Folie à deux

Merry-Go-Round (1981): Schneider, Dallesandro, Rivette.

Merry-Go-Round (1981) is a good example of how everything that’s exciting and interesting about Rivette’s work—its laxity, its digressive plotting, its slapdash energy, its casual deployment of generic elements—can dissipate unto formlessness.  It begins with a premise similar to that of La Pont du Nord, made the same year: two strangers, or almost-strangers, cross paths in Paris and join forces in order to solve a mystery.  The two amateur sleuths in Merry-Go-Round are the sister and the lover of a missing woman, played by Maria Schneider and Joe Dallesandro, respectively.  But unlike La Pont du Nord the film’s meanderings feel listless.  All of the energy goes out of it about halfway through, in part because Schneider herself appears so bored; at points she goes through the motions of her performance like an automaton. 

Schneider is one of the film’s special problems.  So is Dallesandro.  Both actors had been used to great effect in earlier films: it’s impossible to imagine Last Tango in Paris or The Passenger without her, or Paul Morrissey’s underground films without him.  And both have powerful physical qualities that come through even here, however fleetingly.  I could watch Schneider’s sullen, pouting mouth and listen to her whisper-soft voice forever.  When Rivette films her sitting outside dressed in a baggy sweater, the wind tousling her shag haircut, she looks fantastic.  There are also moments where one can feel Dallesandro’s carnality flickering behind his performance here—but only weakly.  Schneider and Dallesandro both have a sexual energy that’s petulant and stubborn, and that refuses to cooperate under the wrong circumstances.  It’s almost as if they’re pushing against Rivette in this film, perhaps even deliberately working to sabotage it.  At other points they seem to be merely out of the depth of their talent.  If the film, and all of Rivette’s work, is a kind of jam session akin to the one being played by the two jazz musicians to which Rivette continually cuts away, Schneider and Dallesandro’s improvisatory chops may not have been up to the challenge to which they’ve been put.      

Jamming out: Barre Phillips and John Surman in Merry-Go-Round.

In its own way, Merry-Go-Round is instructive because it reveals how rare the alchemy of Rivette’s best films is: his approach was so risky that more of his films ought to have been failures.  That so many of them actually work is some kind of miracle.  His approach might be compared to the calligraphic method in which a complicated series of strokes is accomplished without ever lifting the brush from the page.  The films are all attempts—experiments conducted in a spirit of imaginative play, some of which succeed where others fail.  Merry-Go-Round calls to mind Jean-Pierre Leaud’s line in Out 1: “it didn’t work.”

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