Gang of Four
The last (and first) time I saw this film, it was “the latest Rivette”, so my recollections of it were, to say the least, rather faint. I remembered its wonderful ensemble atmosphere, a couple of sharp, gloriously incongruous suspense sequences, and a general air of mystery (something all my favourite Rivettes have).
That’s all present and correct, but I was pleased to see the whole film has held up superbly, even matured like a fine wine.
It’s beautifully structured around a series of theme-and-variations scenes (the rehearsals with Constance; the girls in twos, threes or fours back at the house; individual encounters with the mystery man). Even the brief transition scenes are reduced to variations on a theme (the train ride out to the suburbs). The underlying plot edges along incrementally through the accrual of these variations (one of the plot points, for example, is the way in which the different encounters with Henri / Thomas / whatsisname are variations). There are also a handful of setpieces that stand on their own, such as the mock trial Anna, Claude and Joyce stage for Lucia, or Lucia’s encounter with the ‘ghost’ (it’s a wonderfully Rivettian touch that we are required to swallow the existence of a ghost that is otherwise completely tangential to the story), and a couple of episodes evolve into great suspense sequences (or parodies of suspense sequences). Anna’s night ride with Henri is a superbly modulated encounter in which the basis of the situation constantly shifts, becoming more and more unnerving, but failing to resolve itself conventionally. The same goes for the great scene near the end involving a drugged glass of whiskey. I couldn’t remember many details of the film from my initial viewing, but this scene was still blow-for-blow vivid, a Hitchcock riff in which we and the camera follow the glass around the room as the tension builds. Again, Rivette doesn’t give us the conventional payoff, but we do get a pretty dramatic climax out of it.
The ensemble work is really fantastic, the women’s relationships on a much more naturalistic footing than Celine et Julie or L’Amour par terre, and this is where the life is breathed into the film. The other key elements are either more formal (the rehearsals, though these are nevertheless fascinating, and enlivened by Bulle Ogier at her best) or more formulaic (the deeply buried thriller plot – though its surface manifestations are rather idiosyncratic). Their intersection is surprising and satisfying, and Rivette preserves a powerful air of mystery through keeping motivations and resolutions obscure (why does Lucia not turn the key over to Cecile? What is the ultimate fate of Benoit Regent’s character? Or Bulle Ogier’s?) which helps keep this film much more (or much less) than the simple thriller it could have devolved into.
I’ve often found Rivette’s style difficult to define, but very distinctive once you’re in its midst. David Ehrenstein’s evocation of Hawksian mise-en-scene was very useful for pinning it down, and this film is a great example of how he frames groups of people and favours medium-long shots. The blocking is fluid and the camera will often swivel and pivot to explore the ensemble, who will be dispersed throughout the space and move (or become reframed) to form different dynamic units. In many scenes, the camera operates on the same terms as the characters (without being anything so straightforward as subjective), inhabiting and ‘acting’ in the same physical space.
A Summer at Grandpa’s
Way back when, this was the first Hou Hsiao-hsien film I saw, and it’s still one of my favourites.
His elliptical storytelling style is front and centre here, with deft use of off-screen space and time, though the narrative context (a child’s eye view of this new community) provides a kind of ‘alibi’ for this approach. The events are beautifully, gently observed, and this film gives a better account of the feel of ‘empty time’ to a child than almost any other. I say ‘almost’ because one of the champions in this regard (and likely contender for my 80s list) is Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro. There are so many similarities between these two films that it’s hard to believe Miyazaki was not familiar with Hou’s film. The basic premise (mother in hospital with vague illness: children sent to stay in the country), its landscapes and many of its sequences (younger child befriended by curious, speechless local inhabitant; child lost in the fields and being searched for) are shared. There are even some tenuous visual connections: Tung-tung being followed by his remote controlled car resembles the tootling ‘baby totoros’. Of course, Miyazaki takes these ideas in completely different, magnificent directions, but Hou’s film has much the same charm, and there are scenes, like the sequence in which the kids slide in socks back and forth on polished floors, only to be met with their Grandpa’s silent dismay, that actually look as if Hou cribbed them from Ghibli.
Hou’s film takes in – obliquely – much darker material, however, including an armed robbery, a near fatal accident, unplanned pregnancies, possible rape and eugenics. Looking back, it’s quite amazing how much material Hou’s eliiptical style can fit into an hour and a half while still maintaining an air of unperturbable calm. Ozu is another reference point – this may be Hou’s most Ozu-esque work (it’s a great train film – they’re all through it, fulfilling a multitude of functions), and his handling of the groups of kids recalls I Was Born, But. . . and Good Morning. In terms of technique, Hou gets better and better, but this film remains a major achievement and personal favourite.