Notes on "Out 1"

1. Writing in 1974, Jonathan Rosenbaum noted that Jacques Rivette’s thirteen-hour Out 1 (1971) “[had] been screened publicly only once…and remains for all practical purposes an invisible, legendary work.”  Now, over forty years later, Out 1 has been made visible: it is available on Blu-ray and for download, and is being exhibited theatrically in select cities.  Watching the film this past weekend at the Harvard Film Archive was thrilling, exhausting, and confounding, possibly the most memorable cinematic experience of the year.  (It screened in four three-hour intervals over two days, with intermissions and dinner breaks built in.)  Coming as it did on the heels of Rivette’s death, the screening felt even more momentous and special than it otherwise might have, as if (to quote the opening remarks by the Archive’s David Pendleton) those of us in attendance were somehow communing with Rivette’s spirit. 

2. A one-sentence summary of the plot of Out 1 might go something like this: independent of each other, two Parisian street hustlers (played by Jean-Pierre Leaud and Juliet Berto) stumble upon—or believe they have stumbled upon—a secret society known as The Thirteen, whose members are variously involved in the French government, avant-garde theatre, and the counterculture.  The plot freely expands, however, to include an ever-increasing number of characters, spaces, and subplots, some of which intersect, others of which are left unfinished.  Constructed out of improvisation, Out 1 has the rough, exhilarating feel of children playing make-believe, concocting a story without knowing the ending, adding and subtracting elements at will.  On the level of its plot as well as its form, it engages questions of coincidence and randomness, conspiracy, paranoia, fate versus chance.              

3.  The experience of watching all thirteen hours of Out 1 in a concentrated setting is much of the “point” of the film.  Out 1 creates a shadow world out of the Paris of 1970, using real locations (often shooting in the streets or cafés, interacting with non-actors) in order to create a heightened fantasy realm.  It’s a world that begins to feel so large and so difficult to navigate that as the film went on I found myself lost in its depths.  Out 1’s running time asks you to immerse yourself completely in it, only occasionally coming up for air before diving down again.

4.  Out 1 is slow going at times, especially in its first several hours.  But it is also a film that contains countless pleasures: Jean-Pierre Leaud stalking through the streets of the city, reciting Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark”; the face of Michael Lonsdale, who plays a mysterious theater director with ties to The Thirteen, and who looks like the young Jean Renoir; “L’Angle du Hasard,” a gathering place for hippies and radicals, where Leaud gets high and flirts hilariously with Bulle Ogier.  Much of the film’s pleasure derives from surprising us with the connections that form between seemingly unrelated characters and plots.  Like the detective figures in the story, we seize the opportunity to piece together the film’s clues, only to have Rivette repeatedly unravel them.

5.  Out 1 is an improvised film that also theorizes the question of improvisation, the attempt to create something new and exciting—a new staging of an old play, a new relationship, a new social order.  It’s also a film about the failure of those attempts to take hold.  As a film made in 1971, after the ill-fated student demonstrations of 1968, it begs to be read as a statement about the death of ’60s idealism, the failure of radical politics to transform society as well as the failure of New Wave cinema to transform culture.  And yet Out 1 itself proves that experimentation and improvisation need not always lead to failure.  Rivette’s grand experiment finds beauty and energy in the chaos and madness of art.      

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