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Jane Birkin & Sergio Castellitto (Photo: The Film Society of Lincoln Center)

AROUND A SMALL MOUNTAIN
Directed by Jacques Rivette

Produced by Martine Marignac

Written by Rivette & Pascal Bonitzer
Released by Cinema Guild
French with English subtitles
France/Italy. 84 min. Not Rated
With Sergio Castellitto & Jane Birkin

 

Around a Small Mountain is a puzzling film. Slow and tedious, yet with a short running-time. Surreal and theatrical, yet supposedly based in a familiar reality, though startlingly free of emotional displays and dramatic tension. Itís difficult to say whether director Jacques Rivette meant for the film to embody these contradictions. Though the film is precariously uneven, that jaggedness may very well be an artistic choice. Itís just as likely, however, that itís simply an inadvertent jumble.

After the death of her father, Kate (Jane Birkin) returns to the now-failing family-run circus he owned and that she was raised in. Fifteen years earlier, a tragic accident led to her expulsion from the circus, creating a rift between Kate and her father. Now she awkwardly reintegrates into her family. Meanwhile, a deadpan suitor, Vittorio (Sergio Castellitto), whom Kate meets in the opening moments, attempts to integrate himself into the patchwork family and unravel the mystery of Kateís past as well as learn the secrets of the various performers.

Mountain is set in an obviously heightened form of realityóa fable, a story of magical realismóbut only slightly. It teeters between surreal and/or stylizedóone scene has characters addressing the audienceóand natural realism, but the wavering between the two styles is rough. If Rivette wanted it to be off-putting, he succeeded, but otherwise, itís too jarring. Actually, the stylized parts prove to be the most interesting, and itís disappointing to see them relegated to mere moments in the film. Thereís a certain mimetic quality between the theatrical sections and the circus itself, which is a very presentational medium. And perhaps the long, boring stretches of the film are purposeful, as if to accent the drabness of circus life with its long, boring stretches. Not that it makes it compelling.

Most of all, the characters have flimsy or no motivations for their actions. Vittorio, a wealthy and capricious eccentric, follows his whims. We know nothing of why he has joined the troupe. As the core character, this blank cipher leaves the film uncentered and floating. In one sense, heís a stand-in for the audience at the circus, and one can see why he might have been written this way, but in practice, he carries no dramatic weight and merely takes up space. Kate is a troubling protagonist as well. Birkin plays her so stiffly that makes it off-putting to watch her. As an actress, her facial expressions emit awkwardness, setting a further barrier between the film and the viewer.

Surreal is good. Odd is good. However, for any of it to work, the surrealism must either be complete or contrasted against a believable reality. Mountain, though, never quite settles on a consistent tone. The emotional moments never hit because the world itself is strange, but not strange enough as to justify its own weirdness. If Rivette deliberately made these choices, then at the very least itís a noble failure, as opposed to an odd mess. Andrew Beckerman
July 9, 2010

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