Perpetually Unstable Equilibrium: Out 1 (1971)

Colin Blackboard

“I don’t want the viewer to ever be comfortably seated in front of the film with a story that engages them from the start in a very traditional way and which then sticks to a very exact path — apparently exact, anyway — for an hour and a half, two hours, three hours,” Jacques Rivette said in a 1972 interview. “I’d rather, on the contrary, create a sort of perpetually unstable equilibrium which is constantly being adjusted, first in one direction and then another, so that, rather than being comfortably seated in an armchair, the viewer is sitting on top of a pile of chairs balanced on top of one another, and they’re wondering whether the chairs will collapse.”

Rivette’s Out 1, shot in April and May of 1970 and first screened the following year, is a film best known for its length — nearly thirteen hours, divided into eight episodes. (Even the shorter cut, subtitled Spectre, runs well over four hours.) Equally extraordinary is the fact that it was largely improvised, based on a rough outline rather than a typical script, with the actors creating their own characters and providing the dialogue. The result is a study of truth and lies, of games and serious business, of reality and fiction, and the dividing lines are never entirely clear.

Frédérique with money

At its start, Out 1 follows two theatrical troupes — one working on a production of Aeschylus’s Seven Against Thebes, the other on the same playwright’s Prometheus Unbound — and two individuals, Frédérique (Juliet Berto) and Colin (Jean-Pierre Léaud). While the latter two characters have no connection to the theater (or to each other, for that matter), both of them are performers in a sense: They’re con artists. Frédérique has a seemingly endless repertoire of petty scams and stories through which she can obtain a little money, from pretending to be a cash-strapped single mother or runaway to inviting a man to a hotel room and emptying his wallet while his back is turned. Colin, meanwhile, supposedly deaf and mute, plays a harmonica in cafes and, for a franc, offers “messages from destiny” — in actuality, pages torn at random from books.

Ironically, he receives an apparent message from destiny of his own when Marie (Hermine Karagheuz), an actress from the Seven Against Thebes troupe and a total stranger to him, hands him a note as he leaves a cafe. (This occurs over two hours into the film and marks the first clear crossover between any of the four original plotlines.) Two more such notes follow, one pushed under his front door, the other dropped from the top of a staircase. Through careful analysis of these cryptic communications, he comes to believe in the existence of a mysterious, possibly dangerous secret society known as the Thirteen that seems to involve a number of the film’s characters, seen and unseen. He becomes obsessed with learning the full story, driving himself to the brink of madness.

Prometheus Unbound

Colin’s quest for the truth, at least at first, resembles a journalistic investigation; in fact, he poses as a journalist as he interviews various people who might be able to give him information. It makes an interesting contrast with the often chaotic improvisational exercises undertaken by the Prometheus Unbound actors and their leader, Thomas (Michael Lonsdale), in order to help them understand and develop the play. (A large, patience-testing portion of the first episode of Out 1 is devoted to one of these, a sort of animalistic free-for-all, occasionally intercut with scenes of Colin carefully preparing his messages from destiny.) For all of their messiness, the exercises are a means of truth-seeking as well, although it’s truth-seeking for the sake of theater, something inherently artificial.

On a more superficial level, they can also be viewed as games, and they’re far from the only games going on throughout the film. For example, Frédérique’s life — apart from her money-making schemes — seems to be a very dull, empty affair. There are numerous scenes of her sitting alone in her apartment, utterly bored, with no better way of filling her time than playing hopscotch or cops and robbers by herself in the hallway. Rivette also saw the whole business of the Thirteen as a game for adults. “These are just big kids having fun,” he explained in a 1990 interview. “They’re acting, making believe that they’re hatching big plots.” He noted, however, that Frédérique and Colin “are the two innocent victims who think there are grown-ups with important things to say in the discussions and so on. They are like children who think grown-ups exist, whereas the others know that is not true.” Frédérique stumbles across the Thirteen when she steals some letters from the home of a man named Étienne (Jacques Doniol-Valcroze). While she’s concerned by the suspicious, mysterious things she reads, she also sees an opportunity to extort money from the people mentioned in them. She goes about this in a rather comedic manner, dressing up in masculine clothing and a wig that fool absolutely no one — more acting and making believe. Even Colin, who’s intensely serious about the Thirteen, is not above games of his own, but when he plays with cards or a small pendulum, it’s as if he’s trying to find answers through them.

Of course, Out 1 is itself a kind of game, for the cast and crew as well as the viewer. The use of improvisation and the sketchiness of Rivette’s outline meant that the film was essentially written as it was being shot, sometimes taking surprising, significant turns. According to Jacques Doniol-Valcroze — in real life the co-founder of Cahiers du cinéma magazine, where Rivette and several other major French New Wave directors worked as critics — Frédérique’s theft of Étienne’s letters came about to justify a line about stolen letters that he had blurted out in another scene, uncertain what else to say when confronted with epistles about which he knew nothing. The actors were generally unaware of what the others were doing, or even why they were told to do certain things themselves; Hermine Karagheuz, for instance, had no idea why her character, Marie, was supposed to hand a note to Colin. Jean-Pierre Léaud said that the film’s improvisational nature “produced in most of us a tremendous creativity, but it probably intimidated some. You can, if you want to work autonomously in such a way, already get the feeling that you’re shooting in a void, like in a bubble. I found it very exciting.”

The actors do an admirable job of filling the voids left by the lack of scripted dialogue, though there are certainly points where the strain shows. Actress Bulle Ogier (playing a character called both Pauline and Émilie) recalled that, despite being close friends in reality, she and Bernadette Lafont (playing a character named Sarah) were unable to find anything to say to each other in one of their scenes together: “We didn’t know what the situation was.” (Michael Lonsdale stated that Lafont “wasn’t into” the improvisation and “ended up doing the bare minimum.”) A few moments border on bloopers, as when Colin gets a fit of giggles while Pauline/Émilie is trying to tell a story about a parrot she used to own. “This usually doesn’t happen to me,” he says, which sounds like Léaud apologizing to Ogier at least as much as it sounds like Colin apologizing to Pauline/Émilie.

Colin Laughter

“All of a sudden, you’re taking something from the real world into a fictional world,” Achille (Sylvain Corthay), an actor from the Prometheus Unbound troupe, says during a discussion after one of the group’s exercises. He could just as easily be talking about Out 1. Some elements emphasize its fictional side: the fact that the characters tend to wear the same clothing throughout the film, the blatantly fake blood employed in a death scene, perhaps even the importance of literature (the Aeschylus plays, Honoré de Balzac’s History of the Thirteen, Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark”). On the other hand, there are touches of the real world, like the more or less unwitting involvement of ordinary Parisians. Genuine cafe customers are subjected to Colin’s harmonica playing, members of the Seven Against Thebes troupe question people about whether they recognize a thief from a photograph, children follow a ranting Colin through the streets, and their reactions range from amusement to bemusement to irritation.

At times, the film gets a bit too real. One scene has Frédérique meeting up with a biker named Marlon, played by assistant director Jean-François Stévenin. Stévenin, a non-actor who agreed to appear opposite Juliet Berto at her request, decided that Marlon should physically attack Frédérique after she steals his money. (He said that he had Clu Gulager’s brutal character from 1964’s The Killers in mind.) Considering Frédérique’s lifestyle, this sort of retribution from one of her marks may be almost inevitable, but that doesn’t make the beating any easier to watch. Another scene, formerly part of the final episode, depicted Colin suffering a violent breakdown in his room. Per critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, who saw Out 1 at a rare screening in Rotterdam in 1989, it “showed Colin crying, screaming, howling like an animal, banging his head against the wall, busting a closet door, writhing on the floor, then calming down and picking up his harmonica. After throwing away all three of the secret messages he has been trying for most of the serial to decode, he starts playing his harmonica ecstatically, throws his clothes and other belongings out into the hall, dances about manically, and then plays the harmonica some more.” Rivette removed the scene from the film at some point after this screening; Rosenbaum speculates that it “carried too many suggestions of Léaud’s subsequent real-life emotional difficulties for Rivette to feel comfortable about retaining it.”

Pauline Mirror

Colin isn’t the only character on the verge of breaking down by the end. Even the film itself starts to fall apart, so to speak, albeit as a (presumably intentional) stylistic choice. It begins in the final scene of the seventh episode, in which some of the audio sounds warped during a conversation between Colin and Sarah, and it continues from there: The screen goes black for an instant every now and then, there are cuts to a street where nothing relevant seems to be happening, Colin’s harmonica is inexplicably heard in his absence. Moreover, the story itself — such as it is — seems in danger of collapsing after spending so much time gradually entwining its disparate threads. Settings shift; characters are dropped; things of ostensible importance come to nothing; situations are left unresolved or, rather, the next steps are left to the viewer’s imagination. In short, there’s no neat resolution to all of this, making it simultaneously more intriguing and more like real life.

When Colin questions a man named Warok (Jean Bouise) about the Thirteen, Warok accuses him of playing a joke at his expense. “A joke… A joke?” Colin replies. “But in that case, the entire magical, mysterious world in which I move would be shattered in a moment, and that’s not possible.” The world of Out 1, though mysterious, is more mundane than magical, and the film’s reliance on improvisation means that its shattering (or Rivette’s metaphorical chairs collapsing) is never out of the question, but in a way that makes it all the more challenging and fascinating to watch and analyze.

Sources

Grissemann, Stefan. “Kino-Ikone Jean-Pierre Léaud über Cannes, Angst und Politik.” Profil 22 May 2014. https://www.profil.at/gesellschaft/kino-ikone-jean-pierre-leaud-cannes-angst-politik-375399

Les Mystères de Paris: “Out 1” de Jacques Rivette revisité. Dir. Robert Fischer and Wilfried Reichart. Fiction Factory, 2015.

Rosenbaum, Jonathan. “Out 1 and Its Double.” Jonathan Rosenbaum 15 May 2017. http://www.jonathanrosenbaum.net/2017/05/out-1-and-its-double/

gregorypeck_thennow

This post is part of the Then (and Now) Blogathon, hosted by Realweegiemidget Reviews (and Thoughts All Sorts). Click the banner above to see all of the other great posts, and click here to see my post on a later Jean-Pierre Léaud film.

5 thoughts on “Perpetually Unstable Equilibrium: Out 1 (1971)

  1. awolverton77

    Excellent review. I must confess I got bogged down after Episode 3 but am determined to finish the film after Noirvember. I’m sure I’ll want to see the shorter version and see how it holds up compared to the 13-hour version.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I can certainly understand getting bogged down. The first time I watched it, it was something of an endurance test, though I grew to like it as it went along. This was my second viewing, and I was surprised by how much fun I had with it, even if some of the scenes (specifically, the Prometheus Unbound group’s exercises) still felt overlong. I haven’t watched the shorter version yet, but apparently some of the scenes are not just cut but rearranged, so I’m looking forward to seeing how that changes things.

      Like

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