Like Pirandello, Rivette has often played with the boundaries between ‘reality” and performance. “Paris Belongs to Us“, “Va Savoir” and “Out 1: Noli me tangere” are each about theatrical companies. In each he explores his obsession with illusion and ‘truth.’ “Love on the Ground” details a love triangle, which develops during a rehearsal of a play about a love-triangle. In his early masterpiece “L’amour fou” (1969), a relationship self- destructs against a backdrop of theatrical rehearsal.
In “Around a Small Mountain”, a tentative relationship develops, against a backdrop of rehearsals, at a small rural family circus during the last days of its final tour. Set in the timeless Languedoc region of the Cevennes Mountains, there’s a fabular quality to the film.
A roadside chance meeting draws wandering Vittorio (Sergio Castellitto) into the circus life of haunted Kate (Jane Birkin.) Banished from the circus by her now dead father, Kate returns for its last tour. Vittorio, a “searcher” on a road trip to Barcelona, is intrigued by Kate. A meddler with the heart of a poet, Vittorio insinuates himself into the fabric of the daily life of the tiny circus.
LIke that other Italian actor, Yves Montand (originally Ivo Livi), who dominated French film for decades, Sergio Castellitto (“La stella che non c’è“) adds an existential gravitas to every film he is in. Jane Birkin’s interior performance is quietly compelling.
We watch sections of a clown routine three times. The final time, Vittorio steps in to replace a drunken clown, forcing an ad-libbed performance, inspired by the improvisational tradition of commedia del arte. “I understand that this little (circus) ring is the most dangerous place in the world, but also the place where all things are possible. Where eyes are opened, and my eyes were opened,” explains Vittorio, as he restages a cathartic circus performance of the tragic accident that paralyzes Kate. It’s his parting is gift to her.
There are other theatrical devices on display. In a mysteriously riveting nighttime scene, spotlights flash on and off, illuminating a stage or deck. After each blackout, the cafe lights go up, revealing a cinematic space. The cafe lights go out, the “stage” is lit again and characters enter and exit, playing out their truncated scenes. Appearing in the opening of the circus tent, each character takes a seemingly final bow, each with a morale, joke or philosophical comment. Mischievous Rivette confounds our expectations, as, in a classic vaudeville joke, characters reappear to add another jest. Perhaps they are Rivette’s proxies, stating his parting thoughts, bidding farewell to his audience?
The film joins an elite list of films about live performance: Jean Renoir’s “French Cancan” and “The Golden Coach,” the aforementioned “L’amour fou,” “Children Of Paradise,” Ozu’s “Floating Weeds/ A Story Of Floating Weeds,” Bergman’s “Sawdust and Tinsel,” and Brazilian doc master Eduardo Coutinho’s “Moscow.”