In a year in which the programming at the New York Film Festival has been chided for being at once too difficult and too provocative, Jacques Rivette has had the misfortune of making a film that, for a change, is neither. Around a Small Mountain is a warm, subtle, delicate film, the work of an 81-year-old nouvelle vague veteran with nothing left to prove. How, in other words, can it compete with a movie depicting Charlotte Gainsbourg loping off her own labia with a pair of scissors? (Or was it her clitoris?)
As it happens, Around a Small Mountain stars Gainsbourg's mother, the gangly Jane Birkin, as a woman returning to the traveling circus troupe she quit fifteen years before. In the first scene, Birkin's character, Kate, experiences car trouble, and to her rescue comes a dashing stranger (Sergio Castelitto) driving a convertible Porsche. He gallantly repairs her engine and then speeds away, all without a word. (This scene, composed mostly of a single, effortless long take, is the kind of small-but-bravura gesture Rivette has perfected in his recent films.)
When, later that day, Kate runs into her savior—an Italian businessman named Vittorio, en route from Milan to Madrid—she invites him to attend her comeback tightrope performance. The rest of this sweet, deceptively simple film is about the courtship that develops between them, as well as Vittorio's fascination with the clown entrée that kicks off each show. Birkin and Castiletto have both worked with Rivette before, and they have no trouble inhabiting the director's famously improvised, fourth-wall-busting scenarios.
Periodically, Rivette slips us another morsel of the circus's nightly act, but we never glimpse the show in anything close to its entirety. Content to give the audience little, and to let us imagine the rest, Rivette constructs a surprisingly rich mis-en-scene in a gone-before-you-know-it 85 minutes, into which he has also compressed his usual themes of theatricality and identity.
Around a Small Mountain (36 Vues de Pic Saint Loup, or 36 Views of Saint Wolf Peak, is the original title) isn't Rivette's deepest work, nor is it his "most abstract, as one critic has asserted. But for anyone familiar with the director's back catalog, it's another one of his enchanting late-career divertimentos, rewarding the careful viewer with an airy, open-ended meditation on the grand illusions of time.
Around a Small Mountain screens, by the way, with a short entitled Plastic Bag, directed by Ramin Bahrani and narrated, with irrepressibly dry glee, by Werner Herzog. The film's eco-parable conceit runs out of steam well before its 18 minutes are over, but it has witty passages and should be required viewing for Herzog completists.