Director: Jacques Rivette
Stars: Juliet Bero (Leni), Bulle Ogier (Viva), Hermine Karagheuz (Lucie), Jean Babilée (Pierrot), Nicole Garcia (Elsa / Jeanne), Claire Nadieu (Sylvia Stern)
Genre: Mystery / Fantasy
If there is one thing I love, it’s dream cinema. By which I do not mean dream sequences within otherwise conventionally made films (which often tailor themselves to music video whimsy and cut-rate surrealism), but rather the rarely occasioned cinematic creation which in itself conjures the sensation of dreaming. This site is not named after the hotbed location in one of David Lynch’s more searing lucid dreams by accident. And while Lynch may have been my main inspirational gateway into such storytelling, he is by no means the only director to bewitch in such a way.
I came to Duelle and the work of Jacques Rivette by chance, happening upon this peculiar and beguiling film roughly three months ago on discovering the MUBI account I had assumed had deactivated had instead renewed. I was aware of Rivette as a beloved name in connection with the French New Wave; his passing earlier this year kindling a run of exalting eulogies from the highbrow film press.
Little that I had read would prepare me for the experience of watching this film, however, which I would liken to the feeling upon ‘discovering’ the works of Lynch or Bunuel for the first time. That treasurable sensation of pulling at a thread, unsure of what you might be unraveling, of a world built upon its own coded interior logic, which gives the viewer all the tools to unlock it, but which also expects them to do the job. Like the aforementioned masters, Rivette’s cinema – and particularly Duelle – has the fluid, intuitive feeling of a dream, taking place in a heightened reality in which symbolism is rife and the narrative thrums with the constant threat of disintegration.
This is hardly surprising given Rivette’s established fondness for improvisation. Perhaps his most notorious, celebrated (but underseen) masterpiece is the 13-hour Out 1; an extraordinary improvised film which has recently become more readily available thanks to Arrow’s exquisite boxset (my initial thoughts on Out 1, incidentally, can be found here). Duelle is a far more conventional film in a sense – it had a script, feels more deliberately staged etc. – but continues Rivette’s 70’s preoccupation with elaborate and ambitious endeavours.
Conceived as the first of four feature-length films to be shot back-to-back, Rivette only managed to complete two of them before the project collapsed (the other, Noirot, is a strikingly different affair – a jolly pirate revenge saga, obviously). Working with actors he knew well from Out 1 and other projects, Duelle is a fantasy story that reveals itself as such by osmosis. In keeping with his fondness for improvisation, while the film is scripted certain elements are left playfully in the balance. The entire film score for instance is performed within the scenes. Piano player Jean Weiner was reportedly horrified to find himself in front of the camera (albeit always in the background), declaring to Rivette that they would need to reshoot. Rivette had other ideas. Indeed, his random, incongruous appearances add a strange yet pleasing element to the film. He feels almost like a guardian angel watching over events.
The opening legend “Paris. The last night of a new moon, this winter” is Rivette’s “Once upon a time…”; his cue that what follows will slip from conventional reality into realms of otherness. The opening image of the film is of Lucie balancing precariously on a ball like a would-be circus entertainer. She teeters as the whole film will; a test balloon for a new kind of fantasy cinema. She is beseeched by a mysterious woman, Leni, for assistance in finding a man named Max Christie. Leni goes as far as to employ Lucie as her amateur private eye. In its opening scene – all gorgeous shadows and rich lighting – Rivette starts spinning intrigue. Questions hang in the air like smoke. Who is this woman? What is her history with Max? It evokes a sense of danger and possibility with beautiful economy.
Fluidly the film introduces its other key players. There are not many characters and they cycle around one another like enemies sizing each other up. Leni’s opposite is Viva. The two women are both in search of the same thing, and it isn’t the whereabouts of Max Christie. The viewer comes to understand – without explicitly being told – that Lucie has stumbled upon an ages-old battle for supremacy on Earth; Leni and Viva are avatars of the sun and the moon, both given 40 days to acquire the ability to remain on Earth and rule it. In order to do so they need to gain possession of a powerful gem; a stone referred to by Viva as the Fairy Godmother (possibly playfully, possibly this is it’s given name). Lucie’s brother Pierrot is in possession of the gem… and Viva is all but in possession of him.
One might assume Rivette’s tale is a battle between good and evil – light and dark – but Duelle is not so didactic. Neither Viva or Leni are ‘good’; both are opportunists, both will murder and manipulate. Viva draws strength from the sun and is weak at night and Leni vice versa, but neither operates by a superior code of ethics or moral high ground. Rivette balks at such simplicity, instead reaffirming the suggestion that the search and strive for power is in itself corruptible. Greed is villainous, and if Lucie is to be our heroine she must defeat both of these sinister deities.
By necessity the fantasy elements grow more pronounced as the film winds in to its finale, but it’s a gradual build in the fantastic that feels expertly judged; incremental changes that compound into something gripping. By handing out information carefully, Rivette makes the viewer feel like an armchair detective. Duelle isn’t slow, but it is purposeful. This two-hour film is made up of less than 40 scenes, and Rivette favours long takes. But the discoveries along the way feel like little rewards. It is not until halfway through the movie that Viva and Leni meet. The atmosphere generated is electric. Rivette succeeds in making the scene feel momentous and combustible. Instead it simmers in entropy, the tension remains unbroken.
The performances sell everything. Hermine Karagheuz makes Lucie an intrepid and plucky protagonist, but Rivette shares out screen time fairly evenly; no one actor takes the lead. Juliet Berto channels some of the con-artist charm she evidenced in Out 1, only here as Leni she works in a range that feels more elite and dusted with disdain. Bulle Ogier’s Viva is a fittingly sparky creation; filled with life but also seeming lethal like an open venus fly. The glint in her eye is joyfully menacing.
As is a recurring motif with Rivette, there is a sense of a secret being uncovered in Duelle, or conspiracy and hiding. As such the amateur detective angle that he asks the audience to take via Lucie is a smart one. He invites us in to a world otherwise shrouded from us. Supernatural it may be, but it’s not far removed from the untold machinations of the ‘Thirteen’ of Out 1; a secret society in Paris whose exact goals are never defined. The unknowable is a lure for Rivette, and Duelle shows no interest in placating viewers with a full and frank section of exposition extolling the wheres and whys of what is being depicted. And why should it? The beauty in the film is that sense of mysterious things being revealed. Rivette hands us enough to build a narrative, but not enough to shatter the delicious notion that we are just guests here. It makes the act of watching Duelle feel oddly voyeuristic; a peek through the curtain at something we weren’t supposed to see.
I mentioned the lighting at the start of the film being gorgeous, setting this tone, but it is perpetuated throughout. On occasion location shooting precludes it, but wherever else is possible Rivette closes curtains, dims lights and presents to us an underside of Paris in which magic exists. Here – as in his best works as I’ve managed to see so far – he suggests the ordinary is in fact extraordinary, if only you afford the time to look. You leave Duelle with a sense of strange potential; that out there, out in the real world, outside your window, anything could be happening if you could only find the thread. It’s a fantastic notion, but this is a fantasy film. It’s success is in that, when it’s over, you’re left wishing it could be real. Like waking from a delicious dream, it inevitably slips away.
Better watch it again.