I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

“You are elsewhere”: Jacques Rivette’s 1976 Duelle

by Anthony Galli
July 5, 2014

It is somewhat amazing that such a large group of film critics from a French film magazine in the 1950’s would create some of the most influential films in history and, along with them, one of the most important movements in film ever. That would be like all of the record reviewers from Rolling Stone magazine each starting groundbreaking bands that broke from the past and re-invented the future. It didn’t happen. For example, where is your band, David Fricke? Or yoursAnthony DeCurtis? Well, Touré?

Perhaps it is a bit unfair to expect paradigm shifts from entertainment writers at this stage of our civilization. Perhaps we should simply accept that rock critics, like David Fricke, will blather over the biggest, most self-important music celebrities and then be invited on television to talk about them . Seems like a lucrative enough gig, and it doesn’t really hurt anyone. It may be somewhat unreasonable to expect entertainment writers to produce enduring works of art within a cultural climate that doesn’t encourage such an artistic exchange. After all, Frank Zappa characterized the situation succinctly when he offered, “Rock journalism is people who can't write interviewing people who can't talk for people who can't read.”

Even J. Alfred Prufrock in 1915 realized that ancient artisans had already erected artistic monuments to eternity that cannot be equaled, so who was he to attempt to “disturb the universe”? What could he possibly hope to accomplish with his insignificant poetry that hadn’t already been realized before, and better? How could he possibly hope to add to the canon, or, in any way, change the world?

Not gonna happen, dude.

But, to be fair, there have been many contributors to Rolling Stone who have provided something more than a marketing campaign to purchase some disposable product, like a blockbuster movie or a hit record. For example, Hunter S. Thompson did some of his best work for Rolling Stone, transforming Beat Generation immediacy into “gonzo journalism,” so…that was good. Occasional early 1970’s Rolling Stone contributor Richard Metzler was instrumental in constructing the early identity of Blue Öyster Cult (partially by making sure they added umlauts to their name---that’s gotta be worth something) and co-writing such gems as “She's As Beautiful as a Foot” and later “Burnin' for You.” And Cameron Crowe went from being a 16-year-old interviewing The Allman Brothers Band, to being an 18-year-old interviewing Neil Young, to being the director who brought grunge to the big screen and introduced it to the mainstream withSingles in 1992. He was also responsible for John Cusack holding up a boombox playing a Peter Gabriel song in 1989’s Say Anything. So, apparently, journalists can occasionally be agents of change, or something like that, I guess.

And, so it was for the editorial staff of Cahiers du Cinéma, the legendary French journal of serious film criticism. Founded by esteemed critic André Bazin in 1951, Cahiers du Cinéma insisted that film was an art form to be considered and examined as judiciously as literature and painting. The critics also placed great emphasis on the importance of the director as the center of the cinematic universe. Cahiers du Cinéma gave us the philosophy of the “auteur theory,” and many of the writers in its employ went on to become founding members of the French “New Wave.” Writers such as Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and the director of Duelle, Jacques Rivette, among others who, too, would become legends of French cinema.

Although Cahiers du Cinéma championed the darkness of American film noir from the 1940’s as the height of artistic achievement, they were also enchanted by the works of such directors as John Ford, Orson Welles, and Alfred Hitchcock, trumpeting them as auteurs, where Americans saw them mainly as conventionally commercial filmmakers.

Armed with portable cameras, improvisational dialogue, and spontaneous realism, the filmmakers who emerged from Cahiers du Cinéma dared to combine their grand philosophical conceits with genre exercises to form the scandalous Nouvelle Vague in the 1950’s and 60’s, a group of upstart crows out to bury the films of their forbears and invent a new visual language. As critic Jean-Luc Godard once said, “The only way to criticize a movie as to make another movie,” and that is what the Cahiers du Cinéma filmmakers set out to do, subverting cinematic conventions one frame at a time until even the most tried formula became unrecognizable.

In many ways, Jacques Rivette’s Duelle, literally “dual” in English, is a cross between a good old fashioned murder mystery and hardboiled detective film. Until, of course, around an hour into the movie when things get all batshit, but from the preponderance of overcoats and fedoras, the shafts of light streaming into darkish rooms, the placement of shadows on walls, and some of the purposely stilted dialogue (“I’d like to hire you to investigate some things for me”/”It was as if she was able to be in two places at the same time”/”Do you know this man?”) hint at the film’s noir leanings. There are people hiding behind trees and behind columns, there are chase scenes, there are plenty of femme fatales to choose from, everyone is lying to everybody else, and everyone leads a double life. There is even some sort of Maltese Falcon-ish object of desire (“The Fairy Godmother”) that the daughter of the sun and the daughter of the moon are in competition over (wait…what?).

At its core, Duelle begins in a very uncomplicated manner, but then, like any good mystery, begins to twist and turn in ways that are not only unexpected, but also unimaginable. There are clues placed every, but…to what? For example, there are mirrors in almost every room, perhaps as a play on the title of the film, demonstrating and reflecting (haha) the “dualities” inherent in nature. Perhaps they are a nod to Jacques Lacan’s “ mirror stage ” theory of identity. Perhaps they are utilized as an acknowledgement of the film’s subtitle, Scènes de la vie parallèle, or Scenes from a Parallel Life. Who knows? There is even a prominent mirror ball in the dancehall, but maybe that globe is meant to couple with the sphere that Lucie is balancing on at the beginning of the film. And, what is with all the coupling? Most scenes seem to take place between two people, often with their reflected selves entering into the scenes as well.

What about that, seemingly, 300-year-old piano player providing the portions of soundtrack which aren’t inhabited by the abstract, background sounds of train stations, crazed birds, aquarium hum, or startlingly loud telephone bells? Sometimes the player is inexplicably in the room where the piano is playing, but sometimes there is only an empty chair at the piano. Sometimes the piano sounds like an echo of the Orson Welles noir masterpiece Touch of Evil. Sometimes it appears as if the piano player is controlling the action, but at other times it seems as if he were waiting for the action to control him. Finally, he just disappears altogether and the soundtrack becomes nothing more than ambient sounds from the environment. Did somebody shoot the piano player?

What is going on here?

A detective film with sorcery, mythology, philosophy, and women taking the traditional detective roles of men, complete with men’s suits. Duelle hearkens back to the time when films compelled an audience to ask, “What does it all mean?”

Anthony Galli currently lives in Athens, Georgia. He shares a birthday with his black cat, Magic, and they both claim Wings of Desire as their favorite film. Anthony has published two books of poetry, Amnesia for Insomniacs and Invisible Idiot.