Watch and Learn

Melissa Anderson on Jacques Rivette’s Out 1: Noli me tangere

 Jacques Rivette, Out 1: Noli me tangere, 1971, 16 mm, color and black-and-white, sound, 775 minutes. Sarah and Thomas (Bernadette Lafont and Michael Lonsdale).

TIME AND NARRATIVE are pushed to the extreme in Jacques Rivette’s Out 1: Noli me tangere (1971), a film that operates simultaneously as stealth vérité and raw psychodrama. Fabled for both its length (just five minutes short of thirteen hours) and its rarity (it has screened only a handful of times in the past forty-four years), Out 1 becomes harder to classify as it unfolds, even while clues regarding its core enigma begin to multiply.

As in many of Rivette’s films, especially Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974) and Le Pont du Nord (1981), Out 1 is greatly informed by improvisation and is at once ludic, sinister, and labile; it takes place in a Paris imagined as either a city of infinite random encounters or an ominous maze. Inspired by Balzac’s History of the Thirteen—a trilogy of novellas in which the actions of a mysterious, omnipotent secret society in nineteenth-century France transpire in the background—Rivette’s magnum opus, which was shot over six weeks beginning in April 1970, is one the greatest artifacts of post-’68, postutopian paranoia and despair.

It is also an extraordinary record of its actors, several of them among the most emblematic faces of the Nouvelle Vague; even the lesser-known players take on an unfading iconicity, owing to the film’s prodigious running time and the effulgent cinematography of Pierre-William Glenn, here shooting on 16 mm. Divided into eight chapters, Out 1 devotes most of the first two to the acting exercises and postrehearsal processing sessions of a pair of avant-garde theater troupes, each reimagining a work by Aeschylus: The group led by the luxuriantly redheaded Lili (Michèle Moretti) is studying Seven Against Thebes; in a more capacious practice space, Thomas (Michael Lonsdale) guides his ensemble as they break down Prometheus Unbound. Sometimes engrossing, sometimes unendurable, sometimes both at once, the episodes, full of all manner of keening, flexing, and regressing, are crucial documents of orgiastic dramaturgy. In their moment-by-moment unpredictability, these scenes, which constitute at least half of Out 1, proffer, as Yvonne Rainer once said of her near-contemporaneous Lives of Performers (1972), “the spectacle of a group of people intensely involved in a kind of work, in the task of performing.”

Outside these frenzied rehearsal rooms, other key characters begin to emerge and intersect: the deaf-mute Colin (Jean-Pierre Léaud), who receives cryptic missives about the existence of “the Thirteen”; the milk-drinking café habitué and purloiner Frédérique (Juliet Berto), who discovers an even more malevolent sect; Pauline aka Émilie (Bulle Ogier), proprietor of a head shop called the Corner of Chance, which doubles as the HQ for shadier operations; and Sarah (Bernadette Lafont), summoned back to Paris by Thomas after several months of living in seaside exile. Conspirators are revealed, subplots braid and unravel, pseudonyms are adopted and abandoned, characters speak backward, the screen intermittently fades to black, and the whole cine-marathon ends abruptly in a salute to both wisdom and bafflement.

Or, as Rivette himself said of this unequaled project, “the fiction swallows everything up and then self-destructs.” As a spectator, I also found myself devoured by Out 1, which dictated my diurnal activities for most of last week. But the experience, rather than annihilating, proved reinvigorating, a reminder of the rewards of succumbing totally to a work that breaks and remakes all preconceived notions of what it means to watch.

Out 1: Noli me tangere, in its world theatrical premiere run, screens at BAMcinématek November 4–19.