It seems safe to say that we’re currently experiencing a remarkable resurgence of interest in Jacques Rivette; long the most mysterious of all the Nouvelle Vague directors, as well as the least frequently distributed, cinephiles had to rely on old VHS tapes, bootlegs, and the enthusiastic writings of a few dedicated critics to construct an idea of his tantalizingly just-out-of-reach oeuvre. It’s almost fitting that Rivette’s work would exist as a kind of specter or phantom, haunting our collective imaginations. But gradually, Rivette’s work has become more and more available, each release requiring a reconfiguring of the whole. Indeed, no major filmmaker revisits the idea of “phases” or “periods” more than Rivette. Each work exists in tandem with the others, exploring various threads and tangents that all orbit a few key central obsessions. As Jonathan Rosenbaum has stated, “Every Rivette film has its Eisenstein/Lang/Hitchcock side — an impulse to design and plot, dominate and control — and its Renoir/Hawks/Rossellini side: an impulse to ‘let things go,’ open one’s self up to the play and power of other personalities, and watch what happens.”
1989’s Gang of Four finds Rivette recontextualizing many of the elements found in his work from the ‘70s — nebulous conspiracies that function like a Hitchcockian MacGuffin, a mostly female ensemble, blatantly theatrical settings, and an emphasis on improvisation. But gone is the 16mm film and bold, borderline psychedelic colors of Celine and Julie, Duelle, and Noroit, replaced with 35mm and the sharper, slicker cinematography of DP Caroline Champetier (a student of long-time Rivette collaborator William Lubtchansky). The film oscillates between two primary settings: there is the Parisian acting class led by Constance Dumas (Bulle Ogier), a demanding star of the stage who frustrates and captivates her students in equal measure, and then there is the suburban home occupied by four of her students — Cecile (Nathalie Richard), Anna (Fejria Deliba), Joyce (Bernadette Giraud), and Claude (Laurence Côte).
After an introductory scene set in one of Constance’s classes, the film cuts to Cecile moving out of the shared living space to move in with a boyfriend while Lucia (Inês de Medeiros), another acting student, from Portugal, moves into her now unoccupied room. After the women settle in, Anna attends a party where she meets Thomas (Benoît Régent), a gregarious but mysterious man who offers to drive her home. Things are going well, until Anna realizes that Thomas already knows the way to the house, despite the two having never met before, and she demands that he pull over and drop her off. Thomas gradually becomes involved with each of the women, ingratiating himself into their lives under false pretenses while searching for a key left behind by Cecile. What is the key for? What does it open? And who is Thomas, really? Rivette teases these questions out for the entire film, ultimately denying pat resolutions in favor of playful ambiguity.
The two settings are connected by frequent scenes of a commuter train coursing through the landscape, a kind of visual metaphor for the characters moving from one world to the other. While studying with Constance, the women rehearse scenes from Marivaux’s Double Inconstancy, as well as works from Racine and Molière. Rivette invites one audience, the viewer, to share space with another, the audience-within-the film, as we watch these rehearsals stop, start, repeat, and reconfigure, a constant search for some abstract concept of “truth” that eludes the women no matter how hard they try. For her part, Constance seems mostly unhelpful, her comments cryptic and harsh, occasionally leading to a student breaking down into tears or storming off the stage. Throughout all this, Rivette and Champetier move the camera in a serpentine path, frequently framing the actors on a proscenium before panning or dollying away to reframe their bodies or turning 180 degrees to take in the audience in their seats (there appear to be a dozen or so women in the class, although there are only ever two on stage at any given moment). Over the course of the film’s generous 160-minute runtime, Rivette indulges in many such sequences. As he was fond of saying, “the work is always much more interesting to show than the result.”
Eventually, much of the action moves away from the theatrical space to focus on Thomas’ mysterious designs on the house and its inhabitants. After trying unsuccessfully to seduce each woman in turn, he eventually manages to win over Claude, which allows him unfettered access to the house after their lovemaking sessions. His search for the key has something to do with Cecile’s boyfriend, a criminal who may or may not have been set up by the authorities and whose trial plays out in brief snippets occasionally glimpsed on the TV or overheard on the radio. Like many Rivette films, the central mystery here is never fully explicated; Thomas claims at different points to be a policeman, a documents forger, and an artist. It will never be made explicit which one of these identities is true, although it hardly matters. The house itself is likewise ambiguous, recalling the film-within-the-film of Celine and Julie, a haunted space where a peculiar psychodrama plays out (although Gang of Four is never as playful or outright comedic as that earlier film).
Throughout the film, notions of playacting and performance spill over from one space into the other, like a brief segment where the women stage a mock trial of Cecile’s unseen boyfriend that plays out like an improv session. Is he really guilty of anything? We’ll never know, just like we don’t know exactly why Constance is removed from her class by gruff-looking men who seem to suspect her of a crime. It’s all acting, a game, an excuse for Rivette to gather friends and collaborators and riff on a genre. It’s his complete mastery that makes such a lark so intoxicating to witness. Ultimately, the presence of the morally dubious Thomas, a male interloper in an otherwise entirely female-centric world, brings the women closer together, cementing their solidarity. As Mary Wiles writes, when the women rise up against Thomas to save Cecile, “they retain control of the keys that unlock their feminine potential and allow them to take control of their lives and their art.” After Gang of Four, Rivette would return to the theater after a long absence, as if the film rejuvenated him. Great art has a way of doing that.