The rules of the game: Jeanne Balibar and Sergio Castellitto in 'Va savoir'
Moune Jamet-H&K

If true love is a state in which each sees the other as he or she would most want to be seen (and maybe it isn't), then Va savoir (Who Knows) is the definition of true love: a movie that flatters the viewer's intelligence even as it insists on being thoroughly, unconditionally adored. The narcissistic variety of mutual admiration is the name of the game here. For instance, those who recognize that this is a film about a woman who not only sees herself through the eyes of her lover, but who's playing a woman who sees herself through the eyes of her lover are apt to feel as though they're being winked at by the director, Jacques Rivette. And if you notice the intimate connection between Va savoir and Rivette's Paris Belongs to Us (about an acting troupe rehearsing a production of Shakespeare's Pericles), not to mention the auteur's L'amour fou...well, the seduction becomes irresistible. Still titillating at age 73, Rivette is toying with his audience the way an aspiring lover might whisper sweet nothings to his crush. Courtship, no less than any other creative endeavor, is always about performance.

Acting in a Parisian stage production of Pirandello's As You Desire Me, the chameleonic Camille (Jeanne Balibar) finds that she's no longer trying to charm her director/lover Ugo (Sergio Castellitto), but rather the old flame (Jacques Bonnaffé) to whom she impulsively sends a pair of tickets. Alas, this pretentious philosophy prof is now married to Sonia (Marianne Basler), a dance instructor involved in an affair with a man (Bruno Todeschini) whose half-sister (Hélène de Fougerolles) has been hitting on...the director of the play. Six characters in search of a new script (indeed, an unproduced Goldoni comedy is Ugo's objet de désir), these drama queens spend the entire running time flirting and fretting, only to end up more or less where they started. It's Rivette's reflexive way of saying that, rather than the prize per se, the play's the thing.

As such clever coquetry goes, Va savoir is contrived, but never merely for show. Rivette takes self-obsession as his subject without succumbing to it himself--mainly because he allows his puppets to pull their own strings. Camille, her wigged-out and weathered appearance reflecting the epidermal erosion that results from being watched so intently (or from the sense of being watched so intently), is an actor who takes her own direction offstage. (No wonder she talks to herself incessantly--even deliberating aloud whether to turn left or right.) I suppose you could say she's yet another of the French cinema's jittery femmes folles. But the volcanic Balibar (My Sex Life) makes Camille more about the nature of human unpredictability than female neurosis--and thus she's the perfect muse for a full-on formalist such as Rivette.

As if there weren't enough in Va savoir to reward the devotee, the New Wave critic-turned-auteur uses the generic contortions of the last half-hour to display on film what he had praised in print a half-century before. Saluting the master of love stories in disguise, Rivette's essay "The Genius of Howard Hawks" identified the American director's peculiar habit of fusing comedy and drama--"so that each, rather than damaging the other, seems to underscore their reciprocal relation." Like I said, mutual attraction is what it's all about. Those not smitten will surely cite Va savoir's ultimately tortured blend of farce and pathos as evidence of mere film-theory diddling. But how better to represent the spirit of sexual and cinematic gamesmanship than to let the movie itself throw up its hands and say, Who knows?

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