Credit: Criterion
by Daniel Gorman Featured Film Kicking the Canon

Noroît | Jacques Rivette

May 10, 2021

The French New Wave has long been the go-to introductory movement for burgeoning cinephiles. Unlike other, more loosely-defined national “waves,” it has reasonably delineated boundaries, organized around the Cahiers group on the one hand and the Left Bank offshoot on the other. Most importantly, its earliest and best-known films are, and have been, largely available in various home video formats for years. But once one graduates beyond the Breathless/400 Blows/Hiroshima mon Amour trifecta, La Nouvelle Vague expands in fascinating, harder to quantify ways. Godard’s post-1968 work with the Dziga Vertov group was almost entirely inaccessible for years, as were important works by Varda, Rohmer, and Chabrol. One could even consider these works a kind of parallel, phantom oeuvre.

Other than some tangential figures and fellow travelers, like Eustache and Pialat, it’s arguable that no major filmmaker was as unknown and underrepresented as Jacques Rivette. That’s finally changed, thankfully; Out 1, that great cinephilic white whale that inspired cult-like devotion even sight-unseen, eventually saw a limited theatrical release in 2015, with a Blu-ray edition following soon after. Even more obscure, and equally hard to see, was Rivette’s follow up to Out 1, a duology consisting of Duelle and Noroît, both released in 1976. They’re a fascinating pair, and as they were conceived of and shot back-to-back, it’s hard to talk about one and not the other. Rivette originally envisioned a tetralogy of films, a series alternately titled Les Filles du Feu (Girls of Fire) or, Scene de la Vie Parrallele (Scenes From a Parallel Life), of which only part II, Duelle, and part III, Noroît, were actually filmed and released (filming started on part I, Marie et Julien, but was quickly abandoned due to Rivette’s poor health and “nervous exhaustion”; part IV never began production). As Mary Wiles describes it, each film in the series “was to have represented a different genre — a love story (Marie et Julien), a fantastical thriller (Duelle), a western (Noroît), and a musical comedy.”

While Duelle certainly fits the bill as as a fantastical, noir-tinged thriller, with warring sun and moon goddesses and a missing persons case acting as a throughline, Noroît is an altogether different beast, arguably the strangest, least immediately accessible film Rivette ever made. Ostensibly an adaptation of Cyril Tourneur’s 1607 play The Revenger’s Tragedy, Noroît finds Rivette and co-writers Marilù Parolini and Eduardo de Gregorio molding that text into an ode to Jean Cocteau and his planned (but never realized) staging of Claude Debussy’s opera Pélleas et Mélisande. Wiles suggests that Noroît is actually Rivette’s posthumous completion of Cocteau’s final project, as well as a nod to Antonin Artaud, who admired Tourneur’s play. There are indeed elements of the classical western in Noroît as well, which Jonathan Rosenbaum has compared to Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious, another tale of double crosses, subterfuge, and revenge. But Noroît most obviously draws inspiration from Lang’s Moonfleet, which Rivette and other Cahiers critics championed when the film was released in France in 1960.

Taking place entirely within a fortress-like castle and the surrounding environs, Noroît is a twisty, complicated, sometimes incomprehensible tale, in which Morag (Geraldine Chaplin), mourning the death of her brother, swears vengeance upon the pirate queen Giulia (Bernadette Lafont) and her gang. Erika (Kika Markham), Morag’s friend and ally, has infiltrated Giulia’s group and gained their trust, managing to convince Giulia to hire Morag as a bodyguard. Meanwhile, Giulia’s lovers Ludovico (Larrio Ekson) and Jacob (Humbert Balsan) are secretly hunting for Giulia’s stash of buried treasures, looted from ships during their various raids. It’s a lot of story, only some of which is readily explicable even in broad strokes. But as Wiles writes, “the story of Noroît is prismatic, as it is informed by multiple intertextual sources,” and while it coheres to Aristotelian dramatic form, i.e. “a beginning, a climax, and a conclusion,” the “intersection of theater and opera styles disturbs stable signification, leaving moments of incoherence in the construction of meaning.” In other words, it doesn’t always make sense, by design. Rivette isn’t interested in deconstruction here, or at least not exactly. Instead, Duelle and Noroît are both a kind of expansion, rewiring and tweaking genre tropes to create a new kind of space, and the latter particularly is a film to wander around and get lost in, a mysterious journey where traditional narrative boundaries collapse into a series of movements and gestures that are searching for… something.

Rivette’s filmography is, of course, closely aligned with experimental theater techniques as well as elaborate conspiracy plots, both of which play prominent parts in Noroît. William Lubtchansky’s camera is constantly realigning and shifting during scenes, where a shot might begin on two characters before slowly panning to the left or right to reveal others within the frame. There are a lot of complicated but subtle dolly movements, creating an uneasy sense of instability. Sword fights and fisticuffs become dances, as performers eschew verisimilitude and instead resort to pantomiming the actions. As waves crash along the rocky shoreline outside Giulia’s castle hideout, a series of discrete dramas play out inside its walls, frequently leading to murder. It’s a strange, beguiling film, one which constantly threatens to go off the rails before righting itself again. Rivette conjures a unique alchemy here, constantly surprising the audience with his audacity. Chaplin is a revelation, her long limbs and stern features cutting like a knife against the laid-back, sultry Lafont. Rivette has always had a way with actresses; that they register here more than the men is certainly by design. Like a dark flip side to Céline and Julie Go Boating, by far his most joyous film, Noroît scrambles and reassembles theatrical conventions into an almost nightmarish vision of female fury. It’s not entirely surprising that Noroît drove Rivette into an exhausted state; as the film eventually disintegrates into a startling mix of red filters, jerky editing, and ghostly black-and-white handheld footage, it’s as if the movie itself is breaking down before our very eyes. It’s endlessly compelling, a magisterial work of boundless imagination and dark, mysterious incantations.

Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.