Around a Small Mountain
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Time Out says
Tue Sep 8 2009Reviewed at the 2009 Venice Film Festival
Recalling the rueful but sweet-natured tenor of Robert Altman’s fond adieu to a long established radio show in ‘A Prairie Home Companion’, French New Wave alumnus Jacques Rivette offers a ramshackle road trip across France’s Languedoc region with an underperforming circus troupe in his effervescent miniature, ‘36 Vues du Pic Saint Loup’. Both films are, in a sense, ghost stories, as Rivette depicts the painful memories of departed lovers hovering in the air, as well as the emptiness of the big top as performers happily play out their act to rows of empty stools.
Very loosely based on the life of dandy author Raymond Roussel, the story sees well-to-do Italian drifter Vittorio (Sergio Casteilito) deciding to trail a small circus as it ambles through a series of bijou French villages that satellite the titular Pic Saint Loup. Kate (Jane Birkin) is the ringmaster of sorts, who instead of trying to coax townsfolk into seeing the shows, spends time making fruit salads to reward those who come of their own accord. An awkward romance develops between the pair, but the confident, mysterious Vittorio, struggling to work out why Kate is always so distant with him, soon learns of a terrible accident that befell her ex-lover, Peter.
Rivette has acknowledged that the idea for the film came about while he was making ‘La Belle Noiseuse’ in 1991, and this new work displays a similar curiosity not only about the details of how art comes into being, but how it effects those performing or creating it. Three clowns perform an opening comedy skit involving smashed plates and catching bullets in their teeth, and throughout the film Rivette demonstrates how the sketch progresses and develops along with the oscillating moods (and in one case, levels of sobriety) of its performers.
Though often wryly amusing, the overriding feeling is one of sadness as the humble art of live performance slowly slips away, and the technologies and responsibilities of the modern age encroach. Perhaps the film is also an allegory for the passing of a time when cinematic spectacle was a simple pleasure born of people with dexterity, charisma and passion for performing for the camera. There are also a few self-effacing nods to the usefulness of criticism, as Vittorio confuses a trapeze artist by describing her act as ‘aerial’, yet in offering simple analysis of the comic potential of holding a plate, helps a clown to develop his act.
Wittily composed and edited, and shot through with genuine adoration for the landscape and culture of his homeland, '32 Vues du Pic Saint Loup' shows Rivette developing charming, unique variations on all his pet themes.
Author: David Jenkins