Histoire de Marie et Julien: Jacques Rivette's Material Ghost Story
by Michael J. Anderson
Senses of Cinema
There is no such thing as morality in the films of Jacques Rivette. Nor could there be, given the particular logic that dictates the narrative structure of his films, namely that everything 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 post-war 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. Yet, unlike a figure such as Cocteau whose adoption of this technique can be understood in terms of a Surrealist critique of traditional moral codes and their rational basis, Rivette's assimilation of a similar idiom instead corresponds to a manifest interest in the narrative process. In this way, then, the work of Rivette is hermetic in its neglect of anything that might exist beyond the immediate contours of the film's fictional universe.
In the septuagenarian director and former critic's latest work, Histoire de Marie et Julien (Story of Marie and Julien) (2003), the ubiquitous presence of fiction moves beyond mere formal matrix, however, to become the actual subject of the art. The film surely represents a dissection of the process of fiction which is particular to cinematic art. Indeed, Rivette's narrative is shaped by a consideration of the three discrete stages of filmic creation: the conception of the idea (pre-production), its actualisation (production) and its final molding through the process of editing (post-production). Thus, Histoire de Marie et Julien is a film about filmmaking, which one is tempted to read nevertheless in terms broader than pure didacticism, which is to say a film that teaches its viewer about the nature of the art form. To be sure, Rivette's is a work that cues its audience to consider not only the creative layers of the process of narration, but also the creator's place within this construction, which naturally implies Rivette's function in the creation of this specific film. Hence, it would not be unreasonable to attach the tag of “personal” to Histoire de Marie et Julien given both the narrative's recourse to referencing the creator in the process of creation, and also the director's biography. Following a cineaste's education in Parisian cinemas during the late 1940s and early 1950s, Rivette wrote and later served as editor of Cahiers du cinéma (June 1963 to April 1965) before devoting himself full-time to filmmaking; in other words, he has spent the bulk of his adult life devoted to the medium.
Before commencing an examination of Rivette's rhetoric in Marie et Julien, it does need stating that a traditional analysis which details the plot and characterisations utilised in the narrative is of little use in talking about Rivette's film. Such accountings generally rely on the logic of causality and psychological penetrability which are both utterly inimical to Histoire de Marie et Julien. Ultimately, the film is an exceptionally complex one that offers its viewer a cogent exposition of the nature of filmic narrative that a recapitulation of plot and character would in no way illuminate. Thus, rather than tracing these elements of the film, the subsequent analysis will instead consider the more relevant exigencies of Rivette's thought as explicated by the form of his art. Certainly, Histoire de Marie et Julien is a work of substantial abstraction that demands of its audience both their active participation and also an eye to the manner in which the elaboration of narrative serves the discursive purposes of its author. The following, then, is less a straight recapitulation of plot and character than it is an introduction to the basic discourses at work in one of Rivette's most important (and difficult) films.
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