Shot over three years beginning in 1957, Jacques Rivette's Paris Belongs to Us wasn't released until 1961. Accordingly, Rivette's film has the curious distinction of being the earliest film produced in the French "New Wave" and, yet, a picture belatedly released after Godard's Breathless and Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player. Critics are prone to speculate that film history would be different if Rivette's rebarbative and profoundly idiosyncratic movie had reached theaters first. This sort of conjecture is meaningless. Rivette's films are both ultra-cerebral and anti-sensuous; they don't have any of the jocular, jazzy, improvisatory elements that pleased audiences attending early Truffaut and Godard pictures. Those two film makers annotated American B-movies, producing a kind of transfigured pop art. Rivette's sources are minor Shakespeare plays, obscure philosophical treatises that involve a kind of hermetic riddling that is more akin to Georges Perec than low-budget gun and girl pictures made by Monogram Studios. Rivette is a minority taste, one so refined that I'm not sure that I share it. (I repeatedly fell asleep while watching Paris Belongs to Us and had to rewatch key portions of the film that I had missed while slumbering). If Paris Belongs to Us had secured pride of place in the French nouvelle vague, it would have been ignored -- Rivette's specialized subject, paranoid conspiracy theorists, and his austere, classical style can't be effectively imitated and his work has had little influence on other filmmakers.
Paris Belongs to Us is remarkably self-assured, crisply and effectively shot and edited -- the acting is theatrical and stylized but, also, plausible and competent: the players are, after all, acting the part of aesthetes and theater-folk. The film begins in media res -- a woman mysteriously reciting Shakespeare's Tempest goes to a next door apartment when another young woman is melodramatically mourning someone's death. It's unclear whether the dead man is Pierre, the brother of the Shakespeare-citing heroine, Anne, or someone else. In the next scene, at a boulevard café, Anne meets her brother Pierre and they discuss the death of a musician named Juan. No one knows whether Juan was murdered or committed suicide -- it is clear that the musical score that he wrote for an avant-garde production of Shakespeare and Fletcher's Pericles has gone missing. At a party, the actors working on Pericles lament the death of Juan and one man, an American "political refugee" named Philip Kaufman (he's fled McCarthy's Black List) claims that a conspiracy is afoot and that people are being killed or "disappeared" in the service of this plot. The objectives of the conspirators are not specified but, in general terms, they seem to be apocalyptic. It is uncertain, however, whether Kaufman is suffering from alcohol-induced fantasies, is mad, or, in fact, telling the truth. Kaufman and Juan both had a relationship with a woman named Terry who also believes that a conspiracy is lurking, some sort of omnipresent plot to destroy the world. Anne searches for Juan's lost score -- it's the film's MacGuffin to use an analogy to Hitchcock's movies. (And Rivette was a great admirer of Hitchcock, frequently writing about the Master in his columns for Cahiers du Cinema; in many respects, Paris Belongs to Us most resembles an exceptionally abstract and bloodless Hitchcock thriller.) The movie is very long and most of the encounters that Anna has with others are enigmatic and inconsequential. Eventually, the production of Pericles that the characters are mounting under the direction of a man named Gerard is invited to perform a thirty night run at a huge and prestigious theater. During the transfer of the play to the big, commercial theater, the production is coopted by another director and Gerard is forced off his own show. (There's almost some comedy in this part of the film -- the actors ham it up outrageously for the Parisian version of Broadway and the new producer suggests bringing in a pirate ship manned by dwarfs each less than "one meter tall.") In Paris Belongs to Us, people keep finding suicide notes and Anne learns that Gerard is going to kill himself -- someone sends her a note that if Anne doesn't call Gerard before midnight, he will commit suicide. (She gets the note fifteen minutes late.) In a remarkable sequence, Anne dashes around Paris looking for Gerard -- she hustles here and there in a taxi through empty streets at dawn, an early morning hour that seems endlessly and surrealistically protracted. At last, she finds Gerard with a woman with whom he has spent the night. Anne is a little miffed because it seems that she may once have been Gerard's lover. She goes to a film club and watches (with the other players in Pericles) the Babel sequence from Lang's Metropolis, everyone laughing in a weird way at the spectacle on the screen. Terry calls her and says that Gerard has, in fact, killed himself. Anne goes to see Gerard's corpse; Kaufman is there and continues to rant about the conspiracy that is murdering members of their group. The principals adjourn to a country house outside of Paris where we learn that Terry has killed Pierre, claiming that Pierre conspired to derail the production of Pericles and deprive Gerard of his control over the show. Anne watches some white birds in flight over a lake and there is an inserted shot of Notre Dame and the Ile de la Cite -- it's not quite clear where the ending takes place. In the final half-hour, Juan's death is blamed on Falangist assassins and Terry denies the existence of the cult of conspirators -- Terry carries cyanide tablets and, perhaps, people are dying from simple despair and ennui. Rivette's narrative is an engine for producing contradictions -- every proposition asserted by a character is simultaneously denied. The films opening epigraph is from the poet Charles Peguy -- "Paris belongs to no one." Gerard, the director of Pericles, is shown as a magisterial figure brooding over the whole city of Paris from the roof of a grand theater -- but he turns out to have no power at all notwithstanding his impressive status in that image. Terry says that it was folly to believe that killing one person in 1945 would bring an end to the conspiracy that afflicts the world -- presumably referring to Hitler and suggesting that the conspirators are some kind of crypto-Nazis; but, in the next breath, she says that a conspiracy that has lasted for "thirty years" is not easily unmasked -- since the film's opening title tells us that the movie begins in "June 1957" this would mean that the conspiratorial plot was first hatched in 1927 -- is that the year of Lang's Metropolis? Obviously, there is not one conspiracy but either none or many. Anne protests that Pericles is inconsistent and incoherent but contains some great passages -- it is either by Shakespeare or not by Shakespeare. In the end, Terry, who has asserted the primacy of the conspiracy, claims that there is no conspiracy at all. At one point, someone mocks Juan's soundtrack for the play as atonal beeps and squeaks and random bits of percussion -- this seems to be the soundtrack we hear to the film and, during the movie's long middle portion, the audience wants to call out to Anne: "we know where Juan's soundtrack went; it was appropriated to be the soundtrack of this film that we are watching." But once we draw this conclusion, it is refuted -- Terry has the tape and plays it near the end of the movie. At various points in the film, the movie resembles Val Lewton's sinister The Seventh Victim -- in Lewton's picture, a coterie of strangely conservative and dull Greenwich Village devil worshipers are killing renegade members of their group. In Paris Belongs to Us, there are eerie overtones suggesting that actors and crew working on Pericles are, in fact, the true cult -- people in the group seem to communicate by secret gestures and there is a sense in which the intensely motivated, if a bit dimwitted, theater folks would be willing to kill to protect their endeavor. In one memorable scene, Anne interviews a cadaverous actor who speaks to her in sepulchral tones while his child-like mistress, "my ward" he calls her, prowls the apartment barefoot -- what exactly is going on with these people? Certainly, anyone who has attended the rehearsals of a close-knit group of actors and crew staging a show realize that there is a distinctly cult-like aspect to this kind of endeavor. Rivette shoots the film in tight spaces, tiny cluttered apartments full of posted images and books that seem to be clues -- although clues to what we can't quite tell. Everyone shows enigmatic half-smiles to the camera or nervously looks away when certain things are said. Time either dilates or compresses -- Anne's dawn hunt for Gerard seems to take a whole day during which the time never advances one minute. People are always knocking at closed doors, finding mysterious notes -- in one scene, we hear whistles and are told that the police are sweeping an apartment building for conspirators but we never see any police presence. Gerard's body is just left lying in a bed. As the film progresses, the grey streets and narrow corridors seem to be claustrophobically closing down -- then, the movie opens into a landscape: a lake, some people at a fire like figures in a Brueghel painting burning something, an anguished grouping of actors, then, a flock of birds flying away. As in some of Pynchon's works, there is, of course, a savage, deadly, and merciless conspiracy -- and there is no conspiracy at all. The world is full of vicious meaning; the existentialists were wrong -- reality isn't meaningless or absurd but, rather, a great book of hieroglyphs for us to read; it's all text, but, unfortunately, text in a language that we can't read.