Jacques Rivette’s 1976 movie Duelle opens with a textbook film noir scenario: One night, a mysterious woman named Leni (Juliet Berto) — who’s even dressed in 1940s-style clothing, despite the fact that the film seemingly takes place in the era in which it was made — arrives at a Paris hotel and requests a specific room. She explains to Lucie (Hermine Karagheuz), the porter on duty, that it’s the room in which her former longtime lover Max Christie (or Lord Christie, as he’s often called) stayed a year ago. “I’ve lost his trail. I must find him again,” she insists. Lucie never met him, but she’s heard about him from another employee: that he left big tips, that he was often there with a girl by the name of Stern, that he only came to the hotel after visiting a nearby hostess club called the Rumba. Leni decides to seek further information there, and she also hires Lucie to investigate. To anyone familiar with noir conventions, it should come as no great surprise that Leni turns out to be a femme fatale — but the form that takes isn’t quite so conventional.
Elsewhere in the city, another noir storyline appears to be taking shape. “Do you know the Fairy Godmother?” a woman named Viva (Bulle Ogier) asks a man named Pierrot (Jean Babilée) — who happens to be Lucie’s brother — as they dance together in her hotel room. “It’s a stone that’s been missing for two hundred years.” Pierrot notes that the stone is said to be cursed, to which Viva replies, “Cursed or blessed, its value is incalculable.” It sounds like the start of a Maltese Falcon-esque quest for fabulous riches, yet something is… a bit unusual here. Maybe it’s the supernatural touch of the alleged curse; maybe it’s the way the film keeps cutting to shots of the moon throughout this scene; maybe it’s the fact that a pianist (Jean Wiener), seen earlier performing at the Rumba, inexplicably appears in the hotel room, playing his piano as if this is all part of his normal routine. (He and his music will show up throughout Duelle, in a variety of settings.) The true oddness of it doesn’t start to become clear until a little while later, however, when Viva and another woman (Élisabeth Wiener, real-life daughter of the aforementioned Jean Wiener) laugh over Pierrot’s naivete in accepting Viva’s stories. “These mortals are so stupid,” the other woman says.
And so what starts out as a film noir homage or pastiche suddenly reveals itself as a fantasy. Viva and Leni are not mere femmes fatales but goddesses (the former is the daughter of the sun, the latter the daughter of the moon) and they’re each determined to obtain a magic gemstone that will allow its possessor to remain on Earth “beyond the forty days of late winter that we are given,” as Viva tells Pierrot. Pity the poor mortals — Lucie, Pierrot, Christie’s companion Sylvia Stern (Claire Nadeau) and Rumba ticket girl Jeanne, alias Elsa (Nicole Garcia) — who cross their paths, because the manipulative Viva and Leni will do whatever it takes to get what they want.
Rivette intended Duelle as part of a tetralogy called Scenes de la vie parallel, though only one of the other three planned films, Noroît (also 1976), was ever completed. Writing about his intentions for the project, he said, “The ambition of these films is to discover a new approach to acting in the cinema, where speech, reduced to essential phrases, to precise formulas, would play a role of ‘poetic’ punctuation. Not a return to silent cinema, neither pantomime nor choreography: something else, where the movement of bodies, their counterpoint, their inscription within the screen space, would be the basis of the mise en scène.” Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum explains that “in contrast to [Rivette’s] films that immediately preceded and followed this project […] the actors did not improvise any of their lines or collaborate on the scripts; their creative contributions were strictly a matter of their facial expressions, poses, and gestures.”
Ogier and Berto appear to be having great fun with their sinister yet campy, over-the-top, otherworldly roles, which makes all the more sense knowing that they had to express themselves primarily through their physicality. (Their frequent costume changes add to the campiness, unquestionably. The apex is probably their highly stylized confrontation at the Rumba, where they go into full goddess mode, dropping all pretense of being human.) The other actors generally play their parts straighter, befitting the fact that their characters are ordinary mortals caught up in the machinations of these powerful deities. To them, the absurd scenario and the playing around with genres and cliches are no joke or game. Though neither noir nor fantasy itself, King Lear offers a rather apt epigraph: “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods. They kill us for their sport.”
Rosenbaum, Jonathan. “Rivette’s Rupture (DUELLE and NORÔIT).” Chicago Reader 28 February 1992. http://www.jonathanrosenbaum.net/1992/02/rivette-s-rupture/
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