24 October 2005 | Delly
Worlds in precarious balance.
Haut Bas Fragile is the loosely intertwined, loosely musical tale of three girls: Louise, Ninon and Ida, as well as their flirtations with Roland, a set designer -- it would be useful here to recall Vincente Minnelli's original profession.
Haut Bas Fragile is as elusive as anything Rivette has made, that is to say, as elusive as any movie ever made, and as always one must be vigilant. For instance, we are told that Louise ( Mariane Denicourt, looking like Audrey Tautou crossed with a supermodel ) has just emerged from a five-year coma. But how could someone who just woke out of a coma know jujitsu? Those familiar with Rivette know that actors and roleplaying are his big theme. And in Haut Bas Fragile, whenever people start to sing, that's when they're lying to each other... Only Ninon's dance, a metaphor for Rivette's directing style, is fully in the moment and liberated from the fictions of both an imagined past ( Ida, an orphan searching for her birth parents ) and an imagined future ( Louise, who only cares about money. ) Keeping that in mind, couldn't Louise be an actress HIRED by the crooked tycoon in order to retrieve the incriminating papers, rather than his daughter like she says? The story they concoct together would be perfect, because the man who has removed the papers from the aunt's house is the classic Rivettean artist and resurrected Round Table knight -- he's even called Roland -- who not only buys Louise's improbable story but helps her EMBELLISH it in order to, as he thinks, protect her. But Louise is one of the most monstrous characters in Rivette's films, more so even than Walser from Secret Defense. Imagine Jean Seberg as Karl Rove's hit-man and you'll get the idea of how treacherous this character is -- poetic Nouvelle Vague muse on the outside, hollow servant of capitalism on the inside.
Haut Bas Fragile must be Rivette's most despairing film. It establishes the present moment as emotionally and aesthetically dead and seems to swoon over the beauty of the past ( Louise's aunt's house, the sets that Roland builds, Anna Karina ) before telling us that that's a lie too. As Karina says at one point, when she catches Ida looking at pictures of her in all her nubile glory, "Don't look at those old things." Karina, by the way, is only the most blatant among a labyrinthine amount of cross-connections and references to other French films, characters and real-life people. For instance, the voice of Louise's father is played by Laszlo Szabo, who not only was the Wizard of Oz-like Virgil from Rivette's L'Amour Par Terre, but was the man who stole Karina away from Belmondo-as-Godard in Pierrot Le Fou! Along with the pointed subplot about stolen papers and cutthroat business practices in the 60's -- gilded age of the New Wave -- this can't help but make a fan of the era wonder... Does Rivette think that Godard has undeservedly eclipsed his reputation, and has he been holding a torch for Karina all these years? ( As Marie et Julien proves, he definitely has a lost love deep in his past. )
For all its devious brilliance, I must say that this film is weaker than its equally dark follow-up and sister film, Secret Defense. The pacing is surprisingly choppy, there are dips in tension and involvement, and the musical numbers are indifferently staged. Rivette must have thought that using amateur dancers and generic songs would give the movie a raw vitality missing from the more wedding-cake MGM films of the 50's, but that was a condescending mistake. Rivette may not realize that there is as much cynical social commentary in Gigi or The Band Wagon as there is in Haut Bas Fragile, and that it is precisely the big-budgets and elaborate routines that make those movies so subversive. Minnelli's resolutely fake backlots are taking on a sur-reality with time that may one day make Rivette's more studied "real reality," to quote Pola X, seem... kind of unreal. Considering Rivette's ambiguous relation with the past, though, along with his persistent suggestion that it doesn't even exist, maybe this was exactly the point.