Rivette Revisiting Jean Renoir

in 66th Venice International Film Festival

by Magda Mihailescu

After his works about painting, La Belle Noiseuse, 1991, and the historical film Joan the Maid (Jeanne la Pucelle, 1994), Jacques Rivette returned to the theatre in 2001 with Who Knows? (Va Savoir). The recently seen Around a Small Mountain (36 Vues du Pic Saint-Loup) replaces the large stage with a modest, tiny travelling circus, but both films share a touching resemblance to Jean Renoir’s The Golden Coach (Le Carrosse d’Or). For the main female character, life has no meaning outside art: “You are not made for what we usually call life,” Antonio remarks to Camilla in The Golden Coach. “Your place is here, among us, actors, acrobats, mimes, rope walkers. You can’t be happy but being on stage for two hours, night after night, practising your profession as an actress, forgetting about yourself.”

Kate (Jane Birkin) in Around the Small Mountain left the circus nearly fifteen years earlier, but despite this long absence, her comeback is as nostalgical as joyful. And mysterious as well. Unsurprisingly, since mystery and hazard have always been central to Rivette’s cinema. The combination of secrecy and fascination is at the heart of Around a Small Mountain, close to everything the film has to say about the past, present and identities.

The woman arrives from a remote time to join her former circus company. A stranger, Vittorio (Sergio Castellito), comes from nowhere and goes nobody knows where; they meet on the way in a rather comic manner, on a country road, while Kate is unhelplessly waiting next to her broken-down car.

A conventional invitation to a show turns into curiosity and finally a fascination for this strange “small theatre”, nearly without an audience, and for this woman tortured by her past (a lover killed performing a dangerous act on stage, a father who has driven her away telling her never to return). Vittorio finds out all these pieces of information, slowly digging into Kate’s later years.

Though often amusing, there is much sadness and enough doubts about the couple’s future in this “Rivette’s touch” film. Maybe the unusual length by the director’s famous standards (85 minutes only) underlines the “brief encounter” with delicate benefits for both. After many years, Kate has the chance to belong again to her unique family: the artists. Her rehearsal as a former tightrope walker, full of fear and hesitancy, is one of the most touching scenes. Vittorio will be on Kate’s side, amazed by the circus magic. We don’t know if, for a while or forever, they will keep some of the mystery for them, as we follow them deeper and deeper into their real life.

This unpredictable future is also a magical element of the film and its final touch of grace in the spirit of Renoir. “I have the impression,” said the French master “that purely human values like, let’s say, simply the pleasure of being with a friend stand out. When you come right down to it, this may be what so many directors are seeking today, an explanation, bringing order out of chaos”.

Edited by Steven Yates