[The following is a translation of a dialogue between Hélène Frappat and Jacques Rivette originally published in La Lettre du cinéma in 1999 and reprinted in Textes Critiques, the collection of Rivette’s film criticism issued by Post-Éditions in 2018. The reprint carries an introductory note by editors Miguel Armas and Luc Chessel, reproduced hereThere are no images accompanying the reprint, the additions here are mine.]

Hélène Frappat and Jacques Rivette

Towards the end of 1997, Hélène Frappat contacted Jacques Rivette, who was about to finish editing his film Secret Defense, in order to propose a conversation intended for publication in a new quarterly magazine called La Lettre du cinéma, whose first four issues had come out that year. Their constant exchange, following the release of the film in March 1998, gave way to two recorded conversations, held on 30 September of the same year and then on 6 January 1999, whose transcription was revised and reworked by Rivette, who added three footnotes with his pen.

Together, they constitute a truly collaborative work, published in two parts in issues 10 and 11 of La Lettre du cinéma in the summer and autumn of 1999: the first part carried the title “Trailer”, as a quick introduction to an upcoming dialogue; the second, initially announced under the title “Hunt down the imposters!” was finally titled “Secrets and Laws”, providing the text its general and final title.

It wasn’t the first time that Rivette participated in this kind of exchange: recall the importance of the sprawling conversations he had with his companions at the Cahiers du cinéma, attentively read over and corrected by the filmmaker himself, on his films L’Amour fou (“Time Overflows”, issue no. 204, September 1968) and Le Pont du Nord (“Interview with Jacques Rivette” in two parts, issue no. 323-324, May 1981, and issue no. 327, September 1981); or his dialogue with Serge Daney in two parts, “Day” and “Night”, filmed in Paris by Claire Denis as Jacques Rivette, the Nightwatchman, for the collection “Cinéastes de notre temps” in 1990.

But “Secrets and Laws” seems like a separate work in itself. While presenting it then, Hélène Frappat gave the following guideline:

“What you’re going to read isn’t an interview, but more precisely what Rivette prefers calling a ‘dialogue’, for him a more interesting form than the traditional ‘Q&A’, a form more open and closer to his usual method of working when he’s writing, preparing or shooting a film with members of his crew. The concern of this dialogue will be more general and theoretical (what is a film?) than particular and circumstantial (how to evaluate this or that film?). It’s perhaps for this reason—though he is loath to mention his older writings most of the time—that Jacques Rivette returned to two foundational texts published by Cahiers du cinéma, one in 1953 and the other in 1956: “The Genius of Howard Hawks” and the “Letter on Rossellini”. In these two articles, Rivette reflected on a double evidence: the self-evidence of Hawks’ genius and that of Rossellini’s modernity; a question all the more crucial because, in a way, it poses a threat to the very activity of criticism: how can one prove a self-evident fact (if it can’t be demonstrated, only confirmed)? And what are the conditions that make it possible to think about the feeling of self-evidence that often underpins our critical judgment [1]?”

“Secrets and Laws” thus constitutes as much a reflection on the work of criticism in its relation to the history and practice of cinema as a return to Rivette’s journey, his thought and his work by the filmmaker himself: a major text on the theory of art, which develops invaluable and unexpected ideas in trenchant orality, soberly offered for the use of future readers, where the questions “what is a film?”, “what makes a film a work of art?” register as political questions, in line with the one that Rivette never stopped asking under the name of “modernity”.

Jacques Rivette and Serge Daney in Jacques Rivette, le veilleur (1990, Claire Denis)

Part I


Hélène Frappat: One of the things that interest you, as Serge Daney said, is to film work.

Jacques Rivette: Yes, yes, yes, well… I try to. The idea of work. Because I think it’s impossible to really film it.


You work towards filming this idea of work…

Yes, it leads to the idea that films are the story of films. You may say that it’s tautological, but I think it isn’t just that… or rather, there is a truth in tautology. Forty-five years later, I want to go back to the lines at the beginning and the end of my old article on Hawks: “That which is, is”, but the second “is”, if done right, doesn’t have the same meaning as the first! So the work of filming work isn’t purely tautological, and at the same time, I think we shouldn’t shun tautology. For example, one of the tautologies we must assert is that films are films. It means a lot of things, it means that a film should be a film, i.e., something that exists in space and time, on screen, before our eyes, but it’s also celluloid that is printed upon, sensitized by both optical and chemical processes that should be taken into account. Light isn’t something magical, but it is part of the work, and there are individuals whose profession it is to work with light.


In the idea of mise en scène, there is both this evidence that you speak about in your article on Hawks and, to get to this evidence, quite a detour?

Yes, in cinema, you take a detour through this machine that is the camera. Even if it was initially a very simple machine—the admirable Lumière camera which is a small wooden box you can hold in the palm of your hand—it was a machine all the same. Not to mention today’s cameras, which are much more sophisticated than those from thirty years ago, like today’s film rolls that are infinitely more complex than Lumière’s film roll. But with Lumière’s celluloid, the photographic process intervenes between what the eyes see and what will be on screen: so there’s an activity here that you can’t deny by saying “it’s magic”… And if I feel like repeating “a film is a film”, it’s also in relation to most critics who are, very often, concerned with a film’s story, possibly its characters, at times the actors, and that only rarely. But it seldom matters to them that it’s a film, i.e., something that should have the truth of film, in the sense that Cézanne spoke of the truth of painting, a material truth, which should hold up on the screen just like a painting should hold up on the wall, on the canvas. I admit that it’s very hard to speak about it in words, it’s something on the level of intuition. You get the feeling that it’s either there or not, and this feeling is quite arbitrary. It’s very hard to justify it, and you are tempted to say “that’s how it is”, following the method of Mr. Alain, for instance, who, in his writing on works he admired, refused arguments and discussions, preferred examples and said: “Well, that’s how this one is, and that’s how that one is, and you either agree or don’t.”. The principle is that opinions, like works, should be stated as clearly as possible: take it or leave it. I still think that it’s at the heart of Hawks’ aesthetic, as it is in Ford’s or DeMille’s…


Do you feel like you’ve returned to Hawks with Secret Defense?

I hope I haven’t completely lost sight of him in the meantime! Hawks was one of our rare references for Joan the Maiden: we’d quickly adopted the Western in general, i.e., Hawks and Ford, and of course Rossellini, as our model for the construction of episodes, the tone of the dialogue and the relation between characters. Those were our references. We’d also thought of Renoir at the beginning, but I think he disappeared along the way: what remained were Hawks’ and Ford’s Westerns, and Rossellini.


At the beginning of Battles, there is a tracking shot on Joan who walks along a wall. Then the camera pans to reveal an opening in the wall. It’s The Searchers!

I agree, it’s a Western shot in any case; on top of that, she is looking westward at that moment… Now, how could one say that such a film exists and such a film doesn’t? I cited Alain, but ultimately, my main reference (I’m speaking of writers I know well, whom I’ve often read; Rohmer was the one who made me read Alain) is [Jean] Paulhan, whom I read by myself, if I may say so, when I was a teenager in Rouen. There are whole books by Paulhan on this question; not on cinema, but it amounts to the same thing. A Short Preface to All Criticism is Paulhan’s fundamental book on the subject, except that he asks the question, but doesn’t answer it: how is it that we speak of a particular work because we think it’s important, and how is it that we know that all the others, full of good things they may be, aren’t of any importance whatsoever? That’s the most important point; it’s what comes first. We can comment all we want after this, but why do we speak of this work and not that? Why is it that even those who find a work “terrible, monstrous” pick this one out for consideration, and not those around it? How is it that such and such painting, book, music or film exists, that they have an existence as a painting, as a novel, as a poem, as a symphony, as a film? That’s the fundamental question that everyone dodges. For Baudelaire’s contemporaries, why was it soon evident that Baudelaire was someone to fight over, and that others weren’t? It is especially clear from the nineteenth century onwards, where the idea of conflict is more pronounced, but it was true even before: when we read, for example, Madame de Sévigné on Racine, we can see there was a relentless discussion; with Corneille, it was the Quarrel of Le Cid… I’m not saying that the only criterion for a work’s “existence” is conflict, conflict at the moment of its reception, but it’s one of the criteria; admittedly, works that are embraced by everyone right away, in general, don’t interest anyone ten years later. At the same time, if you work towards provoking a conflict, you go wrong grossly… Baudelaire and Flaubert were incidentally the first ones to be sorry about what happened and thought, understandably, that it was all a terrible misunderstanding.

A “Western” shot in Joan the Maiden (1994, Jacques Rivette)

The opening shot of The Searchers (1956, John Ford)

But does cinema have the same status? One of the problems facing film critics is that they don’t really know what they are talking about. At times, they aren’t really writing on cinema, they might as well be writing on literature…

Ah yes, of course! That’s why I often feel like repeating: where is the film in what you’re writing?


Does cinema need different criteria of judgment than the ones traditionally used?

Yes, I think so.


That brings us back to the question of “mise en scène”.

But saying “mise en scène” is replacing one problem with another! That’s actually what we did at Cahiers, and I am one of those responsible for putting this term mise en scène on a pedestal. It allows us to put a word on the mystery, but once we have said “mise en scène”, what do we mean by it? The problem is simply displaced, let’s say it is named, but it isn’t resolved. Sure, it does revolve around mise en scène, but what is mise en scène? A vast question!


It revolves around what you call “the idea”…

It revolves around the fact that mise en scène is a very precise activity, and even if everyone does it in their own way—which is different from the next person’s, thankfully, because it wouldn’t be interesting otherwise; everyone has their own technique—they all seem to talk about the same thing. That’s what surprised our first readers at Cahiers—there are probably other examples, but I’m speaking of what I know best, hence Cahiers in the fifties. Here’s Bazin, for example, who was both intrigued and, at times, taken aback by us, even if he loved us and even if we respected him deeply: “What makes it possible for you to defend Renoir, Rossellini and Hitchcock at once?” And the big question: “How can you reconcile Rossellini with Hitchcock?” It’s clear that, for Rossellini, Hitchcock was the devil himself… For his part, Hitchcock knew well that Rossellini existed (since he had “taken” Ingrid Bergman), but whether he saw even one film by Rossellini in his life, I don’t know, but it was perhaps the least of his worries. Well, yes, there was something that made it possible for us to admire Rossellini and Hitchcock at once and on the same level—not in the same way, but equally strongly. That’s what must be resolved.


We come back to what you called the “politique des auteurs”.

Yes, but the politique des auteurs quickly became an evasion, because it meant saying: they are really very different, but they have the commonality of being “auteurs”. Sure, but then, everyone becomes an auteur after that! Now, it’s true for Rossellini and Hitchcock, it’s still true for Ford and Renoir, it’s true again for Hawks, it’s still true, naturally, for Lubitsch or Dreyer, but is it still true for Minnelli, or even for Richard Fleischer? And then, you come to Positif, where they start talking about Pollack or I don’t know who, or some random director, since when you talk about Pollack, you’re not far from some random director! So the politique des auteurs is a poor response, and above all, it doesn’t explain why, in the work of “great” auteurs, as in the work of great novelists, great painters and great musicians, everything is interesting, because their failures deserve more attention than a hack’s accomplishment: that’s indeed what the politique des auteurs originally wanted to say. Why is a commission executed by Abel Gance infinitely more interesting (for, if I recall correctly, it was for Gance’s film Tower of Lust, a purely made-to-order product that Gance spoke about with great modesty, that François [Truffaut] coined this expression in Cahiers) than Delannoy’s masterpiece? That’s the first question. That one is an open-and-shut case, but what was never resolved, and still remains unanswered, is the question of how one can admire on the same level—because of their consistency, because of their logic, let’s say, but that isn’t enough—filmmakers as different as—let’s retain the same names—Rossellini and Hitchcock.

Silvana Pampanini and Pierre Brasseur in Tower of Lust (1955, Abel Gance)

“Consistency” is a partially satisfying answer, but it also goes round in circles.

Yes, because what do you say to justify it? You talk about scripts, you talk about themes and the recurrence of themes, and you’re trapped there. Sure, it does happen that there are favourite themes in the work of great filmmakers: it’s evident in Ozu, less so in Mizoguchi, but in the work of other filmmakers like Hawks, it requires a work of “clarification”; and it’s very fuzzy in Renoir: what’s common between La Chienne and Night at the Crossroads? There are seventeen years and many kilometres between them! Not to mention indisputable “auteurs” like René Clair or Mankiewicz, who aren’t for all that great filmmakers. These are real questions. There are others too, which still remain unanswered; it’s as if people dodged them because it obliges them to ask what a film is (I’m not going to answer that! Don’t count on me!) What do we expect from a film? Why do we sit in front of a white screen, the same way that we pick a book and begin reading it with the intention of going all the way to page 363? What do we really expect at that moment?


That’s the question of criticism.

Yes, that’s just why I spoke of Paulhan’s book, A Short Preface to All Criticism, which is incidentally very disappointing at first reading: Paulhan is an essentially deceptive writer. That’s why one must read him over and over.


You are one of the filmmakers who asks this question.

There are at least two of us with Rohmer, three with Jean-Luc [Godard], but Jean-Luc asks them differently, more or less in enigmatic formulations…


Even so, it’s up to the critic to ask the question “what do I expect of a work”. It’s both a philosophical and a political question.

They are anyway the most important questions. There’s nothing more important than what we call metaphysics: writers like Spinoza, Kant and Hegel ask fundamental questions. I have a hard time reading them, but even if I don’t always manage to, I know that they are taking about the most important things. They have their own techniques to do this: to read Chinese writers, one must learn Chinese; to read the philosophers, one must learn philosophical language.


Nietzsche had called Kant “the Chinaman of Königsberg”!

I’ve always been a bit scared of Kant…


Yet you quote a line by Péguy in your “Letter on Rossellini”.

The line by Péguy that says Kant has no hands! Well, he says “Kantianism”, not “Kant”, which means his disciples, epigons…


That’s kind of the question at the heart of Secret Defense: what can I expect? It’s a question of exigence, in a way, and if the film was received coolly, it is perhaps because it was faced with people who had no desire to ask that question.  

They were afraid of being bored, that’s all. Did they know what it was about? Maybe not, but it’s certain that they were afraid of being bored. Admittedly, when I think a film may be boring, I’m not too keen to go see it either. It’s simply that the films I’m bored at aren’t the same…


(Paris, 30 September 1998.)

Françoise Fabian and Sandrine Bonnaire in Secret Defense (1998, Jacques Rivette)


Part II


Hélène Frappat: We left off at this mystery, this tautology that “a film is a film”…

Jacques Rivette: I’ve been thinking about it since, and I gave myself, not answers because I don’t think there can be definitive answers in this matter, but perhaps elements of an answer… But what would you say to try to answer this question?


To pinpoint the mystery, and not to dispel it, I’d say that one mysterious thing is the relation between a very concrete activity and an idea: how does this concrete attention to details, to the relation between space and time which is the work of mise en scène, relate to a more general idea, the idea of the film?

I agree that it necessarily revolves around a relation. The question to be asked is: between what? I get the impression, by the way, that this notion corresponds to all forms of expression, not just cinema. It can well be the case with any artistic approach, and perhaps even with events of everyday life. Nothing ever exists alone anyway, we exist only in relation to other people, and it’s precisely this dialogue, or this trialogue, or this quadrilogue etc., that we constantly have in life. No one exists alone, and everything that concerns men—men and women, let’s use men in the generic sense even if it’s not well-regarded these days—always corresponds to a given relation: there’s a relation between A and B, or between A and B and C.


This relation defines the dynamic: there’s never a force by itself.

Yes, this relation goes backward at first glance. I don’t know if that’s what you mean: it goes both ways.


That’s why a relation of force can be conscious.

Maybe not… why a relation of force, it can be one of friendship!


I thought that forces work in pairs.

Yes, if one takes the word force positively, there are nice forces as well as negative forces. But what needs to be understood is precisely their relation… I recall that I quoted the example of Jean Paulhan who wrote a small book that can be read in less than an hour, A Short Preface to All Criticism, and in which he is astonished that no one to his knowledge has really, clearly, directly asked the question which nonetheless seems fundamental to him: why is it that critics, and not just critics but also amateurs interested in literature, choose to discuss, heap praise on and severely criticize such and such work, and pass over all others in silence? And Paulhan cites the example of books which, at their time, were badly received, but people agreed right away that they were exactly the books to be badmouthed, Les Fleurs du mal for instance (one could also invoke Olympia or The Rite of Spring), whereas no one disputed the merit of many other works. On the contrary, everyone agreed that they were beautifully written, wholly pleasant to read, and then, completely forgotten six months later.


There are some others that seem to demand nothing of their public.

Right. So how is it that, when critics said that Baudelaire was an imposter, they went precisely after Baudelaire, and not such and such writer whose names nobody knows now. That was Paulhan’s real question: how is it that there’s a kind of consensus that’s produced very quickly, at times immediately. (It was the case with Lautréamont, but for purely material reasons, because Les Chants de Maldoror was published almost secretly; it wasn’t until some years later that Gourmont or Bloy began thinking: “that’s one bizarre writer there” and the controversy kicked off.) It’s the question Paulhan asks, but doesn’t answer categorically. A Short Preface to All Criticism sketches a first draft of the solution, which opens up to other questions.


In what sense, according to him, is an answer possible?

It’s exactly on this notion of a precise and fundamental relation: simply put, given that it’s about literature, it’s the relation between words and thought. If I have to summarize it very crudely, what Paulhan tries to suggest, to indicate, to make his reader discover is this: the authors we want to talk about and discuss are precisely those who have written with a clear awareness of the problem posed by the relation between words and what we call ideas, thoughts, feelings, emotions—the two faces of language. He gives counter-examples. He presents three extracts from authors of the time, completely forgotten today, three extracts from novels of the fifties. He says, broadly: “Here are three texts written in French, there are no mistakes, but they don’t work either! Why so? Because there’s something missing, unless there’s something too much, but what?”

Jean Paulhan, photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson

One could call it the relation between grammar and idea.

There’s another book by Paulhan, Key to Poetry, where he looks for the key that will allow us to say, not that this poem is great or that one is terrible—it’s less ambitious, but at the same time, it has a different kind of ambition—but that this theory about poetry is likely to be correct, and that other theory isn’t very pertinent. He ends up with an algebraic formula that, very broadly, says that a correct theory must be reversible. In other words, a theory of poetry that speaks of words should be the same when speaking of ideas.


Reversible between thought and language?

Right. It’s the same as saying that the writing of a real writer, be it a poet, playwright or a novelist, must reach a stage where the words cannot be moved, modified, replaced or swapped: that’s what differentiates perfect verse from journalistic prose. You can’t change or add one word to “la fille de Minos et de Pasiphaé”. It so happens that it’s a perfect alexandrine to boot, and which says very important and profound things about the character of Phèdre, since it isn’t all that easy being the daughter of Minos and Pasiphaé, what with the Law on one side and the animal and animality on the other…


I feel that…

…it’s more complex in cinema?


Exactly. I’ve not read Paulhan’s text, but you could say…

I only take it as my starting point because, again, it would be wrong to try to do a literal transcription. I’ve tried at times, by reading Paulhan, since I’m not a writer and I try to be a filmmaker, to see what happens if we try to transpose it. At one point, I thought that since cinema is ultimately both space and time, one could perhaps say this (not in order to know if a film is a film in the true sense of the word, or only a strip of film projected on a screen, but rather as a key to theories about cinema): theories of cinema that speak of time are correct if we can apply them as they are to space.


A reversible relation between space and time?

Yes, but I know that it’s ultimately very theoretical, even if cinema is indeed an art of space and time, of space in time, or time in space…


…of space-time…

…of space-time.


Isn’t it extremely abstract to separate space from time?

It’s impossible actually. But admittedly, all existing theories of cinema, like many old theories, privilege space, i.e., its plastic qualities. It resulted in an overvaluation of films that were simply a collection of pretty images, and people couldn’t tell Ford from Emilio Fernández (quite an era…). And there were others who wanted to privilege time, when editing was thought of in the most mechanical way, and so Pudovkin became an equal of Eisenstein’s. And now, since Leenhardt and Bazin, when time-value justifiably enjoys enormous popularity on enlarged and less cursory foundations, the risk is to no longer see cinema as anything more than a pure and simple narrative medium, that is, under the categories of story and fiction, but forgetting that it still concerns projected images, photographic images reproducing places, bodies and gestures, and that it’s not the realm of “word-based narratives”. That, I think, is the current tendency among both newspaper critics and Deleuze, who clearly privileges what he calls time-image.


He privileges time-image over movement-image. I thought that this question, which is essential to aesthetics, the question of judgment of artworks—what constitutes judgment, one which makes an artwork an artwork?…

Ah no, the question isn’t “what constitutes judgment?”, but on the contrary, “what makes a work deserve being considered?” Judgment comes later, it certifies, often despite itself because, once again, one of the greatest proofs is the aggressivity towards a work during its reception. It was evident in the case of The Rules of the Game, it was evident with Bresson, it was evident with Jean-Luc [Godard], to cite only three great names. The proof is in the hostility: people sense all of a sudden that there’s something that disturbs them. But they often get it wrong as to what disturbs them: there are things that are disturbing because they herald a new truth, and others that are disturbing solely because they want to stir the pot! So it can’t be the criterion either: we wouldn’t get too far if we were to say that all works that get bad reviews are great.

Roland Toutain and Jean Renoir in The Rules of the Game (1939, Renoir)

Cinema isn’t at the root of the question. This aesthetic problem emerged…

It’s not an aesthetic problem, it’s an existential problem!


Yes, inasmuch as the two are inseparable. It seems to me that this problem emerged historically at the end of the eighteenth century…

No, it was always there; one just has to read the Quarrel of Le Cid


But there was a moment where the question, as far as painting is concerned, for example, seems more complicated than when it concerns literature, or poetry—we could place painting and poetry on the same level. I’m thinking of a certain number of aesthetic debates at the end of the eighteenth century, around what is called the sublime, and which constitutes the source of our aesthetic modernity…



The question arises with certain images, not so much with literature as with certain paintings (English philosophers mostly talk about painting), or even certain poetic texts: they all constitute such deviations from what may be expected of an image that we are forced to wonder if we are still in front of artworks. Cinema prolongs this problem, possibly in a more complex way than literature, if we stick to Paulhan’s definition at least. And I’m thinking of a second problem: can we isolate aesthetic debates? If we consider, for example, the source of cinema’s modernity, without necessarily harking back to its proper historical origins, but to a time period following the Second World War…

Yes and no, since the source of modernity may be said to be The Rules of the Game and Citizen Kane, which date back to 1939 and 1940.


I’m thinking again of debates you took part in, and which probe into the relation between aesthetics and morality, broadly speaking: can we separate the two? Is the question “what makes an artwork an artwork” a purely aesthetic one?

No, once again, I think it isn’t a purely aesthetic question, and it isn’t a purely moral question either: it’s an existential question—I hold on to this word—and so there are both ethical and aesthetic dimensions to it. It always brings us back to the famous line about tracking shots being a question of morality, which remains true; it was always true and there’s no reason for it to stop being true. But once again, it offers a general framework for the question, but it doesn’t define the terms of the relation we’re looking for. I’ve asked myself this question; I wanted to know what exactly were the terms of the relation which makes a cinematographic work deserve being called a film, since that’s what we try to talk about. I think that this relation actually occurs between two poles, but that’s where it becomes hard. I’m tempted to use a word that’s very hard to handle, but I’m going to use it nonetheless because I’m taking cover behind great writers whom I don’t know well, but fine, it’s the word “law”. I knew that we were going to see each other again to discuss our question, and I was thinking about it, and there was this word “law” floating around in my head, which I didn’t know how to handle. And then, in the new issue of Télérama, I came across a long interview with Pierre Legendre that I found totally fascinating and insightful. He’s a writer that Serge Daney admired a lot, but I’ve always been scared to read him. And so Legendre, as those who’ve been reading him for longer know better, starts from the idea, from the term ‘law’, i.e., something that is built by reason to give man the means to establish, prolong and sustain his humanity. In other words—and I’m still quoting Legendre—something that will allow him to give life to subject as much as fiction, two terms he places on the same level. And word. Word evidently being the fundamental element of humanity, it’s through the word that man uses his reason to establish himself as a subject and as fiction. Man needs the word and the law to establish himself, to survive from one generation to the next, to not be entirely at the mercy of death, to perpetuate himself against the backdrop of death; to be sure, every human existence unfolds against the backdrop of death, but it’s a transmission that is accomplished, since the beginning, through great fictions, and here Legendre employs the words mise en scène and montage. That’s what struck me, I thought it was too good a confluence! If I understood correctly, Legendre uses the word montage in exactly the same sense as Lévi-Strauss uses the word bricolage, i.e., the act of assembling pre-existent elements into a new object, a new fiction with its own logic and its own necessity.

Orson Welles in Citizen Kane (1941, Welles), Bulle Ogier in Out 1 (1971, Jacques Rivette)

There’s a heterogeneity of elements…

There’s a heterogeneity of elements, there’s even a gratuitousness of elements, but this human activity, accomplished through the word and where man makes use of his reason, produces a new fictional framework that isn’t eternal: every civilization constructs such fiction at some point in time that will necessarily progress, since it’s taken up by the succession of things. So with this word “law” on one side, I believe that all films worthy of the name have a more or less close relation to a form of law [2]. On the other hand, the term I want to use for the other pole is “secret”, because I think there is, at the centre of every work worthy of the name—and this isn’t contradictory with the idea of law, by the way—a secret, one that isn’t an enigma of narration and which doesn’t have to do with simple bricolage. (Those would be fictional mysteries of a given scenario: it’s not for nothing that so many filmmakers and novelists, including Balzac and James no less, have played with stories that gamble on mysteries and secrets, where it’s the suspense that gives meaning to the fiction, as Corneille would’ve said.) I mean a secret in the most fundamental sense. I continue quoting Paulhan who says that it’s the feature of mysteries to be mysterious. The secret here is the individual’s secret. It’s a secret that the filmmaker doesn’t know, that he conveys without knowing it. It’s the secret of very personal, very existential, very suggestive things which the film finds itself conveying: beyond what the filmmaker consciously intended, he says things about himself and, through him, about humanity, things that he had no intention of saying.


You’ve come exactly to the definition Kant gave of genius!

Is it? I’ve never read Kant, but it’s obvious that the writers we’ve been quoting have read him well, Alain as much as Legendre, because the history of law descends straight from Mr. Immanuel…


He says that the genius carries a mystery within, a secret, which he’d be totally incapable of explaining himself, but which can be found in his work, and which his successors can perhaps explain and pass on.  

Yes! But again, it wouldn’t work if it were just that. He must know that he carries a mystery within, a secret, and that he tries to bring it out, to get rid of it, to expel it, as Cocteau said. But he doesn’t know how, he does it through fictions and by referring to laws—certain laws that concern him personally, but also tower above him and impose themselves on him like an external necessity, like fate.


That’s why this secret can be passed on: because there is the law.

As a provisional hypothesis and a starting point for the discussion, let’s submit that what makes a film a film is that there is both a secret and a submission to law, to a law that isn’t necessarily the same for all films, even though I suppose that, deep down, these different laws converge. It’ll bring us back to the question we asked the other day: how is it possible to admire both Hitchcock and Rossellini?


They all speak of the same thing.

Yes, but at first, they don’t seem to be obeying the same laws. It’s even obvious: the clearest, the most visible laws aren’t the same. But, on the other hand, what is on the same order is perhaps… All this is hypothesis, of course. Let’s see later if it interests others; either they will take it up or not. It isn’t intended to be a theory. In fact, it cannot possibly be a theory; it wouldn’t work if it were. It can only be a series of practices [3]


This relation between the secret and the law is wonderful: the secret as something existential, and the law as something more universal.

Yes, you could say that the secret is individual, the law is society…



Yes, a community of individuals who have managed to form a society, through word, through reason, through ceremonies, through fictions; for ceremonies are part of fictions, they are one stage, one form of the general fiction.

Michel Simon and Jean Renoir in Jean Renoir, the Boss (1966, Jacques Rivette, edited by Jean Eustache)

Certain films address the secret of their viewers and others don’t address it at all.

Yes, but on the other hand, it doesn’t mean that the filmmaker must make autobiographies! That was the big discussion I had with [Jean] Eustache during the three months we spent together editing the TV series on Renoir: we discussed constantly while watching our material over and over, and watching Renoir’s films again (we saw most of his films from the thirties on the editing table). Jean used to say, “cinema should be personal, you must talk about yourself”, and I’d say, “No, you shouldn’t talk about yourself, you should construct fictions, try to invent stories…”


What James calls the power of the indirect…

Yes! I think we were both right, as it always happens in such cases, since finally, Jean made his autobiographical films which, despite himself, became fictions, and I tried to make fictions, but it so happened twice or thrice that, despite myself, I introduced things that I had experienced… I was aware of it in L’Amour fou, of course, but in the others, I only realized much later that I’d talked about certain things that were a secret, to me most of all. Enough about me. I think it’s a general law. For instance, if we take The Rules of the Game and Citizen Kane, we know now that, in these two films, Renoir and Welles “said” things about themselves that they had no intention of saying, and that they seemed to have realized this later. That’s why Welles never stopped putting on false faces after this; he must’ve felt fully naked when he saw Kane! And Renoir never acted anymore. Again, this secret isn’t necessarily biographical, it’s bodily and spontaneous: the real biography of a film auteur, or a novelist for that matter, is often of no interest. The biography of James is that of a writer of novels. Ditto for Flaubert, but that doesn’t prevent the biographical dimension coming out very strongly in his work, and even more so in James.


I’d even say that it’s not autobiographical, in the sense that it’s the realm of fiction.



It’s as though there was such an opacity, in James’ work for instance, about himself that he was just investigating himself.

Yes, without wanting to. Like how Flaubert, in his letters to his friends, keeps repeating: “I’m totally impersonal, I wasn’t speaking about myself there…”


On similar lines, it could be said that, conversely, in a film like The Mother and the Whore, there is a bit of opacity at the end…



…which causes the autobiography…

…to turn into fiction! Yes, I found it striking. I knew Jean quite well, and I knew the two young women a little, and the outline of their relationship and certain incidents. And when I saw the film, everything had magnificently turned into fiction.


To come back to the word “law”, it’s both a precise and an extremely vast term, and which also has a moral connotation.

No! Well, I don’t like the word “moral”: ethical, yes, why not, why not have Mr. Spinoza with us! Along with Mr. Kant, since Kant had read Spinoza after all, as far as I know! I’ve never read Kant, but I’ve read Spinoza… Fine, let’s be serious and try to go ahead. The richer the relation between the poles of law and secret, the more intense a film will be. And the result is a third word I want to advance to talk about films really worthy of the label. That word is “danger”: they are all films that confront a danger, they are difficult films to make, films that are perilous to everyone, not just to the director, but everyone involved, especially the actors. These are films where a real risk is run—at times consciously, at times unconsciously—by those that have undertaken it, those that have completed it: these are films where, consciously or otherwise, more or less voluntarily, some basic element of the film (narration, actors, camera, what you will) that only wanted to take it easy is jeopardized. Again, this applies not only to a solitary filmmaker like Bresson or Sternberg or Eisenstein, but all those who are caught up in the adventure. It’s a series of dangers that have been overcome. There can perhaps be no great film without the feeling that it could have been a disaster, that it should have been, without this sort of miracle that has saved everything, by dint of hard work, calculation and determination. But putting it in these words is probably a modern approach that takes us away from the great classicism of the pioneers: the peril for them was that they were forced to invent everything.

Françoise Lebrun, Jean-Pierre Léaud and Bernadette Lafront in The Mother and the Whore (1973, Jean Eustache)

We could say that it’s a loss of control compared to classical control.

Yes, it’s obvious in the case of a filmmaker like Ophüls. He throws himself in the line of fire perpetually, leaping into the unknown but always landing on his feet with utmost feline grace. But the danger can also simply be the risk of coming across as ridiculous. Bresson, for instance, is just on the edge; Straub too. That’s actually the risk—that of tipping over—that modern filmmakers run. You’re just a hair’s breadth from pastiche or parody. Duras is a typical example. She’s at the extreme edge of parody, but it stays there. I’m thinking of her greatest films, but ultimately, I think they are all great films, even if there are some that move me more than the others. But I think she is a great filmmaker. It’s the same with Jean-Luc [Godard]; a particular film may be more accomplished, more convincing, even more moving than the others. That doesn’t matter; what counts is the trajectory and general progression.


What might he be risking?

Jean-Luc? Oh, he risks everything at once! He’s run every risk possible, at times even unconscious ones… We can now maybe look for films that haven’t surmounted perils, that haven’t been narrowly won ordeals… But ultimately, it’s there in classical works too, but as a theme, as a starting point; the narrowly won ordeal is Marivaux’s subject, and that of most tragedies too: the narrowly lost ordeal.


A Trial

Yes, except that, in classical works, the trial is more a question of subject matter, the story or the characters, whereas modern artists have subjected their means to a trial. Manet, for instance, in the history of painting. Manet or Cézanne is the point where it turns around. That’s the difference between Velázquez and Manet, or even between Velázquez and Goya. Goya is the moment where it tips over, poof!


That’s what I was saying a while ago: there’s a moment when the crisis becomes visible and explicit, and so for the viewer, it becomes part of what he’s looking at.

So let’s retain that provisionally, and with the hope that others may possibly want to continue our dialogue. Well, these are not exactly discoveries: law, secret and danger, if we want to summarize the two poles in three words, danger being perhaps a kind of a product of their relation, unless we say that danger is simply the name of the relation between law and secret. There are plenty of examples in the history of modern cinema…


I’m thinking of Fritz Lang…

Yes, or Nicholas Ray, for instance…


Danger is also something existential, like the secret.

Yes, in a way, our attempt at defining them hasn’t gotten us far, and we could’ve stated all this differently. Critics will continue to grapple with it, which is all the better. The point is to separate the imposters from… those rare ones who try to see a bit more clearly. Not the sincere ones, because pure and simple sincerity is of no interest. Sincerity is not a value.


Now that we’re coining categories—secret, danger, law—there’s one I find important, and that’s the category of innocence.

Yes! But innocence is a term… anyway, go ahead!


I was thinking that cinema is perhaps one of the arts where there’s a crucial relation between the innocence of what is filmed, the recording of what is present, the ontological aspect, on one hand, and a kind of total absence of innocence on the part of the artist, on the other hand. Cinema is one of the arts most capable of staging this tension between the innocence of invention and fiction, and the absence of innocence of the economy. It may be one of the criteria for discrimination: there are films that pretend that this question doesn’t exist. Could we then link the question of law to that of innocence?

What amuses me in what you say is that it reminds me of the very first article that I wrote and published, in the early fifties when I was in Paris for a few months. It was in a small bulletin of a few pages called The Latin Quarter Film Club Bulletin, run by Rohmer, who was called Maurice Schérer at the time. It’s what inspired him, a few months later, to set up Gazette du cinéma, which ran for five issues and where François [Truffaut], Jean-Luc [Godard] and I had our first lessons… And so, this very first text was titled “We Are Not Innocent Anymore”.


I’ve read it.

Ah, have you? I’d come to Paris a few months earlier, from Rouen, a town where there were only three or four theatres remaining in 1945, because of the war and the bombing. So there were relatively few films to see: except for new French films and major American pictures, dubbed in French of course, there was just one film club that had a monthly screening, where I’d seen older films like The Rules of the Game, Citizen Kane and Shadow of a Doubt, but no silent film. I’d known silent cinema only through the films of Chaplin, and Laurel and Hardy, that I’d seen as a kid on a Pathé Baby at my grandfather’s home on Thursday afternoons. I arrived in Paris, and after a month or two, I dared to go to the avenue de Messine, to the Cinémathèque. I started to go there as often as I could. There, I came across films by Griffith, Stiller, Fairbanks, all this cinema from the twenties and the thirties. I had this strong feeling that there was, in these great films by Griffith, Stiller and Stroheim, or the first films by Dreyer and Murnau, an innocence of cinema that had been irrevocably lost. It was obvious to me at the beginning of 1950, a period that, in hindsight, can seem still extremely classical. What was there in 1950? Answer: Renoir, Welles and Bresson, they had all started a revolution. (And Rossellini had started his, but it wasn’t apparent until months later.) I think now that it goes back much further. Innocence is perhaps to be found only in the work of Lumière, who didn’t want to be an “artist”, just a photographer of movement. Even Griffith’s Intolerance can’t be said to be an innocent film: it’s even the subject of the film to tackle different stages of civilization and knowledge, and all that it implies about crimes, destruction and barbarism…

Intolerance (1916, D.W. Griffith)

It tackles the total absence of innocence in history.

Yes! It’s already the case with Birth of a Nation, which tackles the Civil War on one hand and racism on the other. Both unconsciously and in fake good conscience, racism is at the centre of the film. So I think we’ll have to quote Kleist’s famous line once again: innocence is always lost. The only thing to do is to take a gigantic detour to try and see if there isn’t a small door at the back that will allow us to return to the original paradise. It’s Kleist’s magnificent text, On the Puppet Theatre, which everyone knows and which we can read five hundred times.


Could we establish a link between this loss of innocence and the relation to law?

No, because law exists to the extent that innocence is always already lost; whatever the milieu a man is born in, he is born in a civilization, with all that comes with it, a culture that will be imposed on him, the milieux he will grow up in, learn to worship Allah or whoever… It’s up to him to manage after that, but what is sure is that he isn’t, has never been, innocent. In any case, even Lumière’s innocence is perhaps fictitious, like it was the case with painters who thought long that there is something innocent in Giotto, for instance, and later said, “No, it is not Giotto, it’s Cimabue…”. Similarly, in music history, the romantic nineteenth century lived with the idea that music was invented by Italians in the sixteenth century. There’s a poem by Victor Hugo about it, on music that harks back to Palestrina. Or Musset’s verses: “Harmony, harmony, which comes to us from Italy and which came to it from the heavens.” We know now that the history of western music is more complicated than that, the genealogy goes further back. Now they say, “It’s Pérotin, who himself draws on what is called the Notre-Dame school!” Innocence is always a fiction.


On one hand, there’s this secret that the artist is unaware of…

It isn’t that he is unaware of it. I think he is half-aware of it, and that he refuses to see what’s happening. He refuses in order to be able to work; if he were so aware of it, he wouldn’t be able to do anything. He wouldn’t be able to write a word, put the brush on the canvas, or compose one note of music! He has the need to be half-aware, like children who close their eyes with the hands, but spread out their fingers a little. There’s a childish aspect to the artist’s attitude in any case. Whether it’s a writer, a painter, or a filmmaker, there’s always a return to childhood, but a childhood that has nothing innocent about it; a child who is in fact a small man, who knows a lot of things but doesn’t want to know them, who knows more than he believes or wants to.


He isn’t completely aware of the secret, but he is aware of this loss of innocence.

Yes, and he knows that he is lugging around something very heavy, which comes in his way. He doesn’t exactly know what it is, he wants to know, but doesn’t want to know too much either. Anyway, Mr. Freud has shared some words with us on this question, and Mr. Lacan who has opportunely underlined two or three points that we often prefer passing over in silence…


Your definition of cinema—the relation between secret and law— could be applied to psychoanalysis.

Yes, of course! They all talk about the same thing [4]. The strength of analysis lies in the fact that it speaks to every man about fundamental things. Its other strength, I think, is that it always remains incomplete. Everything is incomplete, of course; if it weren’t, history would stop and then… the end of the world! We’re lucky that we’re dealing with the incomplete, that all fiction, no matter how finished it is, even the finest novel in the world, calls up other novels, and that’s what makes for its power. Don Quixote gave rise to sequels and imitations, then it gave birth to many more novels. And it’s tempting to see Citizen Kane and The Rules of the Game trying to give birth to their own children! People produce different things, of course, but never what they want to. I believe no one has ever made exactly what one wanted to, and luckily so. And then, you get more or less used to what was made, despite yourself. I don’t ponder too much over what I think about my films. In fact, I don’t see them after their release, and if I see them a long time later, I’m rather surprised that they are quite different from the idea I had of them. Finally, I think you tend to like works that don’t at all resemble what you originally intended to do! They are more surprising, even if they are mistakes.


You said that, with certain films, there is the impression that they all talk about the same thing, even if they are very different. Is this law something common? Or might we say that we’re dealing with similar relations to law? We just spoke of Hitchcock and Rossellini; we could speak of Fritz Lang…

No, they are quite different. It’s evident that they don’t have the same relation to law, and not to the same laws. But at the same time, they both know that there are laws to be taken into consideration, and they both carry around their secrets. It’s obvious with Hitchcock: even at the time it was clear that, when he made Vertigo or Marnie, he was bringing into play elements that he had only postulated in his more anecdotal films. It’s François [Truffaut] who told me how Hitchcock showed him the work print of Marnie: François saw the film alone in a studio screening room, and at the end, Hitchcock came there to receive him. What struck François was that he was all red (even though it wasn’t yet the time for whisky) as if he had the feeling of being completely naked with this film (that’s the impression François had, in any case): he knew that he has just shown a totally indecent film.

Sean Connery and Tippi Hedren in Marnie (1964, Alfred Hitchcock)

A feeling of shame…

Yes, he was red with shame. At least, that’s how François saw it and described it to me. At other times, he could boast about it like a teenager: there’s his famous line about Vertigo, where he says that the heroine has stripped, but won’t take her knickers off! And when you see Vertigo again, it’s just that. But at the same time, it’s more than that; there’s something else that goes beyond erotic anecdote in every which way.


For a certain number of films—Hitchcock’s, Fritz Lang’s, I’m thinking of The Nun too, and one could say this about all your films—this tension between secret and law (even if it’s a product of hindsight and not intended to be so) is the very subject in a profound way, the basic thing at stake.  

Yes, but one could say that, in the work of Lang or Mizoguchi, the law is shown in its negative aspect, in its mulish, almost foolish aspect, as something that constrains the individual. It’s a real aspect of what human law is, but it isn’t the “real” law.


I was rather thinking about The Nun: about this tragic tension between the law and the secret, where this girl, who is originally in secrecy since she doesn’t even have a name, demands a trial.

That is the power of Diderot’s story, which was strongly inspired by real facts. Suzanne’s irresolvable dramatic situation is that she is condemned by the very thing she believes in the most, by her faith; so there’s no way out.


And no trial.

Yes. She wants to keep her faith and get her freedom, but she’s told, “That’s impossible, one doesn’t go without the other”, or rather that faith implies the absence of freedom.


In that sense, freedom is completely on the side of the law.

Of real law, yes, of course. When Lacan or Legendre use the word ‘law’, it’s in a sense in which the law is positive, and freedom can only exist within a framework, a civilization where law is established by reason, and therefore allows individual freedom. Legendre talks about the moment—and this ties in to what you said about Diderot, since the story of The Nun is Diderot’s; I simply re-transcribed it—where the representatives of law become criminal, where they say, “Kill!”; be it Hitler, Lenin, Stalin or Mao, they all said, “one must kill.”


So what characterizes “great works” is the tense relation between an absolute freedom which is that of invention—even if this freedom is later illuminated or obscured by its relation to the secret—and a strict relation to the law.

Yes, that’s what allows us to not think the moon is made of green cheese, as per the old saying, to try to tell the imposters from…


Hunt down the imposters!

Yes, hunt down the imposters! What allows us to say, for example, that Lars von Trier, as he seems to me, is an imposter? I think I understand well how this boy works: he knew very early on, after his first film which was brilliant, and he struggled with it, that he was not Dreyer and that he will never be Dreyer, since his big problem seems to be his relation to Dreyer. So he had to move on from there, and it’s increasingly evident, especially after the failure of Europa, which is probably the most annoying film in the history of cinema! Certainly not the worst, but the most annoying! Following the failure of Europa, he thinks he’s obliged now to have a gag, a gimmick in each of his films: for Breaking the Waves, it was the zigzagging camera, for The Idiots it was Dogma, and we know that the next one has Björk in a musical. A different one each time, it can’t work in two successive films. And he is very talented, he has great skill. There are high points in Breaking the Waves and The Idiots. The last sequence of The Idiots is beautiful, but what doesn’t work, like in all his films, is the film itself: there is no film, only bits and pieces. For me, he’s the typical example of the filmmaker who is talented, intelligent and clever, and by too much. A little like Polanski, except that he’s even more twisted…

Anne Louise Hassing in The Idiots (1998, Lars von Trier)

That’s the difference between Lars von Trier and Dreyer on the question of miracles.

There’s the fact that Dreyer believes in God. I say that within quotes: I don’t care whether he personally believed or not, but his films believe for him, while Lars von Trier may be a good Catholic, a believer who will go straight to paradise, I wish him that, but his films don’t believe for one second.


There’s something too conscious in what he does…

Not just that! He knows everything right away: there’s no secret, he has no secret, the poor guy! Everything is in the instruction manual. That’s why his films work so well with viewers and critics: everything is in the manual, there’s nothing new, it’s the old law of 19th-century academic theatre…


We could say what a character from Gang of Four says about Constance (Bulle Ogier): “you either have a sense of mystery or don’t…” She has a sense of mystery, without trying to be mysterious; there’s something almost ontological about it…

Yes, it’s a fact that can be observed, a state of grace in a way, to speak in Theological and Jansenist terms. And you can only reply like Joan of Arc to that, there’s no other way! “If I am not in Grace, may God place me in it; and if I am in it, may God keep me in it.”


That brings us back to the almost mystical aspect of law.

Mystical in the sense that mysticism is also existential: mysticism is something very bodily, something incarnated. It doesn’t reside in pure ideas. On the contrary, it’s associated with the body. The great mystics are great materialists, they carry out a very precise activity on their bodies, and even a very coded one, when it comes to some of them. Speaking about Ignatius of Loyola and Roland Barthes, I recently came across a line (by Barthes, not Loyola) that amused me, where he says that he is incapable of reading a text if it’s badly written! The text must first be written for it to be legible.


To come back to the reception of works of art, those who recognize the greatness of a work understand that it’s addressed to them and that, with respect to the work, they belong to this community, as Legendre said, that defines humanity. But let’s try to narrow down, what is most specific about a film work?

What’s specific about it is the invention of Mr. Lumière.


It’s the manner in which the work of mise en scène juxtaposes (or not) secret and law. Have you found yourself engaged in this line of thought in your work?

I don’t think so. I get the feeling that you ask yourself more anecdotal questions at work, fortunately! You sense at the beginning that there are possibilities of resonance and echoes from a given starting point, one like Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece, for example, or the story of Joan of Arc. It has to do with a realm of preoccupations, echoes and suggestions, one that is more or less rich and that you want to explore, or make “resonate” in your own way and by your means. This harks back to the famous, now-somewhat-outmoded spat between small and big subjects. There’s an article that Chabrol wrote in Cahiers in the fifties, a time where big subjects meant the films of Stanley Kramer or Cayatte…


Social subjects.

Right. Luckily for cinema, television has taken over a large part of these debates, and it’s television which is now in charge of dealing with big subjects, society, good and evil, racism and so on. That doesn’t mean films shouldn’t be interested in good and evil, racism etc. What Chabrol basically said was that one must take small subjects that look like nothing and make great films out of them, rather than taking big subjects and making small films of them! But to come back to the question you asked me: before starting a film, you have the feeling that… Let’s take a concrete example: I hesitated for two or three years before beginning on the story of Noiseuse, because I know that a film on the idea of a masterpiece—what comprises genius in painting, all these questions that are present in Balzac’s text, even if we told a wholly different story while retaining just the characters and the painting—that Balzac narrated couldn’t be told anymore. At least, I was incapable of telling it. But I wanted to tell another story based on it, one which is about the relation between the director and the model, in the Bressonian sense. Even so, very early on, Pascal [Bonitzer], Christine [Laurent] and I decided that we weren’t going to cheat on the question, that we were going to, frankly, frontally, deliberately and even caricaturally, take it as our material, that the conversations will revolve around truth in painting, about what a painting is, and all such questions that have been there since the time of Cézanne, and even before Cézanne since it’s already implied in Balzac. All these were important questions that we didn’t want to dodge, treat recklessly, or cheat on, even if they aren’t the subject of the film. It was this two-level game that was, in a way, amusing and tempting. We didn’t want to cheat on the subject, even if there was another subject at work at the same time. In a way, Noiseuse is the relation between the real subject and the fake subject.

La Belle Noiseuse (1991, Jacques Rivette)

I’d say another thing about the specificity of cinema: in the finest films, there’s always a relation between something totally and absolutely childish, which is sometimes on the level of a fable, it’s the “The Famous Five” quality of your films…

Gang of Four, where there are effectively five women!


…and something totally thought over, reflexive and philosophical, which is everything you just mentioned: the relation between secret, law etc.

But those are things you don’t think about, things I talk about today more or less awkwardly, and with the help of Mr. Legendre, Mr. Lacan, Mr. Spinoza and many others whom I’ve read more or less well and whom I repeat more or less naively. But if, by chance, I try to make another film, I hope I won’t think of this moment one bit! That’s one good thing about cinema: while you’re making films, there are so many things, questions, little problems to solve during what is strictly called shooting, where something essential happens nonetheless, where everything comes into play. If it’s badly shot, no matter what you do, it can never be well edited. That may be the great advantage of filmmakers with respect to painters or writers, who remain all alone before their canvas or sheet of paper, or before their untalkative screen: fortunately, in cinema, at the most decisive moment, you don’t have much time to thing about big questions or big problems; there are so many concrete things to solve all the time. It took me three films to understand this: what’s good about shooting is that it poses only practical problems; aesthetic problems arise earlier or later, not during shooting. I’m going to quote Paulhan once again, a text titled Until Tomorrow, for Poetry: writing poems is about following, subjecting yourself to certain rules; it’s a thankless work, but “until tomorrow, for poetry”! And sometimes that’s how some very fine poems are created at the end of the day, because the poet has done his work, almost purely mechanically, but clearly with his knowledge, with ten years of trials and errors behind him. And one day, it works, and poetry is suddenly there! Why? How? It’s a miracle that happens by dint of work.


And by dint of what could also be called a method.

Of course, of critical work. Criticism comes earlier or later, not during the work; once again, it’s one of the advantages of film direction: when you’re at it, you don’t really have the time to think about it; perhaps at bedtime, but then you’re worn out, and you fall asleep.


But at the same time, during the shoot, there’s constant invention at work.

But it’s the others who invent, if everything goes well. It’s the actors who are suddenly full of bright ideas, the cameraman who says, “look, if we put the camera there instead of here”. You go, “Of course, that’s indeed where the camera should go, that’s much better…” In the best moments, which are the only ones that count, you just need to choose, to sort things: “Look, Sandrine has an idea, and Jerzy has another [5], but if we approach it this way, it will all fall in place because, deep down, they are in agreement…”


I’m talking of method in the sense that Hawks talks about his shootings, for example.

I’m personally wary of anecdotes by American filmmakers, nine-tenths of whom are great liars. Hitchcock didn’t lie to François because he knew he was before a filmmaker and he was careful, but most of the time, they say nonsense! But sorry, what was the story with Hawks?


He inserted the shoot into the story itself: on the sets of Only Angels Have Wings, when Rita Hayworth was having trouble delivering her lines, the point of the scene became that she couldn’t do it…

That’s quite possible. Everyone does those things, Renoir’s done it, and so have all directors who know that actors aren’t machines, and that you must take them as they are, because it’s today that the scene must be shot, not tomorrow… I think what sets a real director from a fake one, at such moments, is that, with this feeling that what the actor does is right or not (like in music; you can be mistaken, but it always works on feelings), you notice that one hits the right note and the other is a bit off. At this moment, do you try to ensure that the other actor also finds the right note, or in contrast, are you going to play off this mismatch? Sometimes the answer is yes, sometimes no, it depends on the scene, on the rapport between the actors. At times, it’s more interesting to change the line, sometimes to retain it as it is, even if it sounds a bit bizarre…

Rita Hayworth and Cary Grant in Only Angels Have Wings (1939, Howard Hawks)

Depending on the meaning it takes with respect to the general idea of what is right and what is not…

With respect to everything else, with respect to the context that’s only vaguely there in your head. You don’t have it laid out as a grid that you can refer to: ah yes, shot 477B! I’ve never had a shot 477B! You have it in your body, because you have a different body for each film, and that’s what you discover on the first day of every shoot. It was clear on the first day of the shoot of Secret Defense that Sandrine was a different person now: we spoke about the character of Sylvie knowing very well that it wasn’t the same character as Joan the Maiden. It was actually the starting point of the project. Even she had been thinking about it for weeks and months, so it’s another Sandrine. I’m necessarily a different Rivette than the one who, on the first day of the shoot of Joan, asked Sandrine to come galloping towards the camera… That’s not what answers the question about the film which is really a film or not!


I think that this question of a different body you talk about has to do with…

Yes, perhaps, if you have something in you that (and it’s part of a director’s unconscious work on himself), during the six, eight or ten weeks of shoot, spontaneously makes you go “yes, no, no, yes”, like François depicted so well in Day for Night, in the scene where the director mechanically answers those who mob him when he comes to the shooting spot, “this one, yes, red”, and to another, “no, not so bulky…” If you have to think every time, you’ll never get it done, you’ll never be able to say “lights!”. I don’t say it though, I prefer the first assistant saying it. I only ask the actors to go ahead, in one way or another. I call them by their first name most of the time; but I do say “cut!”, or rather I don’t, I let the camera roll on…

(Paris, 6 January 1999.)



[1] “Trailer”, La Lettre du cinéma, issue no. 10, summer 1999.

[2] Here, the very direction of the conversation causes this notion of the film’s “law” to remain suspended in the artistic haze of generalities. Now that a few months have passed, let’s try to be more precise.

I think that this relation of the film to law can have at least two faces: the first, and the most obvious, is from the side of what we can call the subject (or the theme, the story, the “content”, to take a term from old debates). It is, for example, one of the most obvious reasons for the greatness of classical American cinema, where the relation of the individual to the Law is the primordial motif—and not just in Westerns or gangster films (which have no other “subject”), but also in comedies: you just have to see what radically separates “Americans” (Capra, Hawks, McCarey) from “Europeans” (Lubitsch or Wilder). Let’s try to summarize: in one form or another, there exists an external force one is forced to confront, resist, try and overcome; or even a rigid and constraining framework that is perceived by the “hero”, rightly or otherwise, as existing independent of his will, and at times even his knowledge.

And the second face is from the side of what is generally called mise en scène (the “form” of old masters): this is, quite visibly, a system clearly determined and shaped by all formal parameters: decoupage, framing, editing, sound design, “choreography” of actors and the camera etc. From the first shot, there is, on the screen, the implementation of “the rules of the game” that are both stated and respected—where every departure, deviation and inflection acquire power and meaning.

And of course, great films are those that know how to impose a strong dialectic between these two relations to law: Fritz Lang by definition, but also, with all the imaginable variants of this dialectic (whose history may just be the true history of cinema), from Ford to Mizoguchi, from Dreyer to Renoir, from Murnau to Rossellini, let’s say every great filmmaker.

[3] That’s what happens when you keep opening parentheses: the sentence hangs in the air unfinished, and I’ve now forgotten how I hoped to complete it. Later in our discussion, admittedly, this old sea serpent makes one or two more appearances—without being better identified; let’s leave it in the fog.

[4] This is the fatal moment when, after many digressions and interrogations, we come face to face with what we could’ve, should’ve foreseen a while ago: sometimes one must perhaps reinvent, more or less naively, the old wheel of cinematic thought. Even so: the psychoanalytic process and a film screening are perhaps more than, something other than, easy metaphors for one another; their near-parallel births, and all the modes of transference and catharsis that come into play with them, have been endlessly commented upon. But here’s the thing: to be caught between law and secret is an integral part of our identity, and cinema’s too.

[5] Editor’s Note: Sandrine Bonnaire and Jerzy Radziwilowicz, the lead actors of Secret Defense.