Va Savoir



aka Who Knows : France 2001
director : Jacques Rivette
script : Pascal Bonitzer, Christine Laurent, Rivette
cinematography : William Lubtchansky
editing : Nicole Lubtchansky
main cast : Jeanne Balibar, Sergio Castellitto, Helene de Fougerolles, Jacques Bonnaffe
154 minutes (!)

Art-film alert! Va Savoir announces its lofty intentions even before the start – that running time suggests this must be a searching, serious film. It’s from Rivette, legendary master of daunting cinema, and, like so many of his earlier, even lengthier works, it revolves around the performance of a play – Pirandello’s As You Desire Me, to which we keep returning again and again. How dazzlingly highbrow: the play must, somehow, inform the ‘main’ plot, which concerns the play’s stars, Camille (Balibar) and her partner Ugo (Castellitto), who’s also the director.

Their company is based in Italy, but they’re touring Europe and are now in Paris, which Camille left three years before following the mysterious break-up of her relationship with balding intellectual Pierre (Bonnaffe). Camille meets up with Pierre, who’s now living with ballet teacher Sonia (Marianne Basler). Ugo searches private libraries for a lost 18th century play, and his quest brings him into contact with shapely student Dominique (de Fougerolles), and her shady half-brother Arthur (Bruno Todeschini). Three men and three women – and, before the end, each heterosexual permutation will have been explored …

Va Savoir isn’t a bad film, by any means – there’s just no reason for it to be so damn long. And these characters never really convince as people: they’re pawns in some enigmatic, intellectual exercise, adding up to … what, exactly? What is Rivette’s point, if he has one? Is he saying something about relationships? Memory? The role of art? As a viewing experience, the film isn’t sufficiently involving for the audience to put in the necessary effort to puzzle it all out.

There are some engagingly loopy bits of business later on – for rather daft reasons, Camille is locked in a room and must escape via the skylight. We stay with her and she walks across the rooftops, seeing Paris from a new angle. Later, after another laborious set-up, she sleeps with a man in order to retrieve a priceless ring he’s stolen – and she immediately, instinctively finds it buried in a jar of flour. Dominique turns out to be working on a research project into the ‘language of safety pins’ – the role of fastenings through the ages. Or something. These moments are baffling but intriguing – very possibly meaningless, very probably pretentious, but at least they’re refreshingly different from what happens in most movies.

The ending, however, confirms one’s worst suspicions of Rivette – all the characters congregate in the theatre; two of them engage in a tiresome, sub-Beckettian ‘duel’ by balancing on a high gangplank and downing vodka; one of them falls and is entangled in a net, suspended above his past and present lovers. A trenchant image of man’s absurdity? Or the hand-me-down, second-rate imaginings of a cinematic bullshit artist? Surely art-cinema has progressed far beyond this kind of self-obsessed noodling: Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep (1996) started from a similar premise – the Paris travails of an actress stranded in a misconceived production – but went about its business with an energy, economy and flair that makes Rivette look laughably olde worlde.

To be fair, however, 1997 Secret Defense suggested that Rivette’s exalted reputation was fully deserved – and it was even longer than Va Savoir. But Secret Defense had a much better story, and never got bogged down under the weight of its own seriousness – Va Savoir is visually flat, thematically nebulous, made with a hermetic disconcern for the ‘casual’ moviegoer. In a way, this is just as much ‘genre’ cinema as, say, John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars: Carpenter contrives to have his buxom star Natasha Henstridge appear in her revealing underwear, and likewise Rivette conforms to the lecherous arthouse-director stereotype by including gratuitous shots of Balibar naked in the shower, when he can tear himself way, that is, from the delectable charms of Mademoiselle de Fougerolles.

One could argue that he takes a similar attitude towards ‘ideas’ – bombarding us with philosophical concepts for not other reason than because he can, and because there’s an audience for it: over 40s, intellectual, preferably Parisian. Then again, does Rivette actually care about any audience? Ugo is mystified by the Pirandello play’s lack of box-office success – but what does he expect, mounting so many performances of this play in Paris in the original Italian? And, from what we see, it does look like a bloody awful piece of theatre. “Does it stand a second viewing?” somebody asks. “Yes, totally,” comes the reply. Phooey.

31st October, 2001
(seen Oct-30-01, National Film Theatre – London Film Festival)

by Neil Young
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