Around a Small Mountain (36 vues du Pic Saint Loup)
dir. Jacques Rivette, 2009, France/Italy
The bottom line: A worthy coda to an extraordinary career. See it on the big screen and pay your last respects.
Now playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center is Around a Small Mountain, the latest and, according to some reports, last film by 82-year-old French New Wave master Jacques Rivette. Perhaps the most notable aspect of the film, at least for Rivette fans, is the film’s atypically brief running time; for a man whose best known work includes experimental endurance tests running between 4 and 13 hours in length, it is perhaps both unusual and fitting that his swan song would clock in at a very lean and audience-friendly 84 minutes. This framework allows Rivette to tell a charming, wise, deceptively simple story that calls to mind the mature simplicity of the late masterworks of such disparate artists as Jorge Luis Borges, Henri Matisse and Robert Bresson.
The story of Around a Small Mountain centers on Vittorio, an Italian businessman (Sergio Castellitto), who crosses paths with the performers of a low-rent traveling circus in the Cevennes region of France while en route to an appointment in Barcelona. Vittorio doesn’t seem to be in a particular hurry as he ends up spending the better part of two weeks hanging out with the troupe, becoming further and further drawn into the lives of its performers until, inevitably, he too becomes part of the circus. Central to Vittorio’s fascination with this troupe is his romantic attraction to the mysterious, absentee circus owner, Kate (the magnificent Jane Birkin), a middle-aged beauty with a tragic past who has only recently become reunified with the other performers.
As with most Rivette films, Around a Small Mountain is also a mystery, albeit one that unfolds at a very relaxed pace. Little by little, Vittorio learns the dark secret of Kate’s past and, like a Hollywood film noir hero of the 1940s, concocts a scheme to have her confront this incident so that she may free herself from the chains of a terrible memory and learn to truly live again. As trite as this may sound, the film’s plot is really only an excuse for Rivette and his regular screenwriter Pascal Bonitzer to explore the nature of performance and how art and life are inextricably bound. Delightful scenes of jugglers, acrobats and clowns performing are intercut with the main story until it becomes unclear where the performance ends and life begins. A good example is the long-take scene, reminiscent of John Ford, where Kate delivers a theatrical graveside monologue to a former lover. Few film directors are as attentive to actors as Rivette has been throughout his career in general and to Birkin specifically here.
Around a Small Mountain also calls to mind Yasujiro Ozu’s Floating Weeds, another “late film” about a troupe of traveling players on the verge of packing it in, and Parade, Jacques Tati’s modest, shot-on-video final film, which was likewise set primarily within a circus. Like Ozu and Tati, Rivette clearly feels an affinity for the camaraderie of characters within this milieu, which he undoubtedly sees as analogous to the relationships between cast and crew members on a film set. The highlight of Rivette’s movie, however, is a scene of Kate by herself, in which she tests the waters of circus performing for the first time in many years. Alone in an empty field, suspended several feet above the ground, the sixty-something Birkin successfully walks a real tightrope. Figuratively speaking, one could say the same for Rivette.