February 10, 2023

LOVE ON THE GROUND: Rivette vs. Opeth

1983 / 176 min
Review by Fluffy the FearlessđŸ˜Œ

Here around the scratching post, we refer to Jacques Rivette as the Opeth of French Cinema.

For those unaware, Opeth is a Swedish heavy metal band that makes us purr. However, they are definitely an acquired taste. In addition to frequently incorporating death growls (aka Cookie Monster vocals) along with traditional singing, many of their songs are extremely long, running well over 10 minutes. It’s those epics that are the most immersive, like we’re being whisked away on a musical and lyrical journey. Opeth does shorter tunes, too, and while many of them are good, they aren’t always as compelling and sometimes feel longer than they really are (especially their ballads).

Similarly, Rivette was famous for making really long movies that are also an acquired taste. For example, La Belle Noiseuse, about a tortured artist painting a nude, is over four hours long (much of the screen time depicting the artist at work). His next, Joan the Maid, a sympathetic portrait of Joan of Arc, runs over five hours. Yet the butt-numbing running times actually enhance these films, methodically drawing the viewer into both the stories and the unique characters. It’s only after the end credits roll that we’re aware of the epic journey we’ve undertaken.

Conversely, Love on the Ground is the shortest Rivette film we’ve reviewed here, but ironically feels much longer. It could be that the setting simply isn’t as interesting, or his characters aren’t as well-realized, or the story itself is just a little too convoluted to justify its length. When the credits rolled on this one, what I mostly felt was relief.

Not that Love on the Ground is a bad film. Quite the opposite, actually. The basic premise is pretty intriguing, with two young actresses, Charlotte and Emily (Geraldine Chaplin & Jane Birkin), hired by renowned playwright ClĂ©ment Roquemaure (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) to rehearse and perform his newest play. What makes this situation unusual is that the play will be performed in his mansion, the audience following his characters around the house as the story unfolds. Not only that, the final act remains intentionally unwritten. 

"That helicopter's been following me around all day."
The play itself is based on an ambiguous love triangle between ClĂ©ment, his lover Beatrice and their friend Paul (AndrĂ© Dussollier). Beatrice has since left under mysterious circumstances, but when both Emily and Charlotte begin having strange visions, the narrative suggests something supernatural going on, perhaps related to Beatrice’s disappearance. Meanwhile, rehearsals continue, with everyone involved making changes to the script as it progresses. This aspect is especially interesting. Like the painting sequences of La Belle Noiseuse, Rivette dedicates long stretches of the film to showing how the play evolves from what ClĂ©ment originally conceived to the version they perform a week later. These scenes are immersive enough that we’re sometimes more invested in the plot and characters of the play than the actual film. Even the supposed ‘ghost’ story eventually feels out of place.

About two hours in, Love on the Ground begins to lose its footing. The developing - sometimes combative - relationships between the principal characters is often perplexing, occasionally a little tedious, as are emotional breakdowns experienced by both Charlotte and Emily. The latter, in particular, has a patience-testing monologue where she rambles on and on about the men who’ve hurt her, all while Paul tries in vain to get frisky. I dunno…maybe smarter viewers can infer a meaningful connection to the play and/or suspicious doings in ClĂ©ment’s mansion, but I felt like much of the last hour could have been chucked without seriously affecting the story.

Things liven up during the climax, when the play is finally performed before a live audience and doesn’t conclude as anyone expects. It’s possible the viewer won't expect how the film ends, either, or fully understand what the hell they just spent three hours watching. Love on the Ground is watchable for the performances and scenes depicting the creative process, but superfluous baggage ultimately makes it more exhausting than some of Rivette's longer films.


AUDIO COMMENTARY - By film professor Richard Peña


No comments: