Feeling like a swan song, 82-year old French auteur Jacques Rivette’s Around a Small Mountain is a charming and utterly captivating lament for the passing of time. At 84 minutes long, the shortest Rivette film to date, it evokes nostalgia for a bygone era of small traveling shows and circuses with their “posters peeling underneath last summer’s morning glory vine,” shows that relied on an intimate connection between performers and audience. Set in the Languedoc region of Southern France, the mountain in the original title is the Pic Saint Loup, but it can also be said to reflect the mountain that one woman must climb to be liberated from the stranglehold of the memories that have run her life.
The main form of entertainment in the mountain village is a single-tent circus performed to a sparse audience. Though Alexandre (André Marcon), one of the clowns says, “We’re the last classics,” but they refuse to rung the curtain down. As the film opens, Kate (Jane Birkin), a former circus performer, now a textile designer in Paris is stranded on a country road as her car breaks down. Her improbable but charming savior is an Italian traveler Vittorio (Sergio Castellitto) who bypasses her, then turns around and comes back to help. Without saying a word, he fixes her car and leaves without saying goodbye. Of course, the two are destined to meet again and it is at the circus in the nearby town that Kate is revisiting after an absence of fifteen years. Vittorio takes an interest in Kate and impulsively decides to rent a room above a café and attend the circus performance that evening.
At the show, Vittorio watches a routine, perhaps performed hundreds of times, that involves two clowns, a bunch of ordinary dinner plates, and a pistol. From the audience, Vittorio emits a burst of laughter, an unlikely event that startles even the performers. Although the antics of the clowns seem tired and outdated and much of the humor seems strained, there is still a certain magic in the performance that brings back the memory of days gone by. Gradually we learn that the circus was once owned by Kate’s father and that she left fifteen years ago after her lover Antoine died in a tragic on-stage accident, an event that has been buried deep within her and one that she has been reluctant to confront.
Vittorio does not overtly convey any romantic intentions, yet he pursues his interest in Kate in a laid back, understated way. Though she is withholding and aloof, their relationship is sweet and their conversations very real. She states that she does not want to change because she has “gotten used to her pain,” but softens as Vittorio tells her, “The dragons in your life are no more than princesses longing to be free.” With the aid of the other circus performers that include Marlo (Jacques Bonnaffé), Kate’s daughter Clémence, (Julie-Marie Parmentier), a trapeze artist, her niece Margot (Helene de Vallombreuse), Wilfrid (Tintin Orsoni) and Alexandre, Kate is assisted by her fiends to face her demons.Though Around a Small Mountain is playful, it is also enigmatic as witness one sequence in which the actors emerge from a tent, then circle around to come out again, offering a phrase or moral directly to the camera, any of which could apply to the film. As we come to realize, the circus is like life, and, according to Vittorio, "the most dangerous place in the world”, but Kate’s willingness to come to terms with her fears make it also “the place where everything is possible."
©2010 Howard Schumann
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