January 11, 2017

Skating on Thin Ice in Shakespeare’s “Pericles” and Jacques Rivette’s “Paris”

Every now and then certain cliches become not only useful but indispensable. That’s what makes them cliches, after all. In the period since November 8, and to a lesser extent during the presidential campaign itself, “skating on thin ice” has said it best for me. The idea also describes how it is to look for Shakespeare in his play Pericles, the first two acts of which are thought to be the work of a hack named George Wilkins. Then there’s Jacques Rivette (1928-2016) and his first full-length film Paris Belongs to Us (Paris nous appartient), which puts thin ice under your feet even before it begins with an epigraph from Charles Péguy that says “Paris belongs to no one.”

As it happens, the “thin ice” sensation in both works gives them a disturbing relevance to any real-life crisis or turn of events, regardless of time, place, or context.

The greatness of Shakespeare is that he’s always with us, forever pertinent, there to be shaped or tempered or all too often twisted to flow with the currents of the time, even when the work in question is as damaged as Pericles. How “topical” is Pericles? An article by Cynthia Zarin from the New Yorker’s online Culture Desk mentions “the Middle East, refugees, perilous sea crossings, and sex trafficking.” That was in March 2016 when Trevor Nunn’s production of Pericles was playing in Brooklyn and the Republican presidental nomination had yet to be decided. In January 2017 you could add to the list the scene where Pericles solves a riddle that reveals a tyrannical king’s secret sexual malfeasance. Says the tyrant, “He hath found the meaning, for which we mean to have his head.” — which leaves Pericles no choice but to flee from Antioch to Tarsus, where he marries Thaisa, the daughter of King Simonides, fathers a child named Miranda, and loses both. By that point, Act Four, Shakespeare is fully in command of the language and the ice is no longer thin, making possible the “recognition scene” that Harold Bloom considers “one of the extraordinary sublimities of Shakespeare’s art.”

Pericles Comes to Paris

Like its title character, Pericles is well traveled. Said to have made its debut at the Globe in the winter of 1609, infrequently staged and thought to be unplayable in its corrupted state, the play found its way across seas and centuries to Paris in the summer of 1958, when it landed in Jacques Rivette’s capable hands. The 30-year-old filmmaker was “the most fanatical” of “our band of fanatics,” according to his colleague in the Cahiers du Cinéma “mafia” François Truffaut. Rivette needed a suggestive focal point (think “thin ice”) for Paris Belongs to Us, his film about a group of confused, paranoid, and enigmatically agitated students, artists, writers, and political activists. So why not use a confused text violated by unknown forces in spite of bearing the illustrious, imperishable name of William Shakespeare? The motives behind Rivette’s choice of Pericles for his play-within-a-film reflect those of its director Gérard Lenz (played by Giani Esposito: that’s him striding on the rooftop in the poster shown below), namely that the piece is disjointed, incoherent, unplayable, “a thing of shreds and patches” compromised by suspect conspiratorial undertones, like the ghost in Hamlet.

The challenges facing Rivette as a filmmaker are mirrored by those facing Gérard as a director with no money, no backing, and not even a settled place to rehearse his troupe of tormented doom-and-gloom bohemians. Rivette sees them as “tragic puppets, taking themselves too seriously, living in a sort of dream-world and sickened by the real world which they can’t reform” — a description with some topical clout when you think of what happened to everyone who trusted the polls leading up to election day 2016.

An Exercise in Ambiguity

As Rivette started shooting Paris Belongs to Us in the summer of 1958, the issue wasn’t so much the plot or the cast or the locations but the expense. According to Truffaut, Rivette’s problem was finding “enough money by each Sunday to begin work again on Monday,” a process that involved, again in Truffaut’s words, a “mighty river of film, thirty characters, thirty locations, night and dawn scenes,” all done “without a secretary, without a manager, without a car, on ‘petty cash,’ and at a time of year when everybody was leaving on vacation.”

When the film finally opened in New York in early November 1962, the New Wave of which Rivette was a co-founder had become a celebrated cinematic phenomenon, thanks to the word of mouth and serious critical attention generated by Truffaut’s 400 Blows (1959) and Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1959). No such excitement, to put it mildly, greeted Rivette’s film, already a New Wave legend his fellow directors felt was of “such foremost importance” that they released a joint statement celebrating its “personal vision” of “anguished confusion and conspiracy” and claiming that “one would have to be totally short-sighted to miss seeing in it a vision of the modern world.” No surprise, the New York Times responded with a short-sighted review by Eugene Archer headed in a way that suggests the film is little more than cinematic flotsam (“‘Paris Belongs to Us,’ by a Critic, Floats in on New Wave”). A few changes in tone and presentation and the reviewer’s negatives could have passed for insights even as he’s condemning the film as “an exercise in ambiguity,” with its “mystifying metaphors” and “intellectual dead-ends,” its robotic characters “going nowhere” and “talking in riddles” while a camera “follows them every step of the way.”

Timely and Topical

One of the only lines from Paris Belongs to Us quoted in the Times review — “Am I going crazy, or is it the whole world?” spoken by “the bemused heroine” — would have had some topical impact in early November 1962 for an audience still shaken by recent events, while sharing a sigh of nervous relief following the Cuban missile crisis, a nuclear showdown that can be read into the fear-mongering and paranoia about global doom communicated by Rivette’s “tragic puppets.”

A similar interaction between filmic mood and political climate had taken place when Paris nous appartient opened in France in 1961, a time when, according to Georges Sadoul, “OAS [an organization opposed to Algerian independence] terrorism was at its height, making the film’s comments on contemporary personal and political confusions that much more pertinent.”

And there at the center of Rivette’s haunted Paris of plots and paranoia was Shakespeare’s damaged, unplayable, somehow ever pertinent Pericles.

Rivette’s Marina

The one person who gets a kind word in the Times review is Anne, a “winsome young student” among robotic Left Bank bohemians. The definition of “winsome” — “generally pleasing and engaging often because of a childlike charm and innocence” — describes the appeal of Betty Schneider, the actress who plays Anne, a self-confessed “girl without opinions,” the Alice in Rivette’s Parisian Wonderland, the Marina in his doomed director’s Pericles.

The actress herself is something of a mystery. Born in 1934 and presumably still alive, Schneider had only a handful of parts, all between 1957 and 1961, and none as substantial as her role in Paris Belongs to Us. Her place at the center of the film, her innocence and integrity, and her capacity for being sensible, curious, and yet appealingly impressionable, is crucial to the picture’s equilibrium; this is especially true given the affected, self-conscious, off-putting, sinister, erratic, and sometimes laughably excessive words and actions of the people she encounters in and around the thwarted production of Pericles, with their outbursts about global conspiracies (“No one will escape … everything’s threatened … the whole world … nothing can be done ….”).

So it is that Anne, the lit student awkwardly pronouncing Ariel’s song from The Tempest in the opening scene becomes the most important character in the film, much as Marina becomes the life, heart, hope and wonder of Pericles in Act 4 when she finally appears, only to find herself facing the man who has been ordered to kill her. In case there’s any doubt about the Anne-Marina connection, Rivette shows her reading Marina’s lines for the same scene during a rehearsal that convinces Gérard to offer her the part. The most obvious feature she has in common with Marina is a guileless quality men find intimidating. She’s so unassumingly virginal that her very indifference to her own sexuality becomes potent, making her desirable as if by default. In the same way, Marina’s purity is a force so powerful that she nearly ruins the brothel she’s been sold to by the pirates who arrived just in time to prevent her murder. The men who come to Marina mad with lust leave in a platonic stupor. As the madam says, “she’s able to freeze the god Priapus, and undo a whole generation … she would make a puritan of the devil himself if he should cheapen a kiss of her.” Nor does anyone in the film dare to kiss Anne, though some are tempted, none more than Gérard. Her reluctance to submit to him ultimately leads to his death; in that sense, the innocent inadvertently becomes a femme fatale.

Nothing But the Place

In a statement issued when Paris Belongs to Us was released, Rivette admits being aided by “the detective story form,” in which Anne becomes the investigator protagonist navigating Paris looking for clues, delivering warnings, making connections. She’s the one through whom we realize “at the end of the story” that the denouement will confound any unveiling of the mystery. The last words of Rivette’s statement are “Nothing took place but the place” — which could be the Paris that “belongs to us” or the Paris in the opening epigraph that “belongs to no one.”

The same could be said of Pericles and of all the performances of Shakespeare that have come and gone over four centuries. In fact, the first play of his I ever saw in the theatre was Tony Richardson’s production of Pericles. I remember embarrassingly little of the experience (I was 19 at the time), only the shipboard set, and the wind making the timbers creak, and vividly above all else, Marina, a barefoot vision in white with long blonde hair kneeling before her father in that miraculous moment of reunion.

The actress, by the way, was Geraldine McEwan (1932-2015), who went from playing Shakespeare’s Marina to the 21st century and Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple.

Note: The quotes from François Truffaut are from The Films in My Life (1975), which is dedicated to Jacques Rivette. The quote from Georges Sadoul comes from Dictionary of Films (1965). Harold Bloom’s comment on Pericles is from Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1998).