The Story of Marie and Julien (Histoire de Marie et Julien), the latest work from French New Wave filmmaker Jacques Rivette, was originally intended to complement his two films from 1976: Duelle and Norot. Together, these films were meant to be a part of a project called "Scnes de la Vie Parallele," in which Rivette planned to tackle his penchant for radical narrative themes by employing generic conventions. Unfortunately, his first two efforts in the series werent able to find much support (certainly a shame in the case of Norot), which was primary the reason why Marie and Julien, originally starring Albert Finney and Leslie Caron, was abandoned very early on in the process. (However, the preparations for the original project introduced Rivette to Claire Denis, his new assistant back then, whos now one of his most ardent supporters among the post-New Wave filmmakers and a master in her own right.)
But Rivette never allowed himself to let go of the idea. And recently, with the help of his current writing partners, Pascal Bonitzer and Christine Laurent, its mythical, fantastic elements (originally conceived with the late, great Jean Rouch) were modulated to make way for an intense and haunting love story, which Marie and Julien first and foremost is. Starring Jerzy Radziwilowicz and Emmanuelle Bart, the film, his darkest since Le Pont du Nord (1982), allows Rivette to explore the notions of time, memory, and space in a manner not granted to him in quite some time.
Divided into four sections -- each indicating the name of one or both of the characters -- Marie and Julien begins with Julien (Radziwilowicz), a middle-aged clockmaker, relaxing on a park bench, ultimately getting up to meet Marie (Bart) whos passing by with an angelic pretense. It turns out that he was dreaming, but he runs into Marie again, who he had initially met and fallen in love with a year earlier, the very same night. After setting up an appointment with Marie, Julien leaves her to fulfill another with a woman, Madame X (Anne Brochet), who hes in the process of blackmailing via certain documents and photographs that connect her with her sister.
After drawing the films narrative outline, Rivette settles down as usual with his elegant pacing and graceful movements to uncover and fill in the rest. We learn that Julien is living a rather uneventful life in a dilapidated mansion that he shares with his cat. On the other hand, the enigmatically beautiful Marie simply travels from one hotel to another. But after she moves in with Julien, their burgeoning love causes them to discover conflicting desires and elements about themselves and each other.
The mysterious, almost ghost-like appearance of the Paris normally on display in Marie and Julien brings back memories of such previous Rivette films as Paris nous appartient (1960) and Le Pont du Nord, among others. The physicality of the love affair involving Bart obviously refers to La Belle noiseuse (1991). Radziwilowicz and the house point to Secret dfense (1998). On top of that, as Film Comments Gavin Smith mentioned, with the blackmailing scheme Rivette expertly employs a "MacGuffins," a Hitchcockian plot devise to advance his narrative. Juliens cat (whose performance leads me to believe that even the animals act better in the company of an auteur) is named "Nevermore," from Edgar Allen Poes "Raven." There are countless other references and tributes in this sublimely complex work.
Barts performance in Marie and Julien is arguably her best to date. At once incisive and surreal, shes riveting to watch. And her mystery is delicately uncovered by Rivettes longtime cinematographer William Lubtchansky with intricately choreographed camera movements (the under-lit mansion hallway which abstractly separates life and death is brilliantly incorporated). Radziwilowiczs almost menacing presence works remarkably well in the numerous passionate sex scenes.
The film consistently grows in immediacy, astonishing for one which is 150 minutes long. With utmost skill and dexterity, Rivette continually blurs the lines between dream and reality ultimately ending the film with an echo bound to reverberate in the cinematic universe for years to come. And thats only one of the reasons why Marie and Julien, outside of his untouchable 13-hour masterpiece Out 1: Noli me tangere (1971), is one of Rivettes greatest films.
*THE STORY OF MARIE AND JULIEN premiered at the 2003 Toronto Film Festival. Available on DVD in the U.S from Koch Lorber Films; in the U.K. from Artificial-Eye.