Duelle seems to have been instantly cursed just by being the follow-up to Celine and Julie Go Boating, to this day the only Rivette film that the average buff concerns himself with ( and oh, how wrongly. ) Having finally gotten a chance to watch the film, I can see why. Where Celine and Julie could furnish a thousand college students with thesis papers on feminine play vs. masculine order, and the construction of meaning through the assumption of various roles associated with gender, and so forth, Duelle drops the intellectual ballast completely. Rivette outs himself as a mystic with this film, closer to charlatan-geniuses like Stockhausen or Rasputin than to Godard. This movie is almost like a Rosetta Stone, more dense and concentrated than anything else he’s done, that the future expert will be able to use to decode his work.
Rivette’s overt and unmistakable belief in the eternal presence of God and Satan on earth makes this film unfashionable to the materialistic tastes of the cultured liberal brute. If it were less sincere, this film could have been one of Rivette’s most popular. There is always something special about the first collaboration between a cinematographer and a director who would later go on to make a more-or-less permanent team — such as Ballhaus and Fassbinder with the equally undervalued Whity — and Duelle marks the first time Rivette worked with William Lubtchansky, who has been his right arm all the way up until Marie and Julien. Lubtchansky takes Rivette out of the scratchy 16 mm. ghetto and right into glossy, bejewelled Eurotrash, complete with a gliding Ophuls camera and Sternberg lighting. Only Harry Kumel made more stylish, elegant movies in the 70’s than Duelle, though they are lesser in terms of content. But Rivette still takes pains, as always, to make the film feel deliberately antique, faded, so that it will be perfect for revival in the interplanetary silent movie theatres of the future.
This movie is so attuned to my mental state that I felt like I was writing it as it proceeded, but most people will probably just find it incomprehensible. Rivette revels not in contradictions but in SEEMING contradictions. Bulle Ogier, apparently playing God, counts backwards all the time, kills the hero’s girlfriend and attacks another important character with flames, yet she is still God, and still perfect good. There are many lines that will probably annoy non-devotees of French poetry, such as “The dream is the night’s aquarium.” And what does it mean when Jean Babilee, outdoing Travolta, raises his arm and smashes a dancehall mirror through telekinesis? Why does he wake up in the bottom of a parking garage and talk about killing a sister we’ve never seen ( not incidentally named Sylvie, like the innocent Sandrine Bonnaire in 1998’s Secret Defense? ) Why does he become graceful and muscular, almost superhuman, when Bulle Ogier counts backwards and changes the universe to black-and-white? Why does Juliet Berto keep changing her costume? How do you escape the dancehall? If you know the answers to these questions, then it’s time for you to assume the role of Sphinx, and maybe one day join Rivette in the stars.