Duelle is one of Jacques Rivette’s dreamiest, most elegant, most evocative “created realities.” Unfolding in an eerily vacated Paris, symbolical and expressionistic, beginning on the last night of winter’s new moon, it suggests a level of unconsciousness that’s lit, sparingly, from a yet deeper level of unconsciousness. It begins with the sound of an unseen train that may be akin to a sleeping dreamer’s heartbeat; the first image is that of a hotelier’s shaky attempt to balance herself on a huge inflated ball. Think about it; think way back. Remember in childhood when it seemed magical that trains could remain upright on their tracks? I hope you do, because if you do, Rivette’s film from the associative get-go will seem to be your own dream, whatever else it may also seem to be. One feels pleasantly immersed in it.
Partly inspired by Hollywood’s The Seventh Victim (Mark Robson, 1943), produced by Val Lewton, in which a girl searches New York for her missing sister, Duelle involves a number of “searches,” including a mysterious hotel guest’s search for a Lord Christie (hm), involvement in which she impresses Lucie, the hotelier. Indeed, there’s a good deal of sleuthing about in this dark, fabulous adventure that everywhere suggests Rivette’s delirious fascination with female spirituality.
The two principal characters are Viva, the Sun Goddess, and Leni, the Moon Goddess, who both search for a magical stone, the agency by which, each hopes, she can enter the human, mortal realm. Combine this with Leni’s ostensible search for former lover “Lord Christie,” and a radical reinterpretation of Jesus emerges, shifting God the father’s sacrifice of his son to the son himself, whose time on Earth thus expresses his own desire and self-determination. In reality, though, which is to say, in fantasy, Leni is initially searching for Pierrot, to whom, she hopes, his sister, Lucie, will lead her. Pierrot, who also engages Viva’s interest and desire and is a bone of contention between the deities, seems to be what makes mortality so attractive to them both; however, Pierrot’s identity is no less symbolical than that of the film’s female characters. It may be that this diminutive male figure suggests the restriction, the reassuring definition, that being a goddess denies the solar and lunar deities. In the film, these complicated connections among characters are smoothed out in intricate fluidity.
One of the handful of underlit settings is the dance hall, where Leni proves she is named after Riefenstahl when, dressed in mannish attire, she dances with a female partner: a quiet instance of intrigue on various levels. Upstairs are equally dark rooms where guests populate esoteric gaming tables. Another such setting, and the darkest and most mysterious one, is an empty underground train station featuring solemn aquariums of large, sleek fish and, perhaps, underwater mammals—bonsai whales and sharks: on one level, a projected realm of submerged consciousness; on another, sleepier, spookier level, an allusion to the aquarium where the illicit lovers meet in Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai (1947). In both films, female characters suggest fractured and alternate identities, although Rivette has replaced Welles’s angularity and savagery with silk.
At least one soul has complained that the film degenerates into a reductive scheme involving the spilling of sacrificial blood; but, of course, this suggests a film-wide motive paralleling that of its discontent, “searching” goddesses. Mortal life is a diminishing of eternal, immortal life; but that doesn’t mean that nobody wants it. If in doubt, simply ask the next goddess you meet—or take Welles’s implicit word for it that Rita Hayworth wanted much more, which is to say, much less, than to be endlessly adored. Rivette’s film likewise documents at dawn the death of a goddess.
This heady, voluptuous film was originally intended as the launch of a tetralogy, to which, as it happens, Histoire de Marie et Julien (2003) belatedly contributed. At least here in the States, we tend to think of Duelle as the darker follow-up to Rivette’s more playful Céline et Julie vont en bateau (1974), although his Noroît (1976), which I have yet to see, fell in between.
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