Lost in the Movies: Lost Highway & Duelle (Lynch/Rivette Retrospective #5)

Lost Highway & Duelle (Lynch/Rivette Retrospective #5)

This is the fifth entry in a series covering the Lynch/Rivette retrospective at Lincoln Center, running from December 10 - 22. I attended a double feature of Lost Highway (1997) and Duelle (1977) on the evening of Friday, December 18.

There are moments in Lynch and Rivette where we suddenly "snap into" it, and in retrospect everything that happened before seems like preparation for the threshold experience. Lost Highway has many such moments (mostly featuring Robert Blake's dread-inducing Mystery Man) although having seen the film several times I've perhaps become more accustomed to them. Duelle has these moments too, and I was less prepared for them last night because I'd seen the film only once and remembered virtually nothing about it. Hence, while much of Duelle (especially the meandering first half) didn't do a lot for me, those moments were vivid reminders of why both of these artists are worth treasuring and why despite their countless differences - differences that this particular double feature highlights to near-breaking point - Lynch and Rivette feel complementary. Their films are like vehicles that take different roads (perhaps a Parisian avenue and a Californian lost highway) to reach the same destination: that sensation of dislocation in time and space where a vertiginous sense of the uncanny is triggered by decor, performance, and camera movement. The rabbit hole has opened up and we are falling or floating - it's hard to tell.

The films were paired, according to Lincoln Center's write-up, because of their noirish atmosphere (both films contain explicit tributes to various classics of the genre) and sense of the supernatural, something we have barely seen in the retrospective so far. To this we could also add the classic blonde/brunette dichotomy; a creepy penchant for slow, investigative movements across dark apartments; a mixture of absurdist comedy and terrifying solemnity in approaching the irrational; and a feeling that the human characters are caught in an inexorable, cyclical web of fate for which they nonetheless bear some psychological responsibility. Lost Highway observes convicted wife-killer Fred Madison's (Bill Pullman) inexplicable transformation into Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), a young mechanic who proceeds to fall in love with someone who may be the sister, doppelgänger, or reincarnation of Madison's dead wife Renee (Patricia Arquette). Duelle lands Viva (Bulle Ogier) and Leni (Juliet Berto), its deceptively humanlike goddesses of sun and moon (respectively), in everyday Paris where they leave a trail of corpses as they hunt for a magical diamond that will allow them to remain on earth as mortals.

Some ways into Duelle, I was convinced that Dennis Lim and Dan Sullivan were reaching when they paired these films, almost as if they were leftovers who couldn't find a place in any double feature. The problem was something I was always aware of going into the series, a quality which jumped out at me in the Eraserhead/Paris Belongs to Us double feature as well. The filmmakers arise from fairly different traditions, and use notably divergent tools which require the viewer to inhabit different mental spaces. At times this transition can be jarring, especially when it asks the audience to move from the visceral, illusionistic nature of Lynch's work - Hollywood filmmaking subverted from inside of its own forms - to the lighter, more naturalistic touch of Rivette, which found its home in the cerebral arthouse circuit of the seventies. Lost Highway ends with a series of rapid shock-cuts over close-ups before the credits roll over a speeding highway with David Bowie singing on the soundtrack. And then a half-hour later, we are in a quiet hotel room, framed in casual medium shots with a lightly tinkling piano in the background as two women chatter in a somewhat theatrical manner. There is a more than slight feeling that a waiter has mixed up the order of the courses.

It was only halfway through Duelle that I began to feel the films were connected beneath the surface. Duelle's theatrical tableaux, penetrated by a deftly moving camera, held me at a distance until another Rivette technique, disorienting cuts, came to the rescue. Specifically when Viva and Lucie (Hermine Karagheuz) are roaming around a greenhouse, and Viva starts babbling numerical nonsense ("two plus two no longer equals four"), we are swept suddenly and unexpectedly into a blue-tinted close-up of Ogier. She climbs slowly up a spiral staircase and for the first time in the movie, I was inside the picture. The following scene strongly echoes Lost Highway's opening section: as Pierrot (Jean la Babilee), with a mixture of dancer's grace and lion's prowling presence, circles Viva and blocks every exit from the tight hallway, we are instantly reminded of Fred's sinister encounters with Renee as he moves closer and closer to murder. An encounter between Elsa (Nicole Garcia) and Leni in a ballet studio calls to mind any of Fred's/Pete's mesmerized reactions to the hypnotic Mystery Man. The same could be said when Leni entraps Pierrot in a room with vivid red wallpaper (Rivette has a singular grasp of the power inherent in garish wallpaper), which also recalls Fred's assault on Dick Laurent (Robert Loggia) in the Lost Highway Hotel.

These scenes are not just connected by superficial visual or dramatic phenomena, they are linked on a  more fundamental, almost subconscious level that is hard to articulate. They are "you know them when you're in them" types of moments, and there are many more of these to come as the retrospective heads into its heady final weekend. The films are also structured between dualities, with Lost Highway immersing us in one world at a time - Fred's dark apartment and Pete's sunlit suburbia - while Duelle prefers to flip back and forth between the worlds of sun and moon. In a film I often found frustratingly oblique, these two worlds of Duelle provide a visual hook to hang onto: Leni is introduced in a moody blue hotel lobby in the middle of the night, while Viva arrives at a crowded racetrack with yellow light streaming through the windows. These qualities also provide the goddess' weakness; that blue-tinted sequence in which Pierrot traps Viva is mirrored in a later confrontation where Pierrot torments Leni by catching her in patches of light.

In these and other gestures, both Duelle and Lost Highway suggest a fluidity between their dynamic, suggestive cosmologies and the fundamental human desires and anxieties which give these mythologies their resonance. In this they are both newer and older than the genres and conventional forms they evoke on their way through their looking-glass; newer because they go much further than the supernatural plot devices, submerging us in the dreamlike rather than suggesting it from a safe distance, but older because the central myths of earlier societies - myths which were often believed as solid truth by their adherents - were precisely characterized by this interconnection between above and below. Significantly, perhaps, this is also the first time the retrospective allows a Rivette film with something like a triumphant ending. As Rivette's films draw closer and closer to the hypnagogic state they have been hinting at all along, his skepticism toward the transcendent falls away, leaving only an awe at the shimmering, jewel-like possibilities inherent in the everyday world.

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