"Of all our authors," François Mauriac once said, "Racine is one of the least accessible to the peoples of other countries." Racine presents special difficulties for foreigners. They are by no means confined to foreigners (3). — Martin Turnell, Jean Racine – Dramatist (1972)
In Jacques Rivette's L'Amour fou (1969), a company of young Parisian actors attempts a more accessible rendering of Racine's Andromaque (1667) without changing the text. Perhaps you have to be French, or to have taken your French classes very seriously, to appreciate Rivette's gambit.
Racine appropriated the story of Andromache (Hector's widow, reduced to concubinage after Troy's defeat) from Euripides, Virgil, and Seneca and gave it a classicizing treatment. The strange thing, for us now certainly, is that while the plot has to do with the destruction of a chain of four unrequited lovers (as in A Midsummer Night's Dream but without the final, restorative drops of magic flower juice), Racine was the most Apollonian of poets to treat the Dionysian emotional disorder of tragic drama. The immaculate surface of his plays can, in fact, mislead. In his 1961 autobiographical volume George, the Welsh playwright Emlyn Williams wrote of his own inability to digest Racine upon first acquaintance: "Racine is the most adult of authors, with a classic simplicity bound to deceive the most precocious student by his look of poverty: to the immature eye, the exquisitely right can look like the pedantically trite" (187).
Racine's dialogue, written in rhymed alexandrine couplets (that is, paired lines of exactly twelve syllables each), has been called "rapid, economical, but never realistic" (90) by Geoffrey Brereton in Jean Racine: A Critical Biography (1951) and tends to strike the modern ear as highly declamatory. Since Racine used the academically "purified" vocabulary of 17th-century French, his poetry is also thin on original imagery, resorting instead to more efficient stock metaphors. This is why Racine's verse has been referred to as "jargon raised to the level of great poetry," as reported by Brereton (325).
Racine's linguistic formality, which helps establish the characters' aristocratic decorum—even as they simmer, connive, rage in defeat, and crack up—is key to the effect of the plays. As Turnell generalizes:
The contrast between the outward dignity of palace life and the ferocious passions unleashed is so extraordinary, the ending with reports of violent deaths pouring in and the sight of principals who have poisoned or stabbed themselves to death, intensified in one instance by the ranting of a madman, that we feel slightly dazed, wondering how it could all have happened, how people could have got themselves into quite such a mess (10).
The short answer is "sex," but there's also remarkable psychological acuity about the ravages of thwarted desire. And since Racine expresses this more in strictly measured words than action, his drama is both headlong and stately, like a galloping charger in a sculptural frieze. Turnell argues that this is precisely where Racine's poetic genius lies: "in the contrast between the formal style and open violence, in the spectacle of the complete disintegration of personality within the walls of the alexandrine" (79). Because you understand the characters' feelings only by listening carefully to the compact verse, the turmoil can seem to be unfolding in a little duplicate theater in your brain, a ceremonial and yet intimate spectacle.
Racine is a colossus of French culture (e.g., the face on the old 50-franc note) but his plays cannot be understood or enjoyed without submission to their protocol and the ethos behind it. In this regard it's interesting to note that when Rossini's librettist Andrea Leone Tottola adapted Andromaque, he remained faithful to Racine and yet de-emphasized the stalwart, principled captive Andromaca in favor of Ermione, Andromaca's inflamed Greek rival who causes the misery that overtakes all the characters. (The opera, tellingly retitled Ermione, received its first performance in 1819 at the San Carlo in Naples and its second only in 1987 at the Pesaro Rossini Opera Festival.)
Like Racine's play, Ermione is moved by waves and then convulsions of both noble and ignoble desire, fury, and remorse, but there is greater lyric variation than alexandrine couplets permit, and this fractures the solemnity, burnished like a monumental sarcophagus, for which Racine, wielding his pen incisively yet weightily, as much like a chisel as a quill, is noted. First of all, Tottola's verse varies metrically. In addition, while Racine could split a line among as many as four characters, Rossini can have more than one character vocalize at the same time, quite apart from the contributions of the chorus. And he could handle the recitative in a different manner altogether.
Finally, Rossini dictates the changes of tempo and his vocal writing shoots out coloratura sprigs in abundance; the sound of the composer's work itself conveys the stress that Racine can inform us of only in words. As a result, the music of Ermione is nakedly feverish whereas the verse of Andromaque conveys, in Brereton's words, "the atmosphere of the assize court temperately idealized" (92). (The latter could also be said of Mozart's idealistic Enlightenment romance La Clemenza di Tito, a markedly similar story but with an allegorically "managed" happy outcome.)
In Landmarks in French Literature (1912), Lytton Strachey wrote, "The Elizabethan tradition has died out — or rather it has left the theatre, and become absorbed in the modern novel; and it is the drama of crisis — such as Racine conceived it — which is now the accepted model of what a stage-play should be." This may be so with respect to the lean structure of modern plays, but they sound and feel more like Rossini's version of this tale than Racine's. (This is so even though Racine seems more "modern" in some ways, beginning Andromaque in the middle of a conversation, for instance, whereas Ermione inserts two squarely explanatory scenes before the play's opening.)
Rossini adapted Andromaque before the advent of theatrical naturalism, which is the direction in which Rivette further pushes Racine in L'Amour fou. In the movie, Sébastien (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) is playing Pyrrhus and also directing. Sébastien doesn't want the actors to recite the alexandrines but to speak them as if their characters were saying them for the first time and thereby to let the rhythm emerge — somehow. His goal is to make this 17th-century tragedy, which was first read to Henrietta Anne, Duchess of Orléans and first performed in the Queen's apartments in the Louvre, feel natural to his mid-20th-century paying public.
A contemporary source cited by Turnell reports that Racine's preference, too, was for the actors to deliver the lines with a "beau naturel" (a pleasing naturalness or simplicity; 346). This would be relatively easy for a 17th-century company working within the conventions of the kind of theater Andromaque typifies — they were part of the world that developed the style. The problem for Sébastien, by contrast, is that he doesn't have a technique to realize his ambition. Thus, he ends up drilling the cast endlessly and aimlessly, trusting that what he's after will emerge, although he can't quite specify what he's after.
Not for want of trying, however. About half the movie consists of the rehearsals for Andromaque and Sébastien's discussions about his approach both with fellow company members and with a journalist who is shooting a TV documentary about the production. (The body of the movie is in 35mm while the TV footage was shot on 16mm, both in black and white.) The most astonishing thing we learn is that Sébastien thinks that his method will put more emphasis on the actors and their insights and less on the director. That is, Sébastien is enforcing on his cast an idiosyncratic, vaguely formulated, and perhaps unachievable approach to the play as a way of de-emphasizing his own contribution. It's lunacy: he wants the actors to discover his great idea on their own. He'll know when it's right, but it never is.
Sébastien stands in for Rivette, who films much of the rehearsals in real time and gets at the uncertainty and tedium of them suggested by the French word for rehearsal, "la répétition." There's no way a movie director who demands his audience's attention for 252 minutes in order to indulge an attempt to approximate unstaged reality has truly relinquished his reins or can be unaware that this is so. Rivette, however, has a huge advantage over Sébastien because, unlike a modern director staging an interpretation of Racine, Rivette has conceived his modern narrative in terms of naturalistic technique from the beginning.
At the same time we can see that Rivette's modern story is based on Andromaque. Sébastien's wife Claire (Bulle Ogier) was originally cast as Racine's Hermione but dropped out after a disagreement. Alone in their apartment while Sébastien rehearses day and night, sometimes so late that he sleeps over with one of the women in the company, Claire starts unraveling. At first she continues to work on her role with a tape recorder, but then becomes distracted. She begins recording telephone calls, and then, in a understated but cuckoo parody of Sébastien's — and Rivette's — forays into naturalism, she holds the microphone up to capture the street noise that comes in through the window.
Some of Claire's actions are more comprehensible than others. For example, she tapes a call from a young actress who breathily begs for a role in Sébastien's new production, any role no matter how small, and it's easy to believe that she wouldn't have called if Sébastien were not putting something out there to elicit such responses. This also means that while Claire may be out of the production, she is nonetheless in the position of Hermione, waiting for Pyrrhus's final decision as to whether he'll marry her as agreed or jilt her for Andromaque. Every now and then, while Sébastien is at the theater, Claire slips away to have perfunctory ego-stroking sex with an old flame, and thus she also has her Oreste. All that's missing is the dramatic structure which herds the characters toward the inevitable, devastating climax—slaughter at the altar of Hymen.
More and more, however, Claire's identity simply crumbles, which only pushes Sébastien closer to the company. At length the cast and crew realize that Sébastien's approach isn't gaining traction and at the peak of frustration he holes up for two days with Claire. He wants to reassure her that he is still primarily committed to her, but his motive may be more opportunistic than that. Whatever, it's heaven for Claire, though by this point she's so devouringly needy that their vacation from the outside world becomes an id-fest, in which they destroy the furnishings and fixtures of their apartment between rounds of sex. (Reputedly, this extraordinary passage is based on Anna Karina and Jean-Luc Godard's histrionic break-up; it could also be the kernel for Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris (1972).)
You can continue to draw analogies between Claire and Sébastien as Hermione and Pyrrhus. In the apartment, for instance, it's as if Claire and Sébastien dig down and "discover" that the perfect marriage is all impulse and no structure, which is a fair description of what Racine's Pyrrhus wants (to renege on his betrothal to Hermione and go against his own people's wish by marrying Andromaque, the prize spoils of war, his defeated enemy's widow, instead). But what we see is that "actual" emotional trauma is even less like Racine than a naturalistic interpretation of Racine would be, precisely because the tragic narrative structure and the alexandrines have no analogy in "life." L'Amour fou reflects the texture-over-time of modern experience because those are the terms in which Rivette laid out the narrative.
Moreover, while Sébastien wants his actors to arrive at the emotional core of Andromaque via their own instincts, he's not getting past those instincts, if he's getting that far. One of the women in the company tells him that he can't work out his feelings through the production, but he doesn't hear. Thus, the movie is not "about" the confusion between art and life, but shows the separation of the two by dramatizing the confusion of a man of the theater who doesn't grasp its significance. Rivette depicts at length the collapse of a form of youthful radicalism due to inherent contradictions in its principles, and L'Amour fou is as daringly clear-sighted about what these young people fail to achieve in the theater as Godard's La Chinoise (1967) is about the limitations of the militant political wing of the student movement of the '60s.
Sébastien is lost long before he knows it and the sidelined Claire takes over the movie like a malignant wraith. No lead actress has ever played crazy less sentimentally than Bulle Ogier, who makes Claire almost dead-fishy in her mental disarray. There's no way for the other characters to connect with her stray, self-pitying, obsessive turns of thought, and she's incapable of accepting help, not in the sense that she'd like to but can't bring herself to, but in the more realistic sense that she doesn't recognize it as helpful. You can piece together how Claire got in such a state, but Rivette directs Ogier to make Claire's mania quite believably, sickeningly, Claire's own. Her emptiness is so genuine you can't project onto her, not even where in another movie you might, e.g., when Claire tries to steal a man's dog after Sébastien has said that a dog of that breed on a postcard resembles her.
In Racine, the inability to curb desire leads to tragedy. In L'Amour fou it leads to irony. Claire is both slighted and nuts, like Hermione, but she isn't a tragic figure. Rather, she's drawn naturalistically, i.e., with scrupulous fidelity to the facts of experience, such as they are, and her narcissism makes her psychologically vulnerable but also tough, a survivor whose escape route runs through bedlam. Once Claire draws Sébastien into her project of externalizing the mare's nest of her thoughts and emotions, and their collaboration runs its course, she's restored to herself and is free. Sébastien is heroic in terms of his artistic intelligence and effort, but the best sailor isn't likely to bring a rudderless ship to port. Claire turns out to be the more powerful "director" by far. Hearing of Claire's departure on opening night, Sébastien is so thrown that he doesn't even show up for the debut of his misbegotten enterprise.
Sébastien's proposed contemporizing performance of a classicizing tragedy (in other words, one that was already looking backwards from the 17th century) may not be as funny as the Broadway musical version of Faust attempted in The Band Wagon (1953), but it has a high wit and gives you considerably more to ponder. The irony is subtle — there are only a few times when something Sébastien says makes you laugh out loud — but irresistible for anyone interested in narrative paradox. L'Amour fou is one of the few movies, and one of the best, to deal directly with a literary subject. It's at the very pinnacle, alongside Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).Powered by Sidelines