Director: Jacques Rivette
Writer: Jacques Rivette, Eduardo de Gregorio, Marilù Parolini
DP: William Lubtchansky
Editor: Nicole Lubtchansky
Producer: Stéphane Tchalgadjieff
Starring: Hermine Karagheuz, Jean Babilée, Juliet Berto, Bulle Ogier
Length: 2 hrs.
Duelle (une quarantaine) is an urban fantasy in which a conflict between cosmic forces manifests on the streets of Paris. Viva and Leni, living goddesses holding the titles of "Daughter of the Sun" and "Daughter of the Moon" respectively, are at war. Though they only have limited time on Earth, there exists a magical gem called the Fairy Godmother that could give one of them the power to stay, and therefore to rule the human race. They fight over the Fairy Godmother by manipulating humans to serve them. However, they have to deal with a group of humans who intend to protect their freedom; these humans have the Fairy Godmother, and they use its power to fend off Viva and Leni. Unfortunately, using the power slowly destroys their mortal bodies.
For the first half hour, the film keeps its cards close to its chest. It borrows from many genres in its visual tics, in dialogue, and in hinted-at elements of the plot. The result is that it at first seems to be a stylized crime thriller, then perhaps a psychological thriller. Eventually the fantasy is made explicit, but the full nature of the conflict isn't comprehensible until Viva and Leni reveal their true forms to the other characters; for both those characters and us, it suddenly explains everything that didn't seem to make sense up to that point.
Viva and Leni both try to gain allies by making false promises, pretending to be friendly, or throwing money around. They offer resolution, relief, and simplicity. The humans who resist them say they'd rather suffer than submit to the autocratic rule of either goddess. The narrative structure shows us that the film's fantasy elements are simplistic, using the supernatural to explain what would have been an infinitely complex web of earthly conflicts. The rule of a supernatural being would be easier than the suffering the humans subject themselves to, but it would also be simplistic and fail to encompass a broad range of experiences.
That said, I think all this is less interesting as a narrative and more interesting as a basis for theself-reflexive relationship between the film's premise and its imagery. The film's use of special effects is spare. When Viva and Leni use their powers, most of the film the film opts to portray it through lighting and editing. In the first meeting between Viva and the film's main character, Viva is able to disappear from the scene completely by receding into a dark space. In their final meeting, Viva seems to be everywhere at once, every cut allowing her to change positions instantaneously.
Perhaps the most explicit way the film uses the supernatural for self-reflexiveness is in its use of music. The music in the film is all provided by a certain pianist who seems to be capable of suddenly materializing in any location. The music he plays is improvised, and sets whatever tone serves the goddesses as they speak. The film directly connects "fantasy" as it refers to an artificial reality to "fantasy" as it refers to the supernatural.
Also, the piano player is a performer; the film does, to some extent, expose the fact of its actors' performances. When characters come into conflict, they use precise, exaggerated movements, almost suggestive of dance. The film's opening shot is of a character posing, trying to maintain a kind of performance.
Duelle (une quarantaine) has a good sentiment at its heart: that it's worth preserving the complexity and variety of ordinary humanity, even if it entails struggle and transience. But this is little more than a springboard for its formal efforts. Its visual language is enabled by spatial awareness and a very close control of lighting. Every scene is striking in one way or another.
It's hard to describe how well the film works because it's impossible to put the ultimate relationship between all its elements into words. It becomes more than the sum of its parts just by being remarkably inventive. Even though fantasies hold the potential to oversimplify human stories, they're also capable of exemplifying human exuberance.
Duelle (une quarantaine) requires some effort because such a large portion of it is confusing and distancing. Nevertheless, the final act is not just easy to understand, it clarifies everything that came previously. That is, until the very last moment, which returns very briefly to a state of confusion. The last 20 minutes of the film form an excellent ending, fully satisfying as suspense, as drama, and as fantasy.