"I see what I weave only from behind, never from the front." A line spoken by Pierrot in the middle of Rivette's film sums up the narrative structure of the 1976 film. We, as viewers, are introduced into events that have already been set forth, and we're unaware of any motivation or reasoning, and it's very frustrating. Things are happening, very distinct, mystical things, and we as viewers can come up with absolutely no explanations.
Duelle tells the story of the daughter of the moon, Leni, and the daughter of the sun, Viva, and they're battle to try to extend their visiting time, in the human world, to a period of more than forty days. The key to their goal lies within a mysterious jewel that, for reasons unknown to the audience, lies within Pierrots hands. We follow as the goddesses manipulate other character in attempts to achieve their goals, having just caught up to the location of the stone at the end of their forty days. And while trying to get the jewel themselves, they also have to face each other, and it is this battle that constructs the heart of the film.
Luckily for the viewer, Pierrot's line of dialogue quoted above does come to fruition; as the film unfolds more details become clear. Naturally, not everything is revealed, but this is Rivette's secret; he gives us enough information (eventually) to actually invest an interest the events on screen, and his refusal to explain everything forces us to retain this investment, even when the film is over. It's a very mystical concept for the construction of a film, and it ends up working far better than I had expected at the beginning of the film, which in a drowsy viewing state was somewhat tedious. And in this case, perseverance more than pays off.
According to several online sources, the film was the first in a planned four film series all telling the story of the two goddesses after this stone. Each film was supposed to approach the story with a deconstruction of a genre, with this film modeled after the film noir and the following film, Noirot, being inspired by pirate movies. The third and fourth films never were made due to a nervous breakdown Rivette suffered three days into shooting. And while the information is contextually interesting, the film is successful enough on its own.
Rivette also apparently screened Val Lewton & Mark Robson's The Seventh Victim for his actors and actresses before the film began shooting. The film is a personal favorite of mine, and is what lead to me seeking this film out. The influence of the Lewton film is very evident not only in the remarkably glamorous outfits and movements of the two goddesses, but also in the deliberate sense of detachment which is present when either of the goddesses has to kill a victim. It's also present in the manipulation; in Lewton's film the manipulation serves to obscure the reality of the satanic cult, and in Rivette's film it is used to help the goddesses achieve their goal of getting the jewel.
One of the most wonderful things about the film is the atmosphere it creates, set in a world that is virtually abandoned by all except for the five primary characters. The film also feels like it takes place in a permanent twilight, which no doubt has an influence over the English title of the film, Twilight. The interiors of the film are also primarily set in a dance hall or a hotel, both locations that recall settings of many film noir films. But the influence is perfectly suited in this case, as the locations in their emptiness add to the utter mysticism that the film retains. In fact, the film also calls to mind Harry Kumel's brilliant Daughters of Darkness, which also features protagonists in glamorous outfits that recall silent films, and also has mystical events occurring within a hotel.
Another instance worth noting is the films somewhat bizarre use of sound. All of the music that occurs during the film is indeed diegetic, but often plays as non-diegetic. What I mean by that is often the pianist that is providing the music for whatever scene is being played out is actually on the screen, with none of the characters interacting with them. It's obviously pure experiment, but this pays off because it adds to the aforementioned sense of atmosphere and displacement. A pivotal "battle" scene near the end of the film between Lucie (Pierrot's brother) and Viva also calls to mind Jean Rollin's work, with it's highly apathetic, choreographed movements and utter lack of music.
Despite these seemingly very cinematic points, the film avoids deconstructing a genre in the way that Godard deconstructs the spy film in Alphaville; Rivette's film does not come off and over-analytical and intentional, rather it is a film that, like the events that happen within it, is itself mystical. While the film is very very dense and thought-provoking, it's not an intellectual film in the classical sense of the term. An intellectual reading of the film would fall flat, because, as I mentioned before, there are not enough answers that would provide an intellectual context for certain scenes. Rather, the scenes exists and work without an explanation because of the mystical approach Rivette takes.
I suppose I should clarify that by "mystical" I mean to imply that it has a "spiritual reality" that isn't immediately clear to the mind or the senses. As I've mentioned before, there are many fantastic events that occur on the film that have virtually no explanation, but due to the film existing in this sort of mystical state, it is perfectly coherent, and these scenes simply add to the intensity and tone. In fact, I'm sure that is why the film is often relegated to the ghetto as a minor film; Rivette follows all the "rules" of le fantastique, whereas his major films are all clearly Nouvelle Vague arthouse films. This is a more clearcut example of the kinds of films I'm prone to visiting here, an arthouse fantasy film. It draws from classic genre films as much as it does from the canonized arthouse. And it's something that I really appreciate.