July Theme Month

Secret Defense: If Chantal Akerman Directed a Film Noir

Jacques Rivette is widely regarded to have been the most experimental and uncompromising filmmaker to arise from the Nouvelle Vague (better known as the French New Wave in North America): a French film movement that emerged throughout the late 1950s to the end of the ‘60s. It was predominantly centralized in Paris where a flourishing film culture was cultivating around the increasingly renowned yet formerly niche and counter-culture film magazine, Cahiers du Cinéma. This was a prestigious publication, co-founded by the influential critic and film theorist André Bazin, and under its employment as critics were names such as Rivette, Claude Chabrol, Éric Rohmer, Jean-Luc Godard, and François Truffaut — all of whom went on to become pioneers of the Vague as well as some of the most revered filmmakers of the 20th century. These five constituted what was effectively the core of the movement, driven by an ideal established during their time at Cahiers: the denouncement and rejection of the establishment French filmmaking that advocated for safe narratives bound in escapism and traditional conventions. The Vague relinquished these guidelines in favour of cinematic innovation and storytelling that was socially-charged and confrontational in nature — taking cues from American as well as international cinema such as the Italian neorealist films of the ‘40s and ‘50s — this was the ethos of the movement. In their initial years, Truffaut would charm the world with his graceful and touching debut, The 400 Blows, and Godard would alter the landscape of cinema itself with his revolutionary Breathless. Rohmer and Chabrol found success as well, garnering their own devotees, and while the same could be said for Rivette, it is undeniable that he was — and is — by far the least prolific and accessible of the five. 

During his formative years at Cahiers, Rivette was the most passionate and aggressive critic among his peers; Godard would joke about how he would watch a film and love it, but then completely disregard his opinion once he learned that Rivette disliked it. Before any of the critics became filmmakers, Truffaut remarked that if any of the five were capable of directing a film, it would be Rivette and him exclusively. So consider it an ironic twist of fate that, of the five, Rivette would have the rockiest start in terms of integrating into the film industry. He began working on his debut feature, Paris Belongs to Us, before any of his contemporaries, and yet it was only released in 1961 — by then Truffaut, Godard, and Chabrol had already brought the movement to the world stage. His next feature, The Nun, was conceptually conceived of and scripted in 1962 but faced controversy and censorship due to its subject matter. It was finally filmed in 1965, after scrounging for the financial means, only for a year’s worth of court proceedings to follow before it was approved to screen at the Cannes Film Festival. Then L’Amour fou followed, the film where Rivette began developing his signature style — the unorthodox plot progression, extensive improvisation, conspiratorial intrigue, multiple plots, and extreme length — which would culminate in Out 1, a titanic thirteen-hour long film that is now heralded as a landmark achievement in cinema. And yet both films flew completely under the radar and were not known nor conveniently accessible until decades later. It was not until the mid ‘70s with Celine and Julie Go Boating that the name Jacques Rivette sparked admiration on the worldstage, when his colleagues had all long been household names. But even when underseen, Rivette was always pushing boundaries and experimenting with film form in ways that exceeded that of Godard — Out 1 speaks for itself — and the same passion visible in his critical work was reflected in his films: from inklings and meshes of Welles and Hitchcock in Paris, Mizoguchi and Dreyer in The Nun, to tinkering with ideas formulated by Bazin in Out 1.

This loving dedication and air of inventiveness to the medium and craft maintained throughout every decade of Rivette’s career until his death, and it made for one of the most versatile and expansive filmographies in the history of French cinema. And still, these days, most of his films — apart from Out 1, select films from his ‘60s to ‘70s run, and the award-winning La Belle Noiseuse from 1991 — are genuinely obscure, in part due to inaccessibility but also poor distribution and a lack of exposure. There are countless gems from his ‘80s and ‘90s run that together arguably surpass the entirety of his early career and canonical hits. One of Rivette’s most interesting and overlooked works is the film that capped off his ‘90s run, the elusive mystery thriller that is Secret Defense — fascinating because it is, in many ways, a throwback to all of Rivette’s early-career obsessions established in Paris and L’Amour that reached a climax in Out 1. In addition, Defense is interesting because it is ostensibly similar to Paris in being a pastiche of film noir by genre directors like Robert Aldrich and Howard Hawks that Rivette had especially admired at Cahiers. However, Defense is anything but a pastiche, if anything, it is more of a deconstruction of those very films. Imagine a Fritz Lang film noir directed by Béla Tarr or maybe Chantal Akerman, perhaps even the other way around. That is, a film noir that glosses over the exact elements that make said genre appealing in the first place, instead emphasizing the monotonous aspects that are generally omitted by way of ellipses or exposition — that is the essence of Secret Defense.

Set in Paris, the film follows a scientist, Sylvie (Sandrine Bonnaire), who stumbles into an elaborate plot when her brother, Paul (Grégoire Colin), abruptly drops by her workplace to inform her that he has reason to believe that their father, who died after falling from a train years prior, was actually assassinated. The culprit of this murder would be none other than their father’s former right-hand man, Walser (Jerzy Radziwiłowicz), who happens to now run their family business. However, Paul’s evidence is shoddy at best and leaves Sylvie unconvinced; he has found a mysterious photograph taken the day of the incident, depicting their father minutes before boarding the train, in which Walser can be spotted in the background of the image. This photograph contradicts Walser’s proclaimed whereabouts during the day and his current occupation as head of their father’s company may imply an ulterior motive. That said, Sylvie remains a skeptic and finds the whole situation to be ridiculous, but Paul is convinced and dead set on enacting revenge, brandishing a loaded gun to prove his sincerity. In the hopes of preventing her brother from making any rash decisions, Sylvie begins investigating the conspiracy herself and in the process digs deep into her background, uncovering insidious truths about those who she thought she once knew.

Despite the intrigue that this synopsis may generate, there is not much resolution offered to any of its mysteries by the end of the film. Where this differs from Rivette’s early films that deal with conspiracies and secret societies is that aforementioned emphasis on deconstruction. Rivette offers the tip of the iceberg with every secret and conundrum posited by the film, refusing to elaborate further, because resolving those mysteries are not the point of interest. When Sylvie confronts Walser she discovers that Walser indeed murdered her father but also discovers that her own mother, Geneviève (Françoise Fabian), was complicit in the crime. Once Sylvie confronts her mother, she discovers the motive for the act and it is surprisingly simplistic and straightforward in terms of a dramatic reveal, but simultaneously the viewer is given the sense that there is more than meets the eye. The mother’s involvement is peculiar and the details of the motive, while possibly understandable if true, is kept very vague. Walser himself appears to be a fountain of hidden truths, though his true depths are never inquired. In fact, the primary premise of the film is almost irrelevant; in areas where there should be a solution, Rivette instead builds further mystery and complexity, leaving the viewer dangling, and compounding all of it onto our lead protagonist’s psychological state. He moves the goal post entirely away from the expected catharsis given by the resolution that you should get from a narrative and instead uses its logical endpoints to really explore and focus on its characters and the world that has been laid out. 

Not only does Rivette ignore resolution and narrative conclusions, but he also ignores spectacle. I previously alluded to my description of Secret Defense being a Fritz Lang film directed by Tarr or Akerman and I do truly hold that statement to be true. When Sylvie decides to confront Walser for the first time, it is with murderous intent, she is armed with a gun and has decided to murder him before Paul can. If this were a film directed by Lang or Hawks, there would be an instantaneous frame-to-frame transportation from Sylvie’s residence in Paris to Walser’s locale in the countryside. Instead, with Rivette at the helm, the viewer is greeted to a nearly half-hour long sequence where Sylvie travels to the subway, emboards on a train, and then kills time as the train travels to its destination. Rivette’s approach with the story and what he chooses to place an emphasis on is very Jeanne Dielman-esque in forcing the viewer to watch what they should not care about and then make them care about it. On the surface, this is a very boring scene but then it takes on an unsettling meaning when the viewer recognizes that Sylvie is about to murder someone; it is as if the viewer can feel her state of mind as her conflicted face looks out into the distance, paranoid of anyone staring at her, and then immediately rushes to the bar lounge to pound a double vodka. Like Akerman, Rivette highlights the minor and subtle gestures to be found within extensive periods of time, but the scene is especially interesting given its context. Rivette presents what, in any other scenario, would be a normal everyday routine, but in the context of Sylvie comes off almost as a psychological assessment, reminiscent of various sequences from Tarr’s Sátántangó.

In a sense, Secret Defense has no beginning or end whatsoever and it does not progress in the manner that any conventional narrative would — it functions nearly as a film emulating a state of purgatory. While Rivette may not be interested in solving the mystery put forth, the film is still unquestionably rooted in the source of intrigue; it cares little about the grueling details nor motivations of the crime, but the sheer concept of a father’s death and his two children responding in two vastly different and destructive ways is crucial. That is, Secret Defense is effectively a study of trauma and the lengths that people will go in coping and attempting to find, or create, closure after a loved one’s abrupt death, which can never fully be attained regardless of why or how it happened — hence the unimportance of motive and how seemingly endless Sylvie’s pursuit is. Andrei Tarkovsky famously implemented lengthy running times and glacial slow pacing into his films with the purpose of absorbing viewers into the worlds of his films, so much so that time itself would appear nonexistent. This principle also applies to Tarr, Akerman, and Rivette particularly in the case of Secret Defense and its creation of this artificial purgatory — watching the film, the viewer is so drawn into the world that whatever issues with length are nonexistent.

I hate to repeat old party lines when praising films that are extremely lengthy by nature but the most succinct compliment that I can offer to Secret Defense is that it does not feel long, or rather its length is never a point of contention. What Jacques Rivette accomplished here is one of the most interesting and unique genre films that I have ever seen, the manner in which it toys around and experiments with genre conventions is truly endearing. The fact that Defense was one of Rivette’s late-period works, released decades into his lengthy career at a stage where most filmmakers would falter — not to mention the offset of Alzheimer’s disease that would end his career in a few short years — and is still brimming with this degree of creativity and willingness to repurpose cinematic norms speaks volumes about the talent that was Rivette. 

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