Film Scouts Diaries

1995 Montreal Film Festival Diaries
Montreal Diary #6

by David Sterritt

August 30, 1995

Of all the reasons for attending film festivals, perhaps the most important is the opportunity they provide for seeing works that may never be shown outside the festival circuit. I certainly hope some enterprising American distributor picks up "Haut Bas Fragile," the new picture by Jacques Rivette, who stands with the greatest figures in European cinema. But the odds are not very good, considering that few recent Rivette films have played in US theaters - with the major exception of "La Belle Noiseuse," which was sold more on Emmanuelle Beart's beauty than on Rivette's impeccable stylistics. "Haut Bas Fragile" is not a Rivette masterpiece on the order of "L'Amour fou" or "Out One: Spectre" or "Celine and Julie Go Boating," to name three of his best achievements. It's quirky and engaging, though, and more accessible than "Jeanne la Pucelle," the elegant historical epic that preceded it. And it's absolutely steeped in the filmmaker's favorite themes, which makes it a must for anyone interested in his oeuvre.

Like many another Rivette film, "Haut Bas Fragile" has more than one main character - three, to be precise, and at the beginning of the story they have little in common except their Paris addresses. One is a gangster's girlfriend, looking for anonymity after a nasty incident involving her lover. Another is a young woman who doesn't know her parents, but hopes she can trace her mother through a song she remembers from childhood. The third has a wealthy background, a distant and mysterious father, and a sense of disorientation resulting from the long period she recently spent in a coma. Their lives intertwine by chance, and as usual in his movies, Rivette shows less interest in controlling the events they go through than in capturing the details of light, movement, gesture, and environment that permeate their lives. Also as usual, he's fascinated by the thin and blurry boundaries that never quite succeed in keeping fiction, reality, and dreams neatly separated from one another.

All the film's major elements - its concern with role playing, its hints of a vague conspiracy threatening some of the characters, its vision of Paris as a sort of giant labyrinth or game board - are familiar from numerous Rivette works going straight back to "Paris nous apartient," his very first feature. He's clearly obsessed with these things, but he isn't somber or self-important about them; in fact, "Haut Bas Fragile" is full of quiet humor, and becomes a flat-out musical comedy at a number of utterly charming moments. Rivette has been bolder and more experimental in the past, but he's rarely been more outgoing and entertaining than he is here. It's delightful to see him in such fine form.

Another reason for attending film festivals is to see movies with strong international credentials, and "Bird of Prey" certainly has these: Although it's an American production, it takes place in Bulgaria and features an eclectic cast in a story of intrigue across national borders. It all sounds promising until you start listening to the howlingly bad dialogue concocted by no fewer than four screenwriters, spoken in tones ranging from the pretentious (Richard Chamberlain) to the puerile (Jennifer Tilly). Temistocles Lopez directed the movie, which at least includes some perky singing by Leslie Ann Warren - not enough to salvage the picture, but good for a few minutes of relief before the overbearing melodramatics come flooding back. Better luck next time, folks.

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