At the age of 73, Jacques Rivette remains as true to himself as he did when, as a critic and director, he helped launch the French New Wave 40 years ago. “Who Knows?” is an entrancing ensemble piece, directed with calm assurance, acted by a fine ensemble, and structured and scripted with wit and precision. Rivette has always made films of substantial length, which may be partly why he never achieved the major arthouse successes of some of his contemporaries. But over the years he has earned a loyal and enthusiastic following, and his new film should at least score solidly at the serious end of the arthouse market in many territories. The lightness of touch evidenced here suggests the possibility of a minor commercial breakthrough, which would be well deserved.
Several of Rivette’s films are located in a theatrical setting, and this is no exception. Camille (Jeanne Balibar), a French actress who left her lover Pierre (Jacques Bonnaffe) three years earlier to work in Italy, returns to Paris, playing the lead in an Italian production of Luigi Pirandello’s “As You Desire Me.” Her current lover, Ugo (Sergio Castellitto), is the play’s lead actor and director.
While he is troubled by the fact that the production is far from being a commercial success, Ugo is obsessed with tracking down a long lost play, “The Destiny of Venice,” which Goldoni, an 18th-century Italian playwright, is supposed to have given to a French friend. At the archives, Ugo is helped in his search by the vivacious Do (Helene de Fougerolles), a student writing a thesis on the history of the brooch in Roman times and in Italian and Hollywood sword-and-sandal pics. Ugo is smitten with Do, and it’s mutual.
Do lives with her scatty mother (Catherine Rouvel) and her epicene half-brother, Arthur (Bruno Todeschini), who is very possessive of her. Arthur is a shady character who makes a play for Pierre’s wife, Sonia (Marianne Basler), a ballet teacher, in order to steal a valuable ring from her.
Early scenes establish the six main characters (another Pirandello reference) as they circle around one another. Camille and Ugo accept an invitation to dine with Pierre and Sonia for what turns out to be an unsettling evening. Pierre is clearly having second thoughts about his relationship with Camille, while Camille and Ugo are squabbling over professional and private matters, and Ugo’s research is bringing him closer and closer to Do.
Rivette takes his own sweet time to unfold these romantic adventures which, as always in his films, involve cultured, witty, literate characters. It’s a joy to watch and listen to such sophisticated material handled with such ease.
Events build up to a most satisfactory conclusion, with Ugo and Pierre involved in a hilariously funny duel to the death, Camille going to surprising lengths to retrieve Sonia’s stolen ring, and everybody settling down with the partner they probably deserve.
Rivette’s relaxed handling ensures beautiful performances from all his players, most notably Castellitto as the volatile Ugo, who radiates charm and sarcasm in almost equal amounts, and de Fougerolles (last seen in Jean-Jacques Beineix’s “Mortel Transfert”), who makes Do the sweetest possible temptress.
Pic is filmed in a classically simple style. Music is avoided except for the apt use of the Peggy Lee song “Senza Fine” for the final scene and end credits.