Jacques Rivette is one of the veterans of the French New Wave that rocked the world of cinema in the 1960s. He hasn’t made as many films as the others, and is therefore not as well known as he deserves to be. A good example of what he can do, released in 2001, is a comedy of relationships called Va Savoir, which loosely translated means, “Who knows?” I say a comedy of relationships rather than a “romantic comedy” because the latter entertains us with variations on the romantic illusion, while Rivette’s film entertains us with something closer to the real difficulties and dilemmas that men and women face when they try to love one another.
Camille (played by Jeanne Balibar), an actress returning to Paris after a lengthy absence to play the lead role in a Pirandello play under the direction of her Italian lover and co-star Ugo (Sergio Castellito), seeks out—against her better judgment—her ex-lover, the philosophy professor Pierre (Jacques Bonnaffé), who is now settled down with a dance teacher named Sonia (Marianne Basler). Meanwhile Ugo goes to the library to seek a hidden treasure: a lost play by Goldoni that he hopes to direct. There he meets the beautiful Dominique (Hélène de Fougerolles) who turns out to be a descendant of the friend to whom Goldoni reportedly gave his play. While she assists him in his search (falling in love with him in the process), her brother Arthur (Bruno Todeschini), a thief, romantically pursues Sonia.
So, did you get all that? It actually becomes more complicated, as the script finds a way to get each of the six main characters involved with one another, or almost. But the bedroom farce structure is subsumed within a leisurely style that allows the characters to interact naturally, at least until Rivette starts to pull the rug out from under us in a mischievous conflation of real life with theatrical artifice.
Balibar, with her lithe figure and crooked smile, is the soul of the movie. Camille is at a crossroads in her life, unsure of where to go or what to do, and the actress brings impulsiveness and passion to the role, giving it depth and setting us up for the story’s many humorous reversals.
Rivette tries something unusual here. The fictional dream—what is often called suspension of disbelief—is upheld firmly at first, and then is gradually undermined by narrative devices that become more and more theatrical, until we reach an ending which is happy in a way only plays can be. The resolution for the characters in the film is acceptance—of life as play, of the artificiality of roles—and the ability to drop the mask and go home.
The film, then, does not offer a criticism of life, but a criticism of art imitating life. Love of the theater, with all its lovers rushing in one door and out another, and pairing off with one partner and then a different one, requires the sanity of knowing that it’s just theater, and the assurance that life, with all its difficulties, is a much safer haven for love.
Va Savoir is available on DVD.