Keeping the Dream Alive, by Scott Nye
“We’d often go to the movies. We’d shiver as the screen lit up. But more often, Madeline and I would be disappointed. More often we’d be disappointed. The images flickered. Marilyn Monroe looked terribly old. It saddened us. It wasn’t the film we had dreamed, the film we all carried in our hearts, the film we wanted to make…and secretly wanted to live.” – Masculin feminin (Jean-Luc Godard, 1966)
I think about that quote a lot when I go to the movies. It applies even more now, in ways Godard could not have anticipated, as representations of movies – their advertising (posters, trailers, tv spots, viral games), their press coverage, their water cooler talk – has become far more present than the movies themselves. Truly seeing a film with no preconceived notions is near-impossible now, and so rarely do the films live up to the dreams we have of them.
Recently, I revisited Kill Bill, Vol. 1 at a midnight show at the New Beverly. By any reasonable measure, it’s hard to imagine a better venue. Good as the film is, though, I kept coming back to how it could never be the film I imagined when I first saw that teaser trailer in the fall of 2002, having not yet seen a Tarantino film, or knowing anything of Kill Bill’s storied development. It seemed so elemental, so impossibly violent, grungy and tainted and slightly surreal, often inexplicable. That shot of the plane flying unrealistically close to Tokyo struck a strange nerve. All these images without context of the way Uma Thurman moved through space, her environment and fellow inhabitants balletically opposing or complementing her. A feature film would almost necessarily be lesser; the contours of plot and character development and some semblance of “world-building” (however stylized) would take the abstract and reduce it to the comprehensible. This was, on some level, inevitable.
Jacques Rivette does not succumb to the inevitable. His films – the few I’ve seen, anyway – feel, all the way through, the way their premises feel. They’re mysterious, difficult to explain, loosely sexy (though rarely sexual), expressive and unpredictable. They feel completely improvised, yet inevitable by their conclusions; Celine and Julie Go Boating could end no other way, but good luck calling it when you walk in the door.
This elusive feeling comes through most clearly in his 1976 film Duelle, a fantastical mystery that played last night at Cinefamily. Like those Val Lewton produced (Mark Robson’s outstanding The Seventh Victim is said to be a prime inspiration, though it is paradoxically one of the least supernatural of Lewton’s oeuvre), the threat of otherworldly forces seems present from the start. By the time a sun goddess and a moon goddess are announcing a duel, it all seems relatively natural, if unexpectedly realized.
The journey is initiated when Lucie (Hermine Karagheuz), a hotel clerk, is hired to find a disappeared man. There is a loose tradition in classical film noir to start small, and end either grandly or surreally (see also The Big Sleep, The Chase, Kiss Me Deadly). That so many more experimental directors (from Rivette to Lynch to Maddin to Godard) have used the genre as a jumping-off point seems, retrospectively, unsurprising. In his great essay on Duelle, Jaime Christley writes on how the protagonists in these films work to satisfy our contradictory desires:
The work of the investigators makes it possible to have, together in a single ring, the puzzle as well as its solution. The thrilling tales and pulp fictions are solved but not dissolved, acquired but not contained. There’s “another movie,” an unreal one that took place while you were watching the real one: the reward is that a film is more than the sum of its components.
So Duelle has the hallmarks of the detective film – a missing person, meetings in ominous public spaces, following, subterfuge, guns, fresh corpses, seduction, and a gambling hall for good measure. But because the full nature of the story remains so mysterious, because Rivette lets plenty of vital plot points simply go unexplained, and, mostly, because it’s Rivette and sometimes there’s suddenly a piano player in the room with a couple considering sexual intimacy, the central thrill of the genre is never dissipated. Every time the stakes are ratcheted up, Rivette makes his aesthetic all the stranger to match. Conversations teleport, flashes of violent encounters emerge in black-and-white (or more accurately, blue-and-white), the lighting scheme of a scene suddenly changes. Basically, things get weird, and keep on getting weirder. The oddity works to satisfy our love of the unknown while simultaneously “solving” the actual mystery at hand.
In this way, and because it deals with so many familiar genre elements, Duelle remains the film we dreamed, the film we carried in our hearts. It’s a tease for itself, yet a fully-formed artistic work. It satisfies our desires without eliminating them, enhancing them without diluting the story. It’s a remarkable achievement, one that deserves to be more widely available than it is.