Cinema as Lace: Jacques Rivette’s Va savoir

The power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern, the condition of feeling life in general so completely that you are well on the way to knowing any particular corner of it—this cluster of gifts may almost be said to constitute experience.

Henry James

What we think of as cinema comes from the uses we make of our thinking.

Edward Branigan


Just one swirl, that’s all it takes. As a headlight moves across the stage, everything else is enveloped in blackness. One light for one body. And then, one movement, one liberating and sharing the light with all the rest. In the opening scene of Jacques Rivette’s Va savoir, this is how Jeanne Balibar alias Camille Renard is revealed. Emerging from the darkness, bringing the world along with her.

This is the first of a myriad crossings that zigzag through the fabric of the film like lines traversing a star map, drawing together what we think of as the heavens above. Here is the idea, the starting point, square one: six characters roam the earth, the stage, the streets, dusty libraries and sunlit parks. A play is being performed every evening, but we only ever see snippets of it – slices that fit the reality we are otherwise immersed in. It is Pirandello, brought to Paris in an Italian-language production enacted by a traveling theater troupe run by actor-director Ugo (Sergio Castellitto), Camille’s lover. Six Characters in Search of an Author, yes, that does come to mind, though the play being performed is in fact another, As You Desire Me, and at its center is the great unknown, also known as “The Strange Lady,” or “Cia,” or Camille, or Balibar. She is looking for her place, Camille is, having returned to Paris after a three-year absence and a break-up with Pierre, a somewhat disoriented Heideggerian. But Pierre is now kissing Sonia, and Ugo just might end up kissing library fairy Dominique, whose rogue brother is chasing Sonia.

Think of it as a drawing, or a lace pattern, since this is what it feels like as it unfolds in Rivette’s seasoned hands. A sort of screwball moderne, unhurried and ambivalent, where smiles emerge half a second before the cut. It is fine work, intricate in its build-up and fleetingness. Nothing is delivered with a heavy blow, but rather brought about with the beat of butterfly wings.

At the heart of the film are a mystery, a treasure hunt and a play, all of which can be seen both literally and metaphorically. Camille can be understood as playing herself, but everyone else seems to relate to characters in the play too, as they appear in the theater one after the other, night after night. Ugo’s quest for Goldoni’s missing manuscript is as charming as it is indicative, since he seems to find Dominique at the core of his bookwormish wanderings. But what really happened three years ago? And what has changed? Not to mention the obvious question: Why did Camille end up on the roof?

As is the case in Hollywood screwball too, Va savoir is about understanding one’s place in the world as shared with others. Hence all the crossings from world to world, wormhole to wormhole, library to street to stage to dressing room: all doors are portals. It is the magic of contiguity embodied. And how marvelously embodied it is, moving and flowing along in carefully choreographed bodies, none more magnificent than Jeanne Balibar’s arched, slender queen of the treetops bending as if in the wind, never breaking, but gracefully dancing ever on and on. Through their motions, every space is connected to the next, and thus constantly crossed, passed through and metamorphosed by these explorers, adventurers, these living. What makes change possible? What is change, if nothing, not a single molecule, has in fact changed? As the film progresses, it increasingly abandons realism for its surrealistic counterpart. It’s a gentle run down the rabbit hole, with characters uttering what the Mad Hatter or the Caterpillar might have done, e.g. Pierre: “What I say three times is true.” Likelihood is not what makes this world go around. Appearances, entrances, are – leaving ample space for us to question our own seeing and reasoning, our belief in the presence of meanings. Let’s speak to ourselves as Camille does, as in a magic chant: “It mustn’t. I can’t. I mustn’t.” or later on: “I will see you. You won’t be there.” And let’s count fine adjectives for this more than fine spark of cinema: Droll. Serendipitous. Gracious. And utterly, simply divine.

Balkanrouten: A Few Thoughts on Presence

“The seasons and the years came and went…and always…one was, as the crow flies, about 2,000 km away – but from where? – and day by day hour by hour, with every beat of the pulse, one lost more and more of one’s qualities, became less comprehensible to oneself, increasingly abstract.” (W.G. Sebald)

“History shows that it is not only senseless and cruel, but also difficult to state who is a foreigner.” (Claudio Magris)

In the imaginary of human kind, departure is often associated with transformation. Physical departure from one place to another, whatever it may be, carries the human consciousness with it. But once the destination has been reached, especially if it is about to become a permanent fixture for both body and mind, something cracks. Almost like a broken mirror, one part keeps reflecting the past as it drifts away while the other becomes a vision of a never-arriving future.

As with the title of Goran Dević’s film Buffet Željezara, written on a departing bus in front of the eponymous café facing closure, a permanent rift is introduced into reality. Conversations include and surround it, knowingly paving the way because another departure had already taken place. The steel mill in the Croatian town of Sisak is one of many symbols of deindustrialization brought about by the transition from socialism to capitalism. The trains we keep hearing in the background used to travel far to bring great numbers of workers to the factory. It is a former Mecca, a relict on the brink of becoming fossilized, as the numerous photos taken by a passer-by in the film indicate. The way the café’s customers tell stories of the past could very well be the way they tell each other their dreams.

The imaginary of Eastern Europe in cinema seems impoverished – iron and rust are excellent placeholders for its gray, dreary landscapes. And yet, what do we see when we look over our shoulders? People living everywhere. People living and despairing and rejoicing, people moving and flying and disappearing. People carrying on and changing, people taking turns and swerving. There might be something fatal in this look if it turns into nothing more than a glance. It is one thing to admire the sea of your summer destination and quite another to consider it a place where life takes place all year-round. Humans are not abstract. The inhabitants of Sisak are stranded, literally run aground. Now it is, once again, a matter of leaving or sinking further. The orchestra of crickets speaks of silence, abandonment and emptiness, even languor. Are these the same crickets we hear in Zoran Tadić’s 1975 film Dernek? It would be a miracle if the crickets of the Dalmatian hinterland were to befriend those in Sisak-Moslavina County, so far away from the sea. Still, crickets, with their own imaginary narratives, sing of departures as much as for the departed. For those who travel overnight on long roads enveloped in snow to reach what they may remember differently. For those who board up the windows of their café preparing themselves for the new in their late 50s. For those who don’t know where to go and stay.

And what of Germany? Is it the last European paradise on earth, as many seem to believe? A Germany that was a destination in 1975 just as it is in 2017 and 2019, the one and the same – or has it changed? What was the name of the country again?

What do we recognize?

Sponge hunters in Rudolf Sremec’s films, miners deep underground.

Reality reinventing itself in Ivan Ladislav Galeta’s shots beyond any gravity.

Antifilm. Mihovil Pansini. Let it be a cloud.

Performative ruptures of Sanja Iveković, cutting across our bones.

The closeness of distance in the poetic eye of Ivan Martinac.

The dawn of Ante Babaja.

What do we see?

Viennale 2018: Lazzaro felice by Alice Rohrwacher

Lazzaro of the Wind, of the Leaves, of the Dust. He has been promised exactly nothing in being on Earth, just like the rest of us, but he is the only one who acts it. Lazzaro as if beginning from scratch every moment of every day, gullible because seemingly without memory, golden and merciful because endlessly giving, unfitted for the world because unable to tell good from evil.

Alice Rohrwacher’s third feature Lazzaro felice, following up on the lush honeycomb imagery of Le meraviglie, centers around this young man as unusual as he is common. Lazzaro’s exceptional nature seems to derive directly from this combination. It makes him see the miracle of being in the world nobody else appears to be aware of as well as facilitating his exploitation by others since his simplicity is beyond understanding. At first, we encounter Lazzaro in the (in)aptly named village of Inviolata, where 54 peasants daily toil for the „Queen of Cigarettes,“ Marchioness Alfonsina de Luna. Their living conditions make it hard for us to imagine that we share the same century, though there eventually proves to be no way of denying it. The opening of the film revolves around a quest for a shared treasure – a girl is being courted, serenades sung beneath her window, and her sister wants to turn on the light in the room. A challenging task, since the bottomless string of occupants of the meagre rooms share a single lightbulb among them. While the labourers are granted the occasional bite of fresh figs straight off the tree and a repose in the shade, their community is anything but idyllic. Almost in passing, exploitation and meanness are revealed as a feature of humanity rather than a property of a particular historical era. However, an undeniable stronghold bringing everyone together is revealed: the common enemy, easily identifiable as the „venomous snake,“ the Marchioness de Luna. However, whatever power she may have over the peasants can still be fought against, as the wind her subjects magically call into existence when her back is turned goes to show. The wind is a way of speaking against, a force of the world turned against injustice, and Rohrwacher fits it into the story with the exceptional ease of a distinguished storyteller.

Lazzaro Felice von Alice Rohrwacher

In the first half of the film, the sharp-edged features of the masters are at stark contrast with the moonlike hills and slopes surrounding the estate, the domain of peasants, sheep, and wolves. Contrasts are at the heart of the film, never easy or moralizing, and always above affected. This is especially manifest in the appearance of the Marchioness’ son Tancredi, a skinny bleached blonde walking around with a small dog under his arm, bored to death and clearly a member of our own century. He befriends Lazzaro in a manner more akin to keeping a pet and the latter offers him shelter and care, starving himself to bring food to the spoiled pretense escapee hiding in the hills, asking his mother for ransom so he can run away from Inviolata. The two boys couldn’t be more different, and Rohrwacher places them in a barren landscape that shows what remains of humanity when all its toys are taken away. The divide between people is expressed in colors, movements and, above all, in what they take for granted.

Lazzaro’s behaviour is characteristic only of Lazzaro – nobody can make sense of it or tries to particularly hard. To most of his co-labourers, he is a simpleton who will perform any task given to him, a hard worker who can be made use of. Only Antonia, one of the younger girls, feels a kinship and respect towards him, though she is too shy to express it. In a sense, Lazzaro seems to be Inviolata itself – he has no parents to speak of and could have easily been dropped onto the earth by a divine hand centuries ago. Lazzaro may be a folk tale, a fable or even a fairy tale, but if that is the case, Rohrwacher certainly knows how to tell a story. His is alive and breathing even in the moment of his death, an impediment which takes a few decades to heal. The mythical wolf, whose howls Lazzaro shyly imitated together with the less than shy Tancredi, comes to wake him into a new world no more new than the stones are after a few centuries have passed. Namely, in his absence, the film has performed a more than categorical leap, as the peasants were carried off from their village to the city in order to rejoin the rest of the world by well-meaning police officers. It turns out that a great fraud, based on a true event, was performed by the Marchioness, who illegally kept her tenants as sharecroppers, a practice long since outlawed in Italy. Discovering the village had been abandoned, Lazzaro sets off for the city.

Lazzaro Felice von Alice Rohrwacher

His eyes see the gray overtones of contemporary Italy just as unjudigingly as they did the landscapes of Inviolata. But if he was unsuited for that world, he is even more out of place in this one. With great skillfullness, Rohrwacher makes visible the crucial collapse that goes hand in hand with the shift in the organization of labour, describing the transformation of values and humanity with acute imagery and feeling. What better eyes to look upon our world than those of a holy fool? Who better to hypothesize about avarice and ruthlessness than those who do not understand it? As a nun turns Lazzaro and the band of former peasants led by a grown-up Antonia out of a church they entered to listen to organ music, the music abandons the keys and follows them outside, calling a forgotten question back to life: What is grace? There is magic in the wind just as there is magic in the world, but they can all be buried if no one dares look their way. Magically, Rohrwacher turned Lazzaro felice from a fable to a document, a shift in vision and a grace in its own right. This is a film: Exuberance filled with profound sadness, like the sight of the sun sinking into the sea.