At 73, Jacques Rivette is one of the oldest of the original French New Wave directors -- older by a few years than the 70-year-old Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut (who would have been 69), younger only than 79-year-old Alain Resnais and 81-year-old Eric Rohmer. And, like his remaining compatriots, he has managed to keep on truckin', turning out major work at an age when most Hollywood directors can't get anyone to return their phone calls.
In Va Savoir (variously translated as Who Knows? and, more charmingly, Go Figure!), age seems to have dimmed none of his trademark vigor and playfulness. The film is simultaneously a meditation on performance and identity and a light romantic comedy that mixes classic farce elements of coincidence with a realistic sense of psychology.
The story details the interactions of six people. At the center is Camille (Jeanne Balibar), a French actress who has returned home to Paris for the first time in three years to star in a production of Pirandello's play As You Desire -- itself about romance and identity. Like Pirandello, Rivette is almost always concerned with theatricality and the relation between onstage and offstage performance. The play, of which we see repeated fragments, appears to be beautifully mounted but is tanking at the box office. This may have something to do with the fact that it's being performed in the original Italian, which would seem to limit its potential Parisian audience.
The play's failure -- and the possibility that this is the last financial straw for the struggling troupe -- causes predictable tension between Camille and her lover, Ugo (Sergio Castellitto), who is also her co-star and director. To make matters worse, being in Paris is stirring within Camille feelings of nostalgic curiosity: She can't resist looking up her ex-boyfriend Pierre (Jacques Bonnaffé), a pompous academic, though it was her breakup with him that drove her from Paris in the first place.
Camille's distraction drives Ugo to spend more and more time on his pet quest: It's rumored that somewhere in Paris there exists the handwritten manuscript of Il Destino Veneziano (The Destiny of Venice), a never-published, never-produced work by the great 18th-century Italian dramatist Carlo Goldoni. To find this play and be the first one to stage it would be a career-saving coup for Ugo. During his search, he meets the beautiful, much younger Do (Hélène de Fougerolles), whose disorganized family library may well contain the Goldoni. Of course, "beautiful young woman" plus "older man who is exasperated with his lover (herself absorbed with thoughts of an ex-lover)" equals inevitable romantic complications. And that's not all. Obnoxious Pierre, the ex-boyfriend, is now married to a ballet teacher named Sonia (Marianne Basler), who has secrets of her own and a connection to Arthur (Bruno Todeschini), Do's shady half-brother.
This is a lot of plot for one film, and Rivette accommodates it in a leisurely fashion: Va Savoir is almost exactly two-and-a-half hours long. By normal Rivette standards, that's not much at all. His most outrageously inventive and amusing film, 1974's Celine and Julie Go Boating, ran three hours and 15 minutes, and the 1972 abridged version of his Out 1 was three hours and 45 minutes, shortened from the 12 hours of the 1970 original. Probably his most widely distributed film in America was La Belle Noiseuse, released here in 1992 in its full four-hour glory. Even Up, Down, Fragile, a fluffy, entertaining semi-musical (seen in the U.S. four years ago), ran almost three hours.
Indeed, the first third or so of Va Savoir may seem too leisurely for some tastes, but it's worth the wait. Rivette uses the time well, taking pains to get us acclimated to the characters and the complex intertwining of their fates, to involve us all the more toward the end. This isn't the least bit boring, because the tone has a lightness reminiscent of Up Down Fragile; in fact, it often feels as if the characters are about to burst into song. (They don't, though in one scene they dance a little.)
The references to Luigi Pirandello, that old master of reality-playacting ambiguity, could have turned heavy-handed and pretentious, but Rivette is simply too nimble and lighthearted to let that bog things down. The film could be subtitled Six Characters in Search of an Ending: When they find that finale, it is gently, delightfully uplifting.