Camille (Jeanne Balibar) returns to Paris, after three years in Italy, as the lead actress in a production of Pirandello’s play Come tu mi vuoi (As You Desire Me) under the direction of her manager, co-star and lover Ugo (Sergio Castellito). Soon after her arrival she feels compelled to seek out her former boyfriend, Pierre (Jacques Bonnaffé), a philosophy lecturer, who is now living with a dancing teacher, Sonia (Marianne Basler).
Meanwhile Ugo, under pressure to keep his theatre company afloat, visits the local libraries looking for a long-lost play by the Italian playwright Goldoni that he hopes to direct. In the course of his investigation he meets, Dominique (Hélène de Fougerolles), a young student, and a mutual attraction develops. While she assists him in his search, her brother, Arthur (Bruno Todeschini), a gambler and thief, makes amorous advances to Sonia…
As a film about the theatre with a classic play-within-a-play narrative structure Va Savoir revisits territory Jacques Rivette explored in his debut feature Paris nous appartient (1961), L’Amour fou (1968) and a number of his other films. This time the story revolves around an Italian-language production of Luigi Pirandello’s As You Desire Me, in which the central couple of Camille and Ugo are appearing while on tour in Paris. In the play, set in the 1920s, a woman known as “The Strange Lady” lives an aimless, decadent life in Berlin with her lover, Salter, until one day an Italian named Boffi arrives claiming she is “Cia,” the missing wife of a wealthy Italian landowner, Bruno. Boffi persuades her to leave behind her desperate life to return to her husband, who has been awaiting her return for ten years. “The Strange Lady” embraces her new identity, becoming consumed with the desire to bring the past to life as embodied in the oil painting of “Cia” which hangs on the wall of her new home. At the same time, she is terrified of the possibility that she is actually an imposter who can never live up to the new role she has taken on. It soon becomes apparent that events on stage are going to reflect what occurs in the real world of the characters as both film and play share a common interest in themes of identity and memory, truth, lies and shifting points of view.
It’s a good bet that Rivette first encountered As You Desire Me, not in the theatre, but on the screen of the Cinémathèque Francais in the guise of the 1932 MGM adaptation featuring Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas and Erich von Stroheim. It was here at the Cinémathèque that Rivette developed a love for screwball comedies, especially those of Howard Hawks. In Va Savoir, he revisits the screwball genre, conjuring up its conventions while radically reinventing them. The classic battle of the sexes theme familiar from films such as Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940), is a central element here too but expanded to include three interacting couples. Typical elements of the genre – witty dialogue, farcical misunderstandings, and slapstick humour – all come into play, but Rivette slows the pace and ups the ambiguity. These characters are much less predictable than those of the classic Hollywood vehicles of the 30s and 40s; just when we think we know them, they act in a way that is completely unexpected. ‘Who knows’ indeed who anybody is, really? Do we even know who we are ourselves? This is screwball comedy filtered through the philosophical sensibility of Luigi Pirandello.
So we have six characters in search of what? A former love, a lost play, a stolen ring? When we first encounter Camille she doesn’t appear to know what she’s looking for. Literally in two minds (sample interior monologue: “I will see you; you won’t be there. I won’t see you: you will be there. I won’t see you; you won’t be there), Camille’s return to Paris is a cause of consternation for her because she has unfinished business here – namely Pierre and the love they once shared. Pierre in the intervening years has begun a new life with Sonia and put the past behind him, he thinks, until Camille turns up one day in the park where he reads his daily newspaper each morning and reminds him how much they used to mean to each other. Meanwhile Ugo, uncertain of both his relationship with Camille and his theatrical company’s future, finds solace in the search for Goldoni’s long-lost play. A search that results in his own temptation in the form of the charming Do, whose brother, the capricious Arthur, has designs on Sonia. Rivette choreographs this complex roundelay with such skill that we’re barely aware of the intricacy of the design. He manages to successfully tread a fine line between drama and comedy, a rare feat indeed and one achieved only by the most accomplished of directors.
The original running time of Va Savoir was 3 hours and 40 minutes but was cut down to 2 hours and 34 minutes for theatrical release. In an interview Rivette conceded that the shorter version works according to the principle of ellipsis; in other words some scenes are shorter or excised and we are expected to use our imaginations to fill in the gaps. At times this may leave the spectator puzzled (how, for instance, did Camille know the stolen ring would be in the flour, sugar or salt jar?) but then narrative logic has never been a primary concern for Rivette. Indeed, he appears to deliberately undermine the well-wrought realism he establishes early on with increasingly theatrical devices until the final scene, which, of course, takes place on stage and ends happily and definitively as only a play can. Paradoxically, it’s only when these characters drop the mask and stop trying to live real life as if it were theatre that they find a sense of perspective and an acceptance of their lives and each other.