Do you have a movie you'd like to see reviewed? This and other perks can be found on our Patreon page!
In the interest of honesty, I'll confess immediately that I have no expertise at all on the career of French director Jacques Rivette. So perhaps all of the things I am about to say about his 1976 film Duelle are miserably obvious; and it's true what I've heard, that this is by no means one of his most interesting or accomplished works. If that is true, it tells us more about Rivette than about Duelle, an extraordinary motion picture.
The film (which has always been known by its French title in the anglosphere, despite the director's preference of Twhylight; owing, I imagine, to the cosmic superiority of the wordplay in the French title to the labored, ugly English neologism) is one of the oddest, Frenchest, most '70s of 1970s French films that I have seen. It's equal parts noir homage and fairy tale, both parts housed inside of a slow-moving European art film of a reasonably conventional sort, though I should suggest that "noir/fairy tale hybrid" already takes us at least a step or two outside of convention. It has the general structure of a mystery: Lucie (Hermine Karagheuz) is a hotel clerk who, one night, is accosted by a brunette woman in a veil, Leni (Juliet Berto), who claims herself to be the former lover of Lord Max Christie, a sometime resident of the hotel, now dead. Lucie gets hired as amateur detective to find out where Christie was last. Meanwhile, Lucie's brother Pierrot (Jean Babilée) is being seduced by a blonde woman, Viva (Bulle Ogier), who wants a large gem he received from the late Christie, and which is discovered by his love, a taxi dancer named Jeanne (Nicole Garcia) who goes professionally by the name "Elsa". That's already using events from later in the film to help clarify the opening of the film, which doesn't exactly start in medias res, though it focuses on characters who act as though it it had.
Storytelling in Duelle, then, is all a matter of confusion and withheld information, with Lucie and Elsa (who strike me as the film's protagonists, though Berto, Ogier, and Babilée are all higher-billed) spending most of the running time stumbling their way into information the other three have had all along. It seems churlish to say what that information is, given that it comes halfway through the two-hour film, though every last online synopsis I've read spells it out quite without concern; it's enough to say that the film turns out to be, quite without warning, a modern, urban, art film version of early medieval folklore, centered on the transition from winter to spring. In this, it was conceived of as part of a tetralogy, called Scènes de la vie parallèle ("Scenes from a Parallel Life"), in which the basic theme of mythic beings coming to earth during Carnival season was to be explored through four totally different genres: a love story, a film noir, a pirate adventure, and a musical comedy - Duelle, the film noir, bears a subtitle calling itself the second part of this series, though it was shot and released first. The third part, Noroît, was made later in 1976. The first part, Histoire de Marie et Julien, was abandoned days after it was started,when Rivette suffered from a physical and emotional breakdown; it was completed in a wholly unrelated form in 2003. The fourth part was never made.
There are, I think, two takeaways from this. One is the grandiosity of the project, at least when Rivette was thinking of it in 1975, while shooting the footage. Duelle isn't just a movie, or even just a dive into folkloric elements; it's the opening salvo in a grand-scale treatise on how human life and the elements interact. That this treatise ended up never being completed doesn't, I think, end up mattering very much to the sense of scale boiling just beneath the surface of what is, ironically, one of the smallest films the director ever made (if we define "feature-length film" as "more than 60 minutes long" - I don't, but let's say we do - then Duelle was Rivette's shortest feature until his final film in 2009, and a notable shift after three consecutive films that were over three hours long*).
The other takeaway is that, at this point in the mid-'70s, Rivette had a hankering to play around with genre a bit. That's wholly evident on the evidence of Duelle itself, which acts the part of a hard-boiled mystery that keeps disintegrating on itself. This puts in intriguing focus on Lucie, and Karagheuz's performance. The film isn't especially character-oriented or performance driven, and Berto and Ogier are especially working in an emptied-out register that strongly resembles the flat performances in a Robert Bresson film (Bresson strikes me as the most overt aesthetic touchstone for much of what the film is doing, though Rivette's stated primary influence was Jean Cocteau). There's a stagey hollowness to most of the film, and this thrusts Karagheuz into prominence (and Garcia, to a much smaller degree), given that her wary puzzlement is maybe the most pervasive human emotion in the film. Given the focus on her reactions and her central perspective on a narrative that keeps refusing to give us what we want, her puzzlement pretty effortlessly becomes our puzzlement, and this strikes me, in a way I can't articulate, as the "1970s French art film" equivalent of the scarred cynicism of a proper hard boiled story. In both cases, the narrative plays out by depriving us of our sense that the world makes sense and is right; for Duelle that lack of rightness isn't just moral, but expository - the film is dominated by a sense that everything fits together and makes sense, to everybody except us.
That being said, the elements of this that echo film noir are entirely disrupted by the elements of fantasy and fairy tale, and even before that becomes clear in the narrative (and it does; for all I've just praised the film's ambiguity, it's not interested in keeping it up past the midway point), there's a certain glamour that has been cast over the movie. Duelle might act like a detective movie, but it doesn't ever look like one. Instead, Rivette and cinematographer William Lubtchansky do everything they can within the limits (aesthetic and budgetary) of '70s European realism to make the film's Paris seem like a shimmering dreamscape. A great deal of this comes entirely from the camera movement: the filmmakers have a restless, kinetic approach to their compositions, chasing into spaces and craning around to see everything, directly contrasting the arthouse slowness of the narrative pace. And a great deal comes from a superb choice of locations: one major confrontation takes place in the green-blue depths of an ominously industrial public aquarium, with the undulating fish in the background drawing far more attention than the characters, bringing an uncanny feeling into what's already a charged moment.
There's also a lot of finely honed use of lighting, too. The film revolves around the contrast between light and dark, in pretty much every detail of its mise en scène (I did mention Viva and Leni's hair, and not just for fun), and Lubtchansky makes full use of that dichotomy in constructing images. Given the limitations of the film stock (notwithstanding Mario Bava and his disciples in Italy, I tend to think that this period of European film production was hampered by some of the ugliest color stock in cinema history), what he extracted from the movie is a damned miracle: a kaleidoscope of dawn and dusk hues mingling with gemlike blues and greens, with red used as a sharp punctuation. There are moments of drama and metacomedy where the punchline depends in its entirety on the strong contrast between deep black spaces and brightly lit individual elements. It's a suitably mythic feeling for a mythic narrative.
There is, in all this, an air of pageantry; I wonder if that's what has harmed the film's reputation? Rivette is known for his discursive, actor-focused, improvised narratives, and Duelle is really none of those things. Discursive, maybe; people avoid saying what they mean as long as possible. Still, the pleasures of this film are more atmospheric than psychological - which isn't to say psychology is banished! Lucie and Jeanne are a pair of well-defined characters, the latter with a tragic dimension. And in their pointedly inhuman way, Leni and Viva are too. Still, Duelle has an aura of artifice clinging to it that gives even its most rich moments of emotion a musty feeling. Nonetheless, human emotion is there nonetheless, and coupled with the film's enthusiastic tribute to crime cinema, fantasy cinema, and the purity of lighting, it's hard for me to find much fault with this wholly absorbing realist mystery fable.
*And saying that Out 1 is "over three hours long" is on par with saying that the temperature in Saharan Africa is "typically above freezing".