Among French directors, Jacques Rivette seems to have an enduring fascination for la femme — and that’s saying a whole lot. Even Godard — in the later years of his career — had taken to training his lens on things other than women and love gone amok, but with Rivette, the gaze has, if anything, intensified with age. It’s also become more literal, and in the past decade his stories have been more concerned with the process of seduction and the science of obsession, than the outright consummation of passion. Certainly this was the case in the much acclaimed “Va Savoir,” and now in his latest, “L’Histoire de Marie et Julien (The Story of Marie and Julien).”
Here, Rivette teams up with French Babe Extraordinaire Emmanuelle Beart for the first time in 12 years. Their last collaboration was the celebrated “La Belle Noiseuse,” in which Beart spent almost the entire movie nude (she played an artist’s model) while the much older, cranky artist hovered around her splendid physique; a prisoner of desire and enthrallment.
The paradigm is repeated in ” L’Histoire . . . ” — Beart spends an awful lot of time curled up in an armchair (though this time with clothes on), staring into space as the none-too-cheerful Julien (Jerzy Radzivilowicz) hangs around her with a sullen air. Beart, often described (by me) as the most beautiful woman on the face of the planet, has that effect on men: In her presence, they get unhinged and start pouting, probably because their nerves just can’t cope with the intensity of their joy.
When we first see Julien, he’s self-possessed, if a little lonely. As a restorer of antique clocks, he works by himself out of his large, rambling Paris house. He also has a blackmailing business going on the side and his latest “customer” is a fetching brunette he calls Madame X (Anne Brochet).
To chill out, he takes naps in the park and comes home to his cat, whimsically named “Nevermore.” With his doughy frame comfortably ensconced in baggy corduroys, and his general hang-dog air, Julien doesn’t come off as the most striking love object in the world. But then he runs into Marie (Beart), whom he had briefly met at a party some time ago. She invites him to dinner, he stays the night and by the morning finds himself hopelessly in love. She’s thinking of moving out of her hotel room (where she’s currently living) and so Julien asks her to move in with him.
Thus begins their relationship, defined by meaningful silences, companionable meals and high-voltage sensuality. Gradually, they begin to reveal themselves to each other, but not through conversations.
Julien shows himself a dedicated and conscientious fixer of clocks, but he also has no qualms about giving Madame X a hard time, stepping up his demands for cash. Marie holes up in Julien’s attic, appointing the decor to meticulous personal specifications for reasons she keeps to herself. Periodically, she comes down and curls up at Julien’s feet while he works on his clocks. The pair have a mutual dislike of asking questions and prefer to let the other sniff out whatever secrets there are. Of the two, however, Marie is the one enshrouded in mystery. She takes off on unexplained errands, comes back, and then disappears again. Julien is left frustrated and confused: He especially doesn’t like it when Marie shuts herself in the attic for hours at a time. But he’s unwilling to really sit down and discuss these things (he seems to have an instinctive distrust of words) and tells Marie that all he wants is to live their lives together, to “eat, sleep, make love and go from one day to the next.”
Eventually, Julien discovers the truth behind Marie’s carefully constructed room, and the reason for her absences. By then, he’s become so attached he’s ready to swallow anything if it would mean they could stay together.
“L’Histoire . . .” is tinged with medieval fairy-tale tones, enhanced by the fact that most of the story unfolds within the confines of Julien’s ancient house. There’s nothing in here to spoil the ambience, not so much as a push-button phone. Julien makes his calls from a large, black, old-fashioned phone, and as soon as the conversation is over, he pushes it out of view. None of the characters seem interested in carrying cell phones or e-mailing (during Marie’s disappearances, both devices would have saved everyone a lot of trouble) and spend their days in quiet rumination of . . . love? Their past?
The scenes of Julien’s studio are the best: This is his workplace, but it’s sunk in darkness since he claims that all he needs to do is listen to the clocks, in order to locate their problems, and, appropriately, no soundtrack interferes with the rhythmic ticking.
Curled in her armchair, Marie watches him silently or immerses herself in a book. Unlike most movies starring Beart, “L’Histoire . . .” lays little emphasis on sex and nudity — Rivette says in the production notes that this time, he wanted to concentrate on “her silhouette and see how that figures into my frames.” At 76, Rivette’s gaze on the femme becomes that of a master draughtsman, one who floors the viewer with his utter expertise. And when his gaze merges with her silhouette to create a perfect tableau of sensual beauty, even Julien’s clocks observe the moment . . . and fall silent.