I’m Geoff Gardner and I’m here to do the introduction for one of the films that, as soon as it appeared at Cannes Classics last year, we knew we wanted for Cinema Reborn 2019.
But first I would also like to explain that these introductions are another small part of the attempt by the Organising Committee of Cinema Reborn to copy the way the mother ship of our festival, the event that takes place in Bologna each year called Il Cinema Ritrovato, present their films.
I’m not sure we’ll ever get to the stage where the likes of Martin Scorsese or Richard Lester can attract a crowd of 5000 or more in Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore to hear them introduce a restored classic but you have to dream
So… in the meantime it falls to a group of very dedicated mainly Sydney-based locals to try and set the scene for the film you are about to see. I know the presenters take it very seriously and put some really hard work into just what they say to you, so on my own and your behalf let me thank this year’s group Peter, Jason, Margot, Mark, Quentin, Sylvie, Rod, Susan, Jane and another Peter for all their efforts.
Now… to La Religieuse or the less poetic The Nun
Jacques Rivette occupied a central place in French film culture for close to sixty years.
By the early fifties Rivette had already shot his first short film and he moved to Paris to pursue his career. The story is well–known – frequenting Henri Langlois‘ Cinémathèque Française and other ciné-clubsmaking the acquaintance with François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Éric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol and other future members of the New Wave. Rivette began writing film criticism, and was hired by André Bazin for Cahiers du Cinéma in 1953.
I think it’s worth noting this because Cahiers and the other great French magazine Positif have always had an agenda setting role and for much of the time over the many decades Rivette remained firmly ensconced in fashioning editorial policy for Cahiers.
Back in 2004 when I was staying in Paris for a long vacation of a few months, my late departed friend Pierre Rissient noticed my willingness to buy Cahiers and Positif the moment they appeared on the newsstands. Pierre was a man whom I freely admit could be the holder of some strong opinions and occasionally a degree of exaggeration but he said on one occasion that even then, fifty years after Rivette was first hired by Bazin, Rivette still had a hand in the selection of the Cahiers editor. As I said its important because unlike the way critics and cinephiles and scholars in Australia might read Cahiers, in Paris you read it because it provides a guide to cinephile life – identifying the best new films of the month, pointing out new talent, helping guide your viewing path fvor the next thirty days, discussing the issues affecting the French cinema and French production at that very minute.
Rivette’s first film Paris Nous Appartient seemed to set the pattern for his commercial film-making career. It was years in the making, struggled to get attention but then slowly assumed the position of a classic. That film began a long commercial film-making career that eventually produced over twenty productions – gathering up low budget features, literary adaptations, strong dramas utilising the best talents of the French cinema, one dearly loved film Celine and Julie Go Boating which is generally seen as the director’s greatest work, other experimental narratives and two monumental works made for television, seemingly extemporised through the use of theatre production as an extended metaphor for the state of French society post 1968.
Fortunately, virtually all of Rivette’s work has in recent years become available via very dedicated DVD and Blu-ray distribution and much work was done to bring back to life films that now seem iconic not merely in Rivette’s career but in the grand sweep of the French Cinema.
If you take the trouble to buy the massive Brit DVD box set from some years ago you start to comprehend a broad sweep but also some very narrow concerns. First you get to understand the role that classical French literature, most especially the work of Honore De Balzac, has played in developing Rivette’s work and the themes he pursued.
Second you get to see just how much Rivette, in the footsteps of Balzac, was fascinated by conspiracy of the state and its institutions and how the establishment, much of which conducted itself through secret societies, large and small, has operated above the law in French society. Third I think, and this brings us gently to today’s film, Rivette was a champion of individual freedom.
A key recurrent theme was the oppression of the individual by the institution and how this operated almost in plain sight. The Nun looks at one of the most oppressive institutions of all, The Catholic Church in one of the most oppressive times of all when that same Church was the main generator of authority not just of the Church and its followers but of the state which bowed to the church.
The full story of the film’s troubled life back in the 60s, its fall into obscurity and its restoration and re-appearance at Cannes last year is told in our catalogue in some wonderful program notes specially written for Cinema Reborn by our expat critic, the ever enthusiastic Adrian Martin. Click here to read the notes.
I can only agree with Adrian when he concludes “it is only now that the film is reborn in a carefully restored version, over fifty years after its sign-off date, that we are able to truly appreciate its greatness.”
Adrian’s notes are so acute that I was tempted to read a much longer passage as a summation of this introduction. But on re-reading it I decided it was too acute, too ferocious perhaps to be put in your mind before the film. But do read the notes in the catalogue or go on to the Cinema Reborn website once you’ve seen the film.
I hope you enjoy what may possibly be the only public Sydney screening of this restored copy of Jacques Rivette’s La Religieuse.
SYDNEY, 5 May 2019
Geoff Gardner is the Chair of the Organising Committee of Cinema Reborn