Jacques Rivette Keeps Everyone Guessing with the Mundane Mysteries of Acting and Crime in late-‘80s Paris



Once upon a time, Paris belonged to them.  The Nazis were long gone, and the youth uprising of May 68 was still years away.  It was the time of a New Wave in the cinemas, and a couple of distinct cliques of impassioned critics were riding it in real time.  While outspoken luminaries such as Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut had the tendency to claim and maintain the movement’s spotlight, other major talent abounded within the sphere.  

Among the Left Bank faction of the French New Wave, there was Agnès Varda, Alain Resnais, and Chris Marker.  Within the Cahiers du cinéma writers’ contingency, Truffaut and Godard resided alongside Éric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, and Jacques Rivette.  While their Nouvelle Vague demonstrated long-term teeth in terms of movie history and director-empowered filmmaking, obscurity, in the years since, has had a way of claiming many of these luminaries.  Perhaps suffering the sharpest slide from persistent relevance into ghost of the past is Jacques Rivette. That, however, is in the process of changing.

The Gang of Four (1988) is the first of several 4K restorations of titles by the late, prolific Rivette.  All have been out of general circulation far too long.  While some have proclaimed a distinct connection between this contemporary ensemble character study and his 1961 feature debut, Paris Belongs to Us, it’s safe to say that The Gang of Four (sometimes called “Gang of Four”; La bande des quatre) maintains an aesthetic- a plot, even- that can be called its own.  While only marginally shorter than your average Rivette film (this one is a mere 162 minutes as opposed to his usual 180+ minutes), the story remains aloof.  This is entirely by design, as Rivette is determined to never quite allow us to find our footing with what the titular “gang of four” is going through, and how.

First off, it’s fair to ask who exactly comprises the quartet of the title.  The answer seems to be whomever is living in their central Parisian flat at any given time.  At the start, we find the no-frills suburban female flophouse occupied by the young women Anna (Fejria Deliba), Claude (Laurence Côte), Joyce (Bernadette Giraud), and Cécile (Nathalie Richard).  When Cécile leaves to go be with her mysterious boyfriend, Lucia (Inês d’Almeida) takes her place.  While the women demonstrate different temperaments and tolerances, they get along well enough in spite of their differences.  They do, however, share one major commonality: a full and total devotion to a never-ending theater class, cultically led by a terse woman known as Constance (Bulle Ogier).   

While Rivette truncates nothing in terms of time spent observing the daily theater rehearsals, the exact nature of these unpolished sessions is never quite clear.  That is likely the case all around, as there’s never any mention of an end-goal performance, play, or exhibition of any kind.  The students are simply made to perform two and three-person scenes, always interrupted by the instructor for personal criticism.  There’s a sense that no scene will ever be “ready for prime time”, nor will any actress ever be deemed ready to move on from the very expensive course.  They are kept uneasy and made to hyper-focus on it, whether they’re gathered in class or not.  Constance, who claims to have a vast professional history in the acting world, will accept no half measures of any kind- particularly when it comes to tuition.

As intense as Constance’s classes are, their importance pales in comparison to the crime plot that emerges among the cast.  Enter Thomas (Benoît Régent), a somewhat older man whom we soon learn has ulterior motives in his conversations with the various women, particularly in his courtship of Cécile.  No sooner is a hidden key is discovered within the house than it is squirreled away.  Thomas, though, is obsessively determined to get that key.  Along the way, he drops nuggets of incriminating information about several of the women.  The truth of anything he says is up for debate, but discord is nevertheless sown.  It all points to a very public criminal case that is playing out in the local media.  Illicit seduction, as well as disparate violent attacks play out.  Yet, none of these concerns ever seem foreground.  There’s always another acting class.

Cohen Media Group (via Kino Lorber) launches its impressive run of at least four new Rivette restorations with The Gang of Four.  Visually, the movie maintains a truly filmic patina common and appropriate for French films of its era.  Although the handful of environments of the movie are as mundane as they come, a closer examination of the use of color (often bright, often glossy) reveals a devoted visual intentionality.  The same holds true of the wardrobes of the characters, often baggy and blah except for the solid colors.

Besides a trailer for the film’s recent re-release, the Cohen Blu-ray’s only other bonus feature is an audio commentary track by Richard Peña, who is Director Emeritus of the New York Film Festival and Professor of Film and Media Studies at Columbia University.  One is hesitant to call this a “feature-length” commentary, as Peña is quite liberal with swaths of silence in between his observations.  While a bit of deliberate pacing is understandable in light of The Gang of Four’s running time, Peña pushes even that, with regular gaps long enough that one regularly forgets that an audio commentary is playing.  When he does have something to say, it alternates between the kind of enlightening observations you wish he’d have more of, and casual narration of what’s on screen. 

The elusive key to The Gang of Four (not to be confused with the missing key) appears to be baked into its telling.  Rivette identifies with his female antagonist, Constance in that he’s determined to keep viewers on their toes but perpetually off balance with this film.  Most definitive details are left for us to grapple with.  All the while, Rivette’s camera and editing never settle into anything resembling a comfortable flow or pattern.  Yet, the attacking of the day-to-day acting obsessions do nothing to thwart the overwhelmingly humdrum existence that is the ultimate inescapable element.  It is in this cagey, confident formalism that Rivette’s New Wave connections remain alive and well.  This Paris, however, belongs to no one.