As it might be if Harper Lee or Thomas Pynchon ambled out of seclusion and made appearances at bookstores and literary conferences, the world theatrical premiere of Out 1: Noli me Tangere, Jacques Rivette’s fictional, improvisational, 12.5-hour wonderwork, now screening screening at BAM, is not simply a coming-out party. It’s also the world being allowed in, the void both filled in and thrust out, inside and out becoming something else.
Since its quasi-premiere at Le Havre in 1971, screened from a 16mm work print, Noli me Tangere’s notoriety (and article headlines) have generally rested on two points: its hefty running time and, by contrast, the few souls that have seen it. Rivette considered bringing it to television as a mini-series, but when French TV snubbed him and other options dried up, the colossus fell into mythic obscurity, occasionally resurfacing at festivals to esoteric fanfare. Years later a trimmed and primped four-hour version was released, Out 1: Spectre.
But Noli me Tangere (Latin, appropriately, for “touch me not”) remained phantasmal — and sought after. As Stephen Bowie wryly notes, screenings of it are often mentioned in the same awesome tone as fabled rock concerts: that time in Le Harvre; Rotterdam in ’89; a spot on French cable TV; London in 2006 — for the first time with English subtitles — and over the pond to Queens. Noli me Tangere screenings have their Tangere-heads: jet-setting critics and cinephiles who have pilgrimaged to London and flocked to New York, selling out shows at the Museum of the Moving Image.
Time and audience have a charmed relationship with the film: for decades only a select few possessed the means to define so monumental, so bewitching a work. The position of the film critic, often privileged, has seldom looked so much like that of a secret society, and rarely so felicitously.
Out 1: Noli me Tangere follows two theater ensembles, each of them practicing a different Aeschylus play (Prometheus Bound and Seven Against Thebes); a deaf-mute–cum–sleuth (played by François Truffaut alter ego and New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Léaud); and a sloppy con artist (Juliet Berto). Independently, the latter two catch wind of a peculiar conspiracy, a plot that seems to further connect the theater companies. Parallels, mirrors, alter egos, double lives, and repetitions abound throughout the film, insinuations of a slightly — and therefore radically — alternative life lurking beneath the surface, if only you could find it. Made in the long afterglow of May 1968, the film may be a lament to the lost revolution or an evocation of the ’70s utopian spirit. Or both — a kind of fictional palimpsest of its age.
Little of this is apparent in the first two episodes. (The film is broken into eight episodes. For its presentation, BAM is screening the “cycle” in sessions of two episodes each night over two weeks and as a two-day packet on the weekends.) Most of their nearly four hours is dedicated to the two ensembles’ practices: experimental, communal exercises meant for themselves, first and foremost. There are many long scenes of yawping, squirming, and moaning men and women, followed by postmortems of what they took away. It’s a singular form of patience testing, moving at a pace and with a texture unique to itself (and a dash of the documentary films of its time). It strains not truth but fiction, prompting questions like: how long can they go on acting like that? Rivette employed a mobile 16mm camera and an improvisational style — all of the action and lines are improvised, working off of a diagram Rivette drew. (An open way of working perhaps mirrored in the movie by the Seven Against Thebes ensemble, which uses a diagram of wavy lines to guide to its production.)
From this plotless start, the narrative thickens, slowly expanding in intrigue and suggestions, particularly as the aforementioned conspiracy emerges — a shaggy dog tale propelled by stolen letters, Honoré de Balzac’s The History of the Thirteen series, and Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark.” Eventually, the movie grows until “the fiction swallows everything up and then self-destructs,” as Rivette describes it.
Moment by moment, Out 1: Noli me Tangere engenders a shadow reality, a parallel plane that’s always there but can’t last for long in the open. The experience of watching this long, enigmatic process unfold has more than once been described in drug or mind-altering terms, which isn’t necessarily unwarranted or wrong, although it can sound overly revelatory. Take Richard Roud, writing in the Guardian:
A mind-blowing experience, but one which, instead of taking one “out of this world‟ as the expression has it, took one right smack into the world. Or into a world which one only dimly realised was there—always right there beneath the everyday world…the cinema will never be the same again, and nor will I.
A more accurate metaphor for watching the film might be found in language, however — especially the experience of learning a new one. This is closer to describing Rivette’s achievement: the epochal moment when words cohere out of a bundle of characters, meaning forms, and a new way to view and define the world opens up.
With subsequent screenings scheduled after its run at BAM and the release of a limited-edition box set, Out 1: Noli me Tangere will soon be fully out in the world, the holy grail found. What a strange world it would be in which Out 1 becomes just another art house film, albeit a long one, sitting on the shelf. As its audience (comparatively) swells, it’s interesting to wonder: what will change more, Out 1 or us?