In 1955, Guy Debord coined the term ‘psychogeography’, a way of seeing urban spaces as cultural playgrounds that, through wandering, can collapse time and space together, connecting the rich histories of locations with the contemporary experience of exploring them. Paris was an ur-text for this new way of seeing space and time, the history, mythology and physical construction of the city make it the perfect location for the exercises that underpin psychogeography and this is clear in the many films that use Paris as a setting. Consider, for example, ‘Celine and Julie Go Boating’, a film that sends its characters racing through the streets of Montmartre in a replay of ‘Alice in Wonderland’, or Woody Allen’s ‘Midnight in Paris’, a film in which the wandering of Parisian streets literally becomes a method of time-travelling. See also the number of films that breach the limits of the space of the city: from the rooftop chases in ‘La Grande Vadrouille’ to the subterranean other-spaces in ‘Les Amants du Pont-Neuf’. These films don’t just present the city or explore its hidden areas, they reveal the history, the soul and the psychology of the place.
Part of this attraction is because of the city’s extraordinary geographical, historical and intellectual make-up. It’s been the site of redevelopment and revolution; of occupation and radical post-modernism. Throughout the history of cinema, filmmakers have explored and subverted the streets, avenues and boulevards of the French capital. They have romanticised it, psychologically rebuilt is following the trauma of the Nazi occupation, twisted it to favour the surrealists and roughed it up to favour the new-wave intellectuals.
Throughout all of these depictions, Paris has been a playground; a location that allows for the unpacking of imagination.
An American in Paris (1951)
“Back home everyone said I didn’t have any talent. They might be saying the same thing over here but it sounds better in French.”
‘An American in Paris’, directed by Vincente Minnelli in 1951, is my first foray into Hollywood musicals. It tells the story of three friends in Paris, two ex-pat Americans, Jerry and Adam (played by Gene Kelly and Oscar Levant) and one local, Henri (played by Georges Guétary), and their affairs with various women, most notably the enigmatic Lise Bouvier, played by Leslie Caron. It’s a simple story that revolves around a love triangle between Jerry, Henri and Lise and ends with Henri recognising that Jerry and Lise are meant to be and sacrificing himself. What propels the film along though is the Gershwin soundtrack and the mesmerising dance sequences. Kelly’s way of dominating the frame and his physicality, enhanced by his costumes, keeps him as the centre of attention. These dance sequences give the movie a kinetic energy and act more than merely decoration. Without them, the three male characters would be unpleasant and self-centred (their actions and their treatment of the women in their lives still make them this), but the dancing and singing masks this with an exuberant abandon. It is also a film as much about Paris and its Americanised cultural rebirth following the Second World War as about the love affairs. The final dance sequence, a day-dream by Jerry as he mourns the loss of Lise, is a celebration of Paris’s history and art and an extended and elaborate marriage of French culture with Hollywood excess. Minnelli’s film is witty, pacey and beautifully shot, but it is Kelly’s skill and seemingly effortless dexterity that elevates it to greatness.
Le Samouraï (1967)
“He’s a wounded wolf; now there will be a trail. He must be disposed of quickly.”
‘Le Samouraï’, directed by Jean-Pierre Melville in 1967, is a sparse, minimalist French thriller. Jef Costello, played by Alain Delon, is an assassin who is hired to kill a night club owner. He does so and escapes but leaves a trail of eye-witnesses and he is arrested. Unable to pin the murder on him, the police let him go, but subject him to surveillance and try to unpick his alibi. In the meantime, having discovered he is being sought by the police, Costello’s employers, try to have him killed which leads to the assassin turning against them. It’s a chilly, clinical movie with an enigmatic central performance and a sharp delineation between the tight and professional underworld of the assassins and the authoritative but and sleazy corruption of the police. The dialogue is minimal and Melville tells much of his story through inference, gesture, movement and sly visual jokes. The title of the movie both mythologises the central character, but also points towards the end when Costello effectively sacrifices himself for the honour of his occupation. It’s full of memorable moments and images, not least the final scene when Costello returns to the night club and slowly, and very visibly, prepares to kill. There is also a very tense subway chase that wouldn’t be out of place in one of Paul Greengrass’s Jason Bourne movies. Alongside all of these action sequences, there are nods towards the American surveillance thriller, and small incongruous additions that round the character of Costello. The assassin, for example, has a pet bird who’s tweeting punctuates the time his spends alone in his flat, but who also acts as an important plot device.
Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974)
“There is a homosexual pancreas in the closet.”
‘Celine and Julie Go Boating’, directed by Jacques Rivette in 1974, is a labyrinthine, experimental farce set in Paris. It tells the story of two women who meet by accident in the city, become inseparable friends and then become involved in a weird, time-traveling murder mystery ghost story. It’s difficult to summarise, partly due to the vertiginously free-wheeling nature of the script and partly due to the experimental, innovate way the movie is directed. It seems to draw on three main sources: Lewis Carroll, Marcel Proust and Henry James. Carroll for the teasing nature of the plot, Proust for the way the two women access the ‘story-within-the-story’ mystery and James for the mystery itself. It also reminded me of Věra Chytilová’s ‘Daisies’ with its anarchic depiction of the friendship between two bohemian women, but with thematic touches of Alain Resnais’ ‘Last Year at Marienbad’. What Rivette does is expand the central idea of ‘Daisies’ but makes a more palatable, more fun movie than ‘Marienbad’ by intercutting between the farcical scenes of what is tempting to describe as ‘banter’ between the women, and the chilly gothic mystery of the Henry James-style haunted house. It’s a long film, but it’s also episodic and lively so the length does not drag, but rather immerses the viewer in the strange world of Celine and Julie. The semi-improvised performances are also so likeable that, unlike in ‘Daisies’ you are not alienated from the characters. It’s dizzyingly complex, rich in subtext, colourful, pacey and fun. It’s got the chaotic heart of ‘Daisies’ and the chilly head of ‘Marienbad’ – a combination that makes for an engrossing and an endurable movie.
A Tale of Springtime (1990)
“I like desiring and being desired… especially when it’s unspoken… even if it goes nowhere.”
‘A Tale of Springtime’, directed by Éric Rohmer in 1990, is the opening film in a quartet that includes ‘Autumn Tale’. It’s the gentle story of a teacher, played by Anne Teyssèdre, who befriends a younger woman at a party. The girl attempts to match-make her father with the teacher through a series of pictureseque meetings in Paris and the countryside near the city. It’s beautifully shot, the focus on the season and the way it mirrors the burgeoning love affairs gives the movie a rich texture. Rohmer employs amateur actors, shoots without flourishes or gimmicks, declines to use extradiegetic music and allows the viewer to concentrate entirely on the naturalistic conversations that his characters engage in. The teacher is a philosopher (welcome to France) so the conversations often lurch into deep areas, but when they do, the routine and domestic activity of the characters balances it. I was reminded of Richard Linklater’s ‘Before Sunrise’ trilogy throughout the film, a movie constructed from series of conversations in which action is irrelevant. The use of music (the younger woman is a pianist) also runs through the film, again adding to the texture. When compared with ‘Autumn Tale’ it becomes clear what Rohmer is aiming towards: the latter film is about love late in life, whilst this film looks at new beginnings as the characters assess their current romances and consider moving on from them. It’s slight, understated but perfectly pitched.
Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (1991)
“My dreams sent me. People in dreams, ought to call them when you wake. Make life simpler. ‘Hello, dreamed of you. Love woke me'”
‘Les Amants du Pont-Neuf’, directed by Leos Carax in 1991, is a French romantic drama set in the underworld of Paris. It’s another dip into the territory of Luc Besson’s ‘Subway’ with a kinetic and highly visually stylised love story the uses the backstreets and bridges of the capital as its playground. Actually – I think this is far better than Besson’s movie, almost as if Carax took the imagery and pop-culture references and opened them up. Clear nods to ‘Pickpocket’ again in the depiction of two homeless and lifeless wanderers – one addicted to downers and alcohol, the other slowly going blind. The movie is, as with Bresson, episodic, but the stand out moments are the bright flashes of technicolour: the fireworks, the strobe lighting in a nightclub, the sight of a subway burning and the central character fire-breathing. By the end you feel like you’ve been given a complete picture both of the couple’s lives and of the city that surrounds them.
“You’re not going to lose me. You’ve given me a taste for life. I wanna be happy. Sleep in a bed, have roots. And you’ll never be alone again, Mathilda. Please, go now, baby, go. Calm down, I’ll meet you at Tony’s in an hour, I love you, now go, go now.”
‘Léon’, directed by Luc Besson in 1994, is an energetic, stylised and surprisingly comedic action thriller. Jean Reno in the title role plays a hitman, cool and clinical at work by childlike and innocent when not killing people. He meets a young girl, Mathilda, played by Natalie Portman, whose family has been murdered by a drug-addled, sadistic cop. She persuades him to train her with the intention of getting revenge, but finds that she needs Léon’s protection when the cop finds her. It’s packed with inventive camera movements and kinetic action scenes, as expected from a proponent of the Cinéma du look movement, but it is the quiet and subtle pathos that Reno and Portman bring to their characters, the realistic love story that develops between them and the contrast of Gary Oldman’s intense and memorably eccentric performance as the cop that really give this film a distinctive edge. I was reminded of the later movie ‘Grosse Pointe Blank’ which shares a similar tone and subject, but Besson’s stylish direction gives ‘Léon’ an extra dimension whilst retaining the later films sense of fun and lightness of touch. The highlights of the movie were the numerous scenes of Reno and Portman together, just learning to live, and Oldman’s mercurial and slippery characterisation, slipping uneasily but deftly between the sublime and the ridiculous. In the end, the best demonstration of the power of the film comes with the emotional kick of the final scenes.
Outside the Law (2010)
“You, the colonized Africans, you must follow the example of the Vietnamese people. Your brothers, your wives and your children have a right to justice and freedom! Fighters, do not be the colonists’ slaves any longer. Witness the Vietnamese victory, and break free of your chains!”
‘Outside the Law’, directed by Rachid Bouchareb in 2010, is a French movie set between the Sétif massacre at the end of the Second World War and Algerian independence. It focuses on three Algerian brothers: Saïd, played by Jamel Debbouze, Messaoud, played by Roschdy Zem, and Abdelkader, played by Sami Bouajila. Abdelkader rises to a senior position in the Algerian independence movement whilst Messaoud is fighting in the army and Saïd is making money in Paris. The story follows the trio as they all become embroiled in the struggle for independence and in the increasingly violent actions of the movement and the French authorities. As with ‘The Battle of Algiers’, a film that covers similar ground, Bouchareb’s movie is told from the perspective of the Algerians and is critical of the French. Unlike ‘The Battle of Algiers’, ‘Outside the Law’ is less neorealistic and more self-consciously epic. The movie that sprang to mind when I watched it was ‘The Godfather’. It has the same fuzzy morality and a similar narrative construction. The distinction between the brothers: one hardened and committed, one fresh out of the military and the last turning to business and money, almost perfectly maps onto Mario Puzo’s story. The drives of the characters are the same as well – a commitment to a cause tempered by family loyalty. It’s a tightly directed movie with a strong sense of period detail. The authentic design and production does what the documentary-like look of ‘The Battle of Algiers’ achieves and embeds you in the story, albeit in a more mediated way. By the end of the film, you were left wondering what happened after the movie finished, and that is perhaps the best sign that the director had done what he set out to do.
“I’d imagine the whole world was one big machine. Machines never come with any extra parts, you know. They always come with the exact amount they need. So I figured, if the entire world was one big machine, I couldn’t be an extra part. I had to be here for some reason. And that means you have to be here for some reason, too.”
‘Hugo’, directed by Martin Scorsese in 2011, is an adventure movie set in Paris in 1931. A 12 year old boy, Hugo, loses his clockmaker father in a fire and finds himself living behind the scenes at Gare Montparnasse. His only possession is a clockwork automaton that he and his father were in the process of repairing. Hugo manages to repair the automaton, meets toymaker and director Georges Méliès, and finally gains a new family. It’s a perfectly judged movie from the fantastical imagery to the deep themes of the loss of family and of reputation and the need to elevate inventiveness and eccentricity as human virtues. The performances, particularly those of Asa Butterfield as Hugo and Ben Kingsley as Méliès, are believable enough to draw you into the story and ground you, despite the pyrotechnic visual and computer generated effects that create the look of the film. It’s about cinema and the power of silent movies of course: in one scene we see clips from a variety of early films that give a real sense of historical texture. Scorsese’s encyclopaedic awareness of the art form is evident in the use and manipulation of Méliès’s footage, but also in the feel that this film is somehow an updated version of Méliès’s fantasies. It is full of set pieces that revolve around exploring the strange internal world of the station and the chilly, cobbled streets of Paris. As suggested in the above quote, Hugo is like a loose cog in one of his own clockwork creations, rattling around this strange adult universe whilst trying to find a place for himself. It’s genuinely moving, and the ending which sees Méliès celebrated, Station Inspector Gustave, the only villain of the piece, redeemed and Hugo accepted is a powerfully evocative moment.
Holy Motors (2012)
“I have a plan to go mad.”
‘Holy Motors’, directed by Leos Carax in 2012, is a fantasy about a man, played by Carax regular Denis Lavant, who, throughout the movie, adopts various appearances and roles. The film follows a day in his life as he moves from one weird assignment to the next pretending to be, amongst others, an elderly man dying in bed, a scarred gangster, an actor wearing a motion capture suit and, most memorably, a red haired nightmarish man called Monsieur Merde. There’s no storyline running through the film as such, but the world Carax creates is a little like in the films of Charlie Kaufmann. Lavant plays an actor whose life and career is to dip in and out of reality performing in frequently violent and absurd vignettes. We also discover that he isn’t the only person in this world playing a role and this blurs the line between what we think are real situations, the actions of the actors in the film and the actions of the actors playing them. Highlights are the musical interlude involving a marching band of accordionists, for me reminiscent of the dance scene in ‘Bande a Part’ at least in terms of function. This moment provides a lifting and absorbing moment but also propels the film into the second half. The overall feel of the film, the balance of fantasy and reality reminiscent of Buñuel and Cocteau is the real achievement and Lavant’s extraordinary versatile performance (“Mr Shit” being a particularly grotesque case) is a key part of this. Finally, the closing scene in white limousines in an underground carpark talk philosophically to one another is the icing on the cake.