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Out 1: Noli Me Tangere
Directed by Jacques Rivette
Available on Netflix until Oct. 1

By Noel Vera

WHAT TO CALL Jacques Rivette’s 1971 work? He named it “Out” because the word “in” was so fashionable (the “in thing” to use) added a “1” because “(t)he action of the film is rather like a serial which could continue through several episodes.”

But Rivette is also about accident and chance (throughout his career but particularly in this production), and (so the story goes) scribbled on the cans of an early work print were the words “touch me not” in Latin. And what could be more eloquently descriptive of this monstrous long mix of fantasy and realism filled with characters so sensitive (so perceptive, so susceptible to suffering) they both resist and seek out contact? What more appropriate than that the film insist on its status as an exceptional case, never to be shortened or simplified?

What’s in it? A series of scenes where Rivette gathers his actors (or actor) tells them who they are and what must happen, then cuts them loose. And they fly or fray (as the director put it) “without text or rehearsal” to bring something new to the scene, the film, the world.

On and on and on for some twelve-and-a-half hours.

Out 1: Noli Me Tangere is either Rivette’s biggest folly or earliest masterpiece depending on how you feel. Biggest problem of the film (mini series?) is perhaps its uniqueness: how to compare when it resembles few others (Feuillade, arguably; Rivette’s own L’Amour fou) — and how for some 40 years few have actually seen the work, much less its variant (Out 1: Spectre is roughly a third of the original’s length).

First image: group of actors with asses in the air, heads planted ostrich-like in the ground — Lili (Michele Moretti) and her people starting off with yoga (the Plow Pose) hoping to stage  Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes. A second Aeschylus group (the better known Prometheus Bound) has Thomas (Michael Lonsdale) and his folks begin with mirroring exercises (from — as Rivette points out — Jerzy Grotowski or Peter Brook or The Living Theater (channeling the Marx Brothers?) after which they hold a discussion on what did or did not work. Lili’s actors seem to focus more on developing voice and body (dancing, singing), Thomas’ on the mind (perceptions, impulses, emotions); both groups gradually wander away from their source text to endless improvisation, seemingly pointless experimentation.

Weaving in and out (sometimes running parallel with) the two narratives: Colin (Jean-Pierre Leaud), a deaf-mute begging alms from café customers (prodding them with sharp bursts of harmonica if they hesitate), and Frederique (Juliet Berto), a street hustler who flirts and fleeces for cash. Call them soloists or (as I prefer to think of them) the show’s high-wire acts: Leaud’s Colin is a literary romantic who, given minimum prompting (three mysterious notes handed to him referencing Balzac and Lewis Carroll) conjures a vast conspiracy called the Thirteen, complete with elaborate ciphers, sinister agents, a network of tendrils penetrating the length and breadth of Paris. Berto’s Frederique is more street; where Colin has a consistent schtick (deaf mute with harmonica), Frederique improvises on the fly, often using her gamin good looks and apparent guilelessness to manipulate the unwary, mostly male, mark. She catches wind of the Thirteen too, though where Colin wishes to learn more and possibly make contact, all Frederique can think of doing at first is blackmail them for cash.   

Which all sounds forbiddingly arcane, but the key phrase Rivette uses to describe the making of his films (and presumably their viewing) is “play”: we’re watching two groups staging plays, two individuals playing at various roles (the codebreaker, the journalist, the lover; the hustler, the extortionist, the masked avenger), a 13-hour film playing with your expectations of and notions about conventional narrative.

But play is meaningless without the weight and sting of pain, entropy, time (skip the rest of this paragraph if you haven’t seen the film/miniseries!). Lili’s group suddenly has the chance to realize its dreams and as suddenly the chance is taken away. The loss stuns the group; they devote themselves to finding their betrayer but the effort falls apart, the players scatter. The fate of Thomas’s group isn’t as dramatic but possibly more insidious: when two members quit the group just fades and Thomas — who has shown himself, despite his physical limitations, to be a charmer and manipulator — is left sobbing hysterically on the beach. (Turns around and pretends it’s yet another ruse but who’s he fooling? Who is left a fool?) Frederique’s fate is perhaps the most optimistic: she dies playing yet another romantic role, with mask and the fakest-looking blood I’ve ever seen (Raspberry syrup anyone?); Colin is left alone with possibly the worst fate of all, perfectly contained and whole in his cocoon of insanity. 

Out 1: Noli Me Tangere is a boundless bottomless game one plays with the characters, the filmmaker, oneself. Is it a great film? Is it at least great fun? I think so; you may disagree, may in fact not be enjoying yourself, in which case you’re always free to opt out. But there’ll always be that little voice whispering incessantly, maliciously, behind your back… that possibly you lost, possibly you weren’t good enough to win.

Out 1: Noli Me Tangere is also available on DVD.