Credit: Sony Pictures Classics
by Ayeen Forootan Featured Film Kicking the Canon Kicking the Canon

Va savoir — Jacques Rivette

February 28, 2022

If one were to name the auteur who most avidly committed to the integrity of mise-en-scène and who was always truly passionate in polemical defenses of this concept, it could be none other than the French master, Jacques Rivette. Whether throughout his career as a film critic and writer for the prestigious, game-changing Cahiers du Cinèma (for which, he wrote his well-known essay, The Age of metteurs en scène), or later when he took up the task of filmmaking himself, the notion of mise-en-scène remained the primary fascination for Rivette. (Indeed, it shouldn’t surprise that even in the opening credits of his films, he always preferred to use this title to describe his function rather than the usual term of “director.”) 2001’s Va savoir (roughly translated as Who Knows?), even given its singular style and thematic concerns, is still notably the work of an auteur, one in which the viewer can easily discern many of the concerns and interests which permeate Rivette’s filmography. Here, in a similar fashion to his heroine — Camille (played with amiability and gentleness by Jeanne Balibar), a reputable but slightly tense stage actress who returns to her hometown of Paris after three years away — Rivette likewise, whether directly or indirectly, tries to return to the world of his 1961’s Paris Belongs to Us exactly 40 years later, but now from a very different angle.

With a perpetual preoccupation and curiosity for the world of theater and the city of Paris (both as mysteries and dilemmas), Rivette begins the film with Camille and her demanding husband, director and co-actor Ugo (Sergio Castellitto), performing the famous Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello’s piece As You Want Me (Come Tu Mi Vuoi) around Europe. It gradually leads to a web of various chance encounters wherein the initial duo of Camille and Ugo find themselves in the company of former lovers or new flames: Camille finds herself reconnecting, out of both curiosity and temptation, with her pompous, intellectual ex-lover Pierre (Jacques Bonnaffé), an academic who long been working on his thesis about the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, while Ugo is drawn to a young, bright-minded library girl named Dominique (Hélène de Fougerolles) who aids him in his obsession with finding an unpublished manuscript by the 18th-century playwright Goldoni — the desire for lost or treasure-like objects is a recurring motif in Rivette’s work. In fact, with Va savoir, Rivette imbues his film’s structure with Goldoni’s comedic rhythm (which leads the couples to undergo various misunderstandings and attractions before the final resolution) as he also draws some parallels with Pirandello’s work to blur the boundaries between drama and real-life incidents — not only between life and the play, which is performed each night within the film, but making connections to another Pirandello work, Six Characters in Search of an Author. In this manner, each new character must connect to another character in order to reveal everyone’s secret affairs.

Through a very smooth and relaxed rhythm, mostly in delicate medium-shot compositions courtesy of legendary cinematographer William Lubtchansky, Rivette forms his mise-en-scène around the concrete and corporeal presences of his characters within spaces (an approach even more evident in his La belle noiseuse) who are usually captured in almost constant motion, their functional movement (ascending stairs, walking through doorways) feeling almost dance-like in effect. The director’s repeated playfulness with this motif is notable in shaping the character’s conditions; for instance, when Camille and Ugo become hilariously stuck in a revolving door or when they simultaneously open different doors at a hotel, and of course as they step on and off the stage or stir around each other as they exchange dialogues during multiple conversations. This is to say that Rivette offers keen observation of the natural choreography of his actors via various arrangements and re-arrangements of their bodies, making it easy to discern how delicate and relaxed their postural alterations are, even when simply standing side by side. During a dinner scene, Pierre’s wife, Sonia (Marianne Basler), expresses her ideas about the importance of feng shui, and it’s not a stretch to view Va savoir as Rivette’s creative attempt at approximating this philosophy with his actors’ bodies within the film’s compositions.

Certainly all of this is within our understanding of Rivette’s work at large, but what’s more surprising is that the filmmaker was 73 when he made Va savoir. That’s not because of any expected artistic diminishing at a certain age, but because this particular film is filled and fueled by a very young, fresh energy and relentless kineticism, in every regard. In fact, it’s a film that on its surface may seem much simpler or even more mainstream within Rivette’s filmography, where the cineaste’s fondness for the classic romantic comedies of, say, Howard Hawks or Ernst Lubitsch is more evident than the darker, more complex madcap modernism of his other films (Out 1Celine and Julie Go Boating, or Merry-Go-Round); the shift was indeed enough that Jonathan Rosenbaum once undervalued and criticized it as Rivette’s first “premodernist film.” But needless to say, one shouldn’t take the simplicity of Va savoir as an equivalent for an easy film. It may not be as distinctly complicated or avant-garde as his most demanding work, but it still pleases as a leisurely-paced philosophical farce, or even a decrescendo screwball comedy that inspects the manners and behaviors of an upper-middle-class group of people who, foremost, seem to be in pursuit of ascension from their absurdist cocoons: the recurring act of ascending the stairs, or even the inexplicable attraction toward standing by windows or walking on the Parisienne rooftops speak to these hidden desires.

Supple and sophisticated, comic and cerebral, Jacques Rivette’s Va savoir tackles the familiar themes of love, infidelity, and jealousy through a very singular and previously unexperimented course for the director. Rivette’s instinct toward playful observation and adoration of a group of characters/actors — especially women, and here that’s most realized in the pivotal presence of Jeanne Balibar, who appears like one of those figures in a Modigliani painting — has always felt like something of an obligation for the filmmaker, but here finds its gentlest expression yet. A multi-layered network of more-or-less ordinary characters who gradually find themselves within unusual situations — a quality which also connects Rivette to another of the classic masters, Alfred Hitchcock — Va savoir withholds any definite conclusion, and instead shapes itself into swirling, circling collection of amorous waltzes and duels.

Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.