Following my first viewing of the 1976 Duelle earlier this year, I decided to spend the rest of 2018 finding, watching, and reviewing as many of the films made by director Jacques Rivette as I possibly could. Here follows the first product of that decision - and, I am happy to say, the 7000th feature film I have seen.

Out 1 is the Mount Everest of cinephilia.  The 13-hour* serial is, depending on how you feel about definitions, possibly the longest extant narrative film (there have been several experimental films that are longer, as is Peter Watkins's 1987 documentary Resan is longer. In terms of features, Zhang Sichuan's lost film The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple, released between 1928 and 1931, was 27 hours in total; Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 1980 Berlin Alexanderplatz is 15 hours, but that project arguably a stronger claim to "television miniseries" than "serial movie"), and this would already give it a substantial claim to fame and plenty of inherent interest. But on top of that, Out 1 accrued a tremendous amount of myth between its filming in the spring of 1970, and its first-ever home video release, a German DVD in 2013 (it was screened in multiple incomplete cuts only rarely during the first two decades of its life).

That goes down to the level of "what is its name, actually?" Co-director Jacques Rivette, in conceiving of the project, simply chose the word Out because it was the opposite of "in", i.e. "the in thing"; the 1 was added to generically indicate that there could, in principle, be an Out 2, 3, whatever, that this was just a slice in time without any particular differentiation from other slices in time. At one point, the cans holding a workprint had the handwritten note "noli me tangere", a Latin term found in the bible meaning "Do not touch me", and typically understood to differentiated the longer Out 1 from the 1972 release of Out 1: Spectre, a frivolous little four hours and 13 minutes, edited down from the full serial and released as a single film with an intermission. The habit had been for years to assume that Out 1: Noli Me Tangere was the serial's given title, though when Rivette and producer Stéphane Tchalgadjieff oversaw the completion of the film in 1990, for the Rotterdam Film Festival, they simply left it as Out 1; Tchalgadjieff has, in subsequent years, spoken of it as though Noli Me Tangere was obviously meant to be part of the title.

Now that the film is readily available (at least, to anybody willing to spend the money on the gorgeous, comprehensive, and inordinately pricey Blu-ray set released in the UK, US, and mainland Europe by Carlotta Films, or to anybody who subscribes to the right art film streaming sites), a little bit of the mystique has been chipped away. It's no longer a once-a-decade Event to have a chance to see it; it's merely an Event in that it still takes quite a substantial amount of effort to arrange the time to watch the giant monster of a project. Which is not, for God's sake, meant to be done in one exhausting sitting; the film is in eight parts, ranging from 73 to 110 minutes (but mostly around 100), and it is typically screened either in two blocks of four, or four blocks of two. The latter (which is almost what I did; I actually watched 2-2-1-3) is closest to Rivette's own idea that the way to engage with Out 1 was not as a motion picture but as a moving novel, and like a novel, it was okay to pick it up, put it down, pick it up, put it down... Even so, it remains one of the great marathons available to the film fan, a daunting task even in this age of binge-watching TV, where 13 hours of content is much less astonishing than it used to be (for while there's no more of Out 1 than there is of any random Netflix show in terms of time spent, Out 1 is a whole fuckload harder to watch). Which is probably why so many reviews take the form of memoirs or confessionals, rather than simply film analysis essays - including, as I reflect on it, the one I'm presently writing and you're presently reading. Once you get on the back side of Out 1, you want to commemorate that; you want to mark down in cold print that you just had an experience, one of the most singular that cinema can provide.

So with all that verbiage handled, the question remains: what in the fuck am I talking about? The simplest way to describe the scenario of Out 1, laid out by Rivette and co-director Suzanne Schiffman, is that it's a story about two pairs, each running through a fuzzy plot in April and May, 1970 (the film quite obviously occupies the same six-week period during which it was shot). One, we have a pair of avant-garde theater groups, both working on radical adaptations of Aeschylus: the group directed by Lili (Michèle Moretti) is rehearsing their version of Seven Against Thebes, while the group directed by Thomas (Michael Lonsdale) is conducting a series of associative exercises that may, eventually, coalesce into a version of Prometheus Bound. Two, we have a pair of con artists who think they've stumbled onto a conspiracy: Colin (Jean-Pierre Léaud), an apparent deaf-mute who annoys people by tunelessly playing a harmonica at outdoor cafés until he's given money to leave, receives a cryptic poem that leads him to suspect the existence of a group of thirteen powerful people guiding the fate of... well, something. He's matched with Frédérique (Juliet Berto, in the first of her three collaborations with Rivette), who flirts with men in bars and restaurants in order to get close enough to pick their pockets, and who along the way steals a packet of letters that lead her to discover the existence of the same group of thirteen. Note that, while I have just laid all that out like it makes a clean, comprehensible structure, some of the plot points in this paragraph don't occur until after the five-hour mark.

As for what happens within that structure... the snippy answer is to just say, "well, can't you watch the 13-hour movie? Gawd", but the thing about Out 1 is that "what happens" really does need that 13 hours to satisfactorily play itself out. Not because it is a-plot heavy movie - quite the opposite! I won't say that nothing happens here, but what happens is inconclusive, frustrating, anticlimactic for nearly all concerned. We more or less know, from Rivette's open conversations about the film, that he started with "I'd like to make an extraordinary long movie", and the content of that movie was at least initially incidental. The reason Out 1 is 13 hours long is for the sake of being 13 hours long; it is obviously designed to be at times annoying and unsatisfying, to trigger at least some variant of "why did I just watch all of that?" when it's all over and done. Not least because nearly all of its opening 90 minute episode (subtitled "From Lili to Thomas"; all eight of the episodes have these "relay titles", as Jonathan Rosenbaum terms it in his essential essay on the film, which substantially informs my own review) takes the form of endless long-takes watching the two theater troupes go through their improvisatory rehearsal exercises. And if you aware of the commitment you're making - which you would be; let's be honest, nobody ever watched Out 1 by accident - this opening gambit seems as much like a dare, or even a threat, as anything else: "oh, so you think you're good enough to handle this monstrosity? Well, what do you think of this 30-minutes-in-real-time acting game?"

Anyway, it might seem annoying and capricious and pretentious, and it probably is, but there's a purpose to it. Out 1 is, above all else, two things: a study of how screen acting works (and how it is like and unlike stage acting), and a diagnostic of post-1968 French leftist culture (as a third thing, it is a riff on Honoré de Balzac's career-spanning La Comédie humaine, which Rivette only knew by reputation at the time), . The former of these is explicit and obvious, and we'll get there. The second is conspicuous solely by never being mentioned at all, but if you're paying attention (and the film forgives you if you drift at some point), you'll hear the members of the Thirteen - the conspiracy does in fact exist, and it includes among its members ex-lovers Thomas and Lili - mention how they had all kinds of ambition and passion but in the last two years, it's all seemed so pointless. And of course, two years ago in April and May 1970 is April and May '68, arguably the most critical period in the history of 20th Century leftism, when the revolutionary ardor of the '60s hit a brick wall and turned into the indulgent malaise of the '70s, and all the shit that's happened in the years since.

Put it another way: Out 1 is about failure. Top-to-bottom failure. We see two conspiracy theorists fail to prove the existence of a conspiracy that is right there in the open. We see two theater troupes, neither one of which succeeds in putting on a single real performance (and Thomas doesn't even seem to want to; he apparently is just trying to bury his misery about being out of love with Lili into the work they used to do together). And those theater groups themselves are obviously part of the psychic hangover of the failed revolutionary era: representatives of the moment that leftists abandoned the streets and turned towards making difficult, weird art as part of their aimless "radicalism". In this respect, the fact that Out 1 apparently wastes 13 hours of the viewer's life on a narrative that goes absolutely no place, and characters who mostly just spin in circles, is precisely the point. That sense of "well, that meant nothing" is exactly the mood of early-'70s Europe that Rivette and Schiffman are depicting, and the film seems downright prophetic about the decade to come (and the '80s even more so).

That's one thread. The film, of course, has time for several others: it is, as mentioned, a Balzac homage, creating a cine-novelistic analogue to his trilogy History of the Thirteen from 1833-'35, itself a story about a conspiracy that achieves nothing. I have read no more Balzac than Rivette had, and I know this only because the film obligingly spells out that precise theme in its third episode, sitting patiently for a condensed Balzac lecture from a professor played by the great French film director Éric Rohmer, the same man who taught Rivette everything he knew about Balzac (Rohmer's 11-minute appearance counts as a blink-and-miss-it cameo by Out 1 standards).

It's also an experiment in low-budget epic filmmaking, and the way that actors shape characters, and characters shape stories, and what have you. Out 1 had no script, just an idea; Rivette and Schiffman worked with their game cast to develop the characters' knowledge, and very nearly all of the footage filmed during those six weeks was improvised. Which is, of course, how we end up with things like 90 minutes of acting exercises, and common is the viewer whose reaction to the first two episodes of Out 1 has been a drained resignation at the all-consuming aimlessness (fear not! It gets substantially plottier as it enters its fourth hour). For myself, I actually dug it - the film opens with a stretching and chanting exercise by Lili's group that resembles nothing so much as a religious invocation, and that's pretty much exactly what we get for the next 13 hours: the film is an act of worship in the temple of The Acting Process, and no matter what happens with the Thirteen, or the mysterious Pauline (Bulle Ogier, inaugurating her extremely productive working relationship with Rivette; she was, I think, the actor who worked with him the most times), who is also the mysterious Emilie, and is kind of the only sympathetic person we meet... no matter what goes on with any of this, there's always a strong awareness that we're watching performances being built by actors making choices. Some actors, like French New Wave icon Léaud, make that process seem fluid and graceful and invisible; some, like Lonsdale, look sweaty and confused and only start to find their footing during the course of the six weeks. The film collapses any distinction between "good acting" and "bad acting". It merely finds acting to be endlessly fascinating, leading to many long takes, some more boring than others, and not everyone will catalog those the same way (besides the rehearsals in the first episode, the Balzac lecture is one of the obvious points that would I think tend to break people into warring camps). This never stops: as late as the opening of the final episode, we still see what looks transparently like an improv game between actors given only the direction "contradict each other".

I find this stunningly interesting, but then, I ultimately have the mindset of a (failed) filmmaker, which is surely the best way to appreciate this. The whole film really does seem like a chance for Rivette to find out what happens if he gives actors a loose reign which he then variously tightens and lets go of entirely, before taking the whole mess into the editing room with editor Nicole Lubtchansky and assistant editor Carole Marquand to start making a different set of choices altogether. And if "what can actors do with improv?" doesn't seem like a question worth spending 13 hours on, I suppose you're likely to be at least somewhat antagonised by Out 1.

Still, that hands-off, let's-just-see-what-happens-in-front-of-the-camera approach yields other dividends as well. For one thing, you'll never see a more vivid portrait of a dynamic city at a specific moment than this film's documentary-quality depiction of Paris; there was no budget to do anything but allow the city to be the city, and to allow its citizens to be its citizens (resulting in many scenes where background figures openly gawk at the camera crew - they weren't extras, just passers-by). It's also a sublimely raw example of the filmmaking process laid bare: it's an ugly film, and acutely beautiful in its ugliness, with cinematographer Pierre-William Glenn capturing everything in day-glo colors that jar with the grainy crappiness of the 16mm stock that was all Tchalgadjieff could afford, and the current Blu-ray makes that grain look like an almost sacred thing. Shadows of the boom mike and camera crew appear frequently - including at one of the most emotionally critical moments of the final episode - and I suspect as many shots have hair and dust in the gate as don't. It doesn't look like a professional film: it looks like some guttural thing that has vomited itself out, pure cinema willed into being like some ungainly celluloid golem. In this, it is as much the last of the French New Wave films as it is the first great post-New Wave project.

At any rate, it is exhausting in the best way: after you watch it, you know you've watched it, and have been inundated with thoughts on actors, politics, cinema, literature, life, and sex; you have seen the most laborious anti-thriller on the books; you have seen a movie whose punishingly slow running time also manages to feel like nothing at all, given the hypnotising quality of all those long shots. It doesn't all go someplace, and I think Rivette learned a lot more by making it than I or anyone who isn't Jonathan Rosenbaum could possibly learn by watching it. But it deserves its status as one of the pinnacle achievements of the medium, which ever the fuck medium that is. Ignore that star rating, and notice that I didn't even bother with a "bang for your buck" entry; this movie is a thing completely removed from anything else I know, and cannot be compared reasonably to any other piece of cinema, and really does need to be experienced by everyone who's in the least bit curious of what one of the truly special cases of filmmaking looks like.

*Or, in the most current and widely-available version, 12 hours and 55 minutes, but let us please not split hairs.

†As I've mentioned, reviews of Out 1 tend to take a certain memoiristic, "look at what I just did!" tone; Rosenbaum's seems to be the only major work of Out 1 criticism in English that was informed by more than one viewing. Possibly because he is the only living person to have seen Out 1 twice.