Sprawling across nearly 13 hours, in eight episodes involving dozens of speaking roles and what seems like most of Paris’ arondissements, Jacques Rivette’s “Out 1” has emerged from the mists of film history and legend to confirm its status as a monumental if cheeky culmination of the French New Wave. Roster of lead thesps (Jean-Pierre Leaud, Bulle Ogier, Michael Lonsdale, Juliet Berto, Bernadette Lafont, Francoise Fabian), many operating at the inspired height of their powers, demonstrates the pic’s range, but its mind-bending storytelling and themes of play and paranoia make it perhaps the quintessential Gallic movie of its era. Holy Grail for cinephiles, scarcely seen since its creation 35 years ago, is touring specialized North American venues and cinematheques before returning to Paris for a massive Rivette retro.
Genesis of “Out 1” is nearly as complex as its web of connected folks and plots, some involving two experimental theater collectives, others driven by a pair of loners who cause trouble for all they meet. Lensed by Rivette as a response to his tyro pic, “Paris Belongs to Us,” and after his “Mad Love” in the spring of 1970, the pic screened in a slightly unfinished version as “Out 1: Noli Me Tangere” at Le Havre’s Maison de la Culture on Sept. 9-10, 1971, and didn’t resurface until 18 years later at the Rotterdam festival after being rejected by French tube broadcasters. More widely seen four-hour version, “Out 1: Spectre,” was edited during same period as the long edition, but differs greatly in structure and tone.
With the title trimmed to simply the enigmatic “Out 1” and with a 1990 copyright, pic finally aired on French cable in the early ’90s but was only exported for the first time this year for screenings at the U.K. National Film Theater and then in Vancouver, Toronto and New York.
Running time is broken into eight episodes, each one titled with the names of two characters who form a chain of connections. Episodes two to eight begin with black-and-white photos of scenes from the previous episode, with the first shot always being the previous episode’s last shot. The black-and-white images serve to recall early New Wave, while ace lenser Pierre-William Glenn shoots with nimble New Wave looseness in 16mm color.
Early episodes focus on theater groups run by Lili (Michele Moretti) and Thomas (Lonsdale), as well as Colin (Leaud) — who pretends to be a harmonica-playing deaf-mute in cafes — and con artist Frederique (Berto).
Lili’s and Thomas’ collectives are working on different Aeschylus plays. While Frederique goes through her men and spends an inordinate amount of time alone, Colin comes across papers suggesting a conspiracy involving a group of 13.
Colin’s obsession leads him to such amusing encounters as one with a scholar of Balzac (played by Rivette’s filmmaking contemporary Eric Rohmer), who penned a series of tomes under title “L’histoire des Treize.” Picultimately abandons this conspiracy, with Leaud emotionally cleansed in one of the most exultant scenes of thesp’s career.
The rise and fall of Colin’s paranoia echoes the theater groups’ activity and collapse, seen in extremely physical and ritualistic exercises/rehearsals consuming huge portions of the pic’s running time. Passages amount to a doc on French experimental theater in the late ’60s, furthering the helmer’s lifelong fascination with the stage and actors.
Each set of characters is in search of a breakthrough, creatively or criminally, and all of them fall short. Temptation to read this as Rivette’s reflection on the failings of the French Left after May 1968 is too great to resist.
With no script as such, Rivette and his creative partner Suzanne Schiffman constructed an elaborate outline and gave their actors sketches of characters meant to be as different from their own personalities as possible. Thesps provided much of dialogue, and in this respect, Lonsdale, Leaud, Berto and Ogier fashion astounding creations. Lonsdale becomes nearly heroic by the end as an artist aware of his limitations, while Ogier has rich passages baring her soul. Starrier thesps also playfully spin off their well-established personalities, particularly Leaud.
Rivette directs and stages with refreshing ease and freedom, anticipating the fanciful mood of his subsequent pic, “Celine and Julie Go Boating.” Many scenes are allowed to play out with few if any cuts, as the sometimes-handheld camera remains at a slight distance from the actors but always stays intimately involved.
For all the novelty of seeing the pic in marathon screenings with auds, the ideal setting for viewing could well be DVD, which would ease access to episodes and cross-references.
Cast is peppered with helmers (Rohmer, Barbet Schroeder) and critics associated with Cahiers du Cinema (where Rivette began as a critic), including Jacques Doniol-Valcroze and Michel Delahaye. Prints lack burned English subtitles, requiring electronically projected subtitles.