• One has to be careful whom one tells about watching 12-hour long films. It could become easy for people to assume that this is some kind of regular occurrence - in fact, even in the world of 'arthouse' cinema, such mammoth running times are extremely rare, for obvious reasons. This is one thing that Hollywood and art cinema share in common: the generally accepted running time of 90-120 minutes, with a minority of movies that dare to approach, but rarely exceed, the three-hour mark.

    For this reason, a film like Out 1 (runtime: 729 minutes) is a challenge for even the most hardened cinephile, and it goes some way in explaining why it has only ever been screened on a handful of occasions and remains extremely hard to find.

    Originally devised as a TV series by maverick Nouvelle Vague director Jacques Rivette, it raised little interest from the French networks, and wound up being given a brief theatrical run instead (Peter Watkins was forced to do much the same with his brilliant nuclear war pseudo- documentary The War Game, although that had more to do with state censorship than issues with running time). Shown a couple of times in 1971, Out 1 has re-emerged at a handful of Rivette retrospectives over the last two decades, and many who have seen it, including esteemed US critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, have acclaimed it as one of the greatest films of all time.

    Is it? Well, yes, if you like Rivette. That alone is a big 'if', as Jacques Rivette has never been a commercially successful director. Only two of his films were hits (Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974) and La Belle Noiseuse (1991), both superb), and many remain difficult to find on DVD today (Out 1 only recently became available over the internet after a rare videotape was uploaded). Nevertheless, he is greatly respected within the film community, and with good reason - his playfully surreal narratives, sense of pacing and use of improvisation set him apart as one of cinema's most unique and satisfying film-makers.

    Out 1 deals with a theme that re-occurs throughout Rivette's work: the nature of acting, particularly in the context of theatre and improvisation. His fascination with acting make Rivette's films a far more collaborative process than many of his contemporaries, as the improvisational aspects allow actors to have a far more active role in determining how the film comes together. Out 1 is roughly divided into four major narratives, gradually intertwining and blurring as the film develops: two consisting of acting troupes, each trying to devise post-modern theatrical adaptations of Aeschylus plays; the other two individual petty thieves (played by Nouvelle Vague icons Jean-Pierre Léaud and Juliet Berto) pursuing eccentric methods of making money; and an overarching plot involving a mysterious Balzac-inspired conspiracy centred around an organisation known as 'the thirteen'.

    As with any Rivette film featuring a 'conspiracy' narrative, the mysteries and secret organisations are little more than a red herring. As the characters are slowly explored and revealed and their plans and interpersonal connections break down, the film becomes increasingly symbolic of post-1968 ennui and the decline of the ideals of that era. For a film made in 1971, these were remarkably prescient themes; another French director in Jean Eustache would tackle this topic equally satisfyingly in his 1973 masterpiece The Mother and the Whore. But this is not the limit of Out 1's scope.

    Comprised of eight episodes of roughly 90 minutes each (the beginning of each episode has a brief, abstract black-and-white still montage of the events of the previous chapter), Out 1 is no less watchable than any quality TV series, and may even be better experienced on a one-episode- at-a-time basis. This is not to say that it doesn't remain challenging even when viewed in segments. Like most Rivette films, it uses the first few hours to simply establish the characters before embarking on the plot, of sorts, and some of those early scenes (particularly the sequences depicting the actors' heavily abstracted 'exercises') seem interminably long. These scenes are important, however, not just as an exploration of the improvisational acting methods that play both a literal and a metaphorical role in the film, but as a method of adjusting the viewer to the somewhat languorous pace of the film. Paradoxically, long takes make long films far more tolerable for an audience, and this understanding of pacing has led Rivette, along with more modern directors like Michael Haneke and Béla Tarr, to create films with less commercial running-times that nevertheless retain the capacity to leave viewers enthralled.

    In a film that is in many ways about acting, the acting is fantastic. Many famous Nouvelle Vague faces appear, including the aforementioned Léaud and Berto, the outstanding Michel Lonsdale and Rivette regular Bulle Ogier. Even another legendary director in Eric Rohmer has a great cameo as a Balzac professor who appears in a pivotal scene. The people and architecture of Paris c. 1971, though, seem to have an equally significant role - the city landscapes, crowd scenes and interested onlookers freeze Out 1 in time, a document of a place at a point in history.

    After a little more than 720 minutes, the film ends on an impossibly brief, enigmatic note; yet, the exhausting journey that the viewer has taken is so full of possibilities, intricacy and spontaneity, that one would be forgiven for wanting to start all over again from the beginning, or see the next twelve hours in the lives of these characters. For those who have watched many kinds of cinema and think they have seen everything the art form has to offer, Out 1 is a reminder that cinema has the potential to be so many more things and diverge in so many more directions than current conventions allow. For film-makers, film critics and artists of all disciplines, this is something to be cherished.