The following is my April submission for Blindspots.
The first of an aborted quartet of planned films that variated on the same theme, Jacques Rivette’s Duelle (une quarantaine) is a noir-cum-sci-fi fantasia, a tale of goddesses locked in an immortal struggle for the right to be mortal that plays out in an oblique homage to the films of the 1940s. Dividing its four central women into various generic archetypes, Duelle then pits them against each other in a series of frictive encounters that gradually push characters outside their oppositional definitions and into new binaries until Rivette breaks through to areas outside constrictive either/or boundaries.
Even the film’s basic conceit operates on two levels filled with their own distinct dialectics. The quest for a precious diamond juxtaposes naïve bystanders (Hermine Karagheuz’s Lucie) and manipulated molls (Nicole Garcia’s Elsa, née Jeanne) against more duplicitous criminal elements (Juliet Berto’s Leni and Bulle Ogier’s Viva) in classic noir terms that fit the MacGuffin in with such coveted items as the Maltese Falcon. But the diamond itself carries mystical properties, capable of granting godhood to mortals and vice-versa, adding fantastical oppositions of mortal/immortal and sun/moon.
Rivette moves through each plane with the same sweeping camera movements, always curving around his characters as if circling a boxing ring. His constant repositioning echoes the give-and-take of every encounter, in which two characters engage in cryptic verbal sparring in miniature battles of wills. Depending on who “duels” whom, the types begin to blur or reshape, often in relation to a costume change. When she sets to seducing Elsa, Leni is a lesbian vampire from the darkest recesses of the Weimar era, but the fatale turns into the detective when she meets a potential informant at an aquarium wearing a trenchcoat. Viva’s Dietrich-esque suits give her an aggressive streak, but she adopts a whole new, more playfully seductive personality when she puts on a dress and acts drunken and silly to disarm the keeper of the diamond, Lucie’s brother Pierrot (Jean Babilée).
Pierrot proves the most malleable character of all: if the women in noir are so typically defined against what they offer a man—Platonic obedience, supplicant sex, betraying seduction—Pierrot himself is principally defined against the women. Granted, those types are at play on Pierrot, but Rivette’s blocking and the performers subtly focus the transference of essence in reverse, so that we see how Lucie’s filial warmth toward Pierrot is reciprocated by him, or how Elsa’s love triggers contempt (perhaps because his eventual conversion into a pawn in the goddess’ game makes him identify with the oft-exploited woman in a way he cannot bear). His rapport with Leni proves to be the most fluid: initially adversarial, the two come to share a haunting empathy when Pierrot’s icarian use of the diamond begins to destroy him.
That emotional resonance overrides a narrative both elusive and allusive, filled as it is with obscure references. David Ehrenstein enumerates a number of the classic noir pictures Rivette conjures, as well as the many Cocteau homages embedded even within the casting. Duelle continues the magic-realist style of Celine and Julie Go Boating—warm, naturally lit exterior shots give way to carefully ordered, cosmically surreal interiors—albeit with even more formal control. Even so, it manages to be even looser and unclassifiable, despite its generic ties, and it always works on at least two levels. When Lucie stupefyingly emerges the victor at the end of the successive series of verbal and cosmic duels, her triumph upends the battles of generic types and of the greater struggle between gods and humans. Many more interpretations exist, especially ones that play on cinema’s properties of falsity and revelation, but there is also a potential reading that stems analogously from the film’s disco-era setting. As Lucie learns to harness the power of a substance that gives exhilarating life before tearing it apart, leaving her own fate unresolved as she stands the sole survivor of the film’s many clashes, it could be said that Duelle is about one woman’s discovery of cocaine.