Merry-Go-Round (1981) is famously a film made up of broken pieces. Originally filmmaker Jacques Rivette was going to make a follow-up to his films Duelle (1976) and Noroît (1976) but had to scrap the project when the money fell through. So he turned his attention to Merry-Go-Round which was to be a film about chance meetings that continued to explore the very mechanisms of cinematic fantasy in the same vein as his film Céline et Julie vont en bateau (1974). After casting international stars Maria Schneider and Joe Dallesandro as his leads and commencing principal photography Rivette discovered that Schneider and Dallesandro did not get along and Schneider left the picture unfinished (she was replaced in some scenes by Hermine Karagheuz).
Perhaps it’s the low budget of Merry-Go-Round or just its troubled production, but it’s this Rivette film that most resembles a film by Jean Rollin and begs the comparison. These two French auteurs, preoccupied with the fantastique and purveyors of a Georges Méliès-esque sense of magic, are often compared in both popular and academic discourse. Although their narrative interests overlap in terms of content, Rollin’s films lack the formalist assurance of Rivette’s works. The comparison makes the most sense when put into the context of their limited economic resources available to realize their films and their aesthetic ingenuity for making do with what they have.
The reason that Merry-Go-Round is the most like a Jean Rollin film is that it mostly takes place either inside an abandoned chateau or outside in an autumnal wood. These two locations are almost a constant of Rollin’s works in the seventies and Rivette approaches their inherent symbolism much the same way. These mysterious spaces and structures thrust the characters of the film into the hollow remains of the past while invoking the mysticism of ghost stories, magic, and imagination. For both filmmakers the fantastqiue is synonymous with the process of imagining, so filling their films with these spaces is only a natural extension of that impulse.
This impulse is further exemplified by the quasi-dream sequences that re-occur throughout the film in which the Dallesandro and Schneider/Karagheuz characters take turns pursuing one another. These highly expressionistic sequences reflect something of the characters’ interiority while also fitting into the elaborate structure of the film itself. As isolated sequences, these moments feel ripped straight out of European folklore. In one of these scenes Joe Dallesandro must duel a heavily armored knight in the woods. The iconography of this scene brings the past into the present of imagination where the two become one within the dramatic subtext of the larger moment that this scene itself was designed to express.
These mini-fantasias are also designed to disrupt the narrative flow of the film to comment on a character’s interiority but also to invite the audience to imagine with that character in the moment. It’s the same reflexive tactic one sees Rivette use in éline et Julie vont en bateau. Rivette wants the spectator to be aware of their complicity in manufacturing the success of the film via a joint imagining between what has been recorded and is now being replayed and between the organic now of the viewer’s mind. This desire to unravel the seductive qualities of the cinema that lure the spectator into suspending their disbelief is also behind the cutaways to the upright bass player and bass clarinet player as they seemingly score Merry-Go-Round in real time.
The plot of Merry-Go-Round is, on its own, the weakest part of the film though it in no way inhibits the aesthetic and conceptual success of Merry-Go-Round. Rivette draws on films like Charade (1963) and North By Northwest (1959) to weave a convoluted plot of fake faked deaths, phony kidnappings, elaborate deceptions, and intricate manipulations. The “real” part of Merry-Go-Round (its narrative) is even more unreal than the knight Joe Dallesandro knocks off his horse. If one pays close enough attention the plot does make sense but it isn’t actually all that important. What is important to Rivette is the process the viewer must undertake to track the narrative as it progresses. Without this investment in the Hitchcockian mystery then none of Rivette’s reflexive devices will work.
This isn’t to say that there is no value to or pleasure to be derived from the plot of Merry-Go-Round. Rivette was the greatest director of actors that the French New Wave produced and his commitment to collaborating with his performers rather than ruling them shows. In Merry-Go-Round there are a number of scenes that are delightful to watch just for this reason. One of the standouts is the scene where Schneider and Dallesandro make a salad of sardines and tomatoes. At some point improvisation becomes a factor and Dallesandro puts on a silly voice that gets an honest to goodness laugh out of Schneider who willingly plays right along. This sense of “play” permeates every scene in little ways such as the cat that leaps from Dallesandro’s lap onto a table and into the center of frame.
Rivette’s ability to cultivate moments of “play” that could never be scripted and feel so authentic is the flip-side of his formalism. There’s a deliberate juxtaposition in Rivette’s work between the formal reflexive machinations of his films and the reality that his actors allow him to record. These playful moments of truth where the director relinquishes much of his control to the performer is another extension of Rivette’s efforts to include everyone in the act of imagining a film. Where the seemingly avant-garde structure of the film invites the viewer into this game so does Rivette’s direction bring in his actors.
For Jacques Rivette the film director is nothing more than a conduit connecting performer to image and image to audience. Merry-Go-Round may not be his most compelling exercise of this sort but it is in no way a failure. In terms of Rivette’s career Merry-Go-Round is the transition to an even smaller scale of filmmaking that would be personified by his Le Pont du Nord (1982).