Septuagenarian French director Jacques Rivette has always had a penchant of making long movies; his 1991 portrait of the artist as an old man, “La Belle Noiseuse,” clocked in at a full four hours, and though it had some stunning moments, by the time it was over the viewer was likely to feel more aged than the character played by Michel Piccoli. His newest, the title of which translates as “Who Knows?,” is a short subject by comparison, running a mere 154 minutes. But “Va savoir” seems endless–so pretentious, arch and spuriously clever that watching it almost makes your teeth ache.
Rivette’s touchstone here is Luigi Pirandello, whose play “As You Desire Me” is being performed in the story–none too successfully, in boxoffice terms–by an Italian theatrical company in Paris. (We get to see plenty of excerpts from the performances as the picture plods on, and they make it abundantly clear why the audiences are sparse–particularly since the show is presented in Italian.) The leaders of the troupe are Camille (Jeanne Balibar) and Ugo (Sergio Castellitto), who are also personally involved; but while in the French capital they undertake separate expeditions, Camille reconnecting with her old beau, university philosophy prof Pierre (Jacques Bonnaffe), and Ugo getting involved with a young student, Do (Helene de Fougerolles), who assists him in her family’s archives as he searches for a manuscript of a lost Goldoni play supposedly titled “The Destiny of Venice.” But there’s more: Do’s ne’er-do-well brother Arthur (Bruno Todeschini) is having an affair with Pierre’s new inamorata, ballet teacher Sonia (Marianne Basler)–though his real purpose is to steal a valuable ring from her.
Thus “Va savoir” builds on its Piradello base not only by being about desire, as the play-within- a-play suggests, but by turning into something that might be called “Six Characters In Search of Romance.” The intent was apparently to create a fluffy roundelay in the style of Max Ophuls’ “La Ronde,” something with an air of cool, detached elegance, but in this case the effort comes up short. The script wants to be witty and sharp, but contrives instead to be simply precious and artificial beyond endurance: when Pierre pontificates about Heidegger or Do explains that she’s writing her thesis on the Roman fibula (brooch), for instance, the references seem just heavy-handed and pseudo-intellectual; so is the inscription we’re told is found on Sonia’s ring, which reads “Tempus mutat, manet amor”–obviously intended as an ironic comment on the narrative but never translated (for the record, it means “Time changes, love remains”). And the characters are almost all effete snobs in whom it’s impossible to have much interest. (The sole exception is Do and Arthur’s mother, played by Catherine Rouvel, who’s nothing more than a scatter-brained, well-intentioned homemaker; but at least she’s likable.) It’s hardly surprising that all the performances seem stilted.
Rivette’s film ends, of course, with everyone finally coming together backstage at the theatre where all problems are cutely resolved and the connections among the couples re-established. But by then you’ll probably be of the opinion that the title of his picture shouldn’t be “Who Knows?” as much as “Who Cares?” Early on in the proceedings, one character remarks to another, “I hope I’m not boring you.” The hope is a vain one.