Jacques Rivette is reunited with Emmanuelle Béart, the star of his masterpiece La Belle Noiseuse, returning to a film he abandoned 28 years previously. After a vivid dream, Julien encounters a former lover from his past, Marie and together they blackmail the mysterious Madame X. But Marie has a strange secret of her own.
Histoire de Marie et Julien was conceived back in 1975 as part of a series of four films Jacques Rivette planned to make, collectively to be known as Scènes de la Vie Parallele – each film dealing with mythological themes, but being given a different genre treatment – a love story, a thriller, a western and a musical. Rivette made the middle two films in 1975 – Duelle and Noroît – but work on the love-story Marie et Julien, starring Leslie Caron and Albert Finney was abandoned after a few days filming. The fourth film, a musical comedy starring Anna Karina and Jean Marais, never got developed beyond an idea. Twenty-eight years later, Rivette returned to the brief notes that were all that existed in lieu of a screenplay for the love story, but neither himself nor then assistant director Claire Denis could make much sense of the obscure shorthand notes whose meaning and intention had long vanished from memory. With his current writing collaborators Christine Laurent and Pascal Bonitzer, Rivette has refashioned the pieces into a new film that would re-unite the director with Emmanuelle Béart, the actress at the centre of one of his most celebrated films, La Belle Noiseuse. A mythological film dealing with death, re-birth, time and memory and regarded as one of Rivette’s long-lost “phantom films”, Histoire de Marie et Julien was suitably brought back to life in 2003.
After a vivid dream about her, Julien (Jerzy Radziwilowicz) unexpectedly runs into Marie (Emmanuelle Béart), a former lover who he has not seen in over a year. Both now free from other relationships, their thoughts had turned back to their former time together and their dreams seem to have brought them back together. Julien lives alone with his cat, Nevermore – a clockmaker by profession, he works at home in silence, the time marked out in the ticking of the clocks he is repairing. Marie however seems to keep slipping out of his reach, drifting from hotel to hotel, not turning up for meetings and then turning up at unexpected times, but when he suggests she move in with him, she agrees. However, there is a secret that Marie is unable to tell him about, a strange force that takes hold of her and draws her to an attic room in Julien’s house. Julien meanwhile is involved in the blackmailing of a certain Madame X (Anne Brochet), having uncovered copies of compromising documents and photographs. When she meets Marie, Madame X recognises in her a connection to her dead sister.
Histoire de Marie et Julien is a fascinating film with a colourful history, reuniting the famous French director with the actress who brilliantly incarnated and inspired everything that Rivette wanted to say about the nature of creativity in La Belle Noiseuse. The chemistry is certainly there once again between the artist and his muse, but Histoire de Marie et Julien is rather more interesting for its unusual stylistic approach to genre filmmaking than is it as a coherent or entertaining film. Histoire de Marie et Julien is simply drenched in atmosphere. Take The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable (the Shyamalan connection will become apparent as the film’s supernatural elements develop) and double the sense of agonising unease and you’ll have some idea of the mood and tone the film exudes – full of creaking floorboards and chiming clocks in silent, echoing rooms. Rivette’s mise en scène is wonderful from that point of view, but it is much less successful in establishing a connection between Marie and Julien – surely the relationship that the whole film hangs on – although to be fair, there ought to be some sense of an abyss between the characters. The love scenes are a first for Rivette and it’s clear that he’s uncomfortable with how they are normally depicted on the screen and wants to approach them differently, but the mannered poses and static tableaux that he presents here – celebrated by many critics as passionate and intense – are in fact cold and devoid of emotion, rendered even more ridiculous by the pretension of the dream-dialogues spoken by each of them during their lovemaking.
And unfortunately, once again it is the obscure dialogue and ultimate emptiness of the plot that kills any sense of life in Rivette’s film. Working again in automatic-writing mode (otherwise known as the making-it-up-as-you-go-along approach) with Pascal Bonitzer and Christine Laurent, the script is written from day to day, neither the actors nor the filmmakers knowing where the story is ultimately leading. As a consequence, despite Rivette’s marvellous direction and the interesting possibilities this approach opens up, the film comes across (as in their previous collaboration Va Savoir and Bonitzer’s own 2002 film Petites Coupures) as cold, cerebral and intellectualised rather than something warm, vital and meaningful. It’s a film to be pored over for cinematic allusions to Cocteau and Hitchcock, for references to mythology, to The Legend of Tristan and Isolde and to Gaelic and Breton folklore – a nod here to Edgar Allen Poe in the naming of the cat ‘Nevermore’, a wink there to Hitchcock’s Rebecca or Vertigo in Marie’s discovery and trying on of Julien’s former lover’s clothes, and a warm embrace of Mark Robson’s obscure 1943 B-movie horror film The Seventh Victim. Their justification for all this lifting is alluded to in the archness of the title (Rivette would actually have liked to call the film The Legend of Marie and Julien) – is the theory that all stories have their root in mythology and there is no such thing as an original story. Well, that’s an interesting theory and it makes for an interesting film that critics can pore over for allusions, references and significance – (add in all the theories you like about time in Julien’s career as a clockmaker) – but other than an intellectual, dilettante and experimental exercise in filmmaking Histoire de Marie et Julien, if never exactly dull and certainly the work of a master, is ultimately an empty film that has nothing to offer but its own cleverness.
DVDHistoire de Marie et Julien is released on DVD in the UK by Artificial Eye. The DVD is encoded for Region 2.
VideoThe video quality is reasonably good, demonstrating nice crisp tones, particularly in the autumnal colours – precisely as the film ought to look. The image is generally sharp and detailed with no marks or scratches, deep blacks and fine contrast that stands up well to the many sequences that take place in low-lit rooms. The only real flaw here is the digital artefacts that flicker throughout the film. Undoubtedly this is a consequence of compressing a two and a half hour film and an hour of extra features onto the one dual-layer disc. How serious you regard this problem will depend on individual set-ups, but other than this, the image is clean and sharp with superb colour tones.
AudioThe film comes with a choice of Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes of the original French soundtrack. Both are very effective. The Dolby Digital 2.0 is particularly loud and harsh – the film requires this kind of sound, but it is perhaps overly noisy. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is much more effective, capturing all the little rustling noises, tapping and creaking and sparkling on a rare occasion when one of Julien’s clocks chimes. Typically with Rivette, there is no music on the soundtrack other than over the closing titles.
SubtitlesEnglish subtitles are provided and are optional. They are appropriate and clearly readable at all times.
ExtrasInterview with Jacques Rivette (40:21)The director Jacques Rivette is interviewed by Hélène Frappat and it’s a fascinating and extensive interview. Visibly uneasy in front of the camera, Rivette doesn’t make it easy either for the interviewer, being precise in terminology and dismissing her occasionally overblown theories about the film. Nonetheless, there are marvellous nuggets of information here on the history of the film, Rivette’s other works and his working methods.
Interview with Emmanuelle Béart (15:38)Béart’s interview is rather less interesting. She talks about the working method of not working from a completed script, the freedoms this offers an actor, and filming nude scenes for Rivette – but she doesn’t clearly express what they really achieved here.
Comparison with French Region 2 release Histoire de Marie et Julien was released in France by Arte as a two-disc set. The set contains the film alone on one disc and the extra features on the second disc. The transfer looks similar in tone and sharpness to the Artificial Eye release – but without extra features taking up disc space, the Arte release has none of the artefacting problems and is much more stable. The Arte release also presents the film at the full 1.85:1 aspect ratio, while the Artificial Eye release is closer to 1.80:1. There are however no English subtitles on the Arte release for either the film or the extra features. The Arte release contains the same interviews with Jacques Rivette and Emmanuelle Béart (unsubtitled) and the Theatrical Trailer all on the second disc, but additionally has a trailer for the French Rivette boxset, a selected commentary by director of photography William Lubtchansky (41:45) over an edited down version of the film, and an analysis of the film by Hélène Frappat (21:28). Neither of these features add much value to the film, Lubtchansky’s commentary being very technical, discussing little more than the lighting arrangements of every scene in the film, Frappat adding little to what she already got out of Rivette in the excellent interview. Screenshots are included below for comparison between the Artificial Eye release (top) and the Arte release (bottom).
OverallRather than having anything important to relate about love, relationships and death, Histoire de Marie et Julien unfortunately feels like another experiment in Bonitzer and Laurent’s writing method – a cold, sterile, academic approach to filmmaking which unfortunately drains the film of any real emotion or meaning and does a gross disservice to the evident chemistry and inspiration that fires the Rivette/Béart relationship. On one level, the film remains compelling and fascinating, but at two and a half hours, it may stretch one’s patience and you can’t help but feel let down by the insubstantiality and lack of purpose demonstrated in the obscure and pretentious treatment of the potentially interesting material. Although some viewers may be distracted by the digital artefacts in the transfer, this is an overall good DVD release from Artificial Eye including a fascinating extended interview with the director.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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