Rivette’s “Duelle”: l’autre coté du miroir

Juliet Berto as Leni the Moon Goddess in Duelle (1976).

Perhaps more than any of his New Wave contemporaries Rivette embraced the fantastical as a form of creative possibility.  Truffaut and Chabrol found possibility in experimenting with established genres, as did Jacques Demy—and Demy arguably went as far as Rivette did in indulging a love of fantasy.  (His fairy-tale confection Donkeyskin is, among other things, a love letter to Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bete and all that it stands for.)  But films like Duelle (1976), currently streaming on Mubi.com, show Rivette’s singular penchant for using the lyrical freedom and off-the-cuff spirit of the New Wave to tell stories about witches and magic spells and enchanted objects.  Duelle’s trifle of a plot, which is as fuzzy and baggy in its own way as those that unfold within the labyrinthine worlds of Out 1 and Paris Nous Appartient, revolves around the search for a talismanic jewel (known as The Fairy Godmother) by two rival witch-goddesses (cf. the witches of the East and the West in The Wizard of Oz, or the Red and White Queens in Through the Looking Glass) and the mortal magician who comes between them; it eventually falls to the sister of the latter, a lowly hotel concierge, to take over his mission, and the film ends with the suggestion that she has undergone a magical transformation of her own.  But Rivette’s fantasy worlds are never very far removed from reality: his witches, conspirators, and samurai do battle and hatch schemes in the metro stations and cafés of contemporary Paris, their supernatural qualities often suggested by whimsical accessories or costumes (capes, chokers, veils), and their adventures are set to the improvised noodlings of an omnipresent jazz pianist.

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