Eighteenth-Century Life 25.1 (2001) 88-100
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Deleuzian Echoes in Jacques Rivette's La Religieuse
In an extensive article published in 1984, "Revoir La Religieuse," Jean-Claude Bonnet asserts that a reconsideration of Jacques Rivette's film demands two preliminary gestures. First, the film's scandal should be retraced in detail, and, second, its place within the New Wave should be forcefully acknowledged. 1 If Bonnet is to be believed, a review of the film therefore has to be dubbed with a stereophonic discourse. On the one hand, it should be surrounded by the clamor of the legal and political issues it raised; on the other, it should recall the theoretical texts of New Wave writers-turned-directors to whom Rivette himself belongs.
Such a logocentric emphasis is to be expected. In the mid-eighties, when Bonnet was writing about the classical novel's cinematographic adaptation, a developing film theory largely relied on semiotics, a decoding of cinema seen as text, or écriture. 2 In the spirit of Metz and Barthes, numerous French film critics attempted to translate a predominantly linguistic apparatus and adapt it to the visual and mobile signs of cinema. Hence, the importance of the textual polemic surrounding Rivette's film, the emphasis put on the camera being a "pen" (in Astruc's sense), the relating to the narrative in terms of a syntax and the parallels to Diderot's text that both articulate and limit Bonnet's approach to the film within a reading process.
Considering the extensive and fruitful work that has been accomplished in film theory since then, it may be possible today to release the film La Religieuse from such strict structures. I would contend that these approaches might have played a part in its remaining relatively undervalued, and therefore intend to explore the film from a much more visual perspective. In order to do so, I propose to reconsider it in the context of the dense but extremely rich work of Gilles Deleuze on cinema. Surprisingly, the concepts that Deleuze develops around and within images have, so far, had but little impact on film criticism. For instance, even though the exhaustive survey by Stam, Burgoyne, and Flitterman-Lewis referred to attempts to lead the reader "beyond" structuralism, they never allude to Deleuze's own endeavor to carry film theory beyond semiotics. It appears, therefore, that what Dudley Andrew had already acknowledged at the time when "Revoir La Religieuse" was published, namely that "it is the literary critics who control the discourse about film," remains the case in the present period. 3 Which does not mean that it should do so exclusively.
The question of such preponderance is easily answered by the obvious [End Page 88] fact with which art critics have been confronted for centuries: regardless of its object, the sole medium of criticism is language. The only way of elaborating beyond the physical impact of images is through the use of words. As Barthes and Benveniste have shown, language is a great semiotic matrix. But what Deleuze suggests in Cinema 1: The Movement-Image and Cinema 2: The Time-Image is that using language to deal with visual matter does not necessarily mean imposing linguistic structures upon them. In his two volumes, the philosopher oscillates between H. Bergson's conception of memory, matter, and consciousness and C. S. Peirce's taxonomy of signs to propose numerous concepts that ultimately allow a radically different approach to and reception of images. The purpose of this essay is to focus on the optical dimension of Rivette's La Religieuse. I propose to see the film as an illustration of the "affection-images" that Deleuze defines in opposition to "action-images" and "perception-images." 4 I will show that this film's primordial quality is what Deleuze, speaking about Francis Bacon's paintings, calls a "haptic function," namely the power that sight has to touch. 5
The postulate that grounds Deleuze's otherwise elaborate and puzzling broad survey of Russian, North-American, French, and German cinema masterpieces...