Origins in art are forever in doubt. Popular culture seems to imagine that what we now call the French New Wave emerged from thin air with François Truffaut's The 400 Blows (1959) and Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless (1960), but that blinkered narrative ignores features ranging from Agnès Varda’s Le pointe courte (1955) and Claude Chabrol’s Le beau Serge (1958) to Alain Resnais and Marguerite Duras’s Hiroshima, mon amour (1959). Even before these, the filmmakers we associate—through later fame, scandal, obscurity, venerability, and legend—with the New Wave made short films, a medium encouraged by the theatrical practice, now long gone in France, of regularly exhibiting dramatic and documentary short films in cinemas. Early shorts by Jacques Demy, Chris Marker, Truffaut, Godard, and others reach back into the mid-50s, but only two of the New Wave’s anointed truly began their filmmaking at the halfway point of the 20th century: Eric Rohmer, who made Journal d'un scélérat in 1949 when he was nearly thirty, and Jacques Rivette, who surprisingly made three substantial shorts between 1948 and 1952, when the man who would later make Celine and Julie Go Boating had only just entered his twenties.
While the shorts made but a few years later by the Left Bank filmmakers and the gang writing at Cahiers du cinéma are fairly easy to see—many can now be found on YouTube—these four of the earliest shorts have been impossible to view. Those looking for harbingers of the New Wave would have to turn to contemporaneous French inspirations like Jean-Pierre Melville (Le silence de la mer, Les enfants terribles), Robert Bresson (Les dames du Bois de Boulogne, Diary of a Country Priest), and Jacques Becker (Antoine and Antoinette, Rendezvous in July) to find the post-war traces of the cadre who would define an entire cinematic era. Rohmer’s early film is considered lost, though it is tantalizingly described in Antoine de Baecque and Noël Herpe’s recent biography of the director. But remarkably, Rivette’s three shorts—Au quartre coins (“The Four Corners,” 1948), Le quadrille (1950), and Le divertissement (“The Diversion,” 1952)—were found in 2009 after the filmmaker and his wife, Véronique, discovered the 16 mm films when going through his materials. Describing them as amateur, made when the filmmaker was barely out of his teens, the trio have been dubbed “apprenticeship films.” The Cinémathèque française and Cinémathèque de Toulouse have digitally scanned and restored these silent films, premiering them in France last May, and the New York Film Festival is now presenting them in its Revivals section—but they are less revivals than revelations.
Somehow, with one must admit is characteristic mystery for this director who would end up as the least known, most challenging, but nevertheless most beguiling of the French New Wave, Rivette’s very first film is strikingly fantastic. Though set in a bohemian milieu of amorous and petulant romances one associates with much of the New Wave, Au quarte coins has more in common with Jean Cocteau’s mythopoetic cinema of the time. A roundelay fable of conflated and crossed desires among a fivesome of unspeaking youths shot near Rivette’s hometown of Rouen, the film is giddily full of the evocative, non-literal symbology common to the director’s more wonderfully fanciful films. Mirrors, candles, knives, and a pistol are all dream objects that make an appearance in a compacted and confounding story that seems to have two couples imagine or fantasize other combinations and collisions between the participants. A woman raises her hand to cover her face and the film cuts to a man performing the same action elsewhere—Rivette conjuring cinema’s most basic, pleasurable magic. The dramatic feeling is of a ritual enacted—or a playacted, everyone in poses and with arch postures, the women constantly falling backwards into a kiss or supplication or a dreaming faint as the men variously manhandle them, confront each other, or stalk the frame ominously. The youths face off in a barren landscape like the battling goddesses of Duelle (1976), and black leader briefly separates nearly every cut, suggesting that each following image could be but one possible strand of fate. A couple kiss in their dark room and—blink—they’re re-seen, re-configured, as a different couple kissing in a field, transported to Renoir's A Day in the Country. A rhyme, rebirth, or re-imagination? We are in Cocteau’s world for sure—or that of David Lynch to follow. Rivette is already speaking the playful language of cinema’s dreams.
By comparison to his image-dense and remarkably showy first film, Rivette's second, Le quadrille, co-written with Jean-Luc Godard who also acts—or more precisely, hams—observes a precise restraint, spareness and simplicity. It begins with a quote of a letter to Stendhal, complaining of dull parties during which one wants to eat the available ice cream and scram, and the following forty minutes are essentially made entirely of three young men and two young women idly sitting in a parlor failing to say or do anything. Where Au quartre coins let the young director’s imagination have free reign, Le quadrille forces discipline and details: we watch young adults of 1950 in the idle stupor of social boredom, stretched beyond dramatic plausibility until each gesture of fidget or habit becomes either a major event, a documentary observation, or, perversely, another kind of playacting—the obvious result of the filmmakers’ request of an actor to fiddle with one’s hair, play with a cigarette, adjust one’s suit, do nothing or perform torpidity. Jonathan Rosenbaum memorably wrote that by the time of Rivette’s legendary 1971 serial feature Out 1 “it might be said that actors had taken over Rivette’s cinema during the shooting stage — a freedom underwritten by the radical premise that anything and everything an actor does is potentially interesting,” and we can see in Le quadrille this interest in immersive appreciation of performance. It is of a kind with Out 1’s notoriously challenging first episode, which is dedicated to watching actors practicing their craft. The cinematic metaphysics, so strong in Au quarte coins, are more primal here: What so holds these men and women in unspoken, impassive thrall? One actress, blonde hair frizzed out, sits in a trance like Gerda Maurus incapacitated in Fritz Lang's Spies. Godard, meanwhile, fusses about as if practicing bits for bar room gags, and we get to see his beautifully soft eyes, later so often hidden behind sunglasses. The five youths form an arrangement, tacitly agreed upon and eventually broken, to wait to be called to a more exciting game.
“The entertainment can change its settings, but its order will remain, and the same rules impose themselves immediately,” dryly observes a title card in the third film, Le divertissement. Rather than the radical change from first to second film, Le divertissement plays as a variation on its predecessor. Where Le quadrille was a game of social stasis, Rivette’s 1952 short is the play of social mobility—quite literally. A young Parisienne is introduced in a flurry of title cards revealing her obscure and poetic thought process over dodging the love of a beau. After this prologue, we follow the short-haired brunette to a party among friends that goes from backyard garden to Paris rooftops as she’s casually pursued and pawed over by most of the group’s men while the women take turns escorting her from one corner of the party to the other. “Cards and cigarettes counterbalance the fear of love,” we’re informed by the titles, which provide not dialogue for this third silent short, but rather the erudite psychological expansion of 19th century literature—such as a title that accuses our heroine of “the pride of solitude.” The initial explanations, which mainly serve to amplify this wanderer's hide-and-seek among her set, disappear until the final moments. Meanwhile, we watch the young woman flit or be taken here and there, dodging commitment, rebuffing advances and maintaining discreet secrecy over her personal desires. The cards reappear at the fleeting denouement, where chance and action meet serendipitously: “As one game ends another was about to start.” And here we were thinking that with Jacques Rivette’s death earlier this year our chance to play was over! But indeed, with these restorations, new games are afoot.