In and Out of Rivette's Epic "Out 1"

in 26th Tromso International Film Festival

by Demetrios Matheou

We live in a period when prolonged viewing has become a matter of course, across media. On TV, Netflix’s groundbreaking policy of launching entire series in one go has built on the habit of box set binge-viewing. In cinema, festival programmers are demanding the most of journalists and jury members by introducing mammoth films into competition – Miguel Gomes’s three-part Arabian Nights totalled nine hours of precious Cannes viewing time in 2015, Lav Diaz’s A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery eight hours in the 2016 Berlinale.

Increasing familiarity hasn’t prevented ‘running time’ from being a talking point; apart from anything else, a lengthy film comes with practical problems – how do you simply find the time to sit in one place for an entire working day?

So imagine what it must have been like in 1971, when Jacques Rivette produced his nearly13-hour magnum opus, Out 1? Back then, a three-hour film would be regarded as ‘long’, so thirteen would seem like an eternity. Not surprisingly, Out 1 didn’t have a commercial life, and quickly disappeared from view. Critic David Thomson calls it ‘one of the great monsters of cinematic experience.’ But it quickly became a monster that was impossible to track down, a cinephile’s Holy Grail.

Until now. At the end of 2015 Carlotta Films gave the film’s 16mm print a 2K digital restoration, before a theatrical run and a DVD release. Out 1 was back in the world, in timely fashion, coming just weeks before Rivette’s death in January this year, aged 87. And this is how the film came to be in Tromsø, the festival presenting it as a special screening, in two parts on consecutive days, and inviting Thomson to introduce it.

Aware that the small, dedicated audience that had congregated for the film had a long task ahead of them, the writer wisely kept his introduction brief, and buoyant. He explained that the film was shot in just six weeks, with a script but a great deal of improvisation, by many of the signature actors of the New Wave, among them Jean-Pierre Léaud, Bulle Ogier and Juliette Berto. ‘No-one had undue expectations commercially,’ Thomson wryly observed, and yet he believed that coupled with Rivette’s most acclaimed film, Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), Out 1 represented ‘a turning point in the history of cinema.’

Thomson identified in Out 1 a common thread in Rivette’s work, namely an interest in the theatre and the process of rehearsal. He also alluded to another characteristic of this particular film’s ambling form: while any character we meet in any film would, naturally, know other people, in Out 1 “they all come into being.”

Both Out 1 and Celine and Julie Go Boating overtly consider what it is to sit and watch a film, he said, while urging this audience not to be ‘intimidated’ by the former’s length. ‘If anything, over 12 hours it gets faster.’

Since my presence in Tromsø was as a jury member, it was impossible for me to see the whole film – to do so would have cost me four of those under my scrutiny. But Thomson agreed that to dip in and out, to ‘sample’ Out 1, would be an appropriate experience. And so it proved.

The far from conventional plot follows two avant-garde theatre groups in Paris as each rehearses a different play by the Greek tragedian Aeschylus, Seven Against Thebes and Prometheus Bound, each encountering obstacles to their efforts and both productions unlikely to ever reach the stage. At the same time we’re introduced to a lone eccentric (Léaud), who becomes fixated with the existence of a mysterious group, The Thirteen, which he believes to be involved in a conspiracy, and a female thief (Berto), who may have inadvertently stumbled onto the Thirteen herself.

With a faux fly-on-the-wall documentary approach and the extremely ‘leisurely’ playing out of scenes, the film’s style might be described as arch naturalism; if we didn’t know better – if we didn’t recognise Léaud or Ogier or Michael Lonsdale – it would be easy to assume that we were observing real life, albeit the real life of a distinctive collection of obsessives and oddballs.

And that’s where the nature of my own viewing became something more than expedient; it supplemented the approach of the filmmaking, became one with it. I started at the beginning, acquainting myself with the core characters and, in particular, the methods and dynamics of the theatre groups: the first hour-plus is almost all rehearsal, one group’s text-driven approach being boisterous and amusing, the other’s earnest movement exercises so tiresome and so unflinchingly depicted that we’re reminded of what we have come to expect when sitting before a movie – if not entertainment, intellectual stimulation or provocation, than certainly some semblance of editing. I was also briefly acquainted with the youthful Léaud’s character, Colin, wandering the streets of Paris while pretending to be deaf and dumb and belligerently looking for hand-outs.

And then I had to leave. When I returned the next day (in my time), the players were still rehearsing and encountering problems with new members, Colin had found his voice, fallen in love and started his pursuit of the Thirteen, and I first encountered Berto’s Frédérique, who in my absence had committed the theft of a stranger’s letters and was about to use them to try her hand at extortion. I felt a little confused for a time, but was up to speed quickly enough. And when a film can spend half an hour watching a group of people having tea and biscuits while exchanging meaningless anecdotes (the most interesting one about an eaves-dropping parrot), one can feel confident of not missing too many key plot points.

I would leave and return one more time, and in between experience other films in other auditoria – the real-life story of a Norwegian Sami rapper in the documentary Arctic Superstar; the intense social drama turned crime thriller of A Monster With A Thousand Heads, an academic’s philandering in The Academy of Muses. And at some point I realised that as I was moving between these other stories, and through the festival’s strange locale amid the perpetual darkness of the Polar Night, it was the constant world of Out 1 that had become my norm; whenever I stepped back into Rivette’s world, it felt like I was returning to life, not film. And that is its achievement.

Demetrios Matheou