In 1976, Jacques Rivette embarked on an ambitious quartet of films called “Scenes From the Parallel Life,” two parts of which (“Duelle” and “Noroit”) were completed before nervous exhaustion forced Rivette to stop while working on the third. Rivette has now resurrected and refashioned that film, “The Story of Marie and Julien,” as a stand-alone project. Rooted in exceptional lead performances by Rivette vets Emmanuelle Beart and Jerzy Radziwilowicz, pic (which world premiered at Toronto after reportedly being rejected by Cannes and Venice) will see its best exposure on the fest circuit and in niche arthouse distribution.
“Marie and Julien” harkens back to the formal and conceptual experimentalism of Rivette’s films of the 1960s and ’70s. A distinct, albeit very Rivette-ian departure from the larkish spirit of 2001’s “Va Savoir!,” this dark (visually and emotionally), brooding drama of mysteries, conspiracies and estranged lovers will do nothing to win its helmer new fans, but it should be recognized by demanding cinephiles as the highly accomplished, deeply absorbing work of a filmmaker in command of his medium.
Rivette has largely eschewed the recurrent structural devices that linked the earlier films in the “Parallel Life” series. Gone is the string quartet performing the film’s score “live” in the background of scenes, the correspondence of the film’s action to the lunar phases of the moon and, perhaps most significantly, the characters’ quest for a magic stone of mythical powers. (The only remaining constant is actress Nicole Garcia, who has appeared in different roles in all three of the now-completed films.)
Instead, the ostensibly more straightforward scenario (by Rivette and frequent collaborators Pascal Bonitzer and Christine Laurent) focuses on a lonely clock repairman, Julien (Radziwilowicz), who is unexpectedly reunited with his former lover, Marie (Beart). A year ago, they had an affair, but then returned to their separate lives. Now those lives no longer exist — Marie’s boyfriend is dead; Julien’s girlfriend has stormed out of their house — and so the two slowly rekindle their relationship.
In a nod to the film noir stylizations (particularly those of Fritz Lang) that have long fascinated Rivette, Julien is enmeshed in a blackmail plot against one Madame X (Anne Brochet) — a seller of counterfeit Chinese antiques about whose illicit activities Julien possesses incontrovertible proof, and a woman who may know something more about Marie than she initially lets on.
For much of “The Story of Marie and Julien’s” typically leisurely running time, the emphasis is placed simply on the gradual reacquainting of the title characters, two people as broken down by time as any of the clocks in Julien’s workshop. In a remarkably quiet and intimate series of exchanges, they enjoy what is one of the most measured, understanding, mature adult romances in recent movies. The scenes make major demands of Beart and Radziwilowicz (who can sometimes by a chilly, standoffish performer), and both respond by giving themselves, fully and nakedly, over to the characters.
At first, there are suggestions that is again exploring the world of a parallel reality, or some suspended intersection of fantasy and reality; almost from the start, something is not quite right with Marie. She is given to long, silent stares, sometimes seeming to freeze in place; and when she is cut, she doesn’t bleed.
Only in the film’s final act does the full extent of Rivette’s design become clear, as “Marie and Julien” reveals itself as an elegant foray into the horror realm. However, the genre’s formal elements are not employed to evoke fright or easy sentiment, but rather the more primal, dislocating terror of the things left undone between people. It may ultimately be Rivette’s way of both deconstructing expectations of horror and staring down his own encroaching mortality.
As with other late-period Rivette work, craft contributions by his usual team of technicians are superb, with William Lubtchansky’s subtle underlighting and seductive tracking shots a notable standout. Sparing use of music throughout makes the ironic punctuation of Blossom Dearie’s rendition of “Our Day Will Come” over the end credits that much more delectable.