Jacques Rivette, Around a Small Mountain, 2009, color film in 35 mm, 84 minutes. Left: Kate and Vittorio (Jane Birkin and Sergio Castellitto). Right: Vittorio and Clémence (Sergio Castellitto and Julie‐Marie Parmentier).

THE ELEGIAC MONOLOGUES and bittersweet themes of Around a Small Mountain (2009) seem uniquely appropriate, given the career arc of the film’s director. At eighty-one, Jacques Rivette, key member of the French New Wave, has molded an ephemeral eighty-five-minute daydream about an over-the-hill circus troupe and an outsider who helps a scarred former cast member learn to cherish her roots. Could this be the filmmaker’s requiem for the art of cinema?

The story begins with a broken car: A visibly flustered Kate (Jane Birkin) is stranded on the side of the road in rural France; a man, Vittorio (Sergio Castellitto), comes to the rescue, stopping to silently repair the clunker. Actual introductions don’t occur until later, when both are parked in the next town, where Kate has returned to find a circus founded by her father. She invites Vittorio to a show and he becomes enraptured with the archaic spectacle of the clowns and gymnasts, who are now playing to an audience of three. Vittorio books a hotel room and begins his investigation into the past, befriending the unsung artists, celebrating their passions even as he learns more about Kate’s traumatic history. It was here, during a performance, that she lost her lover, forever imbuing the tent with pain and regret.

Rivette, director of Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974) and La Belle Noiseuse (1991), has made a career by building vibrant characters through improvised, almost spontaneous performances. In Around a Small Mountain, the personalities expand and then take flight via reflective chats in empty cafés and afternoon musings in gardens. Vittorio comes to love the simple pleasures of circus life, while Kate attempts to reconcile her despair. Rivette’s own affection for the circus is obvious. He shows the same comedy routine in its entirety three times, underscoring the familiar charm of a classic performance. He emphasizes the dwindling audience, at one point capturing the clown’s shocked reactions when Vittorio actually laughs at a punch line. Even the film’s climax plays out under the big top, as Vittorio tries to heal his new friend’s heart by playing out her lover’s death scene in full makeup: mourning as spectacle. It is Rivette’s doting tribute to the ways life imitates art (and vice versa), his gentle reminder that the show must go on.

S. James Snyder

Around A Small Mountain opens July 9 at the IFC Center in New York. For more details, click here.