Those who know veteran director Jacques Rivette for his behemoth films—lasting four hours and more—may be surprised by his latest, a comparatively tiny fable about overcoming the past that clocks in at under eighty minutes. But though small in scope and running-time, “Around a Small Mountain” deals in substantial human issues, and does so with grace and an odd charm.
There’s a nostalgic glow to the story’s setting—an old-fashioned circus that travels about southern France featuring comic scenes, high-wire acts and other bits of business on a modest scale to equally modest audiences. As we join the troupe, so do two recent arrivals. One is Kate (Jane Birkin), who left the company, which had been founded by her father, fifteen years before after breaking with him over an event that corroded their relationship. The other is Vittorio (Sergio Castellitto), a wandering Italian who helps Kate with her car when it breaks down beside the titular mountain, then visits the circus and chooses to follow it around for a time.
What follows is a tale of unburdening, as the members of the group cast off secrets and causes of remorse under Vittorio’s gentle prodding. One player leaves, and a second ultimately reveals his affection for the companion of another. But the main focus is on Kate, who’s clearly been stymied in her life by the mysterious rupture with her now-dead father. Eventually the stranger and the other performers conjure up an appropriate sort of intervention that finally allows her to come to terms with the pain she’s carried over the years.
This scenario might have been crushingly obvious but for the droll, quirky style that Rivette and his cast bring to it. There are no melodramatic flourishes; everything is played with wry understatement, leaving room for pauses and quiet interludes of reverie.
The film is also bathed in the atmosphere of theatrical artifice, reveling in nostalgia for a sort of old-style entertainment that must be going the way of vaudeville. (Certainly the customers who come out for the shows seem in short supply.) There’s a hint of “La Strada” in the wind here, though without the jealousy and violence. In this case the remembrance of past forms of performance carries a poignant mood, but things end amiably, if not exactly happily, in a way that accentuates the division between illusion and reality.
Compared to Rivette’s other films, “Around a Small Mountain” has a gemlike quality—it’s small, delicate but entrancing. If in the end it feels like a minor work from a filmmaker who usually works on a larger canvas, its very fragility tempts one to responds to it with the same sort of protectiveness that Vittorio evinces for Kate. It’s like a shiny bauble that might easily shatter, and one has to admire Rivette and his collaborators for keeping it aloft and not letting it fall disastrously to earth.