The first thing that needs to be addressed here is the date (1981) listed by the IMDb; while Merry-Go-Round may well have actually gotten it's first public screening after Le Pont du nord, also listed as a 1981 film, it was in fact filmed three years earlier, in 1978, the first project that Rivette, screenwriter Eduardo de Gregorio, and producer Stéphane Tchalgadjieff put together after their ambitious four-part "Scenes From a Parallel Life" fell apart in 1976 after only two films were completed. Rivette wanted something that didn't have the complexities and challenges of the previous two films, and Merry-Go-Round, imagined initially as an improvised and quickly-shot mystery, was the result. French actress Maria Schneider wanted to work with the director, and both she and Rivette were excited to get American actor Joe Dallesandro on board; Dallesandro's lack of fluency in French was probably a big part of why the film ended up having the majority of it's dialogue in English - the only one of Rivette's films to not be primarily in his native language, though the film was shot entirely in and near Paris.
Source : amazon.com
All fairly typical mystery stuff of the cynical, everybody's-doublecrossing-or-lying-to-everybody-else type - but there's a very odd Rivette twist or two of course. The major and most obvious one in Merry-Go-Round is that there is a second, wholly separate plot that intersects occasionally, at seemingly random intervals, with the primary story. In this very dreamlike second narrative, a man (Dallesandro again, dressed much the way he is in the main plot) and a woman (Hermine Karagheuz, who bears a superficial resemblance to Schneider) play out a series of cat-and-mouse games with each other and various random adversaries in a series of forest and beach locations, wordlessly. Sometimes these scenes devolve from action in the main storyline - there's a point where Ben and Léo are exploring the first house, looking around for clues as to what's going on with Lise and David (the father), when Ben opens a door and is stepping out of a different house, into a different environment from the suburban location he'd just been in. Other times these narrative fractures occur without any seeming rhyme or reason - and at least once the main narrative is disrupted after the occurence of a secondary narrative slice.
What does all this mean? I'm tempted to say that this is simply a psychological working-out of the deep pressures that each of the two main characters feels; Ben, in a strange country where he only speaks and understands the language with some difficulty, beset by people he doesn't trust and in the company of a strange young woman who he is attracted to but may well be someone other than what she seems to be; Léo, upset that he family life is even more messed-up than it had been, with the possibility that her father (who we gradually learn was not exactly a shining knight to his daughters) may be alive and lying to her, may even be behind the kidnapping of her sister. So the alternate world is an escape mechanism, and on the narrative level it's a more pure example of the chase/mystery theme of the main story, with the main characters reduced to two and everything else just an obstacle.
There's also a feature here that viewers of Rivette's previous feature Noroît will be familiar with: the music is almost entirely played by onscreen musicians, and as with the parallel plotline, the film cuts to the two, a stand-up bass player and a bass clarinetist who improvise free jazz riffs, every once in a while with seeming randomness - though occasionally the music spills over into the main narrative, and once or twice we cut to the musicians while there is dialogue being spoken. I suppose in a sense the musicians are, like the two adversaries in the woods and beach, alternative representations of the principal twosome in the film. Or...something else that I'm not sure matters a whole lot.
Merry-Go-Round is like all of Rivette's films somewhat difficult to wrap one's head around on one go, but like just about all of his work it offers a lot of simpler pleasures to contrast with the narrative challenges - the photography by William Lubtschansky is gorgeous, the musicians (Barre Phillips and John Surman) are great, and the secondary actors, many of them semi-regulars in the director's ouevre, all seem to be in tune with the game. But the two leads alas don't ever feel particularly in harmony with Rivette's improvisational, questioning and mysterious world, and the scenes with just the two of them, most of them about halfway through the film, just come off as half-hearted rehearsals. With a director like Rivette, thinking on your feet and being able to go with the flow is essential; you'd think at least that Dallesandro, a veteran of Andy Warhol projects, would be able to get in the groove but it doesn't happen. So there are some major frustrations here, and moments when the film almost sinks under the weight of the leads' not being on the same page as everyone else.
For me, in the end, the narrative fascination and especially the inexplicable otherworldly secondary "plot" were enough to win the day, and while this is far from being one of Rivette's best works, it's still a lot of fun and offers plenty to chew on. Despite the problems with the two leads, this would be an easy 5-star review for me, if there were a decent DVD available; and what the heck, I'm going to give it the top rating anyway - it can't hurt. As it is, I can only hope that my small contributions to the promotion of this obscure great director can lead a few more people to his endlessly fascinating filmography, and that in turn might contribute to his work being one day better known, and more readily available.