What would a Hitchcock thriller look like if it were stripped of all of its suspense — its capital-E entertainment? As a director of mainstream, if fussily curated, studio pictures, the maestro himself arguably never attempted such a gnomic exercise, the male gaze-y avenues of Vertigo notwithstanding.
I believe such a thought experiment would resemble Jacques Rivette’s beguiling 1989 feature Gang of Four, whose climactic action, like in Hitch’s Notorious, pivots on a stolen key. But Rivette’s metathriller, nestling agreeably on the border of commercial and avant-garde cinema, distills the genre’s titillating elements down to pure procedure and ludic gamesmanship, the sort that’s very much in line with the director’s formative masterpiece, Celine and Julie Go Boating. You could say the key in Gang of Four is a MacGuffin that unlocks ever more MacGuffins. It’s MacGuffins all the way down.
That’s because Gang of Four, released an ravishing new Blu-ray from Cohen Media ($19.99), is less about solving a mystery than it is about deciphering the art of performance — the masks we wear and the identities we inhabit in the sundry roles of everyday life. The title characters, four young women who cohabitate in a Parisian apartment, exercise these multiple personalities daily, as all attend a prestigious acting class run by Constance (Bulle Ogier), an exacting former actor. “Acting isn’t about lying,” Constance informs her students. “It’s about searching for the truth.” This nugget will lord over much of Rivette’s sly and sprawling narrative (at 162 minutes, Gang of Four is actually somewhat lean by the filmmaker’s standards).
Onstage, her students will wrestle with the text of the same dialogue, a stilted melodrama for two or three actors, in what feels like an existential feedback loop, seldom improving. But outside the class, they will be tested on their ability to detect deception, and their consequential deployment of various guises. Anna (Fejira Deliba), who funds her acting courses as a professional photographer, meets an enigmatic man named Thomas (Benoît Régent) at a gallery opening. In deceptively casual conversation, he reveals that they share a mutual acquaintance, fellow-aspiring actor Cécile (Nathalie Richard), and that Thomas embarked on a business venture with Cécile’s boyfriend selling fake IDs. He offers to drive Anna home, and to her surprise, he knows exactly where she lives.
Unbeknownst to Anna, Thomas has been courting/seducing her roommates as well, among them Lucia (Inês de Medeiros) and the tomboyish Claude (Laurence Côte, in a beautifully gender-fluid performance). For each woman, he concocts disparate identities and backstories for himself — he’s an arms dealer searching for Cécile’s hidden cache of weapons; he’s an art dealer seeking a rare painting stolen by her boyfriend. This is Thomas’ version of performance art: adopting romantic personae from the pages of pulp fiction as a cover for an earthier profession and a more banal fishing expedition for an elusive key in the ladies’ apartment. When the women catch up to his game, they too become actors on the stage of life.
When Thomas’ desired key surfaces, it does so in a quintessentially Rivettian way, in the manner of a ghost story or a magical-realist fable. Lucia, a Portuguese native who has been deceiving her parents about her life in Paris, essentially wills the key into existence as if from a spell. Elsewhere, red herrings are tossed about like symbolic Hacky Sacks: Anna, we learn, has a twin sister she’s been searching for throughout the city, as if for no other reason than to raise the self-reflexive thriller symbolism of the doppelganger in the back of our minds.
All of which suggests that Gang of Four is a wry comedy masquerading as a thriller. There’s a Pynchonian quality to its increasingly labyrinthine plotting, its compounding misdirections. Gang of Four is essentially an autocritique of the sort of pretzel-twisted mysteries that treat every revelation with earth-shaking gravity.
Constance’s acting class is the axis on which the world of the film spins, and it is where these four women, moonlighting as the accidental solvers of a criminal conspiracy, always wind up to re-center, ultimately without their guiding hand, who has herself been caught up in the clandestine shenanigans. Finally in costume for dress rehearsal, they endeavor to follow her advice and “just get to the end.” For Rivette, as always, it takes a while to get there, but it’s a journey lined with rich and subtle rewards.