Jacques Rivette's Magic Mountain 

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Around a Small Mountain
Directed by Jacques Rivette

Jacques Rivette's new comedy opens on a damsel (Jane Birkin) in distress. Her car has broken down, and to her rescue, behind the wheel of a Porsche, comes a handsome stranger (Sergio Castellitto). Without a word he approaches, repairs her engine, returns to his convertible, and drives off. The scene—a miniature pantomime shot mostly in a single long take—looks like something out of the silent era.

How refreshing old-fashioned filmmaking values can seem. Released stateside in the midst of the summer season, Around a Small Mountain is positively classical, especially as compared to its popcorn competition. It's also more compact. Once known for marathon runtimes and inaccessibility in general (he's the only nouvelle vaguer considered more avant-garde than Godard), Rivette, who's now 82, has toned it down in the last decade. But the ambition is still there, as is the penchant for games and fourth wall breaches, and in just 84 minutes Around a Small Mountain gives us a fictional world larger than what we see on screen.

Following a 15-year absence, Birkin's tightrope walker, Kate, has just returned to her family's traveling circus when Castellitto's Italian man of leisure, Vittorio, helps her by the roadside. Intrigued, Vittorio postpones whatever vague business he has awaiting him in Barcelona and begins following the circus, attending each night's performance and eventually joining the troupe as a clown. When their revels are ended, the feeling is bittersweet. Like the Shakespeare plays the film pays homage to, Around a Small Mountain is so immediately satisfying as a comedy, that its philosophical mysteries emerge only on repeated viewings. The movie's original French title translates as "36 Views of Saint Loup Peak," but the new name suits its sense of mortal consequence better. Rivette's latest may be small, but it's mountain alright.

Opens July 9 at IFC Center

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