A condensed take on some of Rivette’s most imposing ‘mountains’.
If ‘all the world’ is indeed a stage, Jacques Rivette is one of its pre-eminent players. The French title of his new film, Around a Small Mountain, translates as 36 Views of Pic Saint Loup, a small limestone ridge in the Languedoc appellation of Southern France. For all I know, there may be thirty-six shots of the ridge in the film, but I prefer to think that the titular mountain is one Rivette has circled many times in his career: his thematic preoccupation with the inseparability of life and art.
Around a Small Mountain is a condensed take on perspectives that have produced some of Rivette’s most imposing mountains, including one of my all-time favourites, La Belle Noiseuse (1991). Traversing these terrains is no mean feat, partly due to their inaccessibility. Some of his films, such as the monumental Out One (1971), are very elusive, and even if one manages to track them down, they invariably require serious preparation and commitment from those inclined to scale their heady heights. But if a stroll over soft hills is more your pace, Around a Small Mountain is a delightful variation of Rivette, in miniature.
The film tells the tale of Vittorio (Sergio Castellitto), a traveller (seemingly unconcerned with trivialities such as money) who grafts himself onto a company of circus performers in the hope of making a deeper connection with Kate (Jane Birkin), one of its recently returned members. The opening scene (shot in a single take) establishes what could be one of the primary themes of the film: directorial presence. Kate’s car has stalled. Vittorio drives by in his sports car. She signals to him for help, but he speeds by. Moments later he returns, tinkers with the engine, then drives off without uttering a word. Kate, grateful but bemused, resumes her journey. This scene encapsulates the narrative and thematic trajectory of the film, where the circus can be seen as cinema, the troupe as actors, the circus tent as poorly attended art-cinema screenings, and Vittorio as the ‘tinkerer under the hood’—the director.
In Around a Small Mountain, Rivette allegorically aligns himself (his own art and cinema in general) with the humble tradition of the circus, travelling players who dust off their costumes and crank up their routines in every new town. In many respects, this late-career film by one of cinema’s most revered masters echoes earlier masterworks, significantly reduced in scale, but all the more resonant for it. The film expresses the pensive melancholy of an artist, now in his 80s, looking back. A tender film with a surprising soul-bearing candidness, it’s easy to dismiss Rivette’s whimsical elegy as an uncharacteristic diversion, but as one reflects on this Autumnal charmer, the more one senses its poignancy. This is a Rivette film after all, the work of an artist with a remarkably consistent, highly individual thematic language. Now I have another title to add to my list of Rivette films that need to be tracked down, viewed, then viewed again.