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Savoir fare

Va Savoir offers wise, leisurely look at a romantic roundelay


French imports like Amelie, Brotherhood of the Wolf and farces like The Closet make such splashes when they hit the States that it's easy to forget that they're exceptions to the rule. The still waters of French cinema can run deep, with many of the most enduring and influential films emphasizing character over plot, quiet over noise and unforced naturalism over grand gestures of comedy or tragedy.

One of France's leading "novelists of film" is 73-year-old director Jacques Rivette, whose work began with the New Wave of filmmakers in the 1950s. Rivette frequently gives his work loose structures, stately paces and running times of up to four hours. His newest, Va Savoir, lasts a comparatively brisk two-and-a-half hours and finds time for wise observations about love and constancy along the way.

Va Savoir traces a romantic roundelay among French and Italian sophisticates, centered around a production of a stage play. Ugo (Sergio Castellitto) acts, directs and leads a cash-strapped theater troupe's production of a Pirandello play in Italian. His lover and leading lady Camille (lanky Jeanne Balibar) momentarily freezes up on opening night, revealing that she's wrestling not just with stage fright but terror, fear and a quintessentially French kind of tristesse.

We gradually learn that despite her relationship with Ugo, Camille has unresolved feelings for her ex, Pierre (Jacques Bonnaffe), an academic who is writing a revealingly titled thesis called "Heidegger: The Jealous One." Meanwhile, Ugo's quest for a lost, legendary play manuscript leads him to a private French library, where nubile Dominique (Helene De Fougerolles) is all too eager to lend him a hand.

Va Savoir finds revived attractions between Camille and Pierre, freshly kindled ones between Ugo and Dominique and adds a third couple into the mix. Unbeknownst to the others, Pierre's fiancee Sonia (Marianne Basler) is having an affair with Dominique's shady half-brother Arthur (Bruno Todeschini). The Pirandello play occasionally acts as a Greek chorus to the action, with more drama going on at Ugo and Camille's hotel and dressing rooms than on the stage itself.

The script by Pascal Bonitzer, Christine Laurent and Rivette freely acknowledges the contradictions of love, as when Ugo and Camille grow jealous of the other, even as they flirt with others. Early on, Bonnaffe gives little outward indication that Pierre pines for Camille, but he keeps their first meeting a secret from Sonia. During an awkward dinner party, Ugo and Pierre trade pointed remarks, like rival animals in a mating scene, seeking to establish and challenge each other's territory.

As in films like La Belle Noiseuse (only without that film's epic-length nude scenes), Rivette lovingly regards his female characters in their light dresses, without leering at them. He especially gives Balibar room to explore Camille's neurotic heart, and during nervous moments backstage she says contradictory things to herself, reminiscent of the "I can't go on, I'll go on" speeches of Beckett characters.

Va Savoir keeps its emotions largely in proportion to real life, providing almost no soundtrack, close-ups or "funny ha-ha" moments to manipulate or tickle you. Frequently framing characters against bookcases, the first half doggedly maintains an agreeable calm, providing the kind of film experience more meant to mellow you out than stimulate you.

As the film progresses, though, the story takes melodramatic turns in its soft-spoken way. One lover impulsively locks another in a closet, requiring her to escape over rooftops. A plot point involves the counterfeiting and theft of a valuable ring. Two angry swains participate in a "duel" involving two bottles of vodka and a catwalk high above the stage. At first these touches seem strangely out of place, especially with Arthur painted as a sticky-fingered villain.

Gradually we begin to realize that Rivette is taking a page from Pirandello, who frequently blurred the line between reality and the artifice of the stage. Va Savoir's thoughtfully acted, melancholy comedy gradually becomes something more overtly theatrical. By the end, you may wonder why the film makes such a transformation, and the most apt answer may lie in the title's translation: "Who knows?"

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