Rivette is noted (some detractors might say notorious) for his slow pacing and low-key style, and this film is no exception (it runs almost 2 and a half hours). So whether you will like this film depends very much on whether you like that approach; speaking for myself I like this film very much because Rivette gives you time to absorb the atmosphere and get to know the characters. But if you saw (and disliked) some of the director's earlier available works (such as La Belle Noiseuse and Va Savoir) then rest assured you probably won't like this one much either.
One problem with reviewing this film is that it's really better to see it without foreknowledge of the story, as much of the impact is lessened if you know what is coming. Suffice to say that not everything is as it seems (the film starts out with a fairly mundane blackmail plot), and that Rivette conjurs a disturbing ambience that gradually and almost imperceptibly creeps into the film. Both lead actors (Emmanuelle Beart and Jerzy Radziwilowicz) are superb as they carry the film for 90% of its running time (there are a couple of other characters who are key to the plot but make only fleeting appearances).
The DVD presentation by Artificial Eye is good, with the film presented in its correct aspect ratio and a couple of interesting supplements featuring interviews with Rivette and Emmanuelle Beart (these do reveal significant plot points so are probably best seen after the film).
We learn nothing of Marie, but we slowly discover Julien. He is a clock repairer - old clocks, big clocks. His hands - butcher's hands - are always dirty, his house is dominated by clutter and chaos. Yet he strives to make things run like clockwork. He also dabbles in blackmail - we are left wondering about his darker side, wondering how it is that he can manipulate his victim so blatantly.
But Julien invites Marie into his idiosyncratic world. It's a bachelor world - he's shared it with at least one woman before, but the only influence she's had on him is negligible ... and now forgotten. Some of her clothes remain in a wardrobe, some of her cosmetics are in a bathroom cabinet: her existence is shut away behind closed doors, archived in Julien's past.
Marie sets about the transformation of a spare room, imposing her identity on it and signifying her entry into his world. She empties the wardrobe and bathroom cabinet of evidence of Julien's earlier relationship and quickly establishes herself as his accomplice in the blackmail sideline.
But she remains a mystery figure, elusive, a young woman prone to dissolving into a trancelike state - capable even of walking out and abandoning him when the mood seizes her. She rapidly becomes the centre of his life, but we are never certain whether he remains peripheral to hers ... or precisely what it is she wants from him. The mystery gradually deepens.
Jacques Rivette directs this film with astonishing magnanimity. His presence is almost anonymous as Emmanuelle Béart and Jerzy Radziwilowicz are allowed to dominate the screen and stamp their personalities on the narrative. The film, however, is typical Rivette - slow moving, lyrically erotic, embracing naturalistic sounds and effects, yet with tantalising use of fantasy and enigma.
It's a long film - nearly two and a half hours. Its long, lyrical silences are fascinating enough, but you wonder if it could not have been cut by thirty minutes without losing anything. However, despite its urban setting, it is a film which creates an almost pastoral sense of tranquillity: indeed, this sense of tranquillity, this sense of any lack of urgency heightens the amorality of Julien's blackmail, and makes the tensions in his relationship with Marie so much more human. He's a tolerant man, a patient man, a man who understands the measure of time, a man who is not in any hurry. But time, we will discover, is of the essence of the story.
Delightful, relaxing film with a couple of entertaining extras served up on the DVD. There is an enjoyable interview with Emmanuelle Béart, and an intriguing one with Rivette - who seems quite intolerant and dismissive of the interviewer at times, and who appears to view the need to provide 'extras' as an insult to his art and invasion of his time.
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