More than anything else watching "Out 1, noli me tangere" was a completely unique and, as much as I hate the use of the word in relation to film, revelatory experience. For most of my life I have involuntarily dwelt on what I perceived as 'imperfections' in any book, film, television series, or album I was particularly interested in, and completely ignored the argument that the whole, the ultimate experience, overpowers any flaws to the point that they don't matter. By no means is "Out 1" a 'perfect' film by conventional standards, boom mics are visible, random passers-by in Paris stare with bewilderment at Rivette and his actors, some scenes (in my estimation) go on far too long, specifically the 'acting exercises', which are beautiful and fascinating at times and indulgent nonsense at their worst. At least, that's what I thought while watching the film. Looking back at "Out 1" as a complete work of art it is a triumph of style, of aesthetic, of humor, of storytelling and of acting, and the end product is, in its own unique way, 'perfect'.
"Out 1" has an intimidating reputation, and most reviewers fail to point out that it is largely unwarranted. Most people know it as an outrageously long (it is nearly thirteen hours in length) hardcore art film. That is not true. "Out 1" was planned as a television series for French state TV, which refused to air it resulting in it being shown once, theatrically, over two days in 1971 and then disappearing for 18 years. It is, in intent, as much a conventional theatrical film as Dennis Potter's "The Singing Detective" or "I, Claudius". This is not in any way diminishing its status, in fact, it should encourage more people to see the film knowing that it was intentionally split into eight easily digestible episodes and flows like a great miniseries.
Also, while the film has sections of impenetrability, and is ultimately confusing here and there, it does have a mostly linear and easy-to-follow storyline, at least for the attentive, intelligent viewer. It's also an incredibly entertaining storyline, and while I'm not going to describe it here, I'll just quote from Rosenbaum's review of the film, which does a nice job of summing up the main plot: "Then gradually, as in a vast novelistic fresco, more crisscrossing intrigues emerge -- some of which include a lawyer (Francoise Fabian), another member of Lili's group (Hermine Karagheuz), and a hippie boutique owner (Bulle Ogier) with a dual identity who provides the name for episode six, "From Pauline to Emilie," all by herself -- until all strands are intertwined. Eventually Frederique steals a batch of letters that point her in the direction of the same mystery Colin is investigating: a clandestine group of 13 people from different sectors of French society who, inspired by Balzac's Histoire des Treize (gracefully explained here by Eric Rohmer, in the role of a literary scholar), have come together to control Paris. Or perhaps the group has never existed as anything but a plan, one abandoned after the failed French revolution of 1968. Colin and Frederique have different reasons for their pursuits -- his are intellectual, hers are mercenary; their paths cross only once, and very briefly at that." There is more to the film, certainly, much more, but that is the main driving force of the story.
The film also destroyed any ideas I had about 'efficiency' in storytelling. "Out 1" takes as much time as it needs to tell its story, and unfolds slowly over eight episodes, exploring each and every one of its characters in great detail and leading to a climax that's both believable and satisfying within the realm of the film, but also frustrating not in a conventionally anti-climactic fashion, but in the way the end of a story within your own actual life often feels. I do firmly believe that the viewer should not attempt to watch the film in one long stretch, as the ability to reflect on each episode (which are, on average, around 90 minutes long, and are as full of detail and depth as many great feature films) was an essential part of just how much I ended up enjoying "Out 1". It is lengthy, sure, but it is unbelievably enjoyable viewing, mostly thanks to the fantastic enigma at the center of the film as well as its brilliant sense of humor. I'm sure Rivette enthusiasts will stop reading this once I say it, but I can absolutely see the Coen brothers (albeit the Coens in "Barton Fink" mode rather than "Burn After Reading" mode) making a much shorter version of this film and doing a great job of it. The characters, the humor, and the mystery are all there.
Nearly all of the characters in this film are great, but Colin and Frederique are possibly my two favorite characters in all of cinema. I won't say much about them here, but they are among the best-defined and most interesting characters I've seen, and even without the strength of the rest of the film would have been enough to keep it interesting. I'm not sure how much of this film was improvised, but I understand that quite a lot of it was, which is really a testament to the skill of the cast and also the director, whose long takes and subtle direction are as fascinating and beautiful as the performances and story. "Out 1" is a fascinating enigma of a film, one which takes the viewer on a fascinating, enigmatic journey filled with hilarity, tragedy, and mystery, as well as a healthy dose of adventure. "Out 1" defies labels, defies genre categorization, and remains completely unpredictable throughout (even its final shot is surprising, and brilliant). This is most definitely a masterpiece.
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