Thursday, December 24, 2009
94. French maestro Jacques Rivette’s “Around a Small Mountain (36 vues du Pic Saint Loup)" (2009): Deceptively simple cinema
To appreciate Rivette’s cinema one has to look beyond the obvious show—in this particular case a traveling circus in France, a circus that attracts less than a handful of people each night. And they don’t even laugh at the clowns. So when some does laugh, the laugh itself is a show stopper!
At the 14th International Film Festival of Kerala, many viewers of the 81-year-old French film director Jacques Rivette’s latest work Around a Small Mountain trooped out midway. The die-hard Rivette fans, some 60% of the audience, remained in their seats to the very end. The film is not everyone’s cup of tea.
Rivette’s cinema, in the case of Around a Small Mountain and all the films that he has made in the past has a mix of comedy, romance and mystery. In Around a Small Mountain, the comedy is obvious even to a village idiot but its relevance is what one is forced to ruminate on. What make one laugh at a clown in a circus, and why does another person not react to the same clown for the very same action? Comedy for the French includes tragedy—there is a thin vein of that element as well in this work of Rivette as in all his earlier films.
In India, filmgoers are familiar with the theme, if they have watched Raj Kapoor’s Mera Naam Joker. The only difference was that Raj Kapoor spoon-fed his audiences with ideas he wanted convey. In contrast, Rivette does it with style and discretion for the audience to figure out the latent, subtle meanings.
Around a small mountain is also a tale of romance. A mysterious handsome Italian man (Sergio Castellitto) fixes the car of a stranded elderly retired French circus artist (Jane Birkin), while she is stranded on a lonely road. The Italian fixes her car without uttering a word. This sequence is amazing. The seeds of romance are thrown. One would expect the woman to fall in love with this knight in an expensive sports car. But the reverse happens. That’s Rivette’s cinema.
Birkin has aged and is almost unrecognizable, if one recalls her roles in the French New Wave film of the Sixties. (Birkin is the real life mother of the lead actress in The Anti-Christ), For Birkin fans, she walks on a tight rope, a foot above ground in a fabulous single shot. There are no stunt doubles for her!
There is mystery as well. The Italian stranger remains an enigma. Who is he? There is also a mysterious death in the history of the circus troupe, which is unraveled slowly.
It is also a tale of chance—chance encounters where two individuals meet by accident. There is the frumpy Kate (Birkin) wearing clothes that make her look older than she is and a younger Vittorio who is in elegant casuals. Rivette drives home the opposites.
But at the end of the movie, the viewer has to figure out the obvious question. The circus troupe with just three or four persons for an audience cannot be real or cost effective. So how real is the circus? The director is using the concept as he would use theatre as another tool to tell us another aspect of our lives. The English title of the film is Around a Small Mountain (the French title is 36 vues du Pic Saint Loup). There is a mountain captured in the film’s opening shots. Evidently much of the action takes place in its environs. But to an intelligent viewer, Rivette’s mountain is not the physical one. It is a metaphor for the leading lady’s dark memories.
This is an unusually short film of Rivette (under 90 minutes) in contrast to his other films that last 2 hours on average. One could argue at length if this is Rivette's best work yet. But one cannot deny that this is a significant contribution to cinema. It was nominated for the Golden Lion at Venice Festival.
There were cat calls during the show from viewers who would have preferred a Raj Kapoor style of direction. But Rivette’s cinema is to be enjoyed at a different level altogether. One has to remember the circus was a mere prop for a 81 year old master filmmaker to tell a tale of life, where one (here the Birkin character, Kate) runs away from realities but return to same place to recognize them anew. The film for me reflected T.S. Eliot's poetry “And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive at where we began and to know the place for the first time.”