French New Wave director Jacques Rivette, who often explored the blurry line between reality and fantasy in a career spanning six decades and more than 20 features, died Friday at his home in Paris. He was 87.
Rivette’s death was confirmed in a tweet by French culture minister Fleur Pellerin, who called him “one of the greatest filmmakers of intimacy and impatient love.” The director reportedly had battled Alzheimer’s disease for several years.
In his films, Rivette, perhaps the least known of the major French New Wave directors, frequently took a semi-experimental approach to narrative. The films were partially improvised by the actors, and their prolonged running times allowed auds to wander around freely in their deliberately stagy worlds.
Three-hour-plus titles were the norm for the helmer, with several much longer than that. His longest opus, 1971’s “Out 1: Noli Me Tangere,” about theatrical rehearsals and conspiracy theories, clocks in at a staggering 750 minutes.
His most famous and many say his finest work, 1974’s “Celine and Julie Go Boating,” runs 192 minutes, while one of his more widely distributed films, “La belle noiseuse” (1991), is four hours long.
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Rivette was clearly unconcerned with the requirements of classical theatrical exhibition, and his films struggled to obtain even a fraction of the financial success of the more classically formatted works of New Wave colleagues such as Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer and Francois Truffaut.
General audience awareness and, to an extent, critical recognition of his work also lagged behind that of his peers. Rivette was never nominated for an Academy Award and picked up a best-director nomination at the Cesars, the French Oscar equivalent, only once, for “La belle noiseuse.” (The film was also nominated for best picture.)
Some but far from all his works premiered at major film festivals.
He received some recognition at Cannes. “La belle noiseuse,” in which Emmanuelle Beart plays a painter’s muse, won the Jury Grand Prize. His 1966 film “The Nun” was nominated for the Palme d’Or, as was his 2001 effort “Va Savoir (Who Knows?).”
At Berlin, his 1989 film “The Gang of Four” was nominated for the Golden Bear, received honorable mention “for the charm, the common sense and the fantasy of the screenplay” and won the Fipresci Award. His last two films, “The Duchess of Langeais” and “Around a Small Mountain,” premiered in Berlin in 2007 and Venice in 2009, respectively, with the former nominated for the Golden Bear and the latter nominated for the Golden Lion.
Pierre Louis Rivette was born in Rouen, in Normandy. He arrived in the French capital in 1949 to study and by the next year started writing for the film-club publication Gazette du Cinema, which also published articles by Godard and Rohmer. All three subsequently joined the team of Andre Bazin’s magazine Les Cahiers du Cinema as critics before branching out into filmmaking.
Rivette’s first Cahiers article was published in 1953. By 1958 his ties to the publication, in which he’d defended the work of U.S. directors such as John Ford and Howard Hawks and the emerging auteur theory, were so strong that he managed to borrow the money necessary for his feature debut, “Paris Belongs to Us,” from the magazine itself, and he and Chabrol became the first of its critics to shoot a feature.
“Paris,” like some of Rivette’s earlier shorts, featured appearances by Godard and other future New Wave names and had a dense, enigmatic plot — later a Rivette hallmark. But the film, which was only released after Truffaut and Godard had made their successful debuts several years later, was not a hit.
Rivette was appointed editor-in-chief of Les Cahiers in 1963, giving the magazine a more politically outspoken slant before dedicating himself to his directorial career in 1965.
His sophomore feature, Diderot adaptation “The Nun,” was a hit, thanks at least in part to the French censors, who initially banned it and the subsequent open letter penned by Godard to defend the film. It was nominated for Cannes’ Palme d’Or.
This led to the director’s most fruitful period, between 1967 and 1974, when he made “Mad Love,” “Out 1” and “Celine and Julie Go Boating.” The three titles, running a combined 20 hours, offer the director’s most fully realized expression of his cerebral and often multilayered approach to narrative, driven by the realization that the world is too complex to be reduced to a single idea and that the only way forward is a dialectical exchange of ideas.
The role of art in this exchange is a recurring theme, with many of Rivette’s films, including “Love on the Ground,” “The Gang of Four” and “Who Knows,” set in the world of theater, where Rivette and his actors could explore the artificiality of performance as a way of getting closer to an emotional truth.
Like a theater troupe or substitute family, many thesps would come back to work with the director numerous times, including “Mad Love’s” Bulle Ogier; Anna Karina, who arguably had the best role of her career in “The Nun”; and “Boating” star Juliet Berto and Beart, who besides “Troublemaker” also starred in 2003’s “The Story of Marie and Julien.” The last is a film about life and death with fantastical elements that harks back to the work of Jean Renoir, for whom Rivette worked as an assistant way back in 1954.
Martin Scorsese remembered Rivette’s body of work fondly, releasing the following statement about his death:
“The news of Jacques Rivette’s passing is a reminder that so much time has passed since that remarkable moment in the late ’50s and early ’60s when so many directors were redrawing the boundaries of cinema. Rivette was one of them. He was the most experimental of the French New Wave directors, probably the least known in those early years. I vividly remember the shock of seeing his first two films, ‘Paris Belongs to Us’ and ‘The Nun.’ Two very different experiences, both uniquely troubling and powerful, quite unlike anything else around. Rivette was a fascinating artist, and it’s strange to think that he’s gone. Because if you came of age when I did, the New Wave still seemsnew. I suppose it always will.”