Jacques Rivette and Jane Birkin on the set of a "Around a Small Mountain." (The Cinema Guild, The Cinema…)
Among the founding fathers of the French New Wave, Jacques Rivette, who turned 83 this month, has remained a relatively forgotten figure. His films were less fashionable and often more perplexing than those of his peers Jean Luc-Godard, Éric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol.
Not insignificantly, they were also a good deal longer. Rivette's movies typically run three or four hours — the rarely screened "Out 1," from 1971, is 121/2 hours long — and their marathon running times are intimately tied to his sense of narrative as a game, a force with a life of its own, a spell capable of overcoming actors and viewers alike.
But Rivette's most recent film, "Around a Small Mountain," which premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2009, is, of all things, a model of concision and compression. A wry, playful, not-quite romance set against the idiosyncratic backdrop of a traveling circus, it runs a mere 83 minutes and is the shortest of all his films by at least half an hour.
It is being issued on DVD this week by Cinema Guild, a New York-based distributor that has released some of the best and most adventurous indies, documentaries and foreign films of recent years, including "Everyone Else," "Sweetgrass" and "The Strange Case of Angelica."
The film opens with a chance encounter on a mountain road in the Languedoc region in the South of France. (The original French title translates as "36 Views of St. Loup Mountain.") Vittorio (Sergio Castellitto) stops to help Kate (Jane Birkin), whose car has broken down, and seemingly on a whim, tags along as she returns to the circus community she left years ago, under circumstances that are not immediately clear.
Unlike habitual circus chroniclers Federico Fellini and Tod Browning, Rivette is neither given to carnivalesque spectacle nor drawn to backstage intrigue. But he does stage several key scenes within the big top, in the forlorn single ring of this sparsely attended, family-run operation.
This theatrical setting, where clowns glumly enact a bit of plate-breaking slapstick and where Kate eventually confronts the trauma that has long haunted her, is the equivalent of the many stages that have figured in Rivette's films, many of which have explored the power of improvisation and the blurred line between acting and being.
The circus ring is, in short, a transformative space, "the most dangerous place on Earth," as Vittorio puts it, "but also where everything is possible."
"Around a Small Mountain" observes the delicate, sometimes mysterious dance of attraction and avoidance that ensues between Kate and Vittorio, a pair of wanderers and restless souls. Rivette's previous film, "The Duchess of Langeais" (from 2007, on DVD through IFC Films), also concerned a skittish courtship.
But in that period chamber drama, a Balzac adaptation about the doomed, skewed passion between a coquettish aristocrat and a wounded war hero (Jeanne Balibar and Guillaume Depardieu), the drawing rooms of 19th-century France are the battlefield for an intricately choreographed and potentially deadly romantic duel.
There is less emotional turmoil in "Around a Small Mountain," which works its way toward something like an act of healing and catharsis — albeit one with a singular sting.
Critic Edward Said, writing about what he called "late style," classified some late works as career-capping valedictions, defined by harmony and resolution, and others as stubborn acts of defiance and difficulty, raging against the dying of the light. Rivette's film, true to form, does not quite fit into either category.
Serene and elegant, "Around a Small Mountain," is a summary of career-long themes and obsessions. But it is also too modest, too odd, too uncertain and vague to feel like a crowning glory. Which is as it should be for Rivette, one of the most original filmmakers of all time, and one who has always been without peer when it comes to telling open-ended stories.