Va Savoir Review

After the critical and commercial failure of his last film, Secret Défense (1998), a Hitchcockian thriller starring Sandrine Bonnaire, Jacques Rivette, one of the most influential directors from the New Wave period of French cinema (Paris nous appartient (1960), Céline et Julie vont en bateau (1974)) aimed for a change of tone for his latest film, Va Savoir (‘Who Knows?’) a lighter romantic drama with a comic touch.

Camille (Jeanne Balibar) has just returned to Paris after three years to appear in a stage production of Pirandello’s 'As You Desire Me' with her partner Ugo (Sergio Castellitto), the director of the production company. She meets her former lover Pierre (Jacques Bonaffé) and discovers that, although he is now living with Sonia (Marianne Basler) an attraction still exists. Ugo meanwhile, on a hunt to find a manuscript of a lost Goldini play, meets Dominique/Do (Hélène de Fougerolles) and Ugo and Camille’s relationship starts to drift. Just to complicate matters further, Do’s brother, Arthur (Bruno Todeschini) is seeing Sonia, but are his attentions romantic or is he looking for something else?

After their successful collaboration on the sublime La Belle Noiseuse, Rivette wanted to work again with Emmanuelle Béart and started working on a project that would be a suitable vehicle. Starting with some elements drawn from Renoir’s Le Carosse d’Or, he worked with co-writers Pascal Bonitzer (Petites Coupures) and Christine Laurent, drawing together diverse ideas for Va Savoir. Béart, however, wasn’t entirely comfortable with the first draft she saw of the film and as she was already working on Catherine Corsini’s La Répétition, she was unwilling to play a theatre actress in two successive films and withdrew from the project two months before filming.

Jeanne Balibar, at very short notice, took on the role of Camille, learning Italian for the Pirandello scenes and impressing the Italian members of the cast with her stage performances of 'Come Tu Mi Vuoi' in the film. Her performance has been widely praised and the role has certainly raised her profile greatly in the French cinema world.

Two versions of the film exist. The director’s cut runs at 3 hours and 40 minutes and has just been released theatrically in France earlier this year. The version on this DVD is the shorter 2 hour 35 minute version which has been released theatrically worldwide. Half of the shorter version is surprisingly made up of different takes of the same scenes that are in the longer version, a method the director has used before in his two versions of La Belle Noiseuse.

Although this is the shorter version of the film, it certainly doesn’t feel short, especially as it runs at two and a half hours. It is staged like a classical drama or even an opera (Rivette himself has cautiously compared the film’s finale to Mozart’s Marriage Of Figaro). The scene is set in the first act, introducing us to the characters, the plot-lines converging to set up the complications of the second act, slowly building up to a resolution of the various threads in the final act. None of the elements are terribly interesting and some are quite implausible. The motivation of many of the characters and their actions is often unfathomable, certainly in this cut of the film anyway. You are often left with the feeling of "Have I missed something?". Towards the end of the film Camille goes to great lengths to retrieve Sonia’s stolen ring, but you never understand what has motivated her to do this for a woman she saw as a rival earlier in the film and has only met briefly a couple of times.

The Pirandello play is supposed to mirror what is going on in real life, but it is hard to see any obvious correlation and in fact at times the play seems more 'realistic' than what is going on off-stage. It is almost as if the play becomes the real element and the characters start 'acting' their lives - particularly in the scene of the drinking 'duel' and the film's finale both of which take place on or above the theatre's stage. There is the feeling (confirmed in Jeanne Balibar’s interview on the DVD) that there is no real script and that various conventional plot elements – the lost manuscript, the stolen ring - are added to the plot to give the characters something to react to and define themselves thereby, but their actions are often inconsistent. The feeling of a stage play is enforced by the deathly silence in which the film moves. There is no musical score other than incidental music on the set and during the opening and closing titles, and the only background noises seems to be the creaking of boards and closing of doors as actors enter and exit scenes. I have no doubt that the idea of blurring the lines between the play and reality is intentional and it is an interesting idea, but it never really seems to come together and instead is just confusing.

The picture is presented anamorphically at the original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and the transfer is excellent if a little dark looking in places. Outdoor scenes are bright and vivid, but there is not much detail present in dark interior shots. Otherwise the picture is almost perfect with no visible marks or scratches. Subtitles are clear at all times and removable. The translation has a few curiosities, Peggy Lee is translated as 'Pegilli' on the commentary track. Rather confusingly 'ma femme' is continually translated as 'my wife' when there is no indication that any of the characters are married. (The writers don’t seem to be clear on this point either in the commentary).

The sound is Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo, but there is not an abundance of sounds on the soundtrack and very little music. Dialogue is clear and there is good separation noticeable when the actors are performing on stage.

Interview with Jeanne Balibar
There is no timing on this, but it runs to about 8 minutes. The actress discusses her approach to acting and being directed by Jacques Rivette.

Text interview with Jeanne Balibar
Rather shorter than the usual Artificial Eye text interviews, Balibar discusses here how the director and co-writers worked from a synopsis and wrote the script from day to day.

Scene specific commentary by Pascal Bonitzer and Christine Laurent
The co-writers of the film provide a commentary to a 40 minute cut of the film. It doesn’t appear as if the commentary has been cut, rather that a shortened version of the film has been put together to let them talk briefly about each scene. Each of them have entirely different views on each of the characters and what is going on, so this might explain some of the contradictory actions of the characters themselves. They do explain one scene which has been removed that causes some problems in continuity in this version of the film.

Theatrical trailer
The trailer is presented in 1:85:1 anamorphic. Not quite to the quality of the main feature.

Filmographies are provided for Jeanne Balibar and Jacques Rivette.

The film was critically acclaimed on its release and has many admirers, but I am not one of them. I found Va Savoir long and dull, the plot implausible and the characters unconvincing. It’s possible that the longer director’s cut of the film might give greater coherency to the characters and their actions, much as the long version of La Belle Noiseuse did, but I find the two and a half hour version much too long as it is. The Artificial Eye DVD release of the film is of excellent quality however with a good selection of extras and is worth picking up to make your own mind up. You might like it. Who knows?

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