Out 1 has been described as “a sprawling giant of a film” (James Monaco), as “an enriching and timeless reference” (cinematographer Pierre-William Glenn), and as “a film that nobody can see” (Michael Lonsdale). Its former elusiveness is incontestable: the 16mm unprocessed color work print was projected once in Le Havre in 1971, after which the film resurfaced slightly modified at the 1989 Rotterdam Film Festival and again at London’s National Film Theater in 2006—its first presentation with English subtitles. But maybe even these rare screenings didn’t make ‘seeing’ it any easier. Let me elaborate: while in English the auxiliary verb used with dreaming is ‘to have’, in Finnish the verb used is ‘to see’ (one ‘sees’ dreams instead of ‘having’ them). So for Finns, dreams are like movies, while for English speakers they’re more closely related to experiences. For me, Out 1 was like an anglophone’s dream—I didn’t see it, I had it.
The film’s similarities with dreams don’t end there. In many ways Out 1 feels like the New Wave’s nightmare, its unconscious made manifest in a disturbing, dilated burlesque of its conscious self. For example, the hopelessly romantic and youthfully idealistic face of the New Wave, Jean-Pierre Léaud, raises his passionate nonconformism to such a pitch that he goes from charming to frightening. His nervous tension is suddenly no longer an indication of the frustrated ardor of a timid schoolboy but of a dangerous inability to adjust to social reality.
Jacques Rivette said that one major focus of Out 1 was “the problem of what to do after 1968 and how.” Nowhere does this problem become clearer than in Léaud’s and most of the other characters’ slow descent into madness. One of the two acting troupes that the story revolves around is rehearsing Aeschylus’s Seven Against Thebes, not for public performance but for therapeutic purposes. After about eight hours of bond-strengthening improv games they suddenly win a million francs in the lottery—more than enough to produce the play—only to discover that while they were hugging and congratulating each other a new recruit who nobody really trusted has already snatched the money and disappeared. They decide to hunt him down by showing his picture to as many Parisians as possible, but the more pedestrians they’re ignored by the more desperate they become, resorting to pacing around Metro entrances and flailing the perp’s photo at cars stuck in traffic (this man-in-the-street interlude shows us just how hostile the city’s inhabitants are to anything out of the ordinary—hostile enough to shock someone who’s used to the frantic callousness of New York City commuters!). The implication is clear: by giving rise to unattainable dreams, the heady days of May created a floating underclass of deranged vagabonds whose incomplete revolt against society was avenged by shutting them out of that society. The genealogical purpose of these sequences is clear from the frequent glimpses we get of street signs for the Bicêtre, the (in)famous mega-hospital and lunatic asylum that has been operating continuously since the mid-17th century. They seem to call out to these errant souls: “This way, lost madmen of Paris. Let me take care of you!”
Léaud and Juliet Berto are also such casualties of demanding the impossible; they wind up tramping around the city in a paranoid search for a secret society whose existence each of them deduces from different but equally vague clues. Rivette’s diagnosis of the post-1968 situation is not nearly as “invigorating, optimistic, and positive” as the film’s DP, Pierre-William Glenn, remembers. It’s actually kind of cynical: when Berto asks a random tweed-wearing middle-aged intellectual whether he would choose wealth or political power, she herself says that she would take the money, because “with money you get power.” When the intellectual points out that the reverse is also true, Berto concludes, “Oh, so that’s dialectics!” For this damaged generation, the holiest concepts of Marxism have been reduced to tautologies and no longer have any mobilizing power. All that is left to do is to find the culprits responsible for destroying the dream of revolution—and then what?
Berto’s character represents the most vacuous tendencies of the period’s radical milieu: she doesn’t like rules, she’s “afraid of laws” and likes “things that are different.” In this respect she’s a lot like the heads that hang out in the back of Bulle Ogier‘s psychedelic junk shop, napping or flipping through British music rags like ZigZag and radical magazines like Oz, Red Mole and Ramparts. Their revolt consists in little more than escaping into formlessness and irresponsibility, sprawling out on Turkish cushions and sponging off the bourgeoisie. They’re all proof of the left-wing infantilism that Daniel Cohn-Bendit, one of the youthful heroes of the May barricades, had polemically defended against the “senile disorder” of party politics. The only difference is that the heads regress by eating jam and fingerpainting, Berto by drinking milk and reading comics.
There are so many layers of performance in Out 1 that the rare moments when someone in front of the camera is not consciously putting on a show for it are like oases in a desert. This happens with the Parisians the Thebes troupe accosts in the street, as well as with Ogier’s children: in Episode 6 a toddler she’s feeding stares at the camera the whole time, as if to ask “Mommy, what’s that big machine doing in our kitchen?”
Staying aware of who’s pretending and to what degree is even more difficult in movies about actors than it is in other kinds. In the scene where Michael Lonsdale first meets Jean-Pierre Léaud, Lonsdale is pretending to be an actor named Thomas, who’s pretending not to be a member the mysterious Group of Thirteen (while also, of course, pretending not to be Michael Lonsdale). Léaud, for his part, starts out pretending to be a young man named Colin who pretends to be a deaf-mute. When the actors are playing actors playing characters in a Greek drama (such as Eteocles or Prometheus) it’s obvious that they’re acting, but when they’re playing actors who are having spontaneous experiences in a collective improvisation, it’s hard for the viewer (and maybe even for the actors themselves) to tell whether they’re really having these experiences or just simulating them. Bernadette Lafont, who at one point joins thePrometheus Bound troupe, stands in for the mistrustful spectator: she glares contemptuously at the fake genuineness of Lonsdale and his troupemates’ emotional liberation.
Strangely, the most naturalistic actors are the three moonlighting Cahiers critics. Eric Rohmer gives the impression of really being a condescending Balzac scholar who has deigned to devote an hour of his time to teaching a bunch of uneducated movie people about the grand maître. Jacques Doniol-Valcroze is so bored in his role as Étienne that he seems like a real businessman who has agreed to stand in front of a camera as a favor to some old schoolmate who got into cinema. And Michel Delahaye is convincing as a dweeby ethnologist whose regular rooftop meetings with Edwine Moatti are the only scenes in the movie that are completely useless for the narrative.
To call Out 1 a Jacques Rivette film would be absurd—which is why he is only credited with mise en scène, two thirds of the way down the crew list. There was hardly any script, just a diagram for figuring out when the different characters should meet, and the actors determined the development of their own characters through improvisation. In the filmmaking triad of theory–practice–product, James Monaco has assigned these essential elements respectively to Godard, Rivette, and Truffaut. Godard was the New Wave’s “semiological politician” whose starting point was always some theoretical construct, Truffaut was its “practical historian” for whom the demands of the anticipated finished product determined the appropriate techniques, and Rivette was its “experimenter” who was less concerned with either theories or the resulting film than with “the process of work through which he and his coworkers pass.” This is probably why Out 1, more than any other movie I’ve seen that Rivette directed, often feels like a diary that its author has embellished with little fantasy stories and mysteries that use the real lives of his acquaintances as a starting point (not that I’ve ever read such a diary). I guess it’s like reading someone’s dream journal, since that’s what dreams do.