Out 1: A Personal Cinematic Landmark

I feel a mix of things writing this, predominantly fear that I am acting prematurely, attempting to organise thoughts that have yet to settle and find coherence. Yet I’m also emboldened by the kind of obsessive enthusiasm that comes with discovery; that sense of having ‘found’ something that seems culturally vital but that also speaks directly to you as an individual. I write these mildly feverish words having arrived at the end of a two-week project to consume all eight feature-length episodes of Jacques Rivette’s long version of Out 1; an improvised film lasting in excess of 12 hours.

Recently released in a superb boxset under Arrow’s Academy umbrella, Out 1 was devised by Rivette as a project that would enable him to work with the actors of the time he very much admired and, over the course of it’s initially undetermined running time, express and conjure feelings about how it felt to be living in Paris in the aftermath of 1968.

The entire thing was shot in the space of six weeks or so, with only a few rough pages acting as a day planner, instructing which actors would be involved and when on a rolling basis. It was the responsibility of the actors to react when Rivette called “action”. Scenes were not devised beforehand and an overarching narrative was not a concern, though one does appear through gloriously languid osmosis. This was an undertaking that defied many of the expected attributes associated with cinema; traditionally (both then and now) a medium dependent on fixed parameters.

Rivette was spurred into the idea having seen a closed screening of Jean Rouch’s Petite á petit, which ran for 11 hours. Rather than finding such an intimidating running time a test of endurance, Rivette found it to be a refreshing and energising experience. He talked in interviews of feeling frustrated and bored by the limits and constraints placed upon cinema by convention and economics, and was eager to push through these boundaries and explore more spacious filmmaking.

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Out 1 follows several disparate threads which frequently come close to interweaving. The film’s subtitle is Noli me tangere; a reference to certain religious paintings which express great moments when figures from Christian lore meet but are kept from actual contact, or are caught on the precipice of connection. It’s one of many coded themes that play out within Out 1. Ostensibly the viewer is invited to spend time in the company of two separate improv based theatre groups that are working on modernising classic Greek plays (Prometheus and Seven Against Thebes respectively).

Outside of these microclimates we also meet two individuals who are drawn into opposite ends of the same sphere of intrigue, both excited at the prospect of uncovering a secret society. Colin (Jean-Pierre Léaud) finds a number of pages which he believes are a coded message left like a breadcrumb trail that he obsessively follows, discovering in the pages of Balzac references to the ‘Thirteen’; the mysterious group he believes are still active in the Paris of 1970. Elsewhere, con artist and chancer Frédérique (Juliet Berto) steals a handful of letters; correspondences between members of the ‘Thirteen’, which tickle her fancy for blackmail and extortion. As events progress, the audience is drawn to wonder whether members of this secret society exist within the theatre groups we’ve by then spent considerable time with, how active (if at all) the ‘Thirteen’ are, and what their intended purpose is.

Yet to sit down with Out 1 and expect the above listed machinations to unravel themselves like a conventional thriller is an exercise in futility. It assumes this is a conventional film that lays importance on narrative and resolution. This is simply not so. As it was intended, Out 1 is both a document of cultural malaise and one of the most absorbing expressions of theatre on film. It celebrates and discusses the nature of finding truth within fiction and improvisation.

Through expert – indeed masterful – editing, the film breathes life into itself. It grows and swells and magics its own reality into existence. With such an extended running time you can feel it inhale and exhale as the ideas it expresses undulate, form, dissipate, return and diverge. In the process Rivette and his cast and crew manage to conjure something rare and terrific; a sense of a world within a world; of truth within fiction; the duality of a film which constantly reminds you of its own artifice, but which becomes wholly believable and truthful the more you willingly believe the lie.

Rivette didn’t just ask his actors to react to one another on the spot. Cameraman / director of photography Pierre-William Glenn works miracles capturing the cast as they encircle one another or embark on rambling conversations, oftentimes capturing events that unfurl for upwards of ten minutes without a cut. Out 1 is filled with incredibly long takes, and Glenn’s movement in combination with the actors is incredibly fluid, operating at an instinctual level as those in front of the camera interact on a subliminal level with those behind it. These long scenes develop their own rhythms, bordering on the hypnotic at times. It gives Out 1 a rather documentary-like feel; something which bolsters the sense of internal reality even as Rivette pointedly reminds the viewer that what they’re watching is just a film.

As is prone to occur with such cavalier filmmaking, mistakes happen, but Rivette includes them in the scenes. A lot of Out 1 takes place out on the streets of Paris (and Paris is as important a character to the film as any other). Often you can detect debris on the lens of the camera, or passers-by will stop and watch the actors in a sense of dumbfounded wonderment, but Rivette incorporates these elements into the document that is his film; they were events that happened in the making of an improvised piece of art, and so are legitimate elements captured in its sphere. It sounds as though it ought to appear shoddy or slapdash, but instead it feels justified by Rivette’s commitment to his ethos of spontaneity. These natural mistakes are part of life and so are part of the life of the film.

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Out 1 also delights in casually – even nonchalantly – upending our perceptions of its characters. Information is doled out via happenstance. Characters you’re convinced have no connection to one another will, after hours, inexplicably meet and you discover that they share a potentially intricate history. Having spent so much time with them separately, these moments feel monumental yet Rivette suppresses any sense of dramatic embellishment when they occur, as though it’s in some way your fault in the audience for not knowing this information sooner. At other times Out 1 delightfully wrong-foots the viewer.

Having spent the better part of four or five hours convinced that Colin is deaf and dumb, he suddenly starts to speak and interact with people as he becomes engrossed in the mystery of the ‘Thirteen’. It shades the character as distant yet kindred to Berto’s Frédérique. Both are imposters on the outside of some larger truth. Even then, as information continues to be doled out organically, the ultimate irony turns out to be that their individual optimism that the world operates by some grand plan that they’re only just becoming privy to is itself just another hopeful lie. The ‘Thirteen’ are dormant, inactive, having never realised whatever plans they might once have had; the breadcrumbs Colin has followed having been left as a deliberate attempt by unseen member Pierre to reignite their existence through the threat of exposure.

It is this that plays heavily with the feelings of discontent in Paris at the time following the political upheavals of the late 1960’s. Change was on everybody’s mind, but to what end? Out 1 plays with the societal sense of changing direction, but through the more cynical – even jaded – suggestion that there is nobody at the helm shepherding society toward the next phase in its evolution. There is no grand plan. Politics, like everything else, is slight-of-hand; improv masquerading as intentional plot. Writing in the UK in the disconcerting aftermath of Brexit, Out 1 feels more prescient than ever. In Out 1 Colin and Frédérique are the naive children trying to find their parents, searching to find a guiding hand, to finally define their worlds… but their parents have long gone to bed.

The actors are remarkable given the extremely precarious nature of the work. Léaud is fearless as Colin, particularly when out in public and interacting with by-standers. He exudes a confidence which is thrilling. Berto stole the film for me as Frédérique; seemingly shrewd and calculating but then by turns also fragile and endearingly naive. Her fate is the most tragic as her more criminal tendencies lead her astray. Her final scene is one of the most outlandish and openly theatrical in the entire project, but, at the same time one of the most sincerely heart-wrenching to watch. With toy-like props from a Western and a rooftop location that looks like a theatre stage, Frédérique exits the film adorned in the accoutrements of childplay, but with all innocence lost.

Also of considerable note is Michael Lonsdale as Thomas, head of one of the two theatre groups. He feels like a heavyweight presence in Out 1, and rather reminded me in his mannerisms and sense of conviction of Philip Seymour Hoffman at his finest. His self-seriousness makes him a natural father figure for the rest of Out 1 to spin around. As he grows increasingly disheartened with Prometheus one feels the weight of the world on his shoulders, especially as the insinuation grows that he may be a key player in the mysterious ‘Thirteen’.

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Finally finished and assembled, Out 1 was then a remarkable project without a home. Cinemas wouldn’t screen it (it managed one showing in its entirety outside of Paris) and Rivette quickly adopted a different approach, cutting his long version into the eight feature-length ‘episodes’ that now exist in an effort to get TV distribution, despite continuing to claim in subsequent interviews that Out 1 was always intended to be viewed on a cinema screen.

Even this proved fruitless, but in doing so Rivette may have prefigured – by decades – the trend for feature-quality TV series as spearheaded by the likes of HBO and now wholeheartedly embraced by streaming services Amazon Prime and Netflix. Out 1 is the original event TV series that never was, and it rather reminded me of the sensibility seen in David Simon’s post-Hurricane Katrina series Treme. Like TremeOut 1 isn’t primarily concerned with telling an explosive or compulsive narrative, but rather it invests its time in the culture of a very specific time and place. I don’t know whether Simon has seen Out 1, but it certainly feels like a key progenitor. It’s perhaps unlikely, as even this gambit failed to pay off; the French TV stations rejected Out 1 also, even supposedly – and absurdly – claiming it was too good for them to air.

Desperate to show that his film – that their combined work – still existed, Rivette cut a condensed version known as Out 1: Spectre which runs to a little over four hours and which I freely admit I’ve not yet attempted so cannot comment on. It has taken until relatively recently (a remastered reassembly of the film in 1990) for the full film to become even remotely available to a wider audience.

Arrow’s superb and beautiful release of this dynamic treasure has made my year. It’s been too long since I encountered a film that truly felt monumental in my own personal journey through cinema, which weaves and bobs and dovetails back and forth through the ages as I pick hungrily at the tattered vestiges which pass my way. I came to Rivette via Duelle (which I shall certainly write about at a later date, and which has instantly become one of my all time favourite films) but Out 1 has proven a most remarkable artistic monument to uncover.

I said at the beginning that this all felt too soon for me. That’s because I don’t want Out 1 to be done with me. I want it’s sense of play and intrigue to surround me all over again. I’ve not come out the other side just yet. I feel like Colin or Frédérique, absorbed in something I’ve only just begun to fleetingly grasp, the final joke being that there is no one truth at the centre of Rivette’s masterpiece; its gifts and its mysteries are legion.

 

 

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