Jacques Rivette's work is unusual because it evokes the uncanny by slightly skewing ordinary reality. Rather than emphasizing surreal, disorienting imagery, his scenes usually play out at a leisurely pace, allowing the actors to embrace strange idiosyncrasies and expand upon them. L'Amour Fou is often cited as the beginning of this trend, the moment where (after the restrained adaptation of La Religieuse) Rivette began to let his freak flag fly. For a while, the underseen film was generally positioned as his breakthrough but many more recent reviews generally peg L'Amour Fou as a transitional project in which Rivette works his way toward the themes and approaches he will pursue in his subsequent magnum opus, the thirteen-hour Out 1 (which was even more rarely seen than L'Amour Fou until 2007). I don't entirely agree with either interpretation since the director's debut, Paris Belongs to Us, already presents Rivette's vision fairly intact if not quite fully-formed. However, the director's experimental approach to L'Amour Fou was a bold new step for Rivette, building upon playful improvisation and mixed media rather than a solidified screenplay.
Like Paris Belongs to Us (and Out 1) L'Amour Fou contains scenes of eerie power relying more on montage and music than long takes and ambient sound (Rivette's usual method). In this case, Claire (Bulle Ogier) shimmers luminously in close-up, pressed against the tropical wallpaper as she casually lacerates her husband Sebastien (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) with accusations of infidelity. Rivette's quick cuts navigate between the fluttering fingers and nervous eyelids of Claire and the manic monotony of Sebastien, loudly beating his drum in an attempt to provide an indifferent score for Claire's (perhaps not-so-paranoid) suspicions. It's a peak moment but like Rivette's other early works, L'Amour Fou also has its longueurs. After two viewings I'm still not sure how valuable they are to the overall texture. His films are always about the highs and lows, the frustration and elation involved in chasing the tail of a perhaps imagined mystery - but this time the balance isn't quite so solid. Many scenes feel slight rather than suggestive, like seeds that haven't quite sprouted. If these impressions leave me ambivalent, however, the ideas surrounding them grow richer and more rewarding the deeper one digs.
The film is structured (more tightly than we may initially suspect) around two narrative poles, to which our two protagonists are pinned. Sebastien's world is anchored in his direction of the endless, meandering, and seemingly disintegrating rehearsals of Jean Racine's Andromaque. This process is followed, with increasing frustration and decreasing interaction, by a 16mm TV documentary crew (whose handheld footage is intriguingly interwoven with the more removed and formally-polished 35mm setups and tracking shots that define most of the movie). Claire, on the other hand, withdraws further and further into her apartment-cum-private dreamland, camouflaging herself in the crazy wallpaper patterns (sometimes literally, given the loud clothes worn by her and Sebastien) and live-mixing radio stations and found noises with recordings of the play's dialogue. She only steps into public to shop for and (hilariously) almost steal a pet dog, follow her husband around with various women, and indulge in her own vaguely depressing dalliances.
These two worlds collide in the final hour of this four-hour film when Sebastien and Claire become human wrecking balls (allied to target their environment rather than each other). These separate spheres are also conjoined in the very beginning, when Claire is still an actress in the play and Sebastien grows frustrated with her performance, causing her to quit. For much of the film Claire and Sebastien are like two planets caught in different but occasionally intersecting orbits. This is appropriate given the subject of Andromaque itself. The play, based on Greek mythology, details the agonized relationships of four central characters, all of whom are doomed by unrequited desire: the unloved Greek ambassador Orestes loves Hermione, who loves her fiancee King Pyrrhus, who loves his Trojan prisoner Andromache, who still loves her dead husband (and her young, never-seen son, whose potential execution spurs the dramatic action).
Claire initially plays the part of Hermione while Sebastien has cast himself as Pyrrhus, suggesting that she must be pining after him while his attention is elsewhere. And initially the film does explore her jealousy while he flirts - and eventually sleeps - with another actress (Claire's replacement, in fact). Embued with Rivette's and Ogier's bohemian cool Claire expresses her envy through playful, edgy teases veering between cryptic and crystal-clear (listing the other actress' flattering qualities, calmly airing her suspicions at social gatherings). Flipping the cliche of the henpecked housewife, she casts her cheating husband in the role of uptight square instead of cheerful swinger. As her insecurity becomes more acute, a more surprising reversal occurs. By the end of the film, forlorn Sebastien is trying to hang on to the free-spirited Claire. By quitting the role of Hermione onstage, Claire has transformed herself into Andromache offstage.
The theatrical analogies only go so far because despite their betrayals, and the alternation of pursuer and pursued, Claire and Sebastien always appear to love one another. Hence their star-crossed romance may be even more tragic than Andromaque; mutual love isn't actually enough to bind them together given their distrust, restlessness, and miscommunication. Jonathan Rosenbaum has even intriguingly suggested that this tempestuous relationship is based on the real-life travails of Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina. Another real-life influence makes itself felt onscreen: May '68, the mass youth revolt unfolding on the streets outside this apartment the same year that L'Amour Fou was shot. The film seems to take place in the midst, or on the eve, of that fateful May, even though its story actually unfolds a few months afterwards (no month is mentioned, but the dates and days of the week - 31 days with the following 1st falling on a Friday - place its events in October '68 or February '69, most likely the former).
Unlike Out 1, in which May '68 was a recent but already receding memory, glimpsed without being grasped by all of the characters, the scent of revolution is still fresh in the air of L'Amour Fou. The opening and closing scenes frame the rest of the film as a flashback: we observe Sebastien listening to Claire's half-mad ramblings on a tape recorder in their room, while she pensively stares out a train window (recalling the eager young Maoist of Jean-Luc Godard's La Chinoise two years earlier). But it's a flashback to the immediate past, still close enough to feel like the present. Most of our time is spent accumulating tensions, moods, and energies that will pay off in that iconic climax: a gleefully destructive romp through the apartment in which Claire and Sebastien make love, dress up, scrawl all over the walls, chop down a door (their axe, unlike Jack Torrance's, temporarily forges rather than splits a marriage), smash a TV, and embrace under a bedsheet on their balcony. If Out 1 is about the fallout from May '68, L'Amour Fou is about the buildup to that moment...and the moment itself.
At the heart of the late sixties revolt, setting it apart from most previous and subsequent political movements, was the fusion of individual and social, private and public, personal and cultural revolutions. The film provides us with a perfect visual metaphor for this radicalism (especially given the sexual freedom intertwined with social change), as the couple transfer their bed out of the dark bedroom and into the light-filled, joyously messy living room. But of course the joy does not last, and the radicalism retreats, both on the screen and in the social upheaval that inspired it. Claire sits up unexpectedly to tell Sebastien that she's through having fun: she's leaving him after all. Or maybe this isn't unexpected, given the weary Sebastien's response. The last time she threatened to leave, he cut open his clothing - and skin - with a razor blade. This time he offers no protest, calling his assistant to arrange more rehearsals.
Just as the riots of that spring died down without dampening the ferment that inspired them (for years, it seems, the participants expected May to be a prologue rather than a climax), so Sebastien and Claire are thrust into action after this breakthrough/breakdown, energetic but a bit lost. Sebastien, who had grown desperate and uncommunicative while preparing his play, now throws himself back into direction as a performance approaches. To what end? The film concludes with an audience gathered, and the actors anxiously waiting backstage while Sebastien sits in his apartment and lets the phone ring. Claire, allied with one of Sebastien's actors (after earlier isolating herself from the cast and hiding away in the apartment), sends a farewell message to Sebastien and then departs on her train. Where to? She won't tell her friend, Sebastien, or us. Maybe she doesn't even know.
Will the rehearsals ever end and the true show begin? Will the train reach its destination? What is the white stage which swallows our viewpoint at the end of this film: a blank canvas awaiting our imagination, an emptiness revealing the illusion of our faith, or simply a final punctuation informing us that the desired revelation/revolution was actually experienced while we were waiting for it to begin?
A few minutes earlier, we witness perhaps the film's most effective and arresting passage, a dark, brooding reflection of the morning's bright chaos. Following an unsatisfactory fling, Sebastien rushes home. In the doorway his gaze catches Claire trembling in the corner of the bedroom, a razor in her hand, bloody gash down the side of her face. We zoom in on Sebastien's face too, alongside a photograph of Claire. Rivette cuts between these shots and black filler. We are intimate as ever with these two characters...but they are separated from one another by the montage rather than joined by the mise en scene. Claire's voice fills the soundtrack, evoking a muse's malevolent grip on her poet, Racine's desperately romantic ensemble, and Andromache's own final hope that her brief union with Pyrrhus will be enough to sustain him, and her orphaned son, through the lonely, uncertain future stretching before them.
"We're not breaking up. You'll stay with me always. The danger's from outside... we'll stay like this, keeping close, very close... we'll never go out... I'll go shopping... Milk? Do you like milk? Whisky, if you like. We'll shut ourselves in. I'll breathe with your mouth, breathe through your skin. Stay with me... don't look anywhere else... don't go back for...Why do you turn your back? You're not here... you're far away. No one sees you as I do... I don't care that you won't find anyone else. You'll always search for me. Stay with me! Turn back. Hold me! Don't look outside. Besides... there's no more light... We're alone... don't be afraid... Please... don't be afraid... don't be afraid... I've been so far away alone. Don't be afraid. I'll protect you."
For an excellent historical overview of L'Amour Fou's production, read Mary M. Wiles' review for Senses of Cinema.