VA SAVOIR (WHO KNOWS?)
(director/writer: Jacques Rivette; screenwriters: Pascal Bonitzer/Christine Laurent; cinematographer: William Lubtschansky; editor: Nicole Lubtschansky; cast: Jeanne Balibar (Camille), Sergio Castellitto (Ugo), Marianne Basler (Sonia), Jacques Bonnaffé (Pierre), Hélène de Fougerolles (Do), Bruno Todeschini (Arthur), Catherine Rouvel (Madame Desprez); Runtime: 150; Sony Picture Classics; 2000-France)
“A fun film.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Jacques Rivette (Celine and Julie Go Boating/La Belle Noiseuse), the former film critic for “Cahiers du Cinema” and the now spry 74-year-old who is the founding member of the French New Wave, directs this brilliant two and a half hour long screwball comedy about the love life of theater folks visiting Paris and the Parisians with whom they develop entangling relationships. It gathers its lively material from an overblown Luigi Pirandello play (a play within the film) as the six main characters, or if you prefer the three couples, of the story are searching to find themselves and any other knowledge or love they might pick-up on their way to ridding themselves of the ambivalent role they are playing either in the theater or in life. The film is a very gentle spoof on those who can’t control their desires and end up making a fool of themselves, as knowledge is the first causality in their sexual roundelay.
These six characters in search of love are the following: the French actress returning to Paris to star in an Italian production of the Pirandello play “As You Desire Me” after mysteriously leaving for Italy three years earlier, the harlequin faced Camille (Jeanne Balibar); her Italian director-costar and lover, who is oozing with instant charm and expressive droopy-eyes, Ugo (Sergio Castellitto); Camille’s ex-lover, the pretentious philosophy professor Pierre (Jacques Bonnaffé), who is the reason she left because he was stifling her creative flow; Pierre’s attractive wife Sonia (Marianne Basler), a ballet dancer whose mysterious valuable engagement ring will signify her dark past; the gorgeous literature student writing her college thesis, Do (Hélène de Fougerolles); and, Do’s incestuous half-brother, the more-or-less sinister character with a gambling habit who occasionally steals to pay his debts, Arthur (Bruno Todeschini). The couples will uncouple and make new arrangements that will only be temporary, as they get in and out of their lustful conflicts in a classy slapstick manner.
Va Savoir starts with Ugo rehearsing Camille in the dark on the Paris stage. The ensemble troupe doing the play in Italian are on tour from Italy and after a week will depart for Vienna. The play gradually is enacted throughout the film, as after every major scene the film intercuts to the play onstage at a different place. After their performance the routine is for Ugo and Camille to go to their separate but adjoining hotel rooms and converse about what’s ailing them.
In the meantime Camille disappears during the day seeking out Pierre, failing to find him at his apartment she finds him in the park he usually goes to read his newspaper. Ugo meanwhile is on a serious mission in various libraries in search of a lost unpublished play by an 18th century Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni—but he is distracted from his research when he is picked up in the library by an attractive student, Do. He ends up in the house of her mother (Catherine Rouvel). A theater person has told him that Do’s mother has inherited a private library, passed down to her through the generations from her dead husband, which may have the missing manuscript. She’s only into baking cakes and has no interest in the books, but keeps them as a sign of being faithful to her husband. Do, who has fallen in love with Ugo, will act to help in his research.
Once the contacts among the six are established, the complexities begin to arise. The comedy is subtle. It uses the names of intellectuals like Heidegger to add gravitas. The story is addressed to the intellect, as this is not quite in the vein of a Hollywood screwball comedy. The characters are viewed as real people and not cartoon figures. The plot is drawn amusingly around the foibles of human nature by a director who has the depth and filmmaking ability to make the most of what he has to work with. One can never be quite sure in what direction the film will go next, as in every seamless scene there is a lead into something more involved taking place.
The film’s main asset is Camille, she’s a Picasso-like clown who is used as a guide, taking us into her theater milieu and personal sadness and her amusing way at looking out at the world. Jeanne Balibar is delightful in this role as she is such a generous spirit and such an amazingly expressive trooper, and gives this film its sparkling personality.
It all might be piffle but it was fun to listen to conversations behind closed doors, to watch how jealous the lovers get, to have scenes tend to go in one direction and then reverse themselves, to see old books become part of the story, to observe couples changing partners and then without blinking an eye go back to the one who brought them to the play, to have a mystery tracked down and then become rather unimportant, to see women act instinctively vindictive and then become loyal to each other with no other reason except they are of the same gender, and most of all to observe theater people (those who lead fictitious lives) and their real-life counterparts (those who are supposedly grounded in reality) try to impose their will on each other.
It was a fun film, with many of the master director’s urgent themes displayed; such as, the conflict between reality and fiction. But there was also something missing, a way of getting the viewer more emotionally involved in the love affairs.
This is a Jacques Rivette film and his films rarely reach the cinema (even the arthouses) or video shelves in America, and my advice is if you get a chance to see a film by one of cinema’s true masters, go for it.
REVIEWED ON 11/16/2001 GRADE: A –