Out 1: Noli me Tangere (1971)
Directed by Jacques Rivette
November 4-19 at BAM
It sometimes feels as if you watch Out 1: Noli me Tangere, Jacques Rivette’s thirteen-hour improvisational opus shot in 1970 and only now making its world-theatrical premiere at BAM in a new digital restoration, as much as it watches you. This long-unavailable landmark of the French New Wave, which takes place in the dashed-dreams aftermath of the radical movements of 1968, concerns the ad hoc formation of games, groups, public personae. Here, two different collectives conspire to stage loose Greek tragedy adaptations, while outside of the rehearsal room the operations of a secret society gradually emerge. Meanwhile, the 16mm camera canvasses a city crawling with cars, instilling through marathon full-magazine takes a sense of playful surveillance: Characters converse on rooftops, café seating faces out toward the sidewalk, and pedestrians mill around metro entrances in a kind of Brownian motion.
Rivette—who was in his forties when he assembled Noli me Tangere and later its more exhibitor-friendly four-hour version, Spectre—is now, at 87, several years retired, and among other things Out 1 makes for a rather extraordinary time capsule of bright floral patterns and Formica tabletops. Perhaps the best thing about the restoration is that it actually preserves the odd stray hairs quivering at the edge of the frame, rather then simply scrubbing them out. But Out 1 also happens to fit our particular moment of compulsive viewing quite well.
It arrives in 2015 resembling in form a distended season of cable drama, its dozen-plus hours subdivided into eight installments (showing at BAM in successive pairs), each of which gets underway with a previously-on–Out 1 recap of black-and-white stills. It is agonizing over text, though, not the revelation-filled drama of a TV serial, that fuels Rivette’s film. One theater troupe, overseen by Lili (Michele Moretti), rehearses an off-the-wall version of Aeschylus’s Seven Against Thebes, while across town, Lili’s ex, Thomas (a leonine, turtlenecked Michael Lonsdale), has embarked upon an even avant-garder staging of the same playwright’s Prometheus Bound. At one point, Thomas’s crew of actors huddles on their space’s unfinished floorboards, poring over a pile of still other texts (Beckett, Goethe, etc.) for inspiration.
These dual struggles to body forth the sense of words without necessarily using them—many of the rehearsals, which take up the majority of the film, descend into a controlled colliding-bodies chaos—find a correlative in two renegade individuals’ decipherings: Frédérique (Juliet Berto), who keeps a pistol in her Bastille-vicinity student’s garret, steals a cache of letters alluding to a clandestine group called the Thirteen, and attempts to blackmail, one by one, those mentioned in the correspondence; Colin (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a harmonica-playing deaf-mute who turns out to be neither deaf nor mute, scours passages from both Honoré de Balzac’s History of the Thirteen and Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark,” scrawling his preliminary findings on a chalkboard above his bed. All this lunatic close reading turns out to have some purchase on reality, after all: Thomas and various other shady affiliates meet to discuss the “little guy” on their trail.
The whole conceit of the Thirteen comes from Balzac’s Histoire des Treize, the volume of three short novels (Ferragus, The Duchess of Langeais, and The Girl With the Golden Eyes) that Colin totes around all movie, each completed in the mid-1830s and set a decade earlier, during the Bourbon Restoration. As such, Out 1 is often regarded as an “adaptation” taken from Balzac’s vast Comédie humaine—the original press notes even refer to the film as “one of several possible adaptations of The History of the Thirteen.” The writer is a presiding presence in the film, but not for providing a template for the action, as would be the case with a more traditional film of a novel—what the filmmaker most crucially derives from Balzac here is a deeply French-seeming keynote of world-weary paranoia. Needless to say, Rivette’s Balzac is rather different from the binge-writing anatomist of an entire social system who these days gets hauled out by critics puffing up the showrunners of Quality TV.
It’s worth noting that the Thirteen are a shadowy presence even in the stories that make up their “history,” an underground network, banded together to advance the individual interests of its members, whose power far exceeds that of the government or the police. At the beginning of Out 1’s third episode, Colin goes to consult a Balzacian, played by a lean, pointy-bearded Éric Rohmer, who discusses these stories as containing a kind of conspiratorial absence of conspiracy. “I very much like the conspiracies in Balzac—plots, secret societies, occults, et cetera. For me that is the heart of Balzac’s work,” says the professor, who might as well be speaking for Rivette. “But this aspect of conspiracy and organizations is paradoxically lacking in The History of the Thirteen. You find only furtive, passing acts.” Amusingly enough, the academic’s explanatory competence, especially amid the movie’s otherwise unpredictable behavior, brings to mind some of the Human Comedy’s own peerless professionals—the physician Horace Bianchon, the lawyer Derville, etc.
The Thirteen as well figures in Out 1 primarily as a sort of absence—conversations between members eventually reveal that the group has long since disbanded, and its most influential figures, someone named Pierre and someone named Igor, are alluded to frequently but never actually appear. Is the Thirteen a shady mercenary outfit, or is it a more upstanding collective in which well-placed citizens are able to moonlight as utopian urbanists? It’s never entirely clear, though both answers are suggested at different points. Particularly in his free-floating 70s work, Rivette relied on this sort of elusiveness, suggesting an order of things in which cause has been freshly severed from effect. He zeroed in on the point at which the humdrum gets transmuted into magic or play, or a run-of-the-mill conversation takes on its own weird performative logic.
No wonder, then, that Rivette was attracted to otherwise hard-realist authors who made no secret of their attraction to occult subject matter. A Henry James story featured in his 1974 masterpiece, Céline and Julie Go Boating, which concerned, in part, an unassuming-on-the-outside house of fiction where inside a spooky costume drama keeps unfolding as if on loop. Out 1 shows Balzac’s Paris as a sort of haunting emanation as well, not a distant memory but a sort of subterranean layer of the metropolis of 1970, like the roiling city of 1968 both forever lost and yet still very present. Rivette would go on to make fuller-bodied novel-to-screen transpositions, but Out 1, occasionally tedious but in the main totally entrancing, turns out to be the adaptation to end all adaptations, a sort-of Balzacian narrative about the charmed quality of texts themselves. Taking a good long look at various group dynamics, the film lays bare the way that what we read changes, often arbitrarily and often not, the way we read each other.