by Allan Fish
(France 1976 121m) not on DVD
Aka. Duelle – une quarantaine
The Fairy Godmother
p Stéphane Tchalgadjieff d Jacques Rivette w Eduardo de Gregorio, Marilu Parolini ph William Lubtchansky ed Nicole Lubtchansky m none art Eric Simon
Bulle Ogier (Viva), Juliet Berto (Leni), Jean Babilée (Pierrot), Hermine Karagheuz (Lucie), Nicole Garcia (Jeanne/Elsa), Claire Nadeau (Sylvia Stern),
Imagine if you will that you are in a dream state akin to cine-heaven. Imagine you are being directed around by a guide not dissimilar to the cloaked figure in Sokurov’s Russian Ark and deep within this cinematic Hermitage there is a rather neglected annex marked ‘JR’. Here we enter the world of Jacques Rivette, and it’s not a world we enter in the normal fashion. Next door is the world of Jean Cocteau, accessed by incanting “L’oiseau Chanté avec ses doigts” until you are able to glide through the mirror that forms the seemingly impassable doorway. Your guide hands you some funny looking coloured sweets and, upon sucking on one for a few seconds, the walls part and you enter. It’s a magical world, like an infinite variation of a playhouse, populated by adults. One half expects to see Siouxsie Sioux singing ‘Happy House’ in her inimitable fashion and harlequin costume. Within said annex we come to a door. It’s locked. No-one can go inside. We see Jean-Pierre Léaud outside searching for the Thirteen, Michel Piccoli paints Emmanuelle Béart au naturel in the corner and Sandrine Bonnaire is being prepared behind a screen for her martyrdom.
For a long time now cineastes have believed that Rivette’s Out 1 is his sangrail, the film glimpsed so infrequently and whispered of as a work of art to match any in the twentieth century. His Céline et Julie a few years later would be acclaimed as his magnum opus and still features strongly in best film lists to this day. But can it be true, can it be possible, that it was all just a little game? That it wasn’t either the endless rehearsal of Out 1 or the alternate realities accessed by magical confectionary of Céline that was his film to seek out above all others? Duelle is not listed in virtually any major film book, from film guides to the mighty tomes of the critical elite, it’s disappeared like one of its ethereal protagonists. Maybe Rivette is his own Keyser Soze, and the greatest trick he ever pulled was making you think Duelle didn’t exist. One hesitates to say too much about the plot of Duelle – it can be fatal you know – and I’ll limit myself to saying it’s about the search for the magical Fairy Godmother crystal by two vengeful Gods who want to wreak havoc on the earth all the year round rather than be phantoms a mere 40 days a year. Gods and humans alike seek the stone, and many die, Malory-like, in the attempt.
There are essences of numerous films before and since, and though the majority are from Rivette’s own oeuvre, those who have seen Harry Kumel’s Malpertuis will have the advantage of everyone else. Fans of Antonioni will also find much to appreciate, not least in a final showdown on a grassy park not dissimilar to one immortalised in Blow-Up. The Fairy Godmother stone is both a MacGuffin to end them all and the very meaning of existence itself. Or else it is nothing, for that’s what Duelle is about really; everything and nothing. About the reduction of everything to a state where two plus two is no longer four and all the walls of time and space collapse. The two rival goddesses are Queen Mabs of the mind, trying to extend their existence from one reality to another, and it’s appropriate that they are played – and played is the right word, for all the world’s a magical playground for Rivette – by two of his mainstays, Bulle Ogier and Juliet Berto. Ogier in particular is hard to forget, a Mab in androgynous modern dress, slinking around like a malnourished baroque vampire. It’s impossible to describe for those not in the know, but its effect is symbolised in the new moon, like a cinematic Stonehenge aligned directly to be lit by the rising moon not on a Salstice, but on the first full moon in spring. Even now, writing after seeing it again, one expects to wake up still; there is no Duelle. It doesn’t exist, a dream described like those in the film, aquariums in the night.