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Don't be afraid of 'Out 1,' the 13-hour French film

Jacques Rivette's rarely screened epic finally gets a theatrical release in America, after 44 years. It's long — so very, very long — but it can be done and it may devestate you.

‘Out 1: Noli Me Tangere’
Director:
Jacques Rivette
Stars: Michel Lonsdale, Juliet Berto
Rating: NR
5 (out of 5) Globes

Jacques Rivette’s 1971 film “Out 1: Noli Me Tangere” rarely gets screened, and with good reason: it’s nearly 13 hours long. But it’s challenging in ways besides its length. It’s a slow-burn narrative whose story doesn’t properly kick in till the four-hour mark. Even then the tale comes in fits and starts before fizzling out like a balloon whose air is slowly, patiently let out. Made by the French New Wave’s most Warholian-ish member, it’s comprised of leisurely scenes that often seem to go on forever, with dialogue that’s for the most part made up. Actors chatting in epic long takes often flub their lines, repeat the same information and so enjoy each other’s company that they resist parting ways, long after you may have been mentally shouting “And scene.”

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Still, you shouldn’t be afraid. It’s a film for the most adventurous of viewers, but it’s also an unparalleled experience that, should one choose to accept it, leaves you with more than butt pain. Many long films — “Satantango,” Warhol’s “Empire” — play with duration as experience, creating a sense of time evaporating. But “Out 1” is after something different. It wants to show the long, slow, painful, sad dissolution of plans, ambitions, even ideals. Rivette made it only three years after the fabled May 1968 riots, which galvanized and politicized the young and/or artistic in France, and he could see that the new passion wouldn’t last — that it would slip slowly and tragically away, that everyone would forget what they were after and things would return to as they were, as though nothing had happened at all. It’s the fear that plagues any movement, from the May ’68-ers right up to Black Lives Matter.

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In some ways, “Out 1” is the same film as Philippe Garrel’s 2005 great “Regular Lovers,” which was about the fallout of May ’68 (and did it in only three, still glacial hours). But Rivette couches it in metaphor and never cites the events by name. His ensemble cast of characters aren’t young and most aren’t even expressly political. Most of them are actors. Most of the film traces two separate troupes, each working on a separate Aeschylus play. (One, led by future Bond villain Michel Lonsdale, is trying to mount “Prometheus Bound”; the other is doing “Seven Against Thebes.”) Each want to find new avenues into two classics, but neither ever gets out of the rehearsal phase. They’re always chipping away without getting anywhere. Eventually — around hour seven or eight — everyone begins to scatter. They forget about it and get distracted by other concerns, which may not matter either.

Interspersed with these parallel strands are two loners. There’s Jean-Pierre Leaud’s Colin, a deaf-mute who likes to wander around cafes, begging for money by loudly playing a harmonica until patrons pony up or walk away. There’s also Frederique (Juliet Berto, who would soon co-star in Rivette’s “Celine and Julie Go Boating”), who’s a mere petty thief. Both separately happen upon suggestions of a secret society, which may or may not exist and may be a real-life version of the “Thirteen” cabal from several Balzac novels. Both seek to prove they’re real — Colin because he just has to know, Frederique so she can extort some money from any former members she can ID.

There are some hairpin turns, but plot doesn’t really matter so much as the simple act of watching the film. One of the pleasures of long movies is what they do the mind and even the body. You not only forget about time passing but also feel your body changing for the worse from all the sitting. (Divided into episodes, it at least gives you plenty of intermissions. Use them wisely.) With its lengthy, meandering scenes — some jaw-droppingly chatty, some, like the many scenes of actors exercises, largely comprised of moans and howls if not total silence — “Out 1” can sometime seem like it’s unfolding in real time, well beyond a “mere” 13 hours.

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But you have to power through them, just as the actors try and try and try to mount their productions, and how Colin and Frederique search and search and search for a truth that may be a total (or at least partial) fiction. You become just like them, and you start to feel the devastation of when noble plans drizzle away. You might even go mad, just like one character, who spends a chunk of the film’s final minutes laughing insanely by himself on a beach.

This might suggest “Out 1” is simply a long, formless improv movie. But there’s subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, craft. “Out 1” has a strong foundation, and it needs its warehouse-sized canvas to sell its idea of a slow decay. It also has a great sense of humor, and it knows how to plant good jokes in just the right places. Deep into the third hour brings a hilarious scene with director Eric Rohmer, demonstrating strong comic chops as a Balzac scholar patiently — and, eventually, not so patiently — dealing with Colin’s bizarre inquiries. That’s not as gut-busting as two truly killer long-con jokes. One is a key, shocking character revelation that only works because it arrives some four hours into watching. The other is the final shot, which can’t be spoiled and is likely the only way to stop a movie that could conceivably go on forever and ever into the infinite. But it's elephantine length is also the reason it may devastate you, in more ways than one.

Note: As said, “Out 1” is divided into eight episodes, ranging from 73 minutes to almost two hours. Few venues would schedule the whole thing in one day — and you really, really shouldn’t do that to yourself anyway — but you should see it all in as short a span as you can, so it never has a chance to fade from your brain. We recommend marathoning four episodes each over two days. That way you feel the burn of the film as you should. Good luck!

“Out 1: Noli Me Tangere” plays at BAM from Nov. 4 through Nov. 19. See the site for the full schedule and plan accordingly.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
 
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