The French New Wave is winding down after a long reign. As a character says in Rivette’s late-middle-period masterpiece, La Belle Noiseuse (91), as if addressing the director himself, “I will always admire you, but I feel sorry for you, too . . . I wouldn’t want to finish like you . . . in a comedy.” Whether in fulfillment of a prophecy or a statement of intent, Rivette has now made that comedy—an 85-minute film that sums up cinema from the director for whom a three-hour running time is short. How is so slight a work so dense yet so light? To answer the question with more questions: what is the weight of a jester’s gestures? Of humor without jokes? Of language drained of drama to become alliterated chains of verbal play? Around a Small Mountain is like a performance reduced to entrances and exits.
A series of questions is a fitting way to sum up a film that, while not necessarily colorful, is about creating colors. Jane Birkin plays a textile designer who devises new dyes for a living, but was originally born to a traveling circus. She returns home in an attempt to understand the traumatic accidental loss (or murder?) of her lover during a daredevil whip act 23 years previously. Sergio Castellitto plays an Italian wanderer who becomes fascinated with this sad, elegant beauty—or with her story at any rate. He also becomes this threadbare troupe’s solitary fan.
Even in a film this compact, Rivette takes his time. The action crawls along in the bright sunlight of a valley where the circus has settled temporarily. Here, the days begin and end and begin again, punctuated by short, stunning scenes of theatrically lit poses and choreography that evoke Rivette’s critical summary of mise en scène decades earlier as an “architecture of relations, moving and yet suspended in space.” It’s this Rivette, perhaps the most respected as a critic among his fellow once-Young Turks, who finally gets the spotlight here. This is not film as criticism, as with Noroît (76), but Rivette’s autobiographical tale in which watcher becomes maker, and in which the audience member (in this case the Castellitto character standing in for Rivette), so devoted that his observational appreciation is part of the art, is pushed (literally) to perform. The scene in which this occurs is the film’s core. This moment of culmination is followed immediately by the narrative’s true climax, a reenactment of the whip act. The echo effect of these two peaks make the film’s elegant, simple structure as circular and unexpected as the plot of Out 1, a 13-hour film with no resolution; Around a Small Mountain consists of two brief overlapping spectacles around which all other scenes quietly revolve.
And in Castellitto’s spectator-clown—who causes dramatic plot shifts with prank calls and who laughs at things that aren’t funny—Rivette provides a male lead, finally, to rival his decades of devotion to actresses from Juliet Berto and Jane Birkin to Geraldine Chaplin and Bulle Ogier. Castellitto is like a Hawksian Cary Grant with a dose of existential Jerry Lewis; his opening scene with Birkin is a ballet of sly subtle gestures, a silent call-and-response between bodies that seems to get to the heart of what makes pure cinema great. Rivette’s great essay “The Genius of Howard Hawks” skips over Bringing Up Baby, perhaps because it’s too physical and rhythmic to analyze in words. Yet with this filmic fairy tale he has pinpointed Hawks’s particular genius succinctly, with wordplay without weighty content and in a plein air walking ballet starring a tentative clown and a once-young waif.