On January 29, 2016 renowned filmmaker Jacques Rivette, who had been suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, died. In memory of his great career, I determined to use my coincidental order of one of his most controversial films from Netflix, Histoire de Marie et Julien, as a way to address some of the issues the critics had found irritating and incomprehensible about this work.
No one is quite likeable in Jacques Rivette’s 2003 film, The Story of Marie and Julien. Julien (Jerzy Radziwiƚowicz) is a blackmailer, and Madame X (Anne Brochet), the woman he is blackmailing, has defrauded her public, declaring that the Chinese fabrics she sells are antique, when in fact they are recent imitations; she is also suspected of having killed her sister.
The two other women in this tale, Marie (Emmanuelle Béart) and Adrienne (Bettina Kee) are ghosts haunting Julien and Madame X, the later recognizing, obviously, that her sister is a revenant, while Julien seems not to have a clue about Marie. Having committed suicide, both these women cannot cross over and are doomed to return to the corrupt world they had hoped to leave; both of these characters also had terrible relationships with those they loved.
Even Julien’s cat, Nevermore, is unfriendly and “condescending” to human beings, as Madame X, a cat lover, describes it. Indeed “Nevermore,” it is hinted, may have been Julien’s former lover’s cat; its attention is constantly turning to another floor of Julien’s house, where the woman left behind her clothes and possessions when she ran away with another man. At one point, the cat betrays Julien by showing Marie where he has hidden the documents key to blackmailing Madame X.
Rivette’s is a fallen world, in other words, wherein characters, living and dead, are forced to pay for their evil deeds and must work in the present to correct their pasts. It is no accident that Julien is a master restorer of old clocks, a man dedicated to “fixing” time. But as his cat’s name hints, the past can never truly be restored.
As Michael J. Anderson has correctly argued in an essay in Senses of Cinema (July 2004): Rivette’s films are devoid of morality. Nor could there be, given that most of what is contained therein belongs to the category of fiction. In this way, Rivette has preserved a tradition in French film that commenced with Georges Méliès, achieved maturity in the serials of Louis Feuillade, and reached its apogee in the postwar work of Jean Cocteau. Like these forebears, Rivette avoids neat delineation between fact and fiction, and dream and reality, opting rather for a universe in which all thoughts, actions, and events maintain the same degree of verisimilitude.
Unlike Anderson, however, I do not read this film primarily as a statement about filmmaking but, rather, about how any creator of fiction works toward a representation that remains meaningful to lived experience. In the Story of Marie and Julien Rivette interweaves various cinematic and literary sources—the director purposely references some of his own previous films and the movies The Sixth Sense and The Others, as well Poe and Celtic myth— in an attempt to bring his fictional characters into life. Like a collagist, he struggles to transform what he clearly reveals is a pastiche of fictional tropes into a moving tale wherein his fantastical and not very loveable figures might become human enough to care about and even love. Just as his fallen beings must find their way to love and forgiveness, so does Rivette, as an artist, attempt to win our appreciation of love for his own creation. And, in that sense, he too becomes a kind of restorer of time, a man who can bring various cinematic and literary images back into our own realities.
He first attempted to realize this film in 1975, but stopped shooting after only a few days because of a physical and mental breakdown. Accordingly his decision to return to the subject in 2003 was a true test of his faith in his ability to transform the artifice of his fictional characters into figures that might mean something to his audiences.
Rivette purposely reminds us that this is a fiction, and that his actors are actors delivering “lines,” often permitting them to utter overly-long monologues in the kind of flat monotone of voice that we might associate with the New York School poets of the 1960s and 70s, when it seemed “uncool” to show too much emotion.
Julien, particularly, pads around his shabby castle with the look of a slightly corpulent beast, cleaning off his dinner table by brushing the crumbs to the floor and then sweeping them away with a broom. There is a purposeful laziness even to his work-time activities, which perhaps explains why he cannot be convinced to travel elsewhere to fix clocks as one his former clients asks him to do. His laziness may also explain why he is determined to blackmail Madame X, when even she recognizes that he’s not the “blackmailing type.” We too wonder how a man so gentle with his cat and caring with his clocks can be involved in such a dirty act. He clearly wants the easy money, and when Madame X does not obey his rules, he almost arbitrarily demands ten times the amount he has originally asked. Does he really care whether she really comes through? And what might he do in retaliation if she does not?
The beautiful ghost Marie may attract him, but Rivette suggests that she may be dangerous in the film’s first moments: he dreams of her turning on him with a knife. When, soon after, he actually does run into her, she proposes a meeting at a local café but does not show up. And when she reappears, inviting him to dinner, she moves out of her apartment the very next morning while he sleeps in her bed.
Rivette further confounds realistic conventions by portraying Madame X as a graceful and rather forgiving victim. She appears to be almost relieved to have to pay for her lies, even if she objects to Julien’s sudden upping of the ante. And throughout she seems slightly sympathetic to her blackmailer.
Surely it is not accidental that Madame X doesn’t have a real name (and, when Marie becomes involved in the blackmail scheme and comes to be known as “the other person.”)
The director goes out of his way, finally, to clarify that his presentation of the “real” world is a manipulated one. He literarily divides his film into sections that point to the narrative relationship of his characters. At several times throughout the film, the ambient noise of the bars and cafés suddenly goes quiet, only soon after to return. Lighting shifts from natural to theatrical. Costumes often reflect the characters state of being, drawing attention to their artiface, particularly when Marie attempts to try on some of the ill-fitting clothes Julien’s former lover has left behind. With regard to Marie, costuming becomes even a topic of conversation, with Julien promising to buy her a new robe as soon as the blackmail money comes in; he later gives it to her as a present.
Rivette signals Brecht as he keeps the audience in a suspension of disbelief. Yet, I would argue, he does this not to engage a meta-critique of filmmaking, but rather as a test of his audience’s willingness to believe in his characters.
It would be difficult in any Rivette film, to name all of his sources. But here, as many critics have noted, we see numerous elements of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), a film that also features unlikeable characters: a failed police detective, a secretary having an affair with a murderer, and the murderer himself (even the judge in Vertigo is quite despicable in his lecturing of Scottie after Madeline’s supposed death). Like Vertigo, moreover, the characters are given a chance to redeem themselves, but fail once again.
Similarly, Rivette references several of Cocteau’s films, notably Orphée (1950), with its constant shifts between life and death, and Beauty and the Beast (1946), with its improbable pairing of opposing characters (with Julien even declaring, at film’s end, that Marie is not at all his “type”). Like that fable, Rivette’s film begins in the “forest,” in a scene that appears to have been shot in the Bois de Boulogne.
One of the most significant of literary references is Julien’s mention of Bluebeard, Perreault’s tale about a man who has killed several of his wives before marrying a woman very much like Marie. And indeed, as Marie attempts to uncover her lover’s past by going through the possessions of his former lover, we have the sense of going from room to room, as in the original tale, with fresh revelations of his bastardly deeds. Although we later discover that she is merely using these closed-off rooms to recreate her own dark past, it does not alter the fact that Julien has never revealed why his previous lover so suddenly fled his company that she took none of her possessions with her.
The only times throughout this long film that Rivette’s characters seem believable is during sexual encounters — even as they play fantastical verbal games built on literary and sadomasochistic fantasies. It is only at those moments, which so many actors find the most difficult to portray, that they are truly able to express themselves.
By film’s end, Julien is ready to join his Marie in suicide. Yet strangely, she saves him from her own fate by pulling down a noose before he can place it around his neck and, soon after, grabbing a knife out of his hands. With a magical gesture — and one must admit, an absurdly artificial gesture right out of Orphée — she forces him to forget her very existence.
But in that forgetfulness, she becomes less of a symbol and more of a three-dimensional being, one who must win love as we all must. Observing him now asleep and oblivious to their past, she weeps, her tears transforming a previous bloodless injury into “real” blood: the ghost come back to life.
Waking from what seemed to be a dream, Julien cannot imagine who she is and, as mentioned above, declares she is not his type, in response to which, she simply asks for him to give her a little time. As the screen blackens, Blossom Dearie belts out her jazz standard “Our Day Will Come.”
Whether or not you believe that their day will come depends on how you’ve responded to what’s gone before. Rivette predicted that his film would be a matter of personal opinion: “This I know in advance — whether it is good or not, some people will love it and others will hate it.” Some will surely remain cynical, bored, and disappointed. I say, yes, the characters are now real enough that I believe in the myth Rivette’s art has created. For me, his test of faith has proven him right.