Saturday, September 10, 2011

When It's Sleepy Time Down Paris

The desire to make films about cities goes back to the early years of the medium, that is if we don’t call most of the early films, "city films" or films that are simply picturing the cities at the end of nineteenth century. Nevertheless this interest reached its climax in the glorious years of 1930s (in terms of quantity, aesthetics, and its influence on fiction film), with significant names like Walter Ruttmann, Alberto Cavalcanti, Djiga Vertov, and Jean Vigo. This dominant tendency continued in feature films of talking era. Different filmmakers from different countries tried to use the city as an always present expression of the inner feelings of their citizens. Cities turned into metaphorical signs for depicting a world in transition. From that point it was hard to separate different styles and genres and schools of filmmaking, from their peculiar way of gazing at the city. Film noir, beside many pictorial and thematic elements, was a certain way of framing the city in a bleak, existential narrative. Neorealism was another way of telling the story of the city, as a character that has the most interaction with ordinary people. Cinema became a city in optical motion, a motion more sublime than what one can see behind a traffic light or a busy street corner.

Ironically, one of the key moments in the history of modern cinema, the French New Wave, in a sense, was like returning to the roots of cinema, especially when representing the cities were concerned. Looking at Godard, Rohmer, and Rivette, it is not strange at all that the closest thing in cinema to the Lumiere brothers films was the urban dramas of the New Wave. In late 1950s France, the best new films were a magnificent combination of technique of avant-garde (which goes back to the cinema of Cavalcanti and L’Herbier), with the elements of the 1930s cine poems/city symphonies, implying a more poetic approach to the city (specially in Truffaut it reminds us of the mesmerizing beauty of films like Paris qui mort).

In New Wave, the camera found itself again in the heart of Paris, representing a strong and lively vision of the city of love and death. Despite all efforts in making films out on the streets, and appearance of many “sidewalk films” (a sister of road movies!), Barbet Schroder, being 24 at the time, considered it insufficient and started the production of Paris Vu Par (also known as Six in Paris); a film in 6 episodes by 6 directors (respectively) Jean Douchet, Jean Rouch, Jean-Daniel Pollet, Eric Romer, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol. Each episode has an average length of 15 minutes, shot with low weight camera and without score. Except for Stephane Audran in an episode directed by Chabrol, there is no famous actor among the cast.

Many critics have considered, and wrote that Paris vu par is a love letter to the directors' favorite city. I can be in agreement with this opinion, if we only have these directors earlier films in mind, but here, their perspective is somehow different, and even contradictory to the established image of Paris of vitality and emotion. Unlike the praiseful depicting of Paris in the late 1950s, this film is a satiric analysis of the role of the city in the lives of typical characters of French New Wave films; a conscious and realist look at the Paris at the crossroad of urban changes. A city that now belongs more to bureaucrats than to common people. These six takes on Paris are at best a mockery of the image of a city that is supposed to be always awake (two years before that, remember fictional Paris of Billy Wilder in Irma la douce which questions the very idea of "Paris that never sleeps").

Different images of Paris, in different forms of art, have very little in common. Thus cinematic Paris could be as diverse as Paris of literature (think of the contrast between Zola and Henry Miller) or Paris of paintings. Beside all those clichés of gay and joyous Paris of lovers and artists, we have seen the savagery of intellectual Paris of Les Cousins (1959) and in its almost Sci-Fi mood of Rivette’s Paris nous appartient (1960) we face a cold and cruel city of outcasts and aliens.

But the most interesting disobedience from cliches in Paris vu par is while in the other films by the same directors the city is filmed in the manner of an urbanologist, with many layers and levels of intensity that the actors and their milieu manifest through their travels, here, in a film directly about Paris, many activities take place inside shabby apartments. Barbara Mennel points out that how in New Wave we find the city, or more precisely the neighborhood (which this film is about them), "as the setting for affective relationships substituting for conventional indoor/family structures of both French and American classical cinema: coffee-houses, bars, movie theaters, and the street become home to main characters." (Cities and Cinema, p. 67) But Paris of this film is slightly different in how we see the city in a film. Like any other modern form of narrative, pieces we do not see are as crucial as the fragments shown by directors.

* * *

First segment, fifteen minutes long, is directed by Jean Douchet (born in 1929), and it is about Saint-Germain-des-Prés and that is probably Douchet's only important picture. His other short films, none of them longer than 20 minutes, are hardly shown outside France. He was one of the critics in Cahier Du Cinema circle who had a key role in introducing Hitchcock, Minnelli and Mizoguchi as “auteur” (in the 1960s he came to Iran and had an interview about Hitchcock, with Iranian’s version of Cahier du cinema, Setaré-e-cinema). Except cameos in some films of his comrades such as A bout de souffle, Les 400 coups, Celine et Julie and La Maman et la putain, he spent most of his life in Cinémathèque, showing films that were followed by debates. He repeated that Monday morning ritual for decades. It worth mentioning that he was so obsessed with Hitchcock’s women that made the documentary Femmes chez Hitchcock (1997) about them.

This episode carries some implications that the French concept of life and art is not comprehensible for Americans. In other words, it can be read as "why American cinema earned high praise from French critics in spite of its long period of ignorance in its own country." In 1989 Alain Resnais made a feature film, I want to Go Home about this "misunderstanding", and showed the irony that is hidden in French discovering American art and artist. His focus was mainly on what is lost in translation. For Douche, the key to this misunderstanding is American's inability to take part in a gamified life (I learned about 'gamified' from an interactive fiction designer friend, and I think the French sees life as a complicated interactive fiction - the matter of playing, deciding and taking routes). In the story, an American girl in Paris, Katherine (Barbara Wilkind), meets Raymond in Café de Flore who says his father is an ambassador in Mexico. After a short relationship Raymond leaves her with this pretext that he’s going to Mexico to join the father. But on the following day Katherine realizes that Raymond has lied to her, and that he is a model who poses nude for painters and it is Jean, his friend, whose father is an ambassador. Her attempt to get close to Jean doesn't work either, and finally while both French boys have their new friends, she finds herself alone and abandoned. The French people of this film, with their trivial viciousness are more aware of themselves than the American girl with her timid honesty. It becomes almost impossible for Katherine to grasp the culture that surrounds her. Exactly like few people in America knew why Howard Hawks was important, back in 1960s.

Gare du Nord, directed by Jean Rouch, is probably the best episode of the six, and one of the ten films selected by Cahier staff as the best films of the year. Rouch discusses the impact of city on the emotions of the citizens and its crucial role in their destinies. The family life of Jean-Pierre and Odile in a noisy district with the cranes and machines working in construction site, cannot be pleasant, and Rouch try to capture it with his constantly moving camera of Cinéma vérité. The director uses two strategies: first, excluding the prologue and epilogue that do not last more than a minute, he shoot the whole episode in one shot (the shot starts in their apartment and ends in the street - although it seems that in the darkness of the elevator there is a cut, but even in this case, the duration of last shot is 10 minutes); and second, the narrative changes unexpectedly from a quasi-documentary to a Guy de Maupassant/O’Henry like fiction. While eating breakfast the woman talks about her wish, which is visiting Tehran! But she has to bear the indifferent face of Jean-Pierre. She leaves the home in anger and meets a man in the street who seems to be a nuisance. He claims that he will kill himself if she does not pay attention to him and while we are laughing at this old trick, he unexpectedly throws himself on the railroad and gets killed.

The Cinéma vérité style creates an unavoidable attachment to the subject, here Odile. So when the man throw himself out on the rails, it is as shocking for us as Odile, and again Rouch plays with the idea of deception in vérité, and vérité of the fiction. When she comes down to the street, the film is nothing but a bitter parody of Paris of passionate lovers. But we, like Odile, can't relive these fairy tales, simply because we are "too aware of Cinéma vérité" style to believe such nonsense. Cinema, the the audience's awareness of the medium, kills the ideal image of the city.

But why Odile’s greatest wish is traveling to Tehran? Barbet Schroder, the producer of the film and actor playing the role of Jean-Pierre in this segment was born in Tehran, 1941. He played an important role in French New Wave and produced many of the Rohmer's and Rivette’s works, and also he played a part in some films (like La boulangère de Monceau, 1963). [In addition to this indirect participation in French New Wave with Barbet Schroder, Iran made an appearance in a short film by Agnes Varda, Plaisir d'amour en Iran, 1976. Through narrating the love between an Iranian man and a French woman in Isfahan, Varda attributes some sort of feminine quality to the architecture of this city.]

The third episode is directed by the obscure director of French New Wave, Jean-Daniel Pollet (1936-2004). He made his first film, Pourvu qu'on ait l'ivresse... [As long as one is intoxicated], 1958, in the cafe houses of Paris. Despite the fact that none of his pictures achieved any notable success, he has his own cult of admirers inside and outside France. Living in pain and agony for 15 years as a result of an accident in 1989, he died in 2004 and his last film, Jour après jour [Day after day], 2006, which is a collection of pictures from his life, was finished after his death by Jean-Paul Fargier.

Pollet in Rue Saint-Denis displays a 15 minute long conversation between a shy and unattractive dishwasher (played by Claude Melki) and a prostitute in a room. They eat pasta, read newspaper, tell vapid jokes and talk nonsense. Melki with his serenity (who, as Jonathan Rosenbaum noted, bears some resemblance to Harry Langdon) reminds us of the world of Jean Renoir, where you can enter a shabby flat of a prostitute, feel empathy and develop a sense of understating and compassion.

Rohmer in Place de l'Etoile, besides teasing Hitchcock, focuses on the decline of the Haussmannian Paris. In the prologue, we hear Rohmer's own words that only tourists or old soldiers of World War visits Arc de Triomphe. Then the camera turns from the glorious centre of the square to an alley in its surroundings and tells the story of a well-mannered salesman (Jean-Michel Rouziere) who thinks that he has accidentally killed a tramp in the street. Rohmer connects the Hitchcockian theme of guilt and doubt to the annoying changes in the cityscape. There is always something going on in the streets and a construction company is "deconstructing" the archetypal image of Paris.

Next episode in Montparnasse-Levallois, is directed by Godard. Godard mentions the name of Albert Maysles, the great American documentarist, in the title as a contributor which can be regarded as an evidence of Godards's shift towards Cinéma vérité. This also shows his belief in the crucial role of the cameraman in films. In other words this short episode was the debut of such an attitude that established in his subsequent reporting style and Dziga Vertov cinema group in the second phase of his career. He implies that every film is a collaboration between a director (who sees things in head), and a cameraman (who sees those things in their physical form).

The storyline is similar to Une femme est une femme [A Woman Is a Woman, 1961]. Monika (Joanna Shimkus) writes two letters to both of her lovers. But she thinks that she has made a mistake and sent one lover's letter to another, so she goes to see them and explain every thing, but both of them throw her out of their homes. At the end she understands that she had sent the letters correctly, a funny  Maupassantian twist. The girl, again, is an American and like the first segment we witness her failure to make her way through a different culture. The significance of Godard’s episode lies in marking a shifting point in his career; when he is emphasizing on two styles and two approaches in filmmaking with the help of Maysles. One of the lovers is an artist who makes sculptures from welding old metal pieces (Godard?) and the other is a mechanic who assembles the parts of the automobiles (Maysles?), both working with similar tools in a similar mise-en-scene. The allegorical presence of artist and mechanic leads two a comparison between two way of observation and representation that deeply effects Godard's filmmaking, at least for a decade.

It's easy to be tempted to interpret Chabrol's La Muette, the last episode in the film, as a parody of himself. The story concerns the youngest son of a bourgeois family (Chabrol as the husband and Stephane Audran as the wife) who shuts his ears to the constant quarrels between them and continues experiencing the whole surrounding environment in absolute silence.

Making episodic films has been a lost cause since 1950s. Even films made by all-star directors (which always has been a favorite of Italian high profile producers) have faced a certain degree of critical discontent. But against all odds, Paris Vu Par has remained as a remarkable urban and cinematic document, especially because of its disenchantment with the mythical city of Paris.

I must thank Linda Saxod, for many things.

1 comment:

  1. Ehsan,

    I'm a little late commenting but this is a wonderful post: most film noirs are urban of course but it's curious how this interest in the city is also shared by the neorealists and directors of the New Wave. It's odd to think that The Third Man has this in common with Bicycle Thief or Germany Year Zero.

    As an aside: when I had to (very briefly) enroll for a French class, we were given (to aid our digestion) glossy picture postcards of "Paris-as-cliche"- and I immediately thought of the opening sequence of 400 Blows, with the tracking shots of the depressing suburbs and industrial wastelands in Paris. If Paris was really as marvelous as the postcards (and the language!) promised, then it is curious place for existentialism to sprawn, no?