Monday, July 05, 2010

Rivette’s Around a Small Mountain

At least he is not following a Dead cover band. Still, the decision of a middle aged Italian man of apparent means to travel with a small family owned circus through the French countryside might seem a bit precipitous. Of course, there happens to be an attractive middle-aged woman working with said big top who most definitely captures his attention in Jacques Rivette’s Around a Small Mountain (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

Supposedly on his way from Milan to meet up with friends in Barcelona, Vittorio is clearly in no particular hurry. After fixing Kate’s stalled vehicle on the side of the road, he accepts her invitation for the evening’s performance of the family circus she has only recently returned to and then comes back night after night.

It turns out the circus performers are happy to have him in the audience. They can tell he is laughing, since he is nearly the only one there. Indeed, he seems to have a special appreciation for one of their comedic routines, offering advice to Alexandre (definitely a crying on the inside kind of clown) that would be annoying if it were not so right-on-the-money. Frankly, the Italian wanderer’s presence among them seems quite welcomed and natural. Yet, he is only able to glean Kate’s back-story in bits and pieces.

It is not an accident that Rivette’s film is set in the circus. Though nothing fantastical happens in the film, per se, the big top appears to hold a sort of magical power. Periodically, Rivette gives the audience private viewings of their acts that initially feel surreal, but ultimately convey a sense of the circus’s weird power. When Vittorio inevitably finds himself inside the ring, his disastrous improv serves as an explicit tribute to that mystical sense of wondrous possibilities.

Mountain is a small film in the best sense. Never blowing things out of proportion, it tells a simple story of love, loss, and potential redemption, with a sly whiff of absurdity. Considered the playful improviser of the French New Wave, Rivette is known for his long films (maxing out at nearly thirteen hours in the case of Out 1). Mountain by contrast, is elegant in its brevity, not even crossing the ninety minute threshold. Yet, it has power in its simplicity, nicely underscored by Pierre Allio’s slightly jazzy opening and closing themes.

Sergio Castellito (the villain in Prince Caspian) has the right world-weary charm as well as effective comedic timing as the footloose Vittorio. Always an intriguing presence, Jane Birkin supplies the dramatic highlight of the film with a riveting grave-side monologue, answering many of our questions about her tragic history. Their screen-chemistry is perfectly on pitch, sparring together convincingly, while hinting at deeper things below the surface.

With its wistful in-the-moment vibe, Mountain would be a perfect film to watch at the end of summer. Instead, it releases in New York in early July, but really, there is never a bad time to see a good film and Mountain is very good indeed. Warmly recommended, it opens this Friday (7/9) at the IFC Center.