Though it happened a few weeks ago, I think it's time to remember Jacques Rivette (and hey, the dead are still dead and can be mourned for as long as it should be done, and how that's determined depends on the person and circumstances). This was a director who actually got started out first among the pack of the French new wave, but among his peers had the output, per decade, that was the least prolific (over a full career spanning 48 years he had about 20 films, give or take a short or two).
It's somehow very fitting that a man who spent many of his films, like the enigmatic Celine & Julie Go Boating, L'Amour Fou and the unadulterated celebration-of-nude-form La Belle Noisseuse, challenging the conventions of space and time, let alone how to put together a story in cinematic grammar, would a) end his career on his shortest film, and b) is all about things from bygone eras like clowns in small-town circuses, and could just as well be titled 'Rivette's Rememberance of Things Past' (fyi, I'm not the first to compare him to Proust, nor will I likely be the last.).
In Around the Small Mountain, the whole story starts off with one of those little incidents that could take things in any number of directions - but for Rivette, it all starts with a degree of both the peculiar and the ordinary. What's something that happens to us all at one time or another, after all, like a car that seems to not be working? Kate (Jane Birkin) is on the side of the road with something wrong with her car. A very fancy car drives by, doesn't stop, and then after a few moments decides to come back around. A man (Sergio Castellitto) gets out and without a word goes under the hood, fiddles a little with some wires, and the car is good to go. Kate goes into whatever town in the South of France she was headed to, and Vittorio follows.
What does he want? He's not exactly sure, but since Kate is with the circus (or is a part of it in some way, or just visiting her old friends there or what have you), he goes to check it out. It's an unusual spectacle that lacks any of the things we might associate with the crueler aspects of the circus in the states (it's very small scale, no elephants or giant trapeze artists or the like) - it's just a few guys who have an obtuse drama around broken plates and a gun that may or may not go off inside one of the clown's mouth (so, you know, he can catch the bullet with his teeth). The man, Vittorio, laughs during the performance, which almost throws off the performers; not that it isn't welcome, mind you, it's more like they haven't had a laugh in a while (their audiences seem mostly small or practically dead).
This film is kind of closer to a short story than something that is epic in scope and length, which may have been Rivette's intention; by this point he was 82, but he could still infuse in the story ideas about regret and aging and what it means to connect with a person from another world into something as seemingly sunny as a bunch of (mostly older) clowns going from town to town. And there is some minor mystery, at least at first: this guy Vittorio follows around the group from town to town and performance to performance. Does he want to get in Kate's pants? It's not really certain, though he admits to liking her. Does he just like the circus that much, with its straightforward older men and the kind of jovial younger people (one of whom may be Kate's daughter or niece, I wasn't certain on that point, but it's clear there's a familial aspect to it all).
Throughout, Birkin is the emotional anchor while Castellitto is more like the anchor for the audience, although it may not always be easy to relate to him outside of an outsider being curious about another world. Kate is someone who has a sea of emotional baggage; I may have wished Rivette had let this be communicated a little better, as Kate basically pours out her soul early on in the film to no one in particular, all by herself inside of the circus tent after (or maybe it's before) a performance.
But maybe that's the point; he knows we are the audience, and it's a self-conscious, very theatrical moment. Why she is so sullen and melancholy is revealed only later, but Birkin is such an actress who communicates a lot by either doing very little or just seeming to live in this character who is and is not a part of the world of the high-flying and daring-do; she plays exactly her age, and I loved that about how she played it and how Rivette shoots her. This is not some glammed up older actress trying to find some role to make her fresh - it's simply a woman who has gone through a lot in her life, and has an elegance and grace about her even in her sadness. She's beautiful.
In a funny way the movie acts a bit like how it's about - fondly remembered in retrospect, even as one watches it it's more fascinating than it is truly great. Rivette answered to no one through his whole career as far as how long to keep a shot going or when to move (or not move) a camera around, and it's the sort of late-period artistry that is a treasure to look at simply for how confident it is without seeming to try. Shots do last a while here, sometimes for four or five minutes at a time, but it doesn't always feel its length because he will have his actors interacting with one another in simple but direct ways, or Vittorio may like go from one spot outside talking to a character and then go inside the adjacent tent, and the flow of the camera is seamless. And one particular shot where Kate is doing her one and only practice on a trapeze (not highly elevated, but just enough that she does have to really do it), moves just ever so slightly along, with the background making it closer to a renaissance painting than some basic flesh and blood picaresque.
And the movie is just long enough as it needs to be; it's really about a person, this Vittorio, a genuinely good-hearted but perhaps too inquisitive person, who much like all of us may want to take a look into a world that seems almost forgotten, from another time, and yet keeps going along as age wears down bodies but the mind and actions can stay sharp as ever. Not all of the actors are exactly on the level of Birkin - the younger woman actress is just alright, she does well enough for what the movie asks, but is most effective in her last moments, which are the most playful and the closest that Rivette comes to a kind of self-conscious goodbye to his audience of filmgoers - but it's not of too much concern.
This is a lovely little movie, sometimes very funny (the climax mostly, where Vittorio gets in over his head and it comes to a logical conclusion for him with this group), and other times elegiac though not to the point where one wouldn't want to watch it again. Not a perfect film, but for what it aimed to do it's just what Rivette needed to do.