivated by Noroit from beginning to end. And yet it missed a beat for me. The rhythm was a bit off. It lacked the playful charm of Rivette's masterpiece Celine & Julie Go Boating, the magnitude of Out 1 and the aesthetic perfection of Duelle. Something felt out of place, and it will almost assuredly take at least another viewing to put my finger on exactly why. Nevertheless it is a worthy companion piece to Duelle and fascinating in it's own right. One can only use their imagination as to how the entire "Scenes de la vie parallele" series would have panned out had it been completed. Luckily using your imagination is something you almost certainly will have no problem with after viewing any single Rivette film.


Ed Howard said...

This is actually my favorite Rivette film. I just find its effect nearly hypnotizing. It's probably the peak of Rivette's attempts to subvert narrative, to offer alternatives to plot: the story here is so slippery and minimal that it's nearly a non-narrative film at times. The presence of the great French jazz clarinetist Jean-Cohen Solal and his band only adds to the "anything goes" atmosphere, as does the incorporation of all those lines from The Revenger's Tragedy, in the form of Morag's rehearsals to put on her own staging of the play's big death scene. Speaking of which, the play within the film is probably the best scene, a great expression of the wonders of performance and imagination.

Drew said...

Truth be told this is one I really should (and will) watch again. I absolutely fell in love with Duelle, and thus fell into the classic trap of setting my expectations for this film in a certain place, leading to a completely unexpected viewing experience. I actually have little doubt that were I to watch this again I would fall under Rivette's spell and be blown away. It also probably didn't help that I watched this on the tail end of a long marathon I had one weekend. I will pack fresh eyes and a proper mindset and give this another go probably fairly soon.

On the topic of Rivette, I just watched Secret Defense last week for the first time, and I feel like it's a borderline masterpiece. I was really struck by it. I immediately went and read your review of it Ed, which I enjoyed very much and agreed with.