I have not read deeply into Jacques Rivette’s politics (obviously left, and, in a film like 1981’s Pont du Nord, apparently registering disillusionment with what came of the post-1968 French left). But in finally seeing the complete version of Rivette’s Out 1 (co-directed with Suzanne Schiffman, often referred to as Out 1: noli me tangere) last weekend, I was struck by how this film thematizes the tension at its center (between its statuses as cinema and as filmed improvisatory theater), and specifically how it makes that tension a symbol of a certain ambivalence toward politics: between politics as located in the personal and deliberate (the stuff of conspiracies, and conspiratorial parties resembling theatrical troupes) and politics as located in impersonal, principally economic, forces (whose automation may be intervened in, just as a film’s spinning reels can be edited, but whose spinning runs on its own, according to laws).
(I earlier remarked on how Matías Piñeiro’s films can be understood as treating competition between artistic media, especially film and theater, as symbolic of romantic competition, and that connection was very much on my mind in seeing Out 1. I should add here that there are spoilers below.)
Watching the complete film (exceptionally long, historically unavailable) is itself like an initiation into a conspiracy of the sort that Colin, played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, deciphers and, almost despite himself, enters. Just as among the film’s peculiar pleasures is keeping track of its characters and their connections across episodes, among the peculiar pleasures of seeing it in a theater is keeping track of who else is there, who comes and goes across hours. (The film is at least as much concerned with eliciting acknowledgement of the rest of the audience, or thoughts of what may be going on with them, as anything horrific or pornographic.) And just as the film wants to blend our notions of conspiracy and theater, as though something in the nature of theater must be hidden or conspiratorial, our initiation into Out 1 is equally into something like theater: we share and come to know the spaces occupied by the theatrical troupes rehearsing Aeschylus (connected by their association with the conspiracy of the Thirteen); our endurance mirrors their endurance.
This all buttresses expectations of something revolutionary, of some deep revelation to come, but the film disappoints that. (It also thematizes that disappointment.) After several hours, plots emerge, and move incrementally, but they end with nothing more ecstatic or millennial than Thomas’s crying hysterically on the beach. (Even Fredérique’s ill-fated sabotaging of Renaud, the most dramatic scene in the film, is mostly bathetic.) We learn from the conversation between Etienne and Thomas that the Thirteen was never really operative (whatever that means). We learn from the conversation between Lucie and Warok that the Thirteen may have been just a game (but then why were there lives at stake?), and that Colin has less unraveled the game than unwittingly perpetuated it. And we learn something about what it is for film to approach theater asymptotically. But that it could only ever be asymptotic presents its own disappointments.
Nevertheless, our disappointment at the end of the film should be as divided as any of the ambivalences the film registers (between film and theater, between personal and impersonal conceptions of politics). In the end, Out 1 is both film and filmed theater, and it takes seriously the dread of conspiracy theories while at the same time going deeper than that dread: there might indeed be something happening among the colorful and brightly dressed persons before us (however inscrutable that may be); but that would not even be visible if not for the darker and impersonal forces behind us.