Unheard melodies may be sweet, but unsolved mysteries are about as satisfying as a windowful of succulent food that you can’t afford. Jacques Rivette’s “Out One/Spectre”—which played Saturday and Sunday at the New York Film Festival—is frustrating for two reasons: first, because 4½ hours of hidden motivations is hard on the soul; second, because some of the characterizations and performances are tantalizingly good — hence you really want to understand these people and what drives them. (The movie has been edited down from a 13-hour version that was —and then wasn’t—intended for television.)
Most of Mr. Rivette’s actors were invited to invent their own roles. Not a word of script was written, and—as you can easily guess during the first half-hour—the actors didn’t know the outcome of the film. (There’s no plot, although there is a flow of interwoven relationships.) For an American audience, there’s much that seems old-fashioned here — mainly due to a plethora of footage spent on a theater group that suggests a Living Theater manqué. This ensemble’s writhing and moaning and declaiming take us back to Off Off Broadway in 1966 or 1967, to a style that’s quite conventional for New York. But the exercises are filmed as though we’d never seen that kind of performing before.
Two Parisian strays set off a wave of téte-à-tétes and tremors among people who are strangers to them. Jean-Pierre Léaud suspects the existence of a secret society, and he tries to detect its purposes through clues from Balzac’s “Story of the 13” and Lewis Carroll’s “The Haunting of the Snark.” Meanwhile, Juliet Berto—a nimble con person and sponge—steals some letters that concern the mysterious conspirators. We never learn the function of the society, though there’s a woolly hint that it might solve “problems.”
If this binge of obscurity makes you turns on your heel, let me hastily stress that there are many intriguing scenes within the movie. Miss Berto has a rich gift for unpredictability; here, as a headlong, rueful thief and professional charmer, she appears in a very amusing episode where she slides into the house of a chess-playing stranger and convinces him that she wants to learn the game — which doesn’t interest her at all.
Mr. Léaud begins very well; he pretends to be a deaf-mute (and I suspect that he revisited Jean-Louis Barrault’s “Les Enfants du Paradis” for this part). Later, he’s both frenetic and austere—also infantile and grandiose in the manner that he’s used so often, and he postures more than necessary. Still, he plays nicely with Bulle Ogier, whom he attempts to seduce while she remains deeply absorbed in bookkeeping, Françoise Fabian — amused and affirmative as usual—teams skillfully with Miss Berto who is trying to blackmail her. Bernadette Lafont, a blocked writer, and Michel Lonsdale have an engaging scene, which fully conveys the ease of intimate, longterm friendship. Also, the director Eric Rohmer makes a pleasing Balzac scholar.
My own interest in the movie was sustained for about three hours — until it was obvious that the puzzles would never be worked out. Then, most of the scenes themselves began to appear like actors’ exercises—improvisations for a tale that didn’t exist. Eventually, the cast itself seemed like a secret society—or like people who’ve gone underground when they don’t need to. While the leisurely pace of the movie seem’s justified by the characters’ development in the first half, it finally weighs on you because—despite all the worry and concern and concentration expressed — there are very few strong emotions in the movie.
The editing appears as the most deliberate aspect of the film. Many scenes are fragmented to mingle with one another; the narrative leaps in and out of continuing conversations, and it’s often interrupted by black and white stills, accompanied by a low buzz. Apparently, the stills evoke parts of the 13-hour version, or are meant to remind us of characters we’ve seen briefly.
Almost certainly, this film was more rewarding for Mr. Rivette and his cast than it can be for the spectators. Yet I will remember the particular acting styles of some of the performers when I see them in future roles. The movie unquestionably reveals their potentialities and their individual talents in a way that’s educational for critics and for dedicated students of the cinema.
NORA SAYRE, for The New York Times
Published: October 8, 1974