'Va Savoir': a valentine to life, love and the theater

All the world's a stage in Jacques Rivette's leisurely, delightful romantic comedy "Va Savoir" ("Who Knows?"), in which love is lost, love is found, and bows are taken. The film, as airy as its title, mingles scenes of real life and stage life (a Paris production of Luigi Pirandello's play "As You Desire Me"); the result is a blending of the two, with life becoming art, and vice versa.

You might need a program, though, to keep track of the players and their romantic wanderings. Camille (Jeanne Balibar) has returned to Paris, after a lengthy absence, to star in "As You Desire Me"; with her is Ugo (Sergio Castellitto), her director and co-star. In Paris she reconnects with former lover Pierre (Jacques Bonnaffé), who's now married to femme fatale-ish ballet teacher Sonia (Marianne Basler) but pines for Camille.

Meanwhile, Ugo, obsessed with finding an obscure manuscript, becomes drawn to the beautiful young student Dominique (Hélène De Fougerolles, who looks like a French version of Uma Thurman), whose half-brother Arthur (Bruno Todeschini) has designs on Sonia. Consequently, the relationships of Ugo/Camille and Pierre/Sonia are threatened; Camille and Sonia forge a wary friendship; and the Pirandello play goes on every night, with mixed success. Got that?

"Va Savoir"

With Jeanne Balibar, Sergio Castellitto, Marianne Basler, Jacques Bonnaffé, Hélène De Fougerolles, Bruno Todeschini. Directed by Jacques Rivette, from a screenplay by Pascal Bonitzer, Christine Laurent and Rivette. 150 minutes. Rated PG-13 for brief nudity. In French, with English subtitles. Harvard Exit.

It's all less complicated than it sounds on paper. Rivette, a veteran director and key figure in the French New Wave of the early '50s, has the confidence to allow his film to breathe — it takes a while for us to figure out exactly what the characters are doing — and he's assembled a distinctive cast. Balibar, in particular, has a wonderfully intriguing face; all angles and cheekbones and small, amused smiles.

The actions of the characters are continually interrupted by scenes from "As You Desire Me," a lesser-known play from the author of "Six Characters In Search of an Author" about an amnesiac who returns to the husband she doesn't remember. (Greta Garbo played the lead role in a 1932 film version.) Rivette, who's frequently placed plays at the heart of his films, shows us the audience — not unlike ourselves? — watching the play, and presents the play in disjointed bits and pieces, making us focus on the act of performance itself rather than its meaning.

The last act of the film brings all the characters to the stage of the theater, in a wonderfully choreographed denouement including a comic duel, lovers dancing and cake being sliced. A character, asked what he's doing, says he's "looking for an exit" — which is, of course, how all plays end. "Va Savoir" is a love letter to the theater — and to love itself.

Moira Macdonald can be reached at 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com.