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Movie Review: Around a Small Mountain – A Whimsical Trifle About Lost Loves and Hermits

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Director Jacques Rivette co-wrote the movie 36 Vues du Pic Saint-Loup with Pascal Bonitzer and Christine Laurent. Retitled in English Around a Small Mountain, some of the poignant poetry of the title is lost. One imagines that the title references the Hiroshige or Hokusai’s woodblock series, “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji.” Although Hokusai’s version is the more famous series, Hiroshige gave us “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa.” You’ve seen this image and more modern renderings that borrow this image. Think of these images as postcards or posters for the Japanese travelers of that time.

The original title also alludes to local folklore. According to legend, once upon a time, long, long ago three brothers were in love with a beautiful girl named Bertrade. As the three brothers, Loup, Guiral, and Clair, left to go on a crusade to the Holy Land, Bertrade refused to reveal which brother she loved the most and would marry. When the three returned, their beloved Bertrade had died and the three brothers decided to live the rest of their lives as hermits, each on a different mountain and the mountains were named for each of the brothers who were later declared saints. That Loup means wolf in French also adds to the imagery of the French title.

Rivette’s movie is about a small circus—not as spectacular as Barnum or Cirque du Soleil. This is just a small caravan of vans and trucks. The clowns barely manage to get a laugh. But when a middle-aged Italian man (Jacques Bonnaffe) stops to help a woman, Kate (Jane Birkin), whose car has stalled and gets invited to the evening’s performance, things change and the man, Vittorio, slowly draws out Kate’s story.

Kate has just returned to the circus, having left abruptly following the death of her love, Antoine. In those 15 years, Kate has managed to become a successful businesswoman and her niece, Clemence (Julie-Marie Parmentier) has grown up and become the object of unwanted, claustrophobic attention from a clueless suitor. Yet Kate has lived as an emotional hermit, sealing herself away from feelings and emotional connections.

Rivette is best known for his three New Wave style films. One ran nearly 13 hours and as you can imagine, is rarely shown. This film, Around a Small Mountain, is not monumental in any sense, clocking in at only 84 minutes and it is an official selection for both the New York and Venice film festivals. There’s a sense of whimsy and Vittorio ends up not being a hero was one would expect in an American movie. Like the 36 views of Mount Fuji, Around a Small Mountain is like a postcard, depicting scenes but not always the full story and without a happy Hollywood ending.

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