It’s one of the cardinal rules of film criticism, something close to an ethical commandment: Thou shalt not review a film unless thou hast witnessed with thine own eyes its entirety. Makes sense, of course, almost all the time. But I’m about to break it. Please forgive me.
Last fall, one of cinema’s most ambitious works, very rarely seen since its creation forty-five years ago, screened in New York. The film was French New Wave veteran Jacques Rivette’s twelve-plus-hour “Out 1,” and upon hearing that this nigh-legendary opus had been restored and was getting a commercial release, I immediately asked the Northwest Film Center if they had plans to screen it here.
My wish came true, oddly enough, and starting last weekend, the Film Center showed “Out 1,” divided into eight episodes, over a four-night span. However, despite having access to online screeners for the episodes, and despite a fervent desire to consume the entire massive thing, I’ve only managed to get about three-fourths of the way through as of this writing. (Keeping up with the Film Center’s excellent Wim Wenders series, as well as the multifarious other openings about town, can fill up a schedule pretty quickly, especially when normal life has to fit in there somewhere too!)
So, despite the fact that I don’t know what happens over the last four hours or so, I’m going to strongly recommend that anyone with an interest in the outer limits of what narrative cinema can accomplish check this out, starting Saturday, March 12, with an encore screening of the first two episodes. (The others will follow over the course of the week, and then they’ll be gone.)
The best way to experience “Out 1” might be without any background or context whatsoever. But for those who need some sort of framework, here’s the deal: The film follows, basically, four sets of characters. Two of these sets are a pair of avant-garde theater troupes in the process of rehearsing a pair of Aeschylus plays. One, led by the imposing Robert (Michel Lonsdale), is doing “Prometheus.” The other is tackling “Seven Against Thebes.” Both employ physical, almost carnal, Living Theatre-style methods to explore their respective texts, and these efforts are captured in long (I mean, like, twenty-minute long) uninterrupted takes that frequently involve wordless grunting, primal writhing, and so forth.
The other ‘sets’ of characters are sets of one. A deaf-mute panhandler (Jean-Pierre Leaud) armed with a harmonica accosts restaurant diners for spare change. It turns out (spoiler alert!) he’s faking the deaf-mute thing, but when he’s mysteriously given a series of enigmatic letters, he deduces that some sort of conspiracy is afoot, and that it is somehow related to Balzac’s “History of the Thirteen,” three short novels originally published in the early nineteenth century. Meanwhile, a beautiful young woman in great pants makes her own hand-to-mouth living as a con artist. When she, after sort of seducing a chess player, steals a batch of letters from him, she finds herself slowly drawn into the story of the Thirteen as well.
Having this sparse skeleton of story in mind may help you get into the almost hypnotic groove you need to attain in order to complete this unique and challenging marathon. Like most marathons, there will be times when your body and your mind will be telling you to quit, and you’ll wonder what the point of the whole thing is, exactly. Balzac reportedly drank fifty cups of coffee a day, and you might wonder if that’s what you’ll need to get through this meandering plot that feels like a full season of “The X-Files” written on Quaaludes.
But, both in its making and in its viewing, “Out 1” is about process, not product. The journey is its own reward. And once you make it through the whole thing, you will have earned the right to scoff with elitist pretension when your friends tell you they watched all of Season 4 of “House of Cards” in a weekend.
(“Out 1” Episodes 1 & 2 screen Saturday, March 11, at 6:30 p.m., at the Northwest Film Center. Episodes 3 & 4 follow on Monday, March 14, episodes 5 & 6 on Wednesday, March 16, and episodes 7 & 8 on Thursday, March 17. Each episode is between 90 & 100 minutes, with a fifteen-minute intermission between episodes.)